Féile event: The demand for integrated education and mixed neighbourhoods

Following the success of last year’s Féile event, the IEF hosted another discussion as part of this year’s festival. This time the conversation was broadened to consider both education and housing and the potential links. The event was held in St Mary’s University College on 07 August and saw contributors discuss the role that education and housing can play in building peace. Many thanks to our speakers, the chair Gerry McConville (Director of Falls Community Council and Chair of the West Belfast Partnership Board) and Féile an Phobail.

Féile event: The demand for integrated education and mixed neighbourhoodsDeborah Howe (the Equality Commission) spoke about the links between education and housing, emphasising the need for fairness and equality in these areas. Her presentation confirmed that the Commission would like to see a system of education “which routinely teaches pupils together via a shared curriculum in shared classes”. In addition, the system should provide among other things “a shared awareness, understanding and experience of the value of the range of diverse cultures and identities in Northern Ireland”. It was suggested that closer school-community links would be important. In terms of housing, the presentation noted that “actions are needed to encourage and incentivise integration”, highlighting the need for political leadership on the issue.

Chris Davis (Northern Ireland Housing Executive) spoke about how important it is to put “choice on the agenda” in terms of housing provision. Her presentation highlighted that while, on average, 80% of Housing Executive estates are segregated (over 90% in Belfast), the 2017 NI Life and Times Survey showed that 78% would prefer to live in a mixed religion neighbourhood. In order to increase sharing and integration in housing, support for communities in existing social housing areas is combined with new builds through the T:BUC ‘Housing for All’ Shared New Build Programme. An overview of ‘Housing for All’ was provided and it was emphasised that a successful programme would include the “development of a shared neighbourhood where people have the opportunity to live in an area where diversity is welcomed, and where people from all backgrounds can live, work, learn and play together in a safe and welcoming environment”. The shared neighbourhood should also include the development and implementation of a Good Relations Plan and be integrated into the local area.

Grainne Mullan (Radius Housing) talked about the importance of bonding between residents and bridging with the wider community. She gave an overview of the practical implementation of the ‘Housing for All’ programme, emphasising that no one size fits all and that the process is underpinned by a community development ethos which is supported by working in partnership with local communities and stakeholders, including education providers and organisations such as the IEF.

Féile event: The demand for integrated education and mixed neighbourhoodsJill Caskey (IEF’s Parental Engagement Campaign Manager) provided key statistics and information about integrated education, highlighting that 7% of pupils currently go to integrated schools, with the numbers increasing every year. She emphasised that, as with housing, there is evidence of significant support for integrated education among parents. For instance, a recent poll showed that 74.4% would prioritise “a school which is openly welcoming to all sections of the community and to all faiths”. It was also stressed that integrated education enables children to be educated together in the same classroom every day and that integrated schools are about more than just the mix of pupils but abouts aspects such as the ethos of the school, the activities and sports organised, the board of governors, the influence of parents within the school etc.

Following an engaging Q&A session, it was generally agreed that more needs to be done to meet the demand for both shared housing and integrated education. Planning for the future should put the needs of the community at the heart of the process.