Baroness Blood Calls On The Executive To Offer A Clear Vision Of A Shared Future

Speaking at the House of Lords on Tuesday 2 November, Baroness May Blood has issued a call to politicians to create a vision of a truly shared future for Northern Ireland, and to put education at the heart of an integrated community. 

Baroness Blood was addressing an audience of high-profile supporters of integrated education and politicians, including the Secretary of State Owen Paterson, and Lord Dubs, Lord Brooke and the SDLP leader Margaret Ritchie.
As guests gathered to celebrate and reflect on the progress made by the Integrated Education Movement over nearly thirty years, Baroness Blood took the opportunity to comment on the Stormont Executive’s lack of progress in delivering a shared future, and criticised the consultation document on Cohesion, Sharing and Integration for failing to offer a concrete way forward.
“I am delighted to welcome you to this dinner, hosted by the Integrated Education Fund. It’s wonderful to see so many supporters here, and it’s great for the Fund to have this opportunity to join with influencers, debaters and advocates in celebrating the work of integrated education in Northern Ireland and the progress we have made over nearly thirty years.
The issue of segregated education has been let out of the bottle in recent months – not that we in the movement ever knew it to hide away. But the debate has been dominating the Northern Ireland media. We commissioned a scoping paper from Oxford Economics looking at the potential for greater sharing and integration as a way of responding creatively to the current financial crisis. We hoped to engender discussion, and we certainly have done.  Our case, however, has never been simply an economic one, but very much based on the potential for social growth and healing.
We welcome the conversation which is building around the question of how we educate our young people for the future that awaits them.  It would be a great shame if that question was lost amid political point-scoring, or the defensiveness which is an instinctive response for some when strong opinions are aired. But whatever the accusations flying back and forth, it has been encouraging that no-one among the major players in the education scenario has said they actively want to see a segregated society.
We know there has been a lot of work, at all levels and in all sectors, to bridge the divide and to bring young people together. Recent research shows that the majority of schools are engaged in some cross-community work. Many of these projects, like the Integrated Education Fund’s own PACT scheme, involve not just pupils but parents and the wider community.  But although we hear pledges of openness and inclusivity, only five percent of pupils at State controlled schools are Catholics, and less than one per cent of pupils in Catholic Maintained Schools are Protestant. The Executive had the opportunity to offer a clear vision of the way forward in its Cohesion, Sharing and Integration strategy document; that opportunity was squandered.  In our response to the CSI proposal, we are calling for an education system that serves all its children together, contributing to a sustainable society growing at ease with itself. We want a policy ensuring that all schools in receipt of public funding must prove they are open to children of all faiths and none, and actively contributing to a shared society through ethos and governance.

We do recognise that schools in all sectors played a valuable role throughout the Troubles in offering a stable environment and pastoral care. It is now up to us all to work together to build on this foundation within our communities.  By promoting integrated education we do not devalue the care which has been exercised in the education of young people in schools of all management types for generations; but we have, thank heaven, moved on, and now we would like to see children brought together to learn, grow and play alongside each other. We want to see the best educational opportunities offered to all our children. That’s not just a reference to the academic aspect of schools, but also to the social and emotional development which happens during those crucial years of a human life.

We have seen the contribution made by clergy, both Catholic and Protestant, to the spiritual life in Integrated Schools.  Catholic parents have enrolled their children in our schools knowing that they are no less Catholic for doing so, and that their family’s religious life will be respected and facilitated through these links with clergy.  That is what differentiates an integrated school, from simply a non-denominational school.  The collaboration in our schools with the wider parish or congregation can provide a model for further sharing that our critics might do well to study.

So many of you here have sustained the Integrated Education Movement in so many ways over the years.  We are grateful for that and also hope that that support will continue.  It’s come from many sources, from people of goodwill from diverse backgrounds – that is appropriate and underlines our belief in equality and diversity.
There is much good will and good work going on at grassroots and at political level all over Northern Ireland – that must not be denied.   Our task now is to work together, to examine good practice and plan future better practice, to move towards an inclusive society which will nurture, value and encourage everyone who lives in it. Where better to start than with the young?