We are all stakeholders

By Marie Cowan, Chair of the IEF and former principal of Oakgrove Integrated College

When the delivery of education is being discussed, the Northern Ireland Assembly needs to pay heed to the wishes of stakeholders.  I mean by this that politicians must acknowledge the concerns of the wider community and look at transforming the education system into one which is geared to the needs of our society.  Education is relevant to all of us; we are all stakeholders in education and we all have an interest in what the system delivers.

The current, highly-segregated education system in Northern Ireland comes at a heavy price. There are tens of thousands of empty desks and, in many schools, inadequate facilities, affecting our capacity to deliver education fit for the 21st Century. Yet public funds are being diverted away from the front line into maintaining separate institutions.

The public budget is under intense pressure, and the taxpayers from all walks of life who pay into it need to know it is well spent.  So is Northern Ireland getting a good return on our public investment in education?   Is it right that our money goes into a system which sustains division – that our money is not budgeted wisely but spent on duplicating provision and sustaining surplus facilities?  Surely spending needs to be targeted at better educational outcomes and new, state-of-the-art facilities? These are urgently needed to enable young people to develop the skills they will need when they join the workforce.  If we do not meet this need, we are letting down generations of young people and, ultimately, the employers seeking a skilled workforce to succeed in business.

Whilst we address the urgent financial challenges facing us – the need to rein in spending whilst maintaining and improving outcomes – we have an ideal opportunity to institute a holistic review of the education system in Northern Ireland.   This is a good moment to move beyond the current divided system, to step outside the old, sectoral design and devise an approach which puts children first.

I believe integrated education is a necessary driver for change.  Learning together develops pupils’ skills and knowledge so that they can contribute to an open, diverse and inclusive society.  There is a growing body of research to back up this view including studies from universities in Northern Ireland and Aberdeen.  Evidence suggests that when children learn and play together daily it has a significant social influence, most notably in terms of fostering cross-community friendships, reducing prejudicial attitudes and promoting a sense of security in diverse environments.

This is what parents want for their children.  Independent opinion polls over many years have shown a public desire for transformation of the education system into something which cherishes tradition and identity whilst dissolving division.  Yet there have been only timid steps towards bringing our young people together.  It’s therefore not surprising that survey results published earlier this autumn showed the approval rating for the Stormont Assembly as shockingly low.   Voices are being raised to ask why our politicians are not grasping the nettle and properly addressing the issue of a segregated education system.

Politicians, facing a series of election campaigns in the coming years, cannot afford to ignore them.