This Bill deserves extensive scrutiny. The issue of shared education is important – too important for us to miss an opportunity to help build an Act which works to benefit young people and the wider community. The Committee’s consultation on the bill opened the way for citizens to raise concerns and contribute to the future of sharing and integration in Northern Ireland’s schools.
The Bill itself looks slight: purely a bid to give shared education a legal definition, list a start date for the EA to assume a statutory duty in relation to shared education, and give other education bodies a power to encourage and facilitate the practice.
But the relationship between the Bill and relevant policy demands examination.
The Bill is apparently designed to allow flexibility, but this has led to a degree of vagueness. For example: there is no stipulation of the purpose of shared education; is this policy intended to lead us to the single education system envisaged in the OFMDFM’s “Together, Building a United Community” policy of 2013? Integrated schools educate our young people side by side every day; they experience and learn to celebrate difference. Indeed, the full policy for shared education (Sharing Works) states: “… by supporting Shared Education, it is envisaged that a proportion of schools may move along [a] continuum to a more fully integrated model.” Yet there is no mention of integrated education, either as an exemplar or a target, in the Bill.
Any process towards a new ethos needs a system of monitoring and measurement to assess success. This is lacking in the Bill .
We need to see an amendment establishing a duty for the Education Department or Education Authority to help schools, which are involved in sharing projects, explore the possibility of moving “along the continuum”. Adding this responsibility to the proposed power to encourage and facilitate shared education creates a mechanism to ensure that any school wishing to explore integration as an option will be fully supported in doing so.
Schools of different management types embarking together of the shared campuses programme surely need a supporting framework as to how they are expected to develop a meaningful relationship? Merely sharing a front gate is surely not what is intended in Sharing Works but if we are going to legislate for shared education then that legislation must be clear and comprehensive.
We are urging MLAs, and in particular the education committee, to make sure that any initiative carrying so much potential to shape children’s lives is properly supported and properly thought–out.
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