They will see a beautiful part of the world, however you name it, of which we can be proud. A green and historic corner of the earth shared between a relatively few lucky people.
They will see a society which has moved on significantly from the notorious Troubles – having made great strides since the Belfast Agreement fifteen years ago. We have even exported peace, lending expertise in community relations and in security to conflicted areas elsewhere. And talking of export, Northern Ireland business community will be keen to showcase the very best of the place with a view to increasing international standing.
The very fact that the G8 is being held in Northern Ireland is proof and symbol of the enormous progress that has been made. However, with this new sense of security surely should come a vision of a truly shared future.
We cannot truly say we are a society completely at peace with itself; as President Obama has pointed out at the Waterfront Hall, some of the divisions of the past have not yet been breached and healed: ”If towns remain divided — if Catholics have their schools and buildings, and Protestants have theirs, if we can’t see ourselves in one another, if fear or resentment are allowed to harden — that too encourages division. It discourages cooperation…”
Political timidity should be abandoned in favour of meaningful, measurable steps to end segregation. There are noises from Ministers about sharing, which is something we welcome as a first step away from the current compartmentalised system of education delivery. Indeed the IEF has funded many projects bringing schools of different management types together over the past thirteen years. But these steps must not be seen as an end in themselves or - worse – allowed to underline division. Bringing schools together on one site but with different uniforms, enrolment criteria and governance could simply work to emphasise difference.
For thirty years and more campaigning parents have worked to end segregation in the education system, putting children of all traditions together in classroom and playground every day. They have worked stubbornly and bravely when there was little political will to bring children together. The disgraceful aspect is that there is still little will from the Executive to progress integrated education. President Obama said the development of a peaceful Northern Ireland is now down to the ordinary people. He asked whether parents would be willing to let their children play with those who went to a different church. Fortunately he then got to meet the children of Enniskillen Integrated Primary School.
The thousands of children and young people attending integrated schools are a robust and positive response to Barack Obama’s question; the polls which show that a majority of parents would like to see their child’s school integrated reply resoundingly that ordinary people are ready to end separation.
With all the progress we’ve made it is a source of shame that this obvious step – desired by parents and young people – has not been taken.
The current climate holds many challenges for schools in Northern Ireland. The issues around viability and sustainability in particular are most pressing and the inevitability of change is clear. Change need not be feared, though it is inherently difficult to create something new without feeling the loss of the old.
Yet there is a huge opportunity presented to us – the potential for positive change, for renewal, for improvement to our education system through the planned development of our integrated schools in Northern Ireland.
In our segregated and separated society we may have witnessed less violence in recent years, but the anomaly still exists that our relationships and friendships with those around us can and often do operate within one perceived culture or another – it is still possible for a child to grow into their teenage years without speaking to someone from the ‘other side’, never mind establishing a friendship.
This extraordinary situation could be meaningfully changed and improved if we had truly integrated schools in each area. The choices and decisions we make as adults are made through the prism of our life experiences and in particular our experience at school. Children must attend school, so let’s send them to schools where they learn and play alongside others from different cultures, where friendships are established early and nurtured as they grow together.
Just think of the potential impact that these experiences can have if the young adult chooses to question those peers who encourage him to jeer at and denigrate “the other side”. Because that young adult knows someone from that side as a friend – he has developed the courage and has been taught the skills to avoid the mindless stereotyping of others, recognising his ‘enemy’ as a person with feelings, family and a future.
The case for creating more integrated schools becomes more compelling in the light of Area Based Planning and sustainability issues. This aspiration to ensure the efficient use of resources is more likely to be fulfilled if our education system is unified rather than duplicated.
Current “shared education” projects – between schools of different sectors – are to be welcomed in that they recognise the value of sharing ideas, resources and projects. But we could ask will these programmes highlight division without ever really challenging it?
Integrated schools welcome children from different backgrounds who sit side by side each day, having conversations about their favourite football teams and pop groups, their culture, traditions and religious practice – engagement that is real, regular and life-enhancing, normalising their relationships. Their parents and grandparents, steeped in a personal journey through a troubled and segregated culture, are also able to have these conversations – tentatively at first but each step gets easier and sharing of hurts and experiences of loss are possible over time.
Those of us with daily experience at the chalk face know integration really does work – it can change future paths for our young people and their families. The integrated ethos does not threaten to neutralise a person’s identity but enriches and celebrates it and shares it with others. As a school we can join together to celebrate all cultural festivals, whether those in which some of our children receive the sacraments of the Catholic Church, or a party to mark the Jubilee of the Queen.
We in the Association of Principal Teachers in Integrated Schools seek to find a way of moving forward, bringing politicians, church leaders and educationalists with us in a strategy to modify how schools in Northern Ireland look – planning to create a new landscape and a new future. It is important to stop protecting the status quo and embrace a different way. We owe it to our children and to ourselves!
The Ministerial Advisory Group on Advancing Shared Education has now presented its findings. The group was commissioned by the Minister for Education and its report ended with recommendations for the way forward – measures presumably devised to help prepare our young people to play an active role in an open, diverse and inclusive society. To do this children surely have to grown up to be both confident in their own identity and culture, and open to and comfortable with diversity.
For decades many people and organisations have sought imaginative and innovative ways of bringing our community together in Northern Ireland, particularly during the darkest days of our Troubles. Many people took real risks for peace. By taking those risks we developed a peace process envied across the world for its many successes. By taking risks courageous parents founded the first integrated school and from there the movement grew; a movement to bring children of all traditions and backgrounds together every day in the classroom. I am hugely disappointed that the Ministerial Advisory Group could not be more courageous and creative than their report suggests.
I suppose it’s not unexpected that a group commissioned to look at advancing specifically “shared education” has dismissed integrated education so easily; but not only does it fail to challenge the continued structural separation of our children from the age of four, it also seems reluctant to acknowledge the experience and success of integrated schools. The report states that “Parents and children have the right to their religious, cultural and philosophical beliefs being respected.” An integrated school is a fine example of this respect being extended, by creating an environment where children are secure enough to express, discuss and exercise their beliefs. Indeed, I hope the resources and training materials which the Advisory Group calls for would draw on the experiences of teachers in integrated schools.
The report also suggests that schools embracing shared education – bringing pupils taught in separate sectors together occasionally for some classes – should attract extra funding as an incentive. I’m not sure where this leaves the 62 integrated schools who promote diversity and inclusion as part of their fundamental ethos.
Encouragingly, the report does say that the education system should be designed to meet parental demand; if the research had included the latest opinion polls as reported in the Belfast Telegraph earlier this year, the demand for integrated education would be clear.
We at the IEF have a history of supporting shared education initiatives, forging and supporting relationships between pupils from different schools. So given that we can agree that sharing and collaboration are beneficial, can we acknowledge that the more of this the better for our young people? Can we take the next brave step and bring children together as part of everyday school experience?
Again the education boards have published plans to reorganise education delivery in Northern Ireland – this time at primary level. As we saw when proposals for second-level schools were published, the boards are projecting need on the basis of current supply, and are still thinking in terms of separation and segregation. This betrays a dearth of creative thinking and even a lack of awareness of the bigger picture.
The bigger picture is not only that funds are short and there are surplus desks. It is also that most parents are open to change as long as it means a good education for their children. The recent opinion poll commissioned from Lucid Talk by the Integrated Education Fund threw up the statistic that a majority of parents would be happy to see their school transform to integrated status. This isn’t the only evidence of the popularity of integration. There are empty desks in all sectors but integrated schools are bearing up better than other management types overall; some are oversubscribed and at least one will be struggling to accommodate additional pupils when a nearby school closes and parents choose a new one for their family.
The boards’ plans do offer glimpses of new thinking; we find occasional suggestions that schools with enrolments from different backgrounds could collaborate on some level and come up with a solution to the challenges they face. The IEF’s Promoting a Culture of Trust (PACT) scheme, like other philanthropic initiatives, have supported schools which want to work together across all backgrounds and management types to explore diversity and what they have in common. It’s a way of dipping a toe in the water and can perhaps form the first step towards long-term sharing or merging. It’s notable from the area plans that where a possible cross-community solution is mentioned, it often reflects some prior experience of collaboration through a voluntary scheme.
Yet we have few concrete proposals at this stage. In many cases we have been presented with merely a list of schools for which a local solution will be sought. There is no hint that a solution has already been considered. The effect is to leave many school communities in limbo with an unhappy knowledge that changes are on the way but with no inkling as to what they could bring.
But let’s not forget that these plans are now open for discussion and the very lack of concrete planning means that parents and schools have almost a blank canvas to work with. This can be addressed with a strong message from communities, backing up the opinion poll figures with a clear and imaginative vision of how education could look.
There was criticism of the feedback process over post-primary proposals but this round of consultation is open for longer and there is encouragement from the Department of Education for “wide-ranging discussion at local level”. Parents have let us know how they want their children to grow up – learning, playing and growing each day beside children of all traditions and cultures. We have a platform through the consultation system to let decision-makers know this. The opportunity is there to be grasped.
In International Integrated Education week, a thought-provoking article from Brian John Spencer on Eamonn Mallie’s blog:
We are at a time of unprecedented change and challenge when it comes to education – offering an opportunity to reform our system radically and creatively. Failure to grasp that opportunity would mean passing on the legacy of segregation. It would mean delegating the task of building a shared society to future generations and sidestepping our current duty to address division. It would mean ignoring the wishes of the majority of the public.
The results of the Lucid Talk poll – reported extensively in the Belfast Telegraph – underline the impatience of those surveyed to see segregated structures torn down; voters do not want to wait any longer.
Politicians have created a raft of plans and policies for education but where are the proposals for real reform?
ESA and the current Education Bill retain the traditional foundations of the Northern Ireland education system: seats on the ESA Board are allocated to reflect current vested interests with no representation for the integrated sector.
The area-based plans for post-primary schools have not so far thrown up any imaginative proposals for a better education system.
The Cohesion, Sharing and Integrated policy has not materialised and the Programme for Government only created a group to advise on sharing in education, a group whose Terms of Reference did not mention integrated education.
It seems that current policy is to enshrine and bolster the status quo. Yet these poll results show continuing public support for a single education system, for integrating schools and for offering what voters say is the best preparation for young people facing an increasingly diverse world of work.
The majority of parents questioned said they would support their school becoming an integrated school, yet the same number of respondents did not know that this is possible for any school in Northern Ireland. Why are the department, the boards, the CCMS not letting parents know that this a possible way forward?
It seems that the Executive and the advisors are timid of effecting real reform even though the majority of the public would support such a move. With the current need to address the challenges facing education and with processes underway to examine the delivery of education, surely the time for radical change is NOW.