Belfast Telegraph

Class division is a luxury we can no longer afford

The Executive's failure to integrate education calls for a Patten-style commission to break the deadlock, says Robin Wilson

It is now clear that the Northern Ireland peace process has failed to address the underlying fault-lines of sectarian division - and so as a result, failed even to lay to rest the violence which was its ostensible focus.

The Alliance motion, agreed by Belfast City Council, on the peace walls highlighted how these symbols of division are increasingly seen as a blot on our sense of common citizenship.

They could not be more at odds with the 'Europe without dividing lines' which heads of state and government have regularly invoked at summits of the Council of Europe since the Berlin Wall was dismantled more than two decades ago.

Almost every external observer sees integrated education as critical to securing reconciliation in Northern Ireland. Research has demonstrated that children begin to recognise sectarian symbols as early as three.

Conversely, studies of senior pupils at integrated schools and of adults who attended them in the 1980s have shown the beneficial and enduring effects of integrated education in engendering more tolerant perspectives. Nor is it in doubt that there is broad public support. A 2008 Millward Brown Ulster survey found that 64% of parents/ grandparents of children of school age or younger, believed integrated education to be very important for reconciliation and the same proportion would support the school their children attended being transformed to integrated status.

But only 7% were aware that this could be done if 20% of parents made a written request to that effect. And fewer than 7% of children attend integrated schools.

Northern Ireland can no longer afford the luxury of segregated education, whose inherent inefficiency means the system could accom- modate nearly 72,000 more pupils than it does.

This at a time when the capital budget for the schools estate has been slashed to cope with an anticipated budget shortfall for the Department of Education of more than £300m by 2014-15.

By September 2013, all senior pupils will be required to have access to 24 courses, a palette which many schools will be unable to offer fully in isolation.

As with the financial case for rationalisation, this implies an area-based approach to moving from the status quo to a more 'normal' system, as the 2006 review by Sir George Bain argued.

This was to have been led strategically by the new Education and Skills Authority. But the latter has been stillborn owing to sectarian political deadlock. Indeed, the only missing ingredient in all of this is political leadership and unfortunately it is not in the interests of parties founded on communal division to provide it.

As with the Patten Commission, set up to transform policing in Northern Ireland because it was impossible for the politicians to agree, an independent commission is needed to end the stalemate.

Such a commission, as advocated by the Integrated Education Fund, could chart a course towards a normal system where every child attends a good, local school - the principle on which the best-performing system in Europe, that of Finland, runs. They could learn about world religions there, choosing which - if any - they wanted to subscribe to in adult life.

And yes, we know that has public support. A 2011 poll from Ipsos Mori for the IEF not only found overwhelming support for integrated education, but also majority backing for the commission plan.

Of course the Stormont Executive could choose to ignore all the research evidence, the survey data and the compelling financial arguments for taking up this proposal.

But at a time when politicians' stock has never been lower, would they really want to be seen to put party interests before the public interest in this way?

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