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Not enough done to grow integrated schools sector in Northern Ireland: Report

By Rebecca Black

Northern Ireland's Department of Education and the Education Authority must do more to promote integrated schools and grow the sector, a report has found.

The report, Integrating Education in Northern Ireland: Celebrating Inclusiveness and Fostering Innovation in our Schools, is dated November 2016 but was only released to the media on Thursday night.

It recommends;

  • prioritising the accommodation needs of existing integrated schools
     
  • a call for major capital projects from all integrated schools to be taken forward as soon as possible
     
  • a department funding package for schools which want to transform to official integrated status
     
  • the EA should employ a dedicated transformation officer

It also calls for Secretary of State to agree to carry over any of the unspent Fresh Start Capital Funding into future financial years.

The Fresh Start Agreement committed £50 million of capital funding per year for the next ten years to support shared and integrated education

Last month it emerged that Education Minister Peter Weir did not spend £47m of the first year’s allotment, and it had to be returned to the Treasury.

It follows an independent review of the sector by Professor Margaret Topping and Colm Cavanagh.

The report makes 39 recommendations aimed at growing the number of children who attend integrated schools in Northern Ireland.

These also include;

  • A requirement for a report to the Assembly at least every two years on progress
     
  • An in depth audit of demand for places at integrated schools, a review of the legal definition of integrated education
     
  • A review of the religious balance criteria for integrated schools
     
  • That the EA should create a plan for the growth of integrated education
     
  • Contingency funding should be provided for all new pupils at integrated schools which are increasing in size
     
  • Practice of not funding the first 5% or ten pupils should be discontinued
     
  • Integrated schools currently account for around 7% in Northern Ireland and has stagnated in recent years.

The report finds there has been less political discussion or Executive commitment and funding for integrated education, and notes: “the growth in the number of pupils attending integrated schools has slowed down in recent years”.

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A DUP spokesman defended their outgoing minister Peter Weir’s record in the department.

He was Education Minister for just eight months before the Assembly was dissolved last month.

"The DUP campaigned to promote equality in education during the 2016 assembly election,” he said. 

“Peter Weir demonstrated fairness to all sectors throughout his tenure as Education Minister.

“The Independent Review makes some interesting recommendations which could be used to shape future education policy within the Department of Education." 

The last new grant-maintained integrated school, Blackwater Integrated College, opened in 2008.

The total number of pupils in grant-maintained and controlled integrated schools increased from 14,140 in 2000/1 to 17,558 in 2006/6 but only to 21,956 by 2014/15.

The report also noted with concern that in September 2016, seven of the 20 integrated post-primary schools and 21 of the 45 primary schools were oversubscribed at first preference applicate stage.

It added: “In an era where public and political attitudes have evolved to the degree where moving to a more inclusive education system us a distinct possibility, the future nature and development of integrated education now requires focus”.

The independent review of integrated education was set up by former Education Minister John O’Dowd in January 2016.

Professor Topping and Mr Cavanagh were tasked with carrying out a review of future planning, growth and development of integrated education.

They engaged with stakeholders including a number of school sectors, children, support bodies, sectoral support bodies, the Department of Education, EA, CCMS and trade unions as well as a public consultation and questionaires.

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