Belfast Telegraph

Monday 22 December 2014

Let's have no more missed chances on schools' reform

Our segregated education system is a legacy of the past. It's time it was dismantled, says Noreen Campbell

Long-awaited changes to our educational system were heralded last week when the minister, John O'Dowd, presented to the Assembly his plans for the future of education.

There was a well-founded urgency behind the minister's statement that put the needs of the child at the centre of educational provision. Every child is entitled to a first-class quality education; each child has only one chance to access that education; there are 80,000 empty desks; school budgets have been cut.

We can no longer afford parallel systems of education. A quality education for all can only be assured if a coherent rationalisation of the schools estate is undertaken.

The Northern Ireland Council for Integrated Education (NICIE) welcomes the minister's direction that this should be done on an area basis.

It is right that this planning should include all stakeholders, not just those with statutory responsibility. Most importantly, it is right that this planning should be based on the needs of children in an area, not on the needs of institutions.

The minister called for "the right type of school and of the right size in the right place to meet the needs of children and young people".

NICIE argues that the needs of the community must also be included, particularly where a school is the anchor in the community for a minority tradition.

The minister's direction enables us to move beyond a sectoral approach to education. It allows us to harness the skills of the teaching staff in each area and ensure that the rights and identities of all children are recognised and celebrated.

This opportunity to remodel our educational provision presents a challenge for all sectors.

For the two main sectors, the challenge is to move beyond a single-identity ethos to one that is accepting of diversity; to move from a situation where minority children are expected to assimilate to the dominant culture to one where they have space to speak their name.

For both sectors, there will be the challenge of ensuring the faith-needs of children are met within the school and that a diversity of cultures is recognised and celebrated.

There is a challenge also for the integrated movement. The first is to dispel the myths about integrated education held by our politicians.

Peter Robinson, in an interview last week in this newspaper, said: "The big difference between us and integrated schools is that we believe in a completely integrated system, rather than just an integrated school sector."

Those parents who were forced to set up integrated schools were not seeking to set up a new sector, but were developing a model which they expected would, with time, be adopted by all.

That time has come. The challenge now is to ensure that the new schools and campuses that emerge are inclusive and reflect fully the changed society in which we live.

We have a more diverse society, with many children of different ethnicities in our schools; we have a much more secular society; we have parents from 'mixed' marriages rightly demanding that their children be able to express openly their 'double belonging' regardless of which sector their school belongs to.

The segregated system we have is a legacy of the past. It is time to dismantle it; we have the opportunity to do so. We are about to undertake a radical review of educational provision; let us ensure that this is not a missed opportunity; that the needs of children, communities and society are put first and a system of shared education which models the society we want to become emerges.

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