Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 20 December 2014

Courage of our convictions can usher in a new era of learning

There is a world of difference between schools sharing resources and integrated education, says Denis Loretto

The commitment to greater sharing between schools in the Programme for Government (PfG) and in recent political speeches is welcome. I understand that there are already about 1,000 projects promoting cross-community collaboration between schools.

These schemes, apart from the Entitlement Framework for post-16 courses, operate outside the normal everyday life of the schools and need targeted support.

At present, most of this activity is dependent on charitable funding. This cannot last forever; indeed, many of the current schemes promoting sharing in education have a specific lifespan.

Presumably the political commitment now being expressed implies greater state funding, but is this really available at a time of austerity, with budgets so restricted that schools are already making cutbacks?

Is the continuation of the present school structure - enhanced by sharing schemes - the best way to get value for scarce public money?

Might it not amount to spending money to manage segregation, rather than investing in measures to eradicate it?

No doubt schools can work together across traditional divides to enhance the educational experience of young people. But is that enough?

I would say the prevalence of programmes and projects like this are firm evidence that most people want to look beyond traditional divisions and reach out to the rest of the community.

Opinion poll after opinion poll shows that, when it comes to education, the majority of people support the idea of schools which welcome everyone; cherishing diversity and promoting inclusion.

Northern Ireland has made enormous strides since the Good Friday Agreement, but everyone knows that the welcome co-operation at political level has not yet been fully reflected in the lives of many of the people who were so bitterly divided by those awful events.

They are gradually losing their fear and are ready for collaboration and diversity - but they need leadership and opportunity.

As barriers start to come down, the path must be towards housing and public facilities, where all sections of the community can share their lives and feel welcome and safe.

But each morning are the children going to walk in different directions to different schools, where much of their formative period will be spent?

Parents and teachers may strive to give anti-sectarian messages, but with most schools overwhelmingly representing one religious tradition or another, children see what amounts to state-endorsed segregation all around them.

Some argue that we have to take baby steps; that Northern Ireland is on the right path and, as long as we stay there, we are doing all right.

However, the economic crisis means we literally can't afford to move slowly on this; ways must be found of sharing not specific activities, but resources, spaces and time.

I am told that current strategy is to wield the axe over schools which are judged not to be 'viable'. I think it is imperative that any closures take place in the context of an overall plan to rationalise the system.

This is a great opportunity not just to trim the existing provision, but to embark upon a redesign of the entire service in order to offer true value for money - both academically and socially.

The good news is that there are now 62 integrated schools which provide models for the way forward. A truly integrated system is sustainable and progressive, offering a rich and stimulating educational environment in which each child's identity is welcomed and cherished.

Talk to students who have made friends of all backgrounds for life in an integrated school and it becomes obvious that the divisions in our system are synthetic and that the well-meant, short-term schemes to mask those divisions take us only a tiny way towards where we want to be. When pioneers like Cecil Linehan and many others set their foot on the integrated road back in the early-1970s, they called it All Children Together. The clue is in the title.

Denis Loretto was a founder member and former chairman of Alliance and a Belfast city councillor (1977-81)

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