Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 2 October 2014

DebateNI home of Northern Ireland politics

Politicians must listen to the people on education

Parents overwhelmingly accept that segregated education is a barrier to progress. It's time politicians caught up with them, writes Noreen Campbell

NICIE Chief Executive Officer - Noreen Campbell

Last week, President Barack Obama, Prime Minister David Cameron and his deputy, Nick Clegg, endorsed integrated education. Those from outside Northern Ireland clearly see that a system of education, a legacy of a divided history, reflecting historic divisions, is not best suited to building a better future.

Parents understand this. A survey commissioned by the Northern Ireland Council for Integrated Education (NICIE) shows parents appreciate integrated education, with 83% recognising it plays a vital part in breaking barriers between Catholics and Protestants.

The purpose of the poll was to test parental response to the proposal that a third of primary school places be made available for those preferring an integrated education.

The poll focused on the views of pre-school and primary school parents. Some 66% supported an increase in the number of integrated primary school places in the Belfast Education and Library Board area.

If a number of small schools in an area were to close, 60% of parents would prefer the newly-created school to be integrated, with 14% preferring a faith-based school.

If the school their children attend were to be integrated, 95% of those who expressed an opinion would keep their children at it.

Not surprisingly, those who describe themselves as 'other' (than Catholic, or Protestant) are most strongly in favour of integration.

The survey is significant, because it has not been carried out in a vacuum, but as a response to the consultation on area-based planning.

This planning was developed along sectoral lines, with rationalisations proposed within sectors. The survey shows that parents want more than this.

Area-based planning has worked on the assumption that, since most children are in single identity schools, parents are making a positive choice, due to single-identity status. This survey demolishes that assumption. Parents overwhelmingly choose schools because they are perceived to be good and because of location.

The survey shows that geographical inconvenience is the reason for not choosing, or planning to choose an integrated school.

The BELB must be commended for including this question to parents in its consultation. BELB's challenge is in how it now responds.

The key to moving away from the present system is through consultation with parents. Where new schools are planned, parents want those schools integrated; where there is no integrated pre-school, or primary school, then schools should be invited to consider, with parental consultation, to become integrated.

This can be done in a way which is respectful of the history of the school. The invitation should apply to Catholic schools and controlled. The aim must be to provide parents with an integrated choice close to home. Northern Ireland has changed. In spite of labels attaching to schools, each classroom includes a diversity of children.

We deny them the right to express their identity and develop as individuals if we make assumptions about them based on school type. We do a disservice to those from mixed marriages when we subsume half their identity due to school type. We ignore the many who wish to move beyond inherited identities, or the newcomers who bring with them a range of different religious and cultural identities.

Parents in Belfast have shown they want schools to reflect and celebrate diversity. Parents across Northern Ireland should have the opportunity to express views, too.

President Obama challenged our young people to move beyond segregated housing and education. This survey indicates his views on integration chime with the parents.

Area-based planning provides a pathway for change. To date, this has been a top-down process, controlled by vested interests. It should become a grassroots process, with parents encouraged to examine options for their schools.

Our segregated system has been identified as a barrier to progress. Parents recognise this. The wider world recognises this. It is time politicians and policy-makers did.

Noreen Campbell is chief executive of the Northern Ireland council for Integrated Education

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