The Alliance Party’s policy document, For Everyone must add to the pressure on the Executive to formulate and agree a workable strategy to bring about a shared future. It has also served to raise the issue of how the education system can contribute to a more cohesive society, seeking targets for an increased number of pupils in integrated schools. It should have prompted mature and respectful debate over bringing children together from an early age – a popular move, according to the results of successive opinion polls over many years.
In fact (possibly put on the defensive by an awareness of the public support for integrated schools) many voices responded with dismissal and derision. It was notable, too that in many of the public discussions in broadcast and print media the voice of the integrated education movement was left out.
So let me speak now and clarify some aspects of this debate.
The Alliance Party is advocating that 20% of children should be in integrated schools by 2020, as against a figure of 6% now. That may seem a great step, but with political will it is easily achievable. The public will is behind it; surveys suggest as much as 80% of parents support integrated education. Other figures speak the same message. It’s common knowledge that there over capacity in across Northern Ireland schools, with up to 80,000 empty desks. The average surplus places in schools of all types and both primary and post-primary level is 21% but in integrated schools the average is 13%. More than 560 children who put an integrated school as their first choice (for primary or post-primary level) last year were turned away. And many other families cannot access integrated education because there is no integrated school in their area.
So when politicians claim that the Alliance proposal is undermining the notion of parental choice, it seems that real choice is not available for a large proportion of the population.
This wish for integration suggests that parents do not feel that putting children of all backgrounds to learn, play and grow together presents any threat to their identity. The perception put about that integrated schools deny faith and culture is not shared by the general public. It is certainly not accurate. From preparation for Holy Sacraments at primary level to joint assemblies and Ash Wednesday observance in colleges, the Catholic faith is not only respected but nurtured in integrated schools all over Northern Ireland.
Integrated education should be encouraged and facilitated by the government, according to the Belfast Agreement, where it is recognised as having a major role to play in reconciliation and social cohesion. In fact integrated colleges have their enrolment capped, meaning they are not allowed to accommodate everyone who applies for a place. New integrated schools have had to demonstrate their viability before they receive full government support – meaning that parents and philanthropic organisations have set up and run schools to meet popular demand without any public funding. In some cases this situation has maintained over years.
Any school can transform to become formally integrated; for many that would be a natural step as the profile of their enrolment or their area changes. The move requires parental support – and an Ipsos MORI survey in 2011 which showed most parents would support their school in such a move. Yet the Department for Education does little to let parents know they have this choice. Making the process of transformation easier and clearer would make the 2012 target realistic. Only political stagnation and the routine protection of vested interests could possibly hold us back.