Integrated education will help free us from poison of sectarianism

A blog by Trevor Lunn. Trevor is Alliance MLA for Lagan Valley, having served the constituency in the role since 2007. He is the party’s education spokesperson.

When visiting Northern Ireland in recent years, US President Barack Obama and his predecessor George W Bush both made a point of visiting integrated primary schools.

It was a ringing endorsement of the integrated sector and a chance to showcase on the global stage the benefits and growing popularity of integrated education. This form of education is the best option to help create a shared future for our society and it is vital more is done to help promote it.

If we are to break down the barriers in our society, we should be looking to begin with our children and the system that educates them, often giving them their first socialisation and interaction with others. With the single identity nature of many schools, it means at present too many children are not knowingly coming into contact with those from a different tradition.

It is difficult to imagine a more effective long-term initiative to lessen the divisions in our society than bringing our children together during their school years.

A recent poll showed 79 per cent of parents would back a move to transform their child’s school to an integrated one, while 66 per cent believe integrated schools should be the main model of our education system.

Clearly the demand is there, with many integrated schools being some of the most oversubscribed each year. In the Good Friday Agreement, the people of Northern Ireland were promised initiatives to ‘facilitate and encourage integrated education’ by all the signatories. However, that obligation is not being met by several of the parties involved.

The Department of Education’s failure to meet its legal duty to do just that – facilitate and encourage – flies in the face of previously stated priorities, despite a few welcome decisions recently.

Drumragh Integrated College is still being denied the right to facilitate parental choice and Clintyclay Primary School, the only maintained school to apply to transform to integrated status, is the subject of court action by the Department.

However, one major way we can increase the amount of money Departments have to work with is by eliminating the costs of a divided society. Estimates of those costs range from hundreds of millions up to £1 billion. By promoting integrated education, we can remove the need for unnecessary school buildings, while at the same time giving parents what they clearly want.

It is simply outrageous that parents wishing to send their children to integrated schools are being denied that choice. The challenge needs to be laid out – enough talking grandly about the principle and start taking practical action to make sure every parent who wants integrated education for their child has access to it.

Other parties need to stop paying lip service to the demand for integrated schooling or hiding behind the current push for shared schooling and recognise what their constituents clearly want.

Our children and grandchildren deserve nothing less. It is our best opportunity of achieving a society free from the sectarian poison which has held us back for far too long.