Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 17 December 2014

DebateNI home of Northern Ireland politics

We need to sing from same song sheet when it comes to education

Integrated education is a concept most people agree with, but it is a different story when they actually have to make any moves towards achieving it, says Alex Kane

A series of polls suggests support for integrated education.
A series of polls suggests support for integrated education.

Integration is an ugly word: an ugly, hard word that doesn't roll easily or gently off the tongue. It's the sort of word that warns you off. The sort of word that makes you think of restriction and limitation. The sort of word, in fact, that leaves people unsure and uncertain.

Oh yes, when you tell them that it means something good, something positive, something like educating all of our children together in the same schools then they'll nod their heads in agreement when asked questions by opinion pollsters. And yet they still remain uncertain and unsure. In other words, they'll say yes to integration and then do nothing about it.

Interestingly, when President Obama was here he chose a really ugly word for our schools: a word which everyone equates with ugliness and division. He described them as "segregated schools" and linked them to his own upbringing when "many cities still had separate drinking fountains and lunch counters and washrooms for blacks and whites". He used that word quite deliberately. It was intended to shock, intended to make us prick up our ears, intended to draw unpleasant parallels between Northern Ireland in 2013 and Chicago in the 1950s.

Bishop Donal McKeown didn't like the "loaded segregated language" used by Obama and wasn't any happier when the Integrated Education Fund started talking about "Northern Ireland's segregated education system". He has a point.

Responding to a Belfast Telegraph/LucidTalk poll (June 26), Baroness May Blood – campaign chair of the Integrated Education Fund – wrote "the poll results show that citizens are acutely aware of the global image of Northern Ireland and want the decision-makers to take segregation (there's that word again) out of the education system as a priority".

Yet look at how the interviewees responded to the question about what they would prefer "if there is a community where schools of different traditions are faced with closure because of falling numbers". Some 52% wanted to retain separate schools with separate uniforms on one site. 13% wanted to close the schools and bus children to the nearest equivalent school. Only 35% wanted to merge into one school. Only a third favoured the integrated, non-segregated option, a result that contradicts the banner headline proclaiming "public mood is for an end to segregation in schools".

There seems to be confusion. A series of polls suggests support for integrated education. This latest poll indicates that 77% think "the international image of Northern Ireland would be improved by having a desegregated education system": a figure which is consistent with the last poll which indicated 78% in favour of integration. But this doesn't sit easily with the figure of just 35% for a merged school option, or the fact that only 54% – a slim majority – would send their children to "a school that is of a different tradition to your own background".

I take the view that the 77%/78% figures should be forgotten about. They are the feel-good responses to fuzzy questions. But when you ask people the nitty-gritty questions, the what-would-you-actually-do questions, then you see the reality. And that reality seems to be that most people are comfortable with sharing. Sharing is a nice word. It's a soft, comfortable word, the sort of word that conjures up a world of no restrictions or limitations. The sort of word, in fact, which leaves people sure and certain. Sure that they don't mind their kids mixing: and certain that it's only occasionally and mostly cosmetic.

It's an almost mirror image of what is happening in the political/electoral world. Poll after poll suggests that we all want to live together and build a future together, yet we vote for parties which deploy the language of us-and-them polarisation and govern by means of mutual veto, petitions-of-concern and departmental silos. Our MLAs may use the same canteen, committee rooms and debating chambers, but they sit with their own kind in their own groups at their own tables. It may not be an ideal template for genuine sharing, but hey, as they always tell us, 'it's better than it used to be'. One thing I'm pretty sure about is that integration – in the sense of children educated equally irrespective of religious or political background – isn't going to happen while the political make-up of the Assembly remains the same. The best that can be expected – and it will be a snail's pace progress – is shared schooling: which is, as I noted in a previous piece, not much more than 1950s Alabama bussing, but without the bus.

Shared schooling is not an answer to our problems and it's very, very stupid to pretend that it ever could be. Shared schooling is just an up-close-and-personal form of separation: it's blending orange and green into a very timid turquoise. It's fudge. It's sludge. It's another classic dodging the real problem compromise to deep-rooted problems.

Those who believe in integrated education need to wrestle the argument back from the shared education lobby. They need to get around the ugliness of the word and the sense, in some quarters, that it is a form of social/political engineering. Most important, they need to tackle the reality that 90% of elected representatives buy into the shared schooling solution: and they need to be prepared to discover that most people may not really want integration anyway.

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