Belfast Telegraph

Integration has taught us to value hearts and minds

Integrated education in Northern Ireland can become the norm rather than the exception, says Noreen Campbell

On March 23, 1981, a public meeting was held in Belfast's Quaker Meeting House. That meeting was arranged by parents interested in establishing a new type of school, one in which Protestant and Catholic children would be educated together.

These early pioneers of integrated education met with much opposition, but they persevered and their school, Lagan College, went from strength to strength. Other groups of parents drew inspiration from their success.

This week we are celebrating the anniversary of that first, ground-breaking meeting in Integrated Week, during which the 61 integrated schools that now thrive across the province are celebrating the mission of their schools through exploring the theme of hearts and minds.

Thirty years on from that historic meeting, the argument for integrated education has been won. Public opinion polls consistently show a majority in support of the concept of integrated education.

A recent motion put down by the DUP at Belfast City Council sums up that changed climate: "This council calls for the establishment of a commission to bring forward recommendations for the introduction of a staged process to integrate the education system in Northern Ireland. The council believes that the development of a new education system is both an economic and a moral imperative for the city of Belfast and for the whole of Northern Ireland."

The recognition that there is a moral imperative to support the creation of an integrated system of education is important.

It is for this reason that the Educational Reform Order (NI) 1989 placed an obligation on government to support integrated education and that the Belfast Agreement reiterated this.

In addition, research attests to the important role of education in building the economic stability that underpins successful reconciliation.

A World Bank study in 2005 noted: "Education has a crucial role to play in the wider reconstruction of society; from building peace and social cohesion to facilitating economic recovery and getting the country onto an accelerated development track."

During a major investment conference last year, the mayor of New York, Michael Bloomberg, emphasised the important role integrated education has to play in building a strong economic future.

The present economic crisis further underlines the cost of segregation. Sharing education provides a cost-effective and progressive means of managing the cuts about to hit the education budget.

This is a situation on which a new minister of education will have to give a lead and clear direction. Otherwise, the danger is that the present crisis in spending could result in a rationalisation of the schools estate within the present sectoral arrangements.

This would deepen segregation and maintain the duplication of resources that is crippling cost-effective delivery of education.

Thirty years ago, the parents of integrated education did not set out to create yet another sector in our crowded educational landscape.

To them it was obvious that integrated education should be the norm. There now exists an opportunity for integrated education to become that norm.

During the past 30 years, integrated schools have explored and developed integration in practice, creating an ethos where the identity of each pupil can be explored and expressed with pride, which is welcoming and inclusive, challenging and affirming, an ethos where high expectations are held for all.

The integrated ethos is one which speaks to the idealism of the young and challenges them to create and protect a shared and sectarian-free space.

In Integrated Week 2011, the Northern Ireland Council for Integrated Education looks to work with others in the field of education to create schools which are open and welcoming to all; schools that both touch the hearts and open the minds of the pupils, parents, teachers and the wider community.

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