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?