There is widespread public support for integrated education in Northern Ireland as repeatedly shown in opinion polls.
It is also regarded as a positive way – perhaps the most proactive way – of breaking down divisions in this society, as educating children from different communities together must broaden their horizons and dispel some of the myths they hold about each other. Yet integrated education is a phrase that dare not speak its name in political circles at the present time.
Instead the current buzz word is shared education. While that seems to be a progressive move, the problem is that no one has defined what it really means. It can simply mean anything that anyone wants it to. It can refer to schools – not necessarily from different religious sectors – agreeing on sharing resources, or having occasional common classes, or joining on a common site where local school closures are inevitable.
As a damning report from the University of Ulster points out, the principle of integrated education is being airbrushed out of the debate on the way forward in our schools. None of the key policy documents relating to future development make explicit reference to integrated education, even though the Good Friday Agreement places a statutory responsibility on political parties here to support and facilitate this form of education.
Of course parents have every right to choose which school to send their children to. And there are good and poorly performing integrated schools just as there are state and Catholic schools of varying standards. This is not about giving preferential treatment to any one sector, but if we truly believe in an integrated Northern Ireland in the future in all its forms, then we should, at the very least, view this report with alarm.
Why has integrated education been removed from the agenda for discussion? There is no point in talking about apartheid in our schools and then deny that a potential remedy exists.