A road map towards a single education system must be produced within four years, First Minister Peter Robinson has said.
Building on his proposal to end Northern Ireland’s “benign educational apartheid”, the DUP leader said even without agreement from the Stormont Executive, education stakeholders could still push the project forward.
He also reiterated his call for a commission to be appointed after next month’s election representing all interested parties — though with no predetermined outcome to their deliberations.
While he has come under severe criticism from Catholic and maintained sector leaders, Mr Robinson said he had no intention of attacking Catholic-maintained schools.
But, he added, if the maintained sector moves away from academic selection, many Catholic parents will still want their children to be educated at grammar schools — part of a “natural rationalisation” of the schools estate.
Mr Robinson used the opportunity of a visit to Down High School to spell out details of his vision of a more shared education structure as part of a “shared future” in Northern Ireland, arguing: “The tide of history is with us.
“Given our divided history, I believe that it is difficult to build a shared and united community
while we continue to educate our young people separately,” he said.
“I would like to think we will be able to convince the Assembly and Executive to come on board as this phase of the journey begins, but if they do not there are foundations and other interested groups who will facilitate this process.
“That is why, after the election, I want to see a commission which represents all interests established to map out a way forward.”
Meanwhile, Catholic school leaders last night accused Mr Robinson of a “narrow perspective” of a shared society in Northern Ireland. The Catholic Council for Maintained Schools said in a statement responding to Mr Robinson’s speech that the education system needed to play a “much stronger role” in preparing young people.
“CCMS and Catholic schools have and will continue to contribute to a shared future in the broadest sense,” it said.
“Mr Robinson’s comments, particularly those relating to retention of academic selection, appear to suggest the maintenance of a very obvious social division.”
The main grammar schools body, however, declined to comment. John Hart, director of the Governing Bodies Association of NI, said he had “nothing to add” to Mr Robinson’s remarks.
Peter Robinson came under fire last October when he urged an end to Government funding of Catholic schools to push an integrated system. Apart from the overlapping school sectors wasting money, he also questioned “a system which separates our children almost entirely on religion”.