Integrated education chiefs have warned that a flagship shared education campus could amount to a "pointless exercise" unless pupils learn side by side.
On the same day that construction work started in earnest at the site of Lisanelly shared education campus, the Department of Education said it was too early to confirm if pupils attending the site's six schools will learn side by side, instead of separately in their respective schools.
Principals of the schools to be based on the former Army barracks site in Omagh also insisted that the issue of whether, and for how long, their pupils will learn alongside children from the other schools has not been agreed. The matter will be a focus of discussions, which will start within weeks.
In official advice issued by the Department of Education to an advisory body looking at the future of shared education, the department defines shared education as educating "learners" from all backgrounds.
The £126.5m shared education campus in Omagh will bring together six schools from various sectors. Controlled schools, largely attended by Protestant children, will join maintained, grammar, non-selective and a special needs school on the 126-acre site.
It differs from integrated education in that each school retains its separate identity and pupils will, in theory, share resources.
In an integrated school, children from different backgrounds are educated side by side at all times.
The Co Tyrone development, once implemented, will be the template for 10 similar shared education campuses across Northern Ireland.
However, there are concerns that division could eclipse sharing on the landmark education campus.
Danny Kinahan, UUP vice-chair of the Assembly's education committee – who has voiced his support for the project – pointed yesterday to the need for grammar and non-selective pupils "to be kept separate, so they can learn as much as they can".
"But they need to share at the same time," said Mr Kinahan, a supporter of academic selection.
"You have to build your way through this. It's going to be something that's difficult."
But the Integrated Education Fund (IEF) voiced grave concerns.
The Department of Education was unable to confirm yesterday if a requirement for pupils of the six schools to learn together in the classroom has been written into plans for Lisanelly. "Of course it concerns us. If there is no contact between pupils of the different schools (on the campus) then it's purely a physical structure," Samuel Fitzsimmons from the IEF said.
"A shared education campus without children being taught side by side is a pointless exercise. If at this stage that is not being factored into the vision for Lisanelly, what's the purpose of it other than as a symbolic gesture which does not amount to anything."
Mr Fitzsimmons said the development reinforced the need for a statutory definition of shared education – which critics accuse of being a fudge to truly integrated education. Education Minister John O'Dowd has said he will push through a definition of shared education as soon as possible.
Speaking at the demolition of the first building at the Lisanelly site yesterday, Mr O'Dowd described it as "a visionary project and the biggest ever investment in education infrastructure here".
But Ian McConaghy, principal of Omagh High School, which will eventually relocate to the site, said it has yet to be discussed whether pupils from the site's schools would share classroom time, and how much time this would amount to.
"We are currently looking at that issue at the minute," he said.
Keith Hill, principal of Omagh Academy, said he believed shared learning was "implicit" in the project's plans.
Shared or integrated? Key questions
Q What is the difference between shared education and integrated education?
A Put simply, pupils at an integrated school, who hail from different religious, social and academic backgrounds, learn and socialise side by side all the time during school hours.
Under the shared education model, separate schools share resources, including teaching material, classrooms, equipment, teacher expertise and, in some cases, accommodation for sixth form pupils. Pupils from schools which have a partnership under the shared education model spend a proportion of time learning side by side every week or month. In some cases it is several hours every week, or more infrequently in others. For the remainder of the time, pupils continue to attend their respective, separate schools.
Q What does shared education mean?
A Last year the Department of Education issued official advice on the definition of shared education to a think-tank, which subsequently compiled a report on the future of shared education. In that advice, the department defined shared education as schools from different sectors, or with a different ethos, management and governance style, providing education for pupils from various backgrounds. That includes maintained and controlled schools, (the latter is predominantly attended by Protestant children), primary, post-primary and special needs schools. The idea is to save money, boost subject choice and share teachers' expertise.
Q Why is shared education criticised by some?
A The definition of shared education remains controversial. Critics describe it as a "fuzzy" term which amounts to little more than a fudge to fully integrated education. This prompted Education Minister John O'Dowd to announce earlier this week that he will push for a statutory definition of shared education to be agreed as quickly as possible.
Vision driving the project
Education Minister John O'Dowd has described the concept of Lisanelly's shared education campus as "visionary".
He was speaking as site clearance got under way at the former Army barracks in Omagh, Co Tyrone, yesterday.
The campus will bring together six schools. Construction of the first school – Arvalee School and Resource Centre – will start next year. Loreto Grammar School, Omagh High School, Sacred Heart College, Omagh Academy and Christian Brothers Grammar School will also eventually move to the site, with around 3,700 pupils set to be educated in the completed complex.
Schools relocating to Lisanelly campus will retain their individual ethos, whether it is a controlled grammar school, a maintained non-selective school or for special educational needs.
The Department of Education, which is driving forward the project to the tune of more than £120m, has described the project as a shared educational campus where controlled and maintained, grammar and non-grammar schools will share a geographical site – collaborating together while protecting their identity.
In Scotland, 200-plus schools are on a shared campus and an evaluation of shared schools in England appeared to endorse the model. It also pointed to largely supportive views from parents.