More than 92% of children in Northern Ireland attend either Catholic schools or schools that are mainly attended by Protestant children, according to the findings of the Ministerial Advisory Group on Shared Education.
But the 152-page document does not outline a step-by-step plan on how more schools – Catholic and controlled, predominantly attended by children from a Protestant background – can increase their level of collaboration to tackle the sectarian divide.
The Advancing Shared Education report also makes no recommendations on how many of Northern Ireland's 1,050 primary and post-primary schools should participate in sharing by the end of 2014 .
It will not be compulsory for schools to participate in sharing but schools that do will receive additional funding.
Many schools here do not participate in cross-sectoral sharing, others bring a selection of pupils together just once or twice a year while some have pupils sharing classes throughout the year.
The Sharing Education Programme, funded by Atlantic Philantrophies, works with more than 200 schools and 7,000 pupils – one-sixth of all schools and 2% of primary and post-primary pupils.
A key focus in the report is socio-economic divisions in the current education system, which its authors blame on the two-tier post primary system of grammar and non-grammar schools.
It makes three recommendations on academic selection:
• The Executive should introduce the necessary legislation to prevent schools from selecting children due to academic ability.
• The Department of Education should consider how best to plan for sustainable post-primary schools with all-ability intakes.
• The department should initiate a fundamental review of the use of selection within schools.
There are 17 other recommendations, which include:
• Amending the Education Bill to place a statutory duty on the Education and Skills Authority to encourage shared education – there is no mention of integrated schools.
• A shared education premium for schools that engage in shared education activities.
• Schools who receive the additional funding should be reviewed by the Education and Training Inspectorate (ETI).
Another missed chance to tackle divisions
By Lindsay Fergus
It was an opportunity to take Northern Ireland's deeply divided education system and make it more inclusive.
It could have been a reflection of the post-conflict society we now live in with Catholic and Protestants working side-by-side in the workplace and unionist and nationalist politicians working together in the Assembly and Executive.
A think-tank on shared education provided the platform for innovative thinking and the ability to develop a step-by-step plan for a better future for our children promoting mutual respect, tolerance and understanding.
Instead, the Advancing Shared Education report lacks detail, risk-taking and vision. There is no strategy, no five or 10-year plan. There are no examples of what it envisages as the different levels of sharing schools could engage in, no targets and its overarching theme is to ban academic selection and remove the grammar sector from our education system.
The report has conflicting messages – its authors advocate parental choice, as long as that parental choice is not for a grammar school, popular schools should be allowed to grow, as long as they are not integrated schools whose growth would impact on other sectors, and it blames grammar schools for the academic achievement gap between the working and middle-classes yet ignores the fact that, overall, pupils here are outperforming their counterparts in the rest of the UK.
Also if academic selection is to blame then why is there such an achievement gap between the Catholic and Protestant working-classes and how are we going to tackle that inequality in education?
The Advancing Shared Education report is yet another missed opportunity.