Stormont is facing renewed pressure to push integrated education up the political agenda when the new Assembly term begins.
It comes after a poll revealed overwhelming demand for more action on addressing our divided system.
The survey, detailed in yesterday’s Belfast Telegraph, found more than two-thirds of people believe our segregated education system must be a priority for the Executive.
Although the Assembly begins its summer break next week, Olwen Griffith from the Northern Ireland Council for Integrated Education said the findings provided a clear message to MLAs.
“We would like to see more priority given to education, absolutely,” she said.
Although the 1989 Education Reform (NI) Order commits Government to encouraging and facilitating integrated education, the terms of reference for area-based plans drawn up by education and library boards for schools are still based on a dual systems.
“Very few of the options proposed are cross-sectoral or make any meaningful attempt to be innovative or creative,” Ms Griffith added. Education Minister John O’Dowd said he took his department’s statutory duty to encourage and facilitate the development of integrated education seriously.
“My department responds to parental demand for integrated education,” he said.
“It is important to note that, while surveys say that large sections of the population want integrated education, this does not materialise into over-subscription by parents at first preference stage for their children to attend integrated schools.
“In my experience as Minister for Education there is often a lack of understanding about the extent of sharing and relationship-building that is ongoing in our system. Many people believe that it is only within integrated schools that children and young people have the opportunity to engage with those from different religious backgrounds. That is simply not true.”
He added: “The reality is that across the north schools are working closely with each other on a daily basis.
“In fact, a report commissioned by the Integrated Education Fund indicated that around 1,000 schools – more than 80% – are already engaged in some form of shared education.”
The LucidTalk poll was conducted on behalf of the Integrated Education Fund and took the views of more than 1,200 people.
It found that 68% believe the issue of segregated education should be a priority for MLAs, with 57% saying they should set a target date for complete desegregation.
Some 82% of those And 82% of those who expressed an opinion thought the international community should pressure our politicians on the issue.
Meanwhile, 77% of those in the poll thought our international image would be improved by having a single education system.
The poll was criticised by Bishop Donal McKeown, head of the Commission on Catholic Education, who claimed its questions were “loaded”.However, Alliance MLA Trevor Lunn, who is the party’s education spokesman, said it sent out a clear message.
“This poll confirms once again the opinion expressed by parents, that if the integrated option was more widely available, they would choose that option for their children,” he said.”The demand is there from parents for more integrated places. It is time that the Department of Education honours their obligations to encourage and facilitate the growth of this sector.
“The recent visits by Barack Obama and Nick Clegg to integrated schools was a vote of confidence in this sector.
“It is time that integrated education was no longer ignored.”story so far
Only 7% of children attend integrated schools, with the vast majority educated in the State or Catholic sectors. But 68% of adults believe segregated education should be a priority for the Executive, with 57% saying politicians should set a target date for complete desegregation. The findings of the poll were revealed after US President Barack Obama’s endorsement of integrated education.