A long-running political dispute over a single education authority threatens "radical" plans to encourage children to sit side-by-side in the classroom.
Plans for shared education and moves to make it easier for schools to switch to integrated status announced yesterday by the Education Minister John O'Dowd, were warmly welcomed by integrated education chiefs.
But the blueprint is heavily reliant on the establishment of the Education and Skills Authority (ESA), a single education authority which remains stalled by political dispute nearly a decade after it was proposed.
The plans for shared education would make it significantly easier for schools to switch to the integrated sector – while making shared education a focus for the Education and Skills Authority.
It could also bring forward a significant funding injection – thought to be around £25m – for shared education.
The funding would come from the Office of the First and Deputy First Minister and Atlantic Philanthropies, if it is agreed.
The Department of Education, which is considering proposals to cuts thousands from school budgets, would also provide some of the funding.
Noreen Campbell, chief executive of the Northern Ireland Council for Integrated Education (NICIE), said the plan to build shared education into legislation and policy is "potentially extremely radical".
She called for a similar move for the integrated sector.
Mr O'Dowd's plans are the basis of a report which was published in April to criticism for its lack of vision, innovation and long-term strategy.
Integrated champion Baroness May Blood described the report as "disappointing" for "discounting" integrated education in favour of shared learning – where schoolchildren from different backgrounds merely share facilities.
Yesterday, however, Baroness Blood's body, the Integrated Education Fund, welcomed the plans as encouraging.
The minister has insisted that shared education must not be a dilution of integrated education.
But the game-changing aspect is the removal of top-heavy bureaucracy for schools seeking to become integrated. The minister has said that any school will be able to change its ethos at any time, without "complex legal procedure" if the Education and Skills Authority is implemented.
"We have been asking for (this) to be opened up for some time," Ms Campbell said.
"It means many schools that would be mixed can now be recognised."
Unionists have dismissed the shared education plans as "divisive" for focusing on the abolition of academic selection – a key priority of the minister but, critics claim, has little to do with shared education.
But with yesterday's backing from integrated education chiefs – and the shared education blueprint largely reliant on the establishment of the Education and Skills Authority, which the DUP has been accused of blocking – the minister has put the ball back into his critics' court.
He challenged the Executive to make up its mind on the Education and Skills Authority or abandon the envisioned body, which has cost £16.5m to date.
Ms Campbell added: "I think if you are putting the needs of all those in the education system first... then the politicians have got to resolve the issue of ESA as quickly as possible."