Integrated education: Hands up if you can spot blatant policy bias
The Executive has a legal duty to encourage integrated education. So why does it persist in promoting shared education at integrated's expense, asks Lindsay Fergus.
As the start of a new Northern Ireland Assembly term draws closer, Education Minister John O'Dowd and his Executive colleagues have just 141 days left to deliver on two of four shared education commitments set out in the Programme for Government (PfG).
Under commitment 71, all children will have the opportunity to participate in shared education programmes by 2015, while commitment 72 vows to substantially increase the number of schools sharing facilities by 2015.
Not exactly the most challenging of targets, but at least they are a starting point in trying to bring more pupils from different backgrounds together through the medium of education.
Perhaps in the next PfG, the commitments will go a step further and focus on integrated education.
After all, there is the parental and community demand for integrated schools and many are oversubscribed, including Lagan College in east Belfast, Slemish College in Ballymena and Drumragh College in Omagh.
Opinion poll after opinion poll has also shown the community is behind integrated education. In a LucidTalk survey last year, 79% of people here said they would back a move to see their children's school change to integrated.
The first PfG commitment could be to ensure all children have the opportunity to participate in integrated education by 2020. The second could be to substantially increase the numbers of integrated schools by 2020.
Not only would that allow the Department of Education and the Executive to uphold their legal duty under Article 64 of the Education Reform (NI) Order 1989, to "encourage and facilitate" integrated education, but it would also enable them to honour the pledges made in the Good Friday Agreement, to promote integrated – and Irish-medium – education.
Meanwhile, Stormont's education committee, which has launched a Shared and Integrated Inquiry, is already gathering evidence, with more witnesses due before its panel of MLAs in October.
So it would appear that shared/integrated education will be at the forefront of the minds of the minister, Executive and committee over the next year.
That should provide encouragement for the organisations and supporters of shared and integrated education, which at varying levels aim to bring together children from across the religious divide under the banner of education. Sharing at the lower end of the spectrum and integrated at the top.
Yet, bearing in mind the statutory duty towards integrated education – there are no legal requirements to promote shared education – the department's focus, on closer scrutiny, appears to be stacked in favour of shared.
There are four commitments to shared education in the 2011-2015 PfG – none to integrated education.
While there is a definition of shared education, the department has never outlined levels of progression for shared education or targets for schools to achieve.
Nor does the department hold a database detailing each of Northern Ireland's 1,100 schools' involvement in sharing, how many of our 335,325 pupils have experienced sharing, how frequently they share and at what level they share.
There are very successful cases of sharing, for example, Moy Regional Controlled Primary School and St John's Catholic Maintained Primary School.
Those two schools from across the religious divide have been given the go-ahead for a single, 12-class base school on a new site to accommodate both schools. The schools will share facilities including a multi-purpose hall, play areas, library and canteen.
But at the other end of the spectrum there are schools which are exposing just a handful of pupils, as little as once a year, to shared education.
And the reason the department has no solid facts about individual school's involvement in shared education is because, unlike integrated education, there is no legal requirement on schools to share – in spite of the obvious resource and social benefits.
In stark contrast, it is known that, since 1981, integrated education has grown from zero to 62 integrated schools, teaching 21,745 pupils (6.5% of pupils from nursery to post-primary).
And if the education minister gives approval to Clintyclay Primary School, in Dungannon, to transform from a Catholic maintained school to an integrated one, the total could soon be 63.
It would also be an historic move, as no Catholic school has ever sought – never mind been approved for – transformation.
That development proposal – along with one from the Council for Catholic Maintained Schools (CCMS) to close the same school – currently sit on Mr O'Dowd's desk after the public consultation to transform Clintyclay to an integrated school closed yesterday.
Another one sitting on his desk is a development proposal to increase pupil numbers at the oversubscribed Drumragh Integrated College.
The original decision by the minister to refuse the popular school's expansion culminated in a judicial review that did not go in the department's favour.
Although the minister vowed last year to retake the decision, it is still outstanding.
In the landmark High Court ruling in May/June, Mr Justice Treacy stated that: "The court declares that Article 64 of the Education Reform (NI) Order 1989 applies only to integrated education as a standalone concept."
He also stated that the department's needs model to determine long-term enrolment projections "assumes no growth in the integrated sector".
A kick in the teeth to the department's argument that Article 64 does not mandate any specific action in respect of the integrated sector and its wrongly-held belief that Article 64 imposes an obligation in respect of the development of the 'education together at schools of Protestant and Roman Catholic pupils' – ie, shared education – not an obligation 'in favour of the integrated sector'.
So, with that mindset laid bare, it should come as no surprise that the picture the department is portraying through its plans, actions and comments is one of complete bias in favour of shared education.
In the department's corporate plan for education 2012-2015, there is no reference to integrated education.
Shared education is cited nine times and even the Irish-medium sector – also protected under Article 64 – is mentioned four times. Just last month, when the department gave evidence to the Shared and Integrated Inquiry, the spotlight was once again on shared education.
In her opening statement to the committee, Faustina Graham from the department mentioned shared education 42 times in comparison to just seven references to integrated.
She said: "Given that the committee's inquiry will address both shared and integrated education, it may be helpful for me to say a few words about integrated education". Two down, five to go, then.
Following the Drumragh judicial review ruling, Mr O'Dowd stated he took his Article 64 duty "seriously", adding: "I have and will continue to give every due consideration to my duty in relation to decisions on proposals from the integrated sector".
The coming months will prove if that statement is true.
Lindsay Fergus is a freelance journalist specialising in education matters