Time is right for integrated schools
Time after time in opinion polls the public has given overwhelming support for our children to be educated together. In the latest Lucid Talk poll those in favour of children of all denominations sharing the same classroom stands at a massive 70%.
Tellingly, this figure represents almost identical proportions of Catholics and Protestants. On any other issue this would be accepted as the will of the people and politicians would act accordingly.
But, unfortunately, that is not the case when it comes to educating our children. Integrated education is a phrase that is barely uttered at Stormont. Instead there is suggestions of schools sharing facilities on an occasional basis.
That is a mere nod towards acknowledging that we simply cannot afford – financially or morally – to keep our children apart during their crucial formative years. It is no substitute for what really needs to happen.
Indeed it is unhelpful. It gives the impression of ushering in change without actually changing the status quo one iota. The one ray of hope comes in the area plans for post-primary schools published earlier this week which said that integrated schools would be allowed to grow through the removal of the cap on pupil numbers. That shows that someone is listening to the pleas of parents and accepting the reality of what needs to be done.
This newspaper is not naive enough to believe that even if the Education Minister advocated moving to a single school system tomorrow that anything would happen in the short term. The growth of the integrated sector has been painfully slow and as the Lucid Talk poll also shows, there are areas of resistance among parents to such a move, particularly in the west of the province.
Add in the vested interests within the existing system and any change, even with the strongest encouragement, will be slow. Integrated schools, like every other school, will have to prove their value as institutions of education.
Bringing children together is a totally separate issue from providing them with first class teaching. And there needs to be guarantees that pupils' religious and cultural ethos will be observed. While the ultimate aim is to break down divisions in society through allowing pupils to mature together, that is not at the expense of any erosion of their faiths or heritage.
The case for a single education system is compelling. The vast majority of parents want it, the cost of maintaining two separate systems is prohibitive in the current financial climate, the need to create a society in which people share the same broad vision for the future is as urgent as ever it was. We cannot do that when our children don't even know each other or meet each other until they go to further education or start work. Church leaders, politicians and all opinion formers should join in the chorus for change and make sure it happens.