Integrated education has moved centre stage in public debate, since we introduced the Oxford Economics scoping paper, “Developing a Case for Shared Education” at the Northern Ireland Economic Conference last September. The question now must be when do we move from debate to action?
Discussion at political level, including an Assembly debate, seems to agree that our current model of education is undesirable, and integration is shaping up to be seen as a possible future norm for education here. Through our work in supporting cross-cultural projects between schools, we know that there is an appetite in our communities for the enrichment that comes with diversity and openness. Now that attitude, underlined in so many surveys and opinion polls, needs to be reflected in real change. We have an elected Assembly and our own executive, and it is their job to achieve that change.
In order fully to realise the vision of all our children learning and playing together, rather than growing up defined by division, we urge the new Executive, after the Assembly elections in May, to establish as a priority an independent education commission, with a commitment to enacting their recommendations. This commission would examine the current and alternative delivery models for education, and would make recommendations to the Executive on a new fit-for-purpose system for Northern Ireland in the twenty-first century. The commissioners should address all relevant issues in education, in the context of our progress to a shared future. Finally, new legislation will be required to give effect to the commission’s subsequent recommendations; we need to see our representatives making the decisions they were elected to make.
Education should be an investment priority for the Assembly. The dividends of that investment should be young people able for work and an environment welcoming and less problematic for employers and inward investors. If funds for education are directed wisely and spent constructively, all of Northern Ireland – children and adults – will benefit.
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