Belfast Telegraph

Time to pause and think about the right investment for our children's futures

By Lindsay Fergus

AS 2,500 people working in education face losing their jobs, it's hard to justify spending £25m - never mind as much as £44m - on shared education programmes. According to the Department of Education's own finance chief, Trevor Connolly, at least 1,000 teachers - which equates to approximately every school here losing one teacher - could be axed from the system within this academic year.

That is because the department has to cope with a £198m cut to its budget in 2015/16 because of the unprecedented financial pressure on Stormont.

Money has already been diverted from the schools' maintenance budget, which has a backlog of tens of millions, and the minor works programme.

So, as well as fewer teachers, and as many as 1,500 support staff, the money will not be there for schools in dire need of upgrade or repair.

How then can millions be invested in shared education, which does not address another problem within our segregated education system -the tens of thousands of empty desks in our schools? There are Catholic maintained schools and controlled schools within a stone's thrown of each other with vacancies, which the department is more than happy to turn a blind eye to so the status quo can be protected.

Yes, there are many good examples of shared education, however, there's also a lot of token gestures that do little or nothing to address the divisions in our society, which are costing the Northern Ireland economy £1.5bn.

Segregation in our schools is estimated to be costing the state as much as £80m per year because of the duplication in resources -two sets of school buses, two principals, two electricity bills etc. Surely in such dire financial circumstances parents would prefer to see the size of their child's class kept below 30 than see them go on a field trip with a pupil from a different background?

As the highly respected Professor Alan Smith from the University of Ulster highlights, just 10% of pupils participate in shared education programmes per year - yet just two-thirds of projects were cross-community.

The department would do well to heed his advice - it's time to pause and contemplate whether in the current environment of cuts, cuts and more cuts if this investment in shared education is the best use of taxpayers' money.

Belfast Telegraph

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