By Dennis Loretto
THE commitment to greater collaboration in the Programme for Government and in recent political speeches is encouraging. It is essential that the integrated education movement contributes to any consultation on sharing. I would expect the experience of integrated schools to be taken seriously by anyone mapping out a shared future for Northern Ireland.
There has been a focus recently, from politicians and the media, on sharing projects between schools, as an example of how we can work together across traditional divides to enhance the education experience of young people. Clearly the prevalence of programmes and projects like this are firm evidence that most people want to look beyond traditional divisions and reach out to the rest of their wider community. Opinion polls consistently show that when it comes to education, the majority of people want to see their local schools welcoming everyone, cherishing diversity and promoting inclusion.
Yet if the Executive is planning to promote sharing between schools, it is missing a vital opportunity to encourage cohesion whilst saving money. There are about a thousand projects promoting cross-community collaboration between schools, but very little of this activity is currently funded by the state. These schemes, apart from the Entitlement Framework for post-16 courses, operate outside the normal everyday life of the schools, and need targeted support. At present most are dependent on charitable funding. This cannot last forever; indeed many of the current schemes promoting sharing in education have a specific lifespan. Will statutory funding be found to maintain the work, in these times of budget cuts so severe that schools are already making cutbacks? We are not making progress towards a shared future, but relying rather on an artificial, temporary measure which barely begins to address the needs and wants of communities ready for collaboration and diversity.
The economic crisis means we literally can’t afford to move slowly on this; we have to find ways of sharing not specific activities but resources, spaces and time. The sixty-two integrated schools provide models for the way forward.A truly integrated system is sustainable and progressive, offering a rich and stimulating educational environment where each child’s identity is welcomed and cherished. Short-term schemes which mask divisions without demolishing them, take us only a short way towards where we want to be.