Belfast Telegraph

Parent power hits Catholic sector's status quo over integrated education

The body that represents Catholic schools claims there's little demand for integrated education and wants the Executive to stop funding it. But it's the Catholic sector that's in decline - and it's all down to wider choice being available

By Lindsay Fergus

The Council for Catholic Maintained Schools (CCMS) wants the Department of Education to "dispense with its statutory duty to encourage and facilitate the development of integrated education". CCMS believes the department should "evaluate the public appetite for integrated education as a sectoral entity, reconsider the statutory duty and look to the promotion of other initiatives".

So, let's scrutinise the demand for integrated education and what, if anything, CCMS would gain from such a scenario.

• In 1981, there were 28 pupils in integrated education.

• By 2000/2001, that figure had rocketed to 13,847.

• A decade later, integrated schools were home to 20,535 pupils.

• In the 2013/2014 school year, there were 21,206 pupils in integrated schools.

That means, between the turn of the millennium and June this year, integrated education increased its pupil numbers by 53%.

In comparison:

• In 2000/2001, the Catholic maintained sector had 123,750 pupils.

• A decade later, that figure had spiralled to 112,686.

• In the 2013/2014 school year, that number was 114,222.

That means, between 2000/2001 and 2013/2014, the percentage of pupils attending Catholic maintained schools plummeted by 7.7%.

It doesn't take a genius to work out that the integrated sector is growing while the Catholic maintained sector is in decline.

And why is that? Well, one of the reasons - and there are many - is because our education system allows for parental choice.

As well as the two sectors already mentioned, parents can opt to send their children to voluntary grammars, controlled schools, Irish-medium or Christian schools.

Basically, parents want choice - and rightly so.

They want to be able to choose faith schools, integrated schools, schools that uphold the right to select academically.

So, it is somewhat ironic that CCMS wants to remove that choice for supporters of integrated education, yet in the past has cited that very right to protect its own interests.

In 2010 CCMS board member Bishop Donal McKeown said the right of parents to choose a faith-based education must be recognised.

"The key principle which recognises the right of parents is guaranteed by the European Convention for Human Rights," he said.

To add insult to injury, CCMS now wants to dismantle the Good Friday Agreement and the 1989 Education Reform Order - both of which place a duty on the department to encourage and facilitate the development of integrated education; a duty that has recently been brought before the High Court - by an integrated school - and found wanting.

Mr Justice Treacy said: "Using an analytical tool to plan for an area is, of course, acceptable and necessary, however the inflexibility of the projections used will have the effect of making it difficult to accommodate the Article 64 duty in future day-to-day decisions.

"The department needs to be alive to the Article 64 duty at all levels, including the strategic level."

Take that statement in conjunction with the Association of Principal Teachers in Integrated Schools (APTIS) approximations that 700 children are refused a place in integrated schools every year and there may be a valid reason why the integrated sector only holds 7% market share.

Maybe when it comes to area planning, if the department stopped protecting the Catholic maintained schools, as well as the controlled ones (particularly those failing to meet some of the criteria that makes a sustainable school) and was more alive to the Article 64 duty, the integrated sector could reach its true potential.

CCMS' submission to the Assembly's inquiry into shared and integrated education also presents some problems in relation to future area planning.

As APTIS said in the wake of CCMS' comments: "The stance taken by CCMS is, frankly odd, out of keeping with the needs of Northern Ireland as a society as it struggles toward unity and lasting peace. It offers a strangely aggressive attack on a sector that could and should be developed afresh".

It added: "If, on the other hand, the CCMS submission simply represents negative criticism of a way of educating children that CCMS does not happen to like, then perhaps part of the debate should centre on CCMS itself.

"Our understanding of the sector represented by CCMS is that, in fact, it contains the highest percentage of children from one faith background; it is alarming, therefore, to think that in future they will have a say in determining integrated provision in each area."

Just 0.9% of pupils in 452 Catholic maintained primary and post-primary schools are Protestants. It is the least integrated sector in our education system.

Again, marry the CCMS submission with recent comments made by its senior adviser, Malachy Crudden, at the Stormont education committee in relation to area planning.

He said: "If a strong Catholic school came forward to CCMS with a proposal to transform to controlled integrated status, that would provide us with a significant challenge.

"No, we would not be involved in the amalgamation of a Catholic and controlled school. In that instance, our process would be to propose the closure of the Catholic school."

"Our responsibility is primarily to provide Catholic maintained schools."

It's the classic example of protecting your own silo.

And, when you look at the department's figures further, it's apparent why CCMS has come out fighting.

In 2000/2001, there were 5,660 Catholic pupils (6,117 Protestant) in integrated schools. Last year, that figure had climbed to 7,732 Catholic pupils - up 37% in 13 years.

Catholic parents are choosing to send their children to integrated schools and that is a threat to Catholic Maintained schools.

Last year, there were 74,252 pupils in Catholic maintained primary schools, but by secondary level that figure had almost halved to 39,970.

In comparison, there were 9,100 pupils in integrated primary schools (3,406 of them Catholic), but that figure jumped by a third with 12,106 pupils choosing integrated post-primary schools (4,326 of them were Catholic).

Pupils from a CCMS primary school background are opting for other post-primary choices, including integrated and voluntary grammars (another sector that CCMS has led a sustained attack on).

Sean Fearon , chairman of Sinn Fein at Queen's University, Belfast, emerged this month as a supporter of integrated education.

Mr Fearon, who was educated in the Catholic system, said: "As a republican, I can only embrace the idea of an entirely secular configuration within the education system.

"Too often, powerful elements within our society capitulate to the demands and misgivings of the Catholic Church, in the same way that has been done on this island for centuries."

Is it also coincidental that CCMS has attacked the integrated sector as one of its schools applied to leave the CCMS fold in favour of becoming integrated?

Clintyclay Primary School may not have been successful, but it has at least highlighted that transformation is an option for Catholic maintained schools.

And CCMS is powerless to do anything about it as the final decision rests with Education Minister John O'Dowd, who in September 2011 said in a statement to the Assembly: "We must prioritise the needs of children over institutions and make sure it is the needs of all our young people are to the fore."

Perhaps, as APTIS said, it's time for all sectors to re-evaluate their focus, not on the past, or on the status quo, but on how to make things better in the future.

Lindsay Fergus is a freelance journalist specialising in education issues

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