Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 23 April 2014

DebateNI home of Northern Ireland politics

Integrated education is no threat to pupils' beliefs

Bishop Donal McKeown sparked a heated debate after his criticism of President Obama's views on schooling, writes Baroness May Blood

Baroness May Blood

Most Reverend Dr Donal McKeown's article in the Belfast Telegraph ("Still lessons to be learned by school integrationists" June 26), alongside his recent interview for the BBC, has further stimulated debate about the divided nature of our education system.

His objection to President Obama's use of the word "segregated" at the Waterfront Hall, and his admonishment of the Integrated Education Fund (IEF) for using the term in the recent Lucid Talk opinion poll, highlight a significant lack in the Bishop's understanding of public and international opinion.

The reality is that The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, reporting in 2008, said "the problem of segregation of education is still present in Northern Ireland" and urged action to address this issue.

The Catholic education authorities have reacted angrily to President Obama's words but it's worth noting that he also mentioned Protestant schools and buildings – he was not in any way attacking a single, particular background or belief. Yet no Protestant clergy, and no representative of the controlled sector, have come forward to object.

I would like to clarify here that integrated education is not a broad concept or a "fuzzy" term as Bishop McKeown would have it, but has a specific definition in the education system in Northern Ireland. It was built into the 1989 Education Reform Order and enshrined in the Good Friday Agreement

Bishop McKeown tells us to "Watch the customers, not the polls". The latest information on these "customers" – the pupils enrolled for Year 8 in September for all post-primary schools here – is interesting. There is an average of 35% of Year 8 places empty in both the controlled and maintained non-grammar schools – compared to an average of 17% of Year 8 places empty in the 20 integrated post-primary schools. Figures from the Assembly Research Service show that the total number of pupils enrolled in integrated schools has increased since 1988.

Yet Bishop McKeown cites anecdotal evidence that "increasing numbers of pupils from across the spectrum are opting into the Catholic sector". There is always an exception to the rule and credit is due to these schools for meeting the needs of all local families. However, DENI records show that the majority of schools have enrolments of at least 90% from one religious background. Last academic year, 180 schools in Northern Ireland had no Protestant pupils at all and 111 had no Catholic children attending. This is surely de facto segregation as the United Nations saw it.

The public response to the discussions ignited by the Bishop shows a consensus that separating our children on the basis of religious background is not acceptable.

This is not about institutions or vested interests. This is about a future which sees all children learning, playing and growing together, side by side, in an environment which safeguards individual tradition and ethos and the growing body of evidence. should give reassurance to our politicians. It should give them the confidence to take the steps needed to remove segregation from education.

And this need not threaten anyone's identity. Bishop, come to visit an integrated school – come to one of the colleges on Ash Wednesday to witness the spiritual observance; come and speak to the Chaplains, Protestant and Catholic, at Lagan College; or come and join children of all backgrounds celebrating their Catholic friends' First Holy Communion at an integrated primary school. You would be welcomed and your ethos and beliefs respected.

Baroness May Blood is Campaign Chair of the Integrated Education Fund