The Challenge for the Next Five Years…
We recognise that we have a huge task ahead of us. We need to convince politicians, Church ruling bodies and education policy makers of the overwhelming case for providing Northern Ireland with an education system where integration not separation is the norm.
Our current segregated education system is unsustainable. We need to use every opportunity to promote the continued growth of integrated school places as well as encourage all schools to provide their pupils with the opportunity to engage meaningfully with children from different cultural and religious backgrounds.
And we need to raise money – £20 million to be precise. None of these things will be easy. But we believe our five-year plan – Towards Tomorrow Together – CLICK HERE - provides a clear road map to where education in Northern Ireland needs to be by the end of 2014.
There are too many empty desks in schools throughout Northern Ireland because of population changes and poor strategic planning by government. Many schools could soon be amalgamated or faced with closure. This is an opportunity for schools to come together across the traditional divide, or for individual schools to transform to integrated status thus opening their doors to the entire community.
It is estimated that the cost of maintaining separation in our society is £1.5 billion a year (Deloitte, 2007). The same report said collaboration across the divide could result in savings. If those savings were in the order of one to five per cent, there would be a benefit of between £15.9 million and £79.6 million.
The big question is, of course, “Does integrated education work?” The answer is an emphatic yes. The evidence shows that it works in terms of delivering positive social attitudes, economic benefits and academic excellence. The Millward Brown Ulster Survey 2008 found that 82% of people in Northern Ireland believe integrated education is either very or fairly important to peace and reconciliation. The Young Life and Times survey of 2004 discovered that people who attended schools with a mixed intake were more than twice as likely to have at least 10 friends from a different religious background as those who did not.
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.”
As for demand, 49% of 16 year-olds told the Young Life and Times Survey in 2007 that they would prefer a mixed-religion or integrated school. The Millward Brown Ulster Survey 2008 found that 43% of parents and grandparents wished the same for their children or grandchildren.
In terms of academic performance, integrated schools have developed as all-ability, inclusive schools – children are welcomed from a range of learning abilities and socio-economic backgrounds (for example, around 1 in 5 pupils are entitled to free school meals) and supported to their full potential. Integrated schools have also proved their excellence in examinations. In 06/07, around half of all integrated colleges performed at least 10 percentage points higher than the non-grammar average of 45% grades A*-C at GCSE and, in the top performing school, some 25% higher.
We need to encourage those who recognise the economic, educational and social benefits that can come from integrated and shared education to engage in the ongoing public debate and help to influence the changes which are coming.