3 Sep

When Will Politicians Catch up with the Electorate?

Asks Paul Caskey, Campaign Director, IEF

At the beginning of the summer the Education Minister, John O’Dowd, stated “Shared education has an important role to play and now is an opportune time to debate this across civic society” and he was also quoted as saying “I suspect our society is at the stage where we are really only at the start of this debate”.

Whilst the long-awaited establishment of a Ministerial Advisory Group on Shared Education must be welcomed as step in the right direction, it is astounding to think it has taken so long to establish and that politicians like Mr O’Dowd feel society is only ready now for such a debate. What might be closer to the truth is that it,s the politicians that are only ready now.

As so often happens here the politicians are really only playing catch-up. Every independent survey and opinion poll, year after year, for as long as I can remember, has always demonstrated a clear public will to move towards a more integrated schooling system irrespective of one’s political outlook or community background. But hey we all know that such surveys can be treated with suspicion if we don’t like what they suggest; their accuracy can be questioned.  Given that fact, I encourage our political leaders to look at the other evidence, the evidence of direct parental and community action in trying to increase integration in our schools. They could start with the 62 integrated schools themselves, which were brought into being through parental demand, not government policy, and often in the face of enormous obstacles and challenges. In many cases it took philanthropic funding to get a new school off the starting blocks. Further, they could consider the hundreds of schools, whether Catholic, State Controlled, Irish Medium or Integrated, that have sought to engage in cross-community education projects but which also largely had to depend on money from local charities, international foundations or even the European Union to do so. Why on earth would parents and schools seek to do this if they didn’t recognise the value and benefit that is derived from learning, playing and working together?

Taking the above evidence, which surely reinforces the findings of the independent research, our politicians can be under no illusion about the desire to develop a system where educating children together is the norm, not the exception in our schools. The time has come for our Executive to show real leadership by enabling and directing change in our education system on a cross-community and cross-sectoral basis. This is within their grasp, not the grasp of the community.

Yet at Stormont we so often see the evidence of a policy of a ‘shared out future’ rather than a ‘shared future’.  For example, at the start of the summer our Department of Culture and Leisure didn’t announce a public consultation on languages but rather two separate consultations, one on the Irish Language and one on Ulster Scots – no doubt at twice the expense.  This “one for me, one for you” culture has led to massive public expenditure on duplicated services for both sides of our community. Without a radical cultural change at Stormont as to how we do things in this society, we will go on managing division rather than transcending it.

The window of opportunity for change in education is rapidly closing. As the Education Minister announces the creation of his Advisory Group on Shared Education, his plans are already well underway for a radical shake up of the schools estate leading to many closures, mergers and amalgamations – yet all to be done BEFORE the publication of the Advisory Group’s findings. Before we know it community separation in education will be copper fastened like never before. We must do all we can to demand our Executive finally takes heed of public opinion and stops trying to fool us that we are not ready for real change just yet. We are. Are they?

31 Aug

Digital Media in Education Conference – Patrick McGrath

Describing himself as a ‘Technologist’, Patrick   is Founder and Managing Partner of iTeach, a local not for profit organisation whose sole focus is on making technology effective in education  – for teachers, pupils and schools. iTeach is supported by a team of technology savvy teachers to ensure that everything it does enhances teaching and learning both inside and outside the classroom.

Patrick is an experienced Technology Entrepreneur and has delivered projects locally and internationally for, amongst others, NASA, Homeland Security and the NHS during his career. An Apple Education Mentor, Patrick’s sole focus is now on assisting change in education through technology with iTeach.

These are his thoughts on the upcoming Digital Media in Education conference:

How good are schools in NI at keeping up with technology?

I think we are behind other areas of the UK for example. We’ve had c2k in the classroom for some time, and it provides good standardised access but until recently it has not been flexible or dynamic enough to let teachers innovate. As C2K changes, new opportunities are open to schools – but teachers are busy and IT presents a steep and continuing learning curve. That said, our schools in general, as I see them, have a progressive attitude and a growing proportion are using IT incredibly well in the classroom in new and exciting ways.

But it’s all moving incredibly fast – what many see as the technology of tomorrow, is actually the technology of yesterday. If you’re making long-term plans involving current IT then you will always be playing catch-up.

Why is the IEF Digital Media in Education Conference important?

I think a conference such as this with a fantastic line-up of speakers, offers teachers exposure to what is possible and presents inspiration as well as an assurance that using new technology needn’t be hard. It’s a single point of access to all the information a typical school will need to progress.

What about the role of social media ?

I think social media is a critical tool for schools; they have traditionally been slow to  embrace it, but that is down to a lack of understanding. It has a great potential for engagement, for keeping parents and pupils up to date QUICKLY with what is happening at school. Parents can become involved in the academic but also the community life of the school. We need to look on the current website of a school as a brochure and nothing more; giving basic general information but not having any LIFE; the life of the school is demonstrated in the social and digital outlets. Teachers have to first understand it, then commit to using it – when you get to grips with it it’s a lot less onerous than a website. The conference will demonstrate this!

We often hear that one of the challenges for teachers in using digital technology in the classroom is that the pupils are several steps ahead of them. Teachers may be moving out of their comfort zone whereas for students it’s how they operate and communicate in everyday life….

Yes, but this can be turned to a school’s advantage. I suggest appointing pupils as digital champions. I also see a lot of peer-to-peer work going on in classrooms…a new educational culture is developing, which is exciting.  I want teachers to go away from the conference with a knowledge of what digital media can achieve – they have to realise that it’s more than  a Facebook post about what you had for tea!

Patrick McGrath will facilitate the Digital Media in Education Conference hosted by the IEF at the W5 (Odyssey) Belfast on Wednesday 10th October. Find out more about iTeach and the services they provide by clicking here.




23 Aug

Consultation – an opportunity not to be missed.

Chris Jenkins, IEF Community Engagement Officer, wonders how inclusive the latest debate on education will be.

Decisions are often taken over the heads of those that they affect – that is the unfortunate reality of modern democracy.   A fig leaf is occasionally offered in the form of public consultation, in which members of the public are given the opportunity to add their opinions into the decision-making process.

We see with the latest release of post-primary area-based plans by the Education and Library Boards across Northern Ireland that they will be opened to public consultation until the end of October.   The Department of Education must be applauded for recognizing the benefit and value in public consultation, but they must also acknowledge that such an exercise is pointless unless they ensure that there are mechanisms in place to make sure that all voices are heard equally, regardless of social disadvantage.

We are yet to see exactly how this consultation process will be rolled out.  How will the Department of Education ensure people are given an adequate level of information about the various options?  How will they engage with parents? There is not much time left once the long summer holiday is over. How will they ensure that those traditionally disconnected as a result of their own experiences of a failed education system will have an opportunity to and will be encouraged to contribute?   How will the Department seek to build capacity and empower disadvantaged communities to participate in the process?

Equally important, will the Department accept any new suggestions put forward through consultation?  For example in none of the released plans have there been many options for cross-sectoral sharing, a curiosity given the Minister’s injunction that the process should “identify realistic, innovative and creative solutions to address need, including opportunities for shared schooling on a cross sectoral basis” and his reminder of the commitment in the GFA toward integration.  If communities debate what they would like to see in their areas, and if the suggestions generated from those discussions are for the type of sharing that our legislation currently doesn’t allow, will the Education and Library Boards embrace those suggestions, and will the Department take those suggestions on board?

Anything short of commitments  both to ensure  an open and fully inclusive consultation, and  to act on suggestions, will negate any value in this consultation process and will represent a missed opportunity to genuinely challenge how education is being delivered in Northern Ireland.

My fear is that this consultation process will represent that missed opportunity and the Department will not fulfill their obligations.  It once again rests on the community and voluntary sector to rise to the challenge, and to venture into territory unknown. The burden now lies with community groups, who deal with the social effects of a failing education system but who often have no connection to educational planning, to ensure that people are informed and empowered to take this chance to influence different outcomes for education in Northern Ireland – outcomes that are community-driven, community-focused and locally-owned.

3 Aug


Posted by Dr Joanne Stuart OBE, Director Attrus Limited, IEF Trustee and  Former Chairman IoD NI

Dr Joanne Stuart OBE

Club de Madrid is a non-profit think-tank comprising democratic former presidents and prime ministers from 58 countries. It was formed in response to the international  need for thoughtful leadership and the reconstruction of societies emerging from conflict – Northern Ireland is not alone!

The “Club”  brings together a wealth of intellect and experience to bear on economic and social problems, and it’s no accident that one of its major projects focuses on Shared Societies. To quote from its report:

Shared Societies generate economic dividends for governments, businesses, communities, families, and individuals. Through a “virtuous cycle”, these economic dividends of Shared Society further enhance a society’s capacity to be shared, which in turn, generates more economic dividends.

Sharing and cohesion are crucial in rebuilding a community both economically and psychologically, and  business leaders are impatient to see strong leadership providing the roadmap towards a truly shared future for Northern Ireland.

Education plays a vital role in building what the Madrid Club refers to as “society’s capacity to be shared”, yet currently in Northern Ireland, 95% of children learn in a school perceived as belonging to one tradition or the other – despite opinion polls showing  almost 90% of people favour integrated education.   It is disappointing that the proposals thrown up in  Area Based Planning do not include any real attempt at enabling sharing and integration across the school estate.

A business owner  not  only has to make sure that everyone is treated equally, but must also prove that the working environment is open and welcoming to everyone, no matter their background, creed or colour. This is as it should be; equality legislation underpins a progressive and cohesive society. But there is a dichotomy when the private workplace must comply with this legislation, yet we continue to fund schools from the public purse without any demand that they are actively open in their ethos.  Whilst every education sector will tell you that they welcome all cultures and traditions, the reality is that 93% of pupils at maintained schools are from the Catholic tradition, and nearly 75% of pupils in controlled schools designate themselves Protestant.   Schools need to take further steps to make their environment one where everyone can be open about their background and learn to accept and be comfortable about difference.

Today’s  job market is very different from yesterday’s,  with growth in the STEM-related industries, tourism and creative industries and with  a culture  of labour mobility meaning our young people have to be confident working outside  their own communities.  Boundaries have to be extended and education must provide the enabling platform giving young people the confidence and skills to broaden their horizons. As it is, the workplace offers the first opportunity for many young people to engage with someone from a different background.

Further,  it’s obvious that  the  public money spent on managing division could be put to much better use.   Our schools need to be shared spaces but they also need – and deserve –  the best facilities and equipment, introducing pupils to the state-of-the-art technology our industry must use to compete in a global marketplace

Our economic strategy presents a clear vision of export-led growth and inward investment to become  a progressive, diverse and outward looking economy. In order to create the “virtuous cycle” we must apply the same clarity of vision to our education system.

11 Jul


 Recently the Belfast Telegraph published an article headlined “Integration Can’t Work Alone,  says University of Ulster Study”. It referred to a report of psychology research described in more detail here: www.community-relations.org.uk/fs/doc/mckeonstringer.pdf Nigel Frith, Principal of Drumragh Integrated College and  Chair, Association of Principal Teachers in Integrated Schools, gives his response:As the principal of an integrated post-primary school, I would readily agree with a number of the assertions and findings of the report ‘Is shared space really shared?’ For example the report states, ‘shared space does not necessarily mean that groups interact in a meaningful way with one another…’ Agreed. But integrated schools do much more than share space.

So what is the difference between simply a ‘shared space’ and an integrated school? Firstly, integration does not pretend that we are all the same. It actively seeks to embrace difference as something to be understood, respected and celebrated. Equality, yes; uniformity, no. This is not rhetoric, it is part of the reality of running an integrated learning community where there is potential conflict to be pre-empted or dealt with, societal prejudice coming through the front gates in the heads of youngsters who have been listening to contradictory voices in their local communities, on the internet or even in their own homes, and yet where young people do learn to be friends with those from other traditions. This is what we see, and this is how we consciously and carefully organise an integrated environment.

The report is correct in suggesting that simply sharing spaces is unlikely to have a major impact.. Integration however, where young people are actively encouraged to understand and respect each other’s differences – now that’s exciting, and that does bring about change for the better; slowly perhaps, sometimes hitting a few bumps along the way, but effectively.

Let me offer an example: remembrance. In order to challenge a social perception of remembrance as being for the Protestant community and in some way endorsing the British military influence in Northern Ireland, we run a pre-emptive programme in Personal Development classes and assemblies. We acknowledge together the school’s view of the event, which is that we are saddened by the tragic loss of life in any conflict, wish to learn the urgent lessons of history and emphasise the rights of anyone to wear a poppy or not as they choose. This works.

Or  –  Ash Wednesday. The entire school community meets for the Ash Wednesday services held in the school hall. Clergy from both of the main traditions speak during the service. At the appropriate point, an invitation is extended to all staff and students to come forward to receive the ashes if they wish, or equally they are welcome to remain in their seats, to watch a reflective PowerPoint presentation, listen to the quiet music being played, and to think or pray.  The result is a dignified, moving occasion that is in some ways a highlight of the school year.

Or what about when young people do get themselves into any kind of conflict, for example following rumours about who is flirting with whose boyfriend, or who has said what on Facebook?  As we clear up the mess together, several important things often happen. Firstly, students face the consequences of their actions, before being given an opportunity to start again. Secondly, they are regularly asked how their actions measure up to the school’s integrated values. Thirdly, sometimes the principles of restorative justice are employed, in order to help both parties to reconcile and move forward.

I question the report as at best limited, and possibly even flawed, in several important ways. Firstly, while it recognises that ‘each integrated school differs’, it has confined its research to only three schools. While no doubt there is research-based justification for the scope of the study, in reality significantly more work is needed before definite conclusions can be drawn.

Secondly, the report has taken who pupils choose to sit beside in class as an indication of the degree of segregation present in the school.  It concludes ‘Results show that the majority of classrooms were religiously segregated’. Yet there are many more opportunities for students to mix than when seated in class. And where are the views of the young people in this?   The report has not apparently considered the views, values and friendships of the students themselves. That’s where the real – and exciting – questions are.

The authors conclude:  ‘we suggest that integrated schools and FE colleges should encourage interactions between Protestant and Catholic children and young people.’ We do.

Integrated schools are not simply shared spaces. Shared space is not necessarily integrated space. Some of the points made in the report are entirely right. The questions asked by the report are important. What is needed now is a research project that looks more appropriately and more comprehensively for the answers.






18 Jun


By Baroness May Blood MBE, Campaign Chair, Integrated Education Fund

At Stormont, it seems, even just talking about cohesion provokes fracture. The committee working to finalise the CSI strategy has broken down. We must ask whether this reflects a lack of commitment to real unity.  We’ve had many fine words on cohesion from The Hill.  We’ve heard many references to sharing in so many announcements and proposed policies, but I wonder if these were a veil, a strategy to silence campaigners and activists and a signal to stop agitating because our leaders have their hearts in the right place.  Meanwhile we live in carefully managed segregation.

The majority of schools are involved in collaborative work at some level.   You may think I’m churlish to ask for more – but I do, and so do many others according to numerous polls and studies.  Each cross-community project – although genuine and constructive – is an “add-on” rather than a part of everyday school life; I want to get beyond the sense of novelty in these encounters.

Imagine those surveys which used to report  “a huge percentage of people in X age group have never met someone from the ‘other side’ ”  rewritten to say “the majority of young people have only met someone from another religious/cultural background for one hour a week for x weeks of their life”. It doesn’t seem something we should be satisfied with, does it?

Of course every step towards a more cohesive, shared society is to be welcomed. These schemes are valuable – but there is a danger that we will find ourselves left merely with “acceptable” levels of segregation.

First Minister Peter Robinson once described our education system as “benign apartheid”.  History shows apartheid can’t remain benign; even peaceful separatism invites unthinking allegiances and promotes isolationism, which at times of stress underpins conflict.

Integrated schools encourage pride in our identity, emphasise the rights and responsibilities of the individual, but also nurture a wider loyalty, to friends from all backgrounds and cultures.  Beyond this, some research suggests that integrated schools not only moderate children’s attitudes but also have a multiplier effect, casting ripples through the wider community.

Yet there seems to be no urgency for drawing up a strategy to bring our young people to learn, play and grow together every day.

We were told there was to be a ministerial advisory group on sharing in education, with a target start date of April this year; this group has not apparently materialised.  In a letter to the Integrated Education Fund, the Education Minister John O’Dowd said his Department “has not formally adopted a definition of “shared education”. It is recognised as a broad concept…”

I would agree that there is a spectrum of sharing- and every step on that spectrum is a step in the right direction. Yet we must take care not to accept tentative exploration as being progress enough. Every journey begins with a single step, sure, but that must be followed by more, ever greater strides to reach our true destination.

This article first appeared in the Belfast News Letter


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