By Trevor Ringland
For some time, opinion polls have shown a desire from people in Northern Ireland that our children should learn together. Despite overwhelming support for the idea, there is no clear strategy to end segregation in our education system and only 7% of pupils attend ‘integrated’ schools. We have a ‘Shared Schools Strategy’, but there are justifiable concerns that, while it pays lip service to sharing, it is chiefly a way of avoiding genuine integration, devised by politicians who are suspicious of the concept.
When we talk about integrated education, we are usually describing schools which welcome and include children irrespective of their background. Of course, schools which operate outside the integrated sector could argue that they satisfy that description as well.
It’s therefore a good time to define clearly what comprises an integrated school and challenge non-integrated schools to identify as such – if they meet the criteria – so that they too can wear the badge of inclusion and grow the non-segregated sector. Existing integrated schools can work with other schools where sharing is prevalent, to draw up an appropriate definition and advise on any changes needed to governance or practice.
In this way, we can build a more accurate picture of the changes which have taken place across our education system in the last twenty years. Although, we must also be realistic and appreciate that some schools are hampered by history and location, when it comes to their make-up. It doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t seek to remove barriers to inclusion and to make themselves attractive to all sections of our society.
Integrated schools have shown that it is possible to normalise our education system and offer an alternative to dividing children on sectarian lines, at such a young age. They show that we can accommodate diversity within this society. We have an opportunity to ensure that we genuinely share Northern Ireland, so that we live and work together constructively, for our mutual benefit.
Integrated education shows that many within our society are striving to tackle the sectarianism and racism which lay at the heart of the conflict which unfolded here. It’s an honest effort to make sure that those mistakes are not repeated again. And, in addition, it’s focussed on ensuring that our children have a world class education, which seeks to bring out their talents and equip them with the skills they need to live happy and productive lives.
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Speech by Hilary Copeland, NI Integrated Education Alumni Association – IEF House of Lords dinner, Monday 2 November 2015