Integrated education: Future of learning can be decided by families and schools, not politicians
Education, along with health, is always a hot political topic, and this year's Stormont election can be expected to prove this yet again.
It is surely indisputable that our education system is in crisis. This is the reality lived every day by principals and teachers working in schools across Northern Ireland.
We are facing huge budget cuts, with subsidies to home-to-school transport and school meals under threat as the Government struggles to balance the books. Schools are also reporting a deficit of millions of pounds.
In this context, it is ridiculous that we are perversely operating an over-supply of places. In addition, the system leaves a trail of academic underachievement and is currently hampered by a long-running industrial dispute.
Meanwhile, several important institutions have identified the schools system in Northern Ireland as segregated. It underpins the divisions in our society, with the majority of young people of school age being educated in a single-identity setting.
The UN Commission on the Rights of the Child recommended last year that "the State party ... in Northern Ireland actively promote a fully integrated education system".
The Fresh Start panel on paramilitary activity also called for reform. "Tackling segregation and promoting understanding of those from other backgrounds is an important part of building a society where paramilitary groups no longer exist," it said.
"We recommend that the Executive should accelerate and build on its existing good relations strategy to measurably reduce segregation in education and housing and set ambitious targets and milestones..."
The Programme for Government put forward by the outgoing Executive acknowledges the contribution education can make to uniting communities and building self-confidence and mutual respect.
Many politicians tell us that the choice of parents should be paramount in education planning.
Parents have told us, through opinion polls, that they want the system to change.
They have said they would support their own school becoming integrated, educating children of all faiths and none in an environment which nurtures identity and celebrates diversity. What many parents don't realise is that this change is possible.
The process, officially called "transformation" is set out by the Department of Education, offering parents true choice in how the next generation is educated.
To empower parents to explore the possibility, the Integrated Education Fund has launched a web platform, Integrate My School. This enables parents to express their wishes in complete confidentiality and can also trigger the first moves that might make those wishes come true.
This campaign could mark the start of a very exciting period of change in education and in society as a whole.
What is inspiring about Integrate My School is that the process of bringing children together for their education need not rely on the initiative of politicians: it is in the hands of parents and schools.
The regulations are already in place, so it only takes for parents to show their interest and the wheels of change can begin to turn.
- Baroness (May) Blood is campaign chair of the Integrated Education Fund