Belfast Telegraph

Sunday 21 September 2014

Must do better: O'Dowd gets a black mark on report card

Parental demand for integrated schooling is at an all-time high. So why is the education minister dragging his feet, asks Trevor Lunn

Having more children taught in an integrated ethos will bring not just educational benefits, but economic and social benefits.

However, we are not seeing these potential benefits, with only 6.6% of school places being at integrated schools.

Alliance has long campaigned for an increased integrated sector, but so far we have not seen similar support from other parties.

In 1998, the parties that signed the Good Friday Agreement promised the people of Northern Ireland "initiatives to facilitate and encourage integrated education". I believe that the other political parties have failed to deliver this duty.

I want to see an expanded integrated education sector, as it will be very difficult to break down the barriers and divisions in our society if we do not start with our young people.

The highly segregated nature of our current education provision means that the vast majority of children are still educated within a single-identity setting.

I do not think we can progress as a society when so many of our young people do not knowingly come into contact with people from other backgrounds.

During its relatively short history, the integrated school movement has demonstrated that children can successfully mix through schooling and that the benefits of that experience stays with them in later life.

The small number of integrated schools that currently exist are thriving and places at them are in great demand. Slemish College in Ballymena and Lagan College in Belfast are two of the most oversubscribed schools each year.

This demand for more integration is clearly seen in the Belfast Telegraph/LucidTalk poll.

The fact that 70% of the public support the integrated model should be evidence enough for the education minister to take action.

However, support for integrated schools is not being seen in the Department of Education; they are failing to meet this demand.

Currently, John O'Dowd has a duty to encourage and facilitate the expansion of the sector. This duty should also be emphasised by the new Education and Skills Authority.

The education minister is pushing through too many key policies without taking account of the potential contribution of the integrated sector. The new education authority clearly should have a representative from the sector on its board.

There also needs to be more support for existing integrated schools. While there has been good news in terms of long-overdue new-builds recently, many integrated schools are operating in temporary, dilapidated accommodation. They also struggle to obtain permission to increase their enrolments.

I support the right of a parent to choose where their child should be educated, but this is being denied to many parents, who wish their child to be taught in an integrated ethos, but cannot get them into an integrated school, because there are so few places available.

By having an expanded integrated sector, we would be better able to reflect a society that wants to move beyond division.

People no longer want to be defined by the old, entrenched identities. Through greater mixing, we can banish the mistrust that too many people have of different traditions, due to the lack of contact they have with those from different identities.

It would also go some way to dealing with the 85,000 empty school places.

We are beginning an area-based planning process and it is absolutely vital that the integrated model is fully considered when making decisions. Sectors must not be allowed to operate without regard to the wider picture.

If we are to see the goal of a larger integrated sector, we must set radical targets. Alliance has a goal to see 20% of our children taught in integrated schools by 2020.

If the department lived up to its obligation to encourage and facilitate the movement, then this target would be achievable and exceeded without difficulty.

The parental demand is there and it is up to the department to accommodate that demand.

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