Belfast Telegraph

'Shared' education isn't the same as integrated and could move us in less helpful direction

By Steven Agnew

After several years of wrangling, and two previous failed attempts, Stormont has finally passed an Education Bill that, with some reservations, I welcome. On the plus side, it could be a step in the right direction; it is particularly good to see that the integrated sector is at last to be represented on the strategic body.

But 'shared' education - the model we have opted for - is not the same as integrated, and could, if we are not careful, move us in another, less helpful direction.

Think about the overall power structure set out in the Bill, and ask yourself if it does not sound uncannily familiar. The two larger sectors (let us say 'Catholic' and 'Protestant' schools, for short) have the largest say. Each remains at liberty to shore up its own position. And those interested in pressing for a genuinely integrated education system are given the distinct signal that their views somehow count for less.

Those of us in Stormont, unfortunately, have to put up with this sort of institutionalised stalemate, but let's not take it out on the children too!

Ending educational segregation would go a long way towards building a new kind of community in Northern Ireland: yet we appear to have decided to maintain the segregated system for at least another generation. This seems to me to indicate that true and genuine integration is still not at the heart of government policy, and that too many still cling to the notion that we should have two communities, not one. If we're going to teach our children division, let's keep it to maths class.

All too often the very structure of our schools teaches social division, and this could be entrenched under the shared system.

Genuinely integrated education, on the other hand, is actively inclusive, not divisive. It's about children growing up together, in all their rich variety, without being regimented into two main 'sorts' - with an extra, vaguely defined category for exotic 'minorities'.

An integrated system would allow our children to encounter those from other backgrounds, and show them this need not be seen as a threat to their own identity. Encounter others as classmates early enough and there's less room for negative stereotypes to grow.

Steven Agnew MLA is leader of the Green Party in NI

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