24 Jul

Lord Brian Mawhinney, former Minister for Education in Northern Ireland, says it’s time to comply with legislation he introduced 25 years ago


As the role of schools in promoting respect for religious and cultural difference is under the microscope in England, it is timely to reflect on the work of Northern Ireland’s integrated education sector in overcoming division.

When I became Northern Ireland’s Education Minister in 1986, 97% of Catholic children went to Catholic schools, as a matter of parental choice.  By definition, therefore, State schools overwhelmingly catered for Protestant children.  Like me, Northern Ireland’s young people grew up having little or no contact with religiously and/or culturally different peers.  It was a system that, whilst not directly responsible for the outbreak of Troubles in 1969, none the less helped to polarise the community along religious and cultural lines.

One of the most memorable moments of my political career was putting integrated education in Northern Ireland on the statute book. The 1989 Education Reform order  placed a statutory duty on the Department of Education to encourage and facilitate integrated education.  I put those words in deliberately because, without them, I was not confident that the Department would throw its weight behind facilitating those parents who wanted integrated education for their children.

We now have 62 formally integrated schools, educating 22,000 children.  Yet this model represents only 7% of the total school population in Northern Ireland.  Despite the recognition of the existing statutory duty in the 1998 Good Friday Agreement I, and others, have been frustrated by the devolved Northern Ireland Assembly’s lack of support for integrated schooling.    Radical reform in education planning requires bold leadership and a willingness to take risks in the name of “doing the right thing”.   And radical reform is certainly still necessary.

Integrated schools do not airbrush difference out of the picture.  They work to explore and celebrate diversity, encourage self-expression and promote respect for others’ traditions and beliefs.  There is nothing either to fear or cause concern in these ideals.

Perhaps politicians fear that shared schooldays will ultimately threaten tribal politics; as if denying what we hold in common has ever benefitted Northern Ireland.  Perhaps they fear the wrath of different religious institutions keen to preserve their vested interests and grip on education.

In a landmark court case, Drumragh Integrated College in Omagh resorted to the High Court in Belfast to seek a Judicial Review over a Department of Education refusal, last year, to allow the school’s expansion.  The successful Judicial Review exposed two major failings in the Department of Education in Northern Ireland.  One was its failure to understand the very meaning of the actual statutory duty placed on it.  Secondly, it failed to take this duty sufficiently into account when planning education.

The Department has so far chosen to plan the future of education based not on expressed demand but on the existing cohort of schools in an area.  It runs the risk of creating the impression that it is more worried about upsetting local political/educational establishments than doing the best it can for children’s formative learning.

We should be trying to create a situation where all schools belong to everyone – the wider community as well as the pupils – promoting a sense of ownership and loyalty without the mutually suspicious rivalry which currently prevails.  We should act quickly to build a truly shared and integrated system of schooling – something Northern Ireland could proudly show to the rest of the world.


(A longer version of this article appears on the Times Educational Supplement website:  http://news.tes.co.uk/b/opinion/2014/07/23/the-growing-pains-of-integrated-schooling-in-northern-ireland-is-a-lesson-for-england-after-trojan-horse.aspx )

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17 Jul

Young people deserve a focus on the future

An opinion piece by Tina Merron, Chief Executive, Integrated Education Fund.

The threat to Stormont institutions during discussions of parades and flags has served to amplify the divisive nature of politics in Northern Ireland, highlighting that our politicians are letting down voters past, present and, most importantly, future. Many young people have no memory of any administration prior to the Good Friday Agreement or the establishment of the Northern Ireland Assembly and we owe it to them to look forward. (more…)

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9 Jul

‘Separate but equal, and shared’?

An opinion piece by Chris Moffat, a former teacher, education  journalist and rights campaigner and was one of the founders of the Northern Ireland Council for Integrated Education.

Once again the usual marching circus is in full throttle in the papers and blogs. The irony is that commentators have ignored the most relevant news. Minister of Education John O’Dowd’s has launched the Shared Education Campus programme; but he hasn’t addressed the High Court’s recent clarification of the distinction between ‘shared’ and ‘integrated’ education.

As a rights issue this raises some interesting questions. A right to integrated education has been more honoured in the breach for 25 years. Why wasn’t it discussed at St Andrews, or Weston Park? Why haven’t Equality Northern Ireland and the Human Rights Commission raised it at the UN? Why hasn’t the ‘human rights community’ challenged discrimination against integrated education by Department of Education all these years? Why is this not in the Haass Talks? (more…)

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27 Jun

Faith schools? Education must embrace those of all faiths and none

An opinion piece by Baroness May Blood, IEF Campaign Chair

The moral panic surrounding the so-called “Trojan horse” issue relating to some schools in Birmingham shows some disturbing but perhaps not surprising elements of modern society.  The issue has resonances of the Northern Ireland situation.  In the comments and columns which have followed the news, we see evidence of an innate mistrust of the “other” and an increasing cultural fragmentation of communities, underpinned by the state via the education system.

The UK is becoming ever more diverse but it should not become ever more divided.  This is a case where school leaders in Westminster and in local authorities could learn from Northern Ireland – where schools are being developed to combat division. (more…)

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10 Jun

Judicial Review of Drumragh IC case means the growth of integrated education is no longer optional

By David Cooke, lawyer and IEF Trustee

The Good Friday Agreement identifies integrated education as one of the cornerstones in a shared, peaceful future for Northern Ireland but it took a courageous challenge to the Education Minister from Drumragh Integrated College to secure a ruling that integrated education should be recognised at all levels of strategic planning for education in Northern Ireland. (more…)

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22 May

Politicians need to talk to young people… and listen to them

Stephen Clarke, Sixth form co-ordinator at New-Bridge Integrated College, says that  politics, campaigns and elections are of great interest to young voters… if only the politicians would recognise it.

Having taught in New-Bridge Integrated College for more than ten years I would say that,  in my experience, young people are interested and engaged in political issues and processes.  As 6th Form Co-ordinator I teach lively, alert students who are ambitious over a range of fields.  Many are already voters and others are about to become voters. Their voices should be heard and their opinions taken into account. We have been fortunate enough this year to have had visits to our College by the Minister for Education, Mr John O’ Dowd and the Minister for Justice, Mr David Ford where they have debated with our students and given them a chance to voice their opinions.  Unfortunately, invaluable opportunities such as this do not occur often enough in our schools. (more…)

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