Belfast Telegraph

Integrated schooling and choice

By Noreen Campbell

As parents and children prepare for the new school year the debate on integrated education continues; the Northern Ireland Council for Integrated Education (Nicie) wishes to offer a fresh and practical perspective.

The acclaimed Channel 4 programme, Educating Yorkshire, presents a working example of diversity and integration in practice in Thornhill Community Academy.

This is a school which meets the definition of an integrated school as advanced in the recent High Court judicial review: a school which does not have a "dominant" ethos into which minorities are expected to fit.

Thornhill serves its local area and reflects its diversity. Here in Northern Ireland, our school structures, a legacy of the past, are based on separation: we separate children on perceived identity at the age of three.

Yet society has changed rapidly and many of our schools, though nominally single-identity, now reflect our increasingly diverse society.

In reality, there is no classroom in our schools which is not diverse. In addition, there are a significant number of schools, historically single-identity, which have diverse populations.

The recognition of societal changes and their impact on schools creates a new space in which to debate education and allows us to move from a system defined by segregation to one defined by diversity.

This system will respond proactively to parental choice for an integrated education, whether through schools formally designated as integrated, or through those developing an integrated ethos of equality of respect for all.

This system will respect parental choice for single-identity, or faith, schools, but will expect that all students have an opportunity to learn together through shared education initiatives.

Through engaging in reflection and dialogue, schools can be supported in quality-assuring that their ethos is one which cherishes diversity and difference.

Nicie seeks to be part of the process of reconfiguring our educational system to reflect today's society.

Noreen Campbell is chief executive officer of the NI Council For Integrated Education

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