Minister urging social integration
Attempts to promote more shared education in Northern Ireland must tackle social as well as religious segregation, the Education Minister has insisted.
John O'Dowd told the Assembly addressing socio-economic barriers within the education system must go hand in hand with efforts to bridge religious divides.
Mr O'Dowd was giving his official response to a report on shared education by a ministerial advisory group.
The report panel, which published its recommendations earlier this year, was criticised by some unionists after including a scathing assessment of academic selection among its findings.
But the minister, who said the report would form an "integral part" of education policy moving forward, said his vision of shared education meant removing all barriers. He said "all the evidence" showed that academic selection favoured children from higher income families.
"Some people have criticised the group for including those recommendations (on academic selection)," he said.
"They claim that they are nothing to do with sharing.
"They are missing a very important point. Sharing means educating without barriers, and without segregation.
"The group's advice is very clear. Selection discriminates. Selection divides.
"Selection is a barrier to children from low income families.
"Those who ignore the evidence should ask themselves: 'If segregation by religion is wrong, how can segregation by income be right?'
"I look forward to the day when this Assembly decides to end academic selection for good.
"Until that day, I will strive to make it irrelevant, and to limit the damage that it does."
His comments drew criticism from the DUP, Ulster Unionists and TUV.
TUV leader Jim Allister accused the minister of trying to "distort" the issue of academic selection.
"Of the thousands of children who in the coming weeks will sit selection tests how many questions will there be asking them about the income of their parents?" he said.
"Isn't it quite clear that testing is about aptitude and ability and why is the minister trying to distort the issue into pretending it's selection by income, when it's nothing of the sort."
The concept of "shared education" in a Northern Ireland context usually refers to greater co-operation between schools in the state and Catholic sectors - such as through the development of shared campuses - as opposed to fully co-religious integrated schooling.
Acknowledging that many schools were proud of, and wanted to retain, their individual ethos, Mr O'Dowd said both the shared and integrated models had a role to play in the future.
"Let me make it clear, they are different routes to the same objective," he told MLAs.
"The right model is the model that enjoys the support of the local community.
"Integrated education will continue to play an important role, and my department, in line with its statutory duty, will continue to encourage and facilitate it.
"Shared education should also be encouraged and facilitated, and communities should be encouraged to choose the model that suits them best."
Among the recommendations by the ministerial advisory group was that schools should be made legally accountable for promoting equality and good relations using the provisions set out under section 75 of the 1998 Northern Ireland Act.
Mr O'Dowd said he supported the principle behind the recommendation but wanted to undertake discussions with executive colleagues to establish whether using section 75 was the best way to achieve the goal.
Democratic Unionist chair of Stormont's education committee Mervyn Storey characterised Mr O'Dowd's statement as "another failed opportunity" to address the issue of shared education.
"The Education Minister seems more content in bringing every discussion to the issue of academic selection," he said.
"He does this despite knowing the DUP will not support any plans to weaken the position of those schools who use academic criteria as an admissions policy.
"Rather than set out a road map to deliver shared education the minister has created a road block that has the potential of hindering progress."