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


6 Jun


 The walkout by the Alliance party from the CSI committee reflected a growing sense of frustration and discontent across Northern Ireland at the lack of action when it comes to the idea of a “shared future.”

It seems to be a pattern from politicians –  fine words about community cohesion but ultimately resorting to managing division rather than erasing it.

We need shared housing, shared public areas and genuine sharing of all services. The role of education – bringing young people to learn, play and grow together from the earliest years – cannot be underestimated.  Overall the picture of political progress in dealing with the core issues of division and segregation in Northern Ireland is one of abandoned pledges and broken promises.

The Programme for Government contained a commitment to set up an advisory committee on sharing, by April this year. I have heard no more about it – is it meeting in secret and refusing outside submissions, or does it not yet exist? The latter seems more likely.

The only step towards a single education system – the Education and Skills Authority – has been set up but isn’t functioning; it is merely a money pit at a time of constrained budgets.

The area-based planning underway for education is still rooted in a segregated structure, with a mere glance at cross-sectoral sharing.

Yet  politicians speak about cohesion and a shared future.

First Minister Peter Robinson has expressed his wish for a single education system. In autumn 2010 he said “We cannot hope to move beyond our present community divisions while our young people are educated separately…”

Indeed the DUP’s election pledges in 2011 included “establish schools as shared spaces” and “require school development proposals to demonstrate that options for sharing have been fully explored”.

The DUP’s manifesto wasn’t alone in this.

The SDLP were committed to “transforming society by ending segregation in housing and education”.

Meanwhile the UUP was advocating “organic collaboration, sharing of facilities and/or the merging of schools into Community Schools” and “promoting shared education as a contributing factor to a shared future”. More recently the party leader Mike Nesbitt said “We should recognise you learn more from those with whom you have differences”

Sinn Fein Education Minister John O’Dowd has said he can’t argue with the principal of children going to school together, and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness likes to remind us that “The first decision I took as minister of education was to establish two integrated schools in Belfast. I’m all for it.”

A report from the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister in 2008 concluded: “Those who live apart in segregated communities have, for the most part, also studied apart and now work apart…contact should be considered part of the solution.”

Four years on from that statement, around 21000 young people in Northern Ireland study together in integrated schools:  successful contact is evidently possible.  Those schools have been set up through grassroots campaigns and not through statutory action.  Why are our elected leaders, sharing discussions and an Assembly on a cross-community basis, paralysed when it comes to delivering a shared future to the people who elected them?

The DUP pledged to establish a commission “harnessing international expertise to advise on a strategy for enhancing sharing and integration within our education system.”

Given the inertia in government, isn’t it time for just such a commission to step in?

22 May


It’s been an intensive and interesting time – putting together a book commemorating 20 years of the IEF.

We proudly presented the finished product at our reception at Hillsborough castle – attended by HRH the Earl of Wessex – and hoped all those who had helped us make the idea a reality (accommodating the team at very short notice) would be as pleased as we are with the result.

For our souvenir book, we photographed and spoke to twenty people who’ve been affected by or involved in the IEF in some way over the past two decades.  These ranged from a P7 pupil to people who have retired from one job only to take on another role within the integrated education movement. We met people who were in at the beginning and a “newcomer” student from Poland who had no idea of what to expect in Northern Ireland when she arrived at the age of thirteen.

It’s always good to get out to schools and to talk to people but in this instance there was an added dimension, a perspective on the whole campaign for integrated schools as it has faced challenges and celebrated triumphs and touched many different lives along the way.

As a parent governor of an integrated school myself, I remember it as a new entity in mobile classrooms and have seen it grow to a modern, well-equipped building. But having only got involved when my eldest son joined, when the school had been established for five years, it was easy to be only vaguely aware of the work that went into getting an integrated school opened in the first place.

In the past month or so some of the tales of struggle and setback have been inspiring. We’ve been hearing stories of parents who put their faith in the rightness of integration, who were determined not to waver or countenance doubts when they sent their families into a school with no clear future and, in most cases, no sound building. We talked to people who were pupils in leaky cold huts but who said the teaching was fantastic – and said that experience, along with the friends they made, assured them they were in the right place for a great education.

We’ve spoken to people on IEF-sponsored projects who have had horizons widened and made new friends.

People involved in a school’s transformation to integrated status told of the realisation that they could make their schools into places truly welcoming to all pupils.  And at least one interviewee pointed out that having an integrated school in an area sends out ripples into the wider community – and gives that community a new face.

We can be proud of the work of the IEF over the past two decades and of the wider integrated education movement for thirty years. But those years do not bring us to the end of a journey – the Fund and its supporters and campaigners are still needed.  Having met so many impassioned, smart and committed supporters recently I am confident the campaign will continue.

17 Apr

Area? What Area?

So it seems area-based planning is well under way with final submissions from the Education Boards and the CCMS due at the end of June; the Minister for Education is  asking for “realistic and creative solutions” in planning the future delivery of schooling.  At the moment the requirement is to “Anticipate future need by sector using robust and verifiable data.” and to ” Identify under or over provision by sector in the area …” – so it seems the Programme for Government’s promotion of shared education is not high on the agenda. However the Department’s Terms of Reference document does also suggest  cross-sectoral sharing should be considered, and the ELBs are required to engage with the integrated sector in looking at meeting future needs.  Certainly there will be submissions from the integrated education movement. (more…)

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