They are just six, but little Charley Stokes and Caleb Doherty are the voters of the future and yesterday the pupils from across the religious divide delivered a powerful message to our politicians.
With the European and council elections less than three weeks away, Charley and Caleb handed over an Alternative Manifesto For Education to the DUP, SDLP, Alliance, Green Party, Sinn Fein and the UUP on the windswept steps of Stormont.
The 12-page 'road map' for the future of education provision calls on the Executive to deliver on key issues including:
- Ring-fencing funding to support schools becoming integrated.
- A single education authority.
- A single teacher training college.
- A single model of governance for all schools.
- Repeal the exemption for teachers in the Fair Employment and Treatment Order.
And with a three-year election cycle under way – the European and council elections on May 22 followed by the Westminster elections next year and the Assembly elections in 2016 – the six political parties vowed to consider the Integrated Education Fund's (IEF) manifesto.
But Charley and Caleb, both pupils at Drumlins Integrated Primary School in Ballynahinch, also had their own message for the elected representatives.
Charley said: "Every child should be able to go to an integrated school, it's all backgrounds together."
When asked how did that make her feel, she beamed and added: "Very happy, I have more than 30 friends".
Caleb explained: "Our school is integrated, any pupil can go to our school."
Their principal Janice Marshall said: "It is important for us to invest in children and value them so they can become confident in themselves and their place in society. Integrated schools are very successful at doing that because the most important thing is the child."
Caleb and Charley have become the face of integrated education – a year ago they were pictured on the front page of the Belfast Telegraph when a LucidTalk opinion poll found 79% of parents would back a move to see their children's school change to integrated.
David Thompson, IEF trustee, said: "Northern Ireland supports an effectively segregated education system, which is morally, socially and economically wrong."
Politicians yesterday put aside their differences to jointly accept the document from "best friends" Charley and Caleb.
Mervyn Storey, DUP education spokesman and chairman of Stormont's education committee, said: "The manifesto is an important element of the educational debate and we will give its recommendations serious consideration."
Alliance education spokesman Trevor Lunn said: "As a party we support the integrated movement. We think there are some excellent ideas in the IEF manifesto, particularly the need to make it easier for schools to transform."
UUP education spokesman Danny Kinahan said his party would take the proposals "on board" and look at them "along with our party policies" as "many of their ideas are exactly what the UUP want to see".
SDLP education spokesman Sean Rogers said: "I firmly believe it's important our young people have the opportunity to share education with each other, to build a more cohesive society for each and everyone of us."
Approximately 90% of pupils from both traditions in Northern Ireland are educated in schools that are overwhelmingly segregated.
Although there are more than 1,000 primary and post-primary schools here, just 62 are integrated – 42 primary and 20 post-primary; of those schools 22 have transformed from another sector to become integrated.
The 1989 Education Reform Order gave the Department of Education a statutory responsibility to encourage and facilitate integrated education.