Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 17 September 2014

DebateNI home of Northern Ireland politics

Why our politicians don't make the grade

If leaders from Barack Obama to David Cameron and Nick Clegg can see the benefits of integrated education, why can't our local representatives, asks Lindsay Fergus

Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness
Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness

As our First and Deputy First Ministers, their 13 Executive colleagues and 93 MLAs break next week for the summer, they have been given food for thought on how to make vital progress towards a shared future.

In particular, DUP leader Peter Robinson and Sinn Fein's Martin McGuinness have been challenged internationally to drive forward a shared future agenda, including integrated education.

Prime Minister David Cameron spoke last week of his frustration at the speed of progress here, saying: "I want these things to go faster... we know how many barriers you have to overcome. But, as part of the UK family, we want to do everything we can to help... we'll do everything we can, if in Northern Ireland, the Executive does all it can to help the process of growth and also drive forward this shared future agenda'."

The Conservative leader reinforced that message with a visit alongside US President Barack Obama to Enniskillen Integrated Primary School.

The powerful duo could have selected any one of Northern Ireland's 1,100 schools, including controlled, Catholic maintained, voluntary grammar, special, or Irish-medium. However, their decision to choose Fermanagh's only integrated primary spoke volumes.

Earlier, President Obama endorsed integrated schools when he described "segregated" schooling as "encouraging division" and "discouraging co-operation".

His comments were made in a speech to 2,000 young people at Belfast's Waterfront Hall ahead of the G8 summit in Enniskillen.

"Because issues like segregated schools – these are not tangential to peace; they're essential to it," he warned.

"If towns remain divided – if Catholics have their schools and buildings and Protestants have theirs – if we can't see ourselves in one another, if fear, or resentment, are allowed to harden, that encourages division. It discourages co-operation."

Last Friday, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg again pushed the integrated message when he took time out from the British-Irish Council meeting in Londonderry to visit Oakgrove Integrated Primary.

A coincidence that three high-profile politicians rubberstamped integrated education in the same week? I think not.

But why, then, if the international community can see its benefits, can our politicians not?

Instead, they are focused on investing hundreds of millions of pounds in shared campuses that will uphold the policy of segregation for another 50 years.

Greater Executive, Assembly and Department of Education support for integrated education has thus far been lacking, as most of our politicians remain entrenched in their silos.

In a society as divided as Northern Ireland, it beggars belief that, where there is parental demand for integrated education, Government policy acts as a barrier to schoolchildren of all faiths and none being educated together.

Why should a popular, successful integrated school be prevented by the department from increasing pupils numbers, because a local Protestant, or Catholic, school could end up with fewer students, as more parents opt to avail of the additional integrated provision?

It should be the state's job to educate young people and raise standards, so Northern Ireland has a workforce that can compete globally. Faith and religious upbringing should be the responsibility of parents and the Churches.

Or, perhaps, as a survey commissioned by the Northern Ireland Council for Integrated Education found, parents in the Belfast Education and Library Board are choosing the school their child attends because of convenience– only 14% of parents not choosing an integrated primary do so because they prefer a faith-based school. Geographical inconvenience is the key barrier to sending children to an integrated primary, with 52% citing this as the reason for not using, or planning to use, an integrated school – 76% of parents said closeness to home was the priority, followed by 72% stating academic reputation and 46% quality of care.

When asked if the controlled, or maintained, school their children currently attends were transformed into an integrated primary, 88% of parents stated they would keep their children at that school.

As our politicians lag behind international and community thinking, they would do well to reflect during their two-month break on how far we have come as a society, but how far we still have to go.

Referring to the divisions between blacks and whites in America, President Obama said: "Over time, laws changed and hearts and minds changed, sometimes driven by courageous lawmakers, but more often driven by committed citizens.

Integrated education may not be the only answer, but it is another step in the right direction.

Lindsay Fergus is the Belfast Telegraph's education correspondent

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