The Good Friday Agreement identifies integrated education as one of the cornerstones in a shared future for Northern Ireland. But it took a courageous challenge to the Education Minister from Drumragh Integrated College to secure a ruling that integrated education should be recognised at all levels of strategic planning for education.
The judgment of Mr Justice Treacy in the Drumragh judicial review case was a landmark event for three reasons.
Firstly, the judge saw a clear, statutory duty on the department to encourage the development of integrated education, which requires positive action on its part.
Secondly, the judge made clear that this statutory duty only applies to integrated education; the department cannot argue the duty applies to the development of shared education.
Thirdly, the judgment clarified that it is not acceptable to have a planning process based on the existing schools estate and a calculation as to whether it can accommodate future pupil numbers, if such process creates difficulty in fulfilling the statutory duty.
Therefore, any existing, or future, departmental strategy needs to take account of such duty and growing parental demand for integrated education.
Recognition of integrated education and parental choice must be fundamental to the assessment of development proposals for the establishment and growth of integrated schools – including the transformation to integrated ethos for any school wishing to do so.
The inescapable conclusion is that strategic planning without proper consideration of parental choice and of the need to develop integrated education is no longer an option for the department.
The judgment is a testament to the conviction of everyone associated with Drumragh and to the clarity of the judicial interpretation of legislation, which has been in existence since 1989. The department must now demonstrate the same commitment and transparency.
David Cooke is a lawyer and a trustee of the Integrated Education Fund