Belfast Telegraph

Friday 24 October 2014

Power brokers from same school of thought

Supporters of integrated education in Northern Ireland will be greatly encouraged by the high-level endorsement it has received during the past week.

After President Obama and Prime Minister Cameron visited an integrated school in Enniskillen during the G8 summit, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg made a similar visit to an integrated school in Londonderry. These are powerful pointers from very influential sources on how the powers that be in the UK and the US feel our present segregated education system is part of the problem in this divided community.

In the past only lip service has been paid to integrated education and it remains a Cinderella sector. Politicians here, in an effort to show their determination to remove sectarianism and division, have championed shared campuses as a way of bringing children from different religious and cultural backgrounds together. But, as critics of that idea have rightly pointed out, merely siting two schools, each with a different ethos, beside each other and perhaps sharing a few classes per week, will do more to highlight division than remove it.

It also has to be pointed out, as Mr Clegg did yesterday, that even if the education system was completely integrated, that would only be a partial remedy for our societal ills. Other methods of breaking down hatred and suspicion among adults must be implemented alongside changes to the education system.

But it would be a very important step forward and it would mean that children would learn respect for each other's culture, religion and different points of view.

They would no longer be suspicious of each other or ignorant of what each other believes. That would be a solid foundation on which to build a shared future. What the events of the past week have done is to place integrated education at the top of the agenda for proper debate. We can no longer fob off supporters of this sector with fine-sounding platitudes but no real action.

Poll after poll shows that there is a real desire among a huge section of parents for greater opportunity to send their children to schools where they will meet children from all backgrounds and faiths. If that message can be heard at Westminster and in the White House, surely it must also be audible to the politicians at Stormont.

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