Our segregated schools are bad for business: End this 'crazy' dual system say industry leaders
A new independent poll has found three out of four local businesses believe our segregated education system is holding back economic growth.
Industry leaders are concerned that Protestant and Catholic pupils being educated in separate schools from the age of four to 16-18 is impacting on the workplace.
Some of our most successful businesses, including Top 100 companies, have said a desegregated education system – where children from all backgrounds are taught together – could strengthen cross-community relationships in the workplace and boost economic growth.
Captains of industry like John Armstrong, managing director of the Construction Employers' Federation, have sent an unequivocal message to Stormont politicians: There is an urgent need to reform the education system to best prepare pupils for the workplace.
Speaking at the launch of The Business of Education at Stormont yesterday, Mr Armstrong said: "We are supportive of a rationalisation process for the education system because of the current economic situation.
"Public sector budgets are under pressure and will continue to be so for the foreseeable future. So there is an obvious question: can we afford different denominational schools in virtually every provincial town?
"Can we afford the separate sectoral administration which the current education system in Northern Ireland requires?
"To the business community, the answer is no."
He added: "And beyond this there is another question: should we be spending this way? Is this morally and socially the best way to use public money?
"This duplication reflects – and represents – separation. It's crazy to segregate children from early years and in effect teach them that people belong in separate compartments.
"Surely the way forward is a unified system of schools sharing the same management and policy of governance, serving a locality rather than a tradition or denomination."
More than two-thirds of local businesses also believe the duplication of services and the multi-million pounds cost of maintaining a divided education system would be better invested in developing skills in schools to meet future employment needs.
There are around 85,000 empty desks in Northern Ireland's schools because in most communities there is a Catholic-run school and a controlled school, traditionally attended by pupils from a Protestant background.
One respondent said: "Business voice is influential – it must have more of a role in education."
Mervyn Storey, chairman of Stormont's education committee and DUP spokesman, welcomed the Integrated Education Fund (IEF) report.
He said: "One of the important roles of our education system is to prepare our young people for the world of work.
"Business leaders have an important contribution to make in this area and their views on education are to be welcomed.
"The survey also reinforces the views of my party leader Peter Robinson, who in October 2010 emphasised the importance of a single, shared education system.
"As a result of this my party has encouraged the Executive to promote the issue through a number of initiatives, including shared education campuses."
However, Mr Armstrong has poured cold water on the Executive's push for shared education.
"My concern is that shared education just fudges the issue.
"Shared education maintains denominational schools and all the attendant structures and doesn't address the core issue of perpetuating division.
"So it's a bad short-term use of the education budget which will have repercussions which will affect us all."
The next step is for the IEF to continue its engagement with the business community including a series of round table discussions due to be held in May.
Sam Fitzsimmons from the IEF said: "We are incredibly encouraged by the appetite within the business community to address the segregated nature of our education system."