Belfast Telegraph

Friday 21 November 2014

O'Dowd advisory group has passed first test on inclusion

We have an opportunity to create an education system with inclusion and achievement at its core. We should seize it, says Siobhan Fitzpatrick

Education Minister John O'Dowd
Education Minister John O'Dowd

The past two weeks will be remembered as a landmark for education in Northern Ireland. Since the Department of Education's ministerial advisory group released its report on shared education, media coverage focused on academic selection.

But this is only one relatively narrow aspect of a paper addressing the wider issue of how we can begin to create a shared education system.

Selection is an important topic, with significant blocks of opinion in conflict over what path we should take to support all children to reach their optimum development.

However, there is now another important opportunity to talk about shared education – not selection – and the benefits children, families and society will reap if the advisory group's recommendations are implemented.

Recent ground-breaking research carried out with children aged three to six shows that appropriate shared education creates and affirms positive attitudes and respect for all differences in our young children, as well as teachers and parents.

The voluntary early-years sector has pursued a shared ethos since its inception in 1965. Currently, there are 33,000 children in high-quality, cross-community groups across Northern Ireland.

The voluntary and independent sector provide 8,400 places (36% of all funded places) for children in their immediate pre-school year.

Parents, teachers and children have no problem allowing children to be cared for and educated together before they enter the formal education system.

The ministerial advisory group's report had two central recommendations. Firstly, that we should do all we can to tailor teaching to each individual child and, as part of that, help children and young people develop a sense of their own identity.

Secondly, that, emerging from that sense of their own identity, children should be supported and taught to value the individuality of others and to respect and appreciate the differences between people.

In recent months, we have witnessed depressing scenes, with children barely out of primary school arrested, accused of taking part in riots linked to identity politics – specifically the flags issue.

The ministerial advisory group's report provides an important road-map in helping the education sector, from pre-school upwards, to help society become more equal and cohesive.

For most, the first difference they will think about is our religious divide. It is safe to assume this is the biggest source of intolerance now.

But shared education also applies to issues concerning race and ethnicity and will have positive outcomes that reach beyond sectarianism, especially as our society becomes less homogeneous.

Why do I say with such certainty that we have reached a landmark moment? There was no official compulsion on the ministerial advisory group to promote inclusivity in such a way. Now we have recommendations urging us to put it at the heart of teaching and learning, with the knowledge that it will truly benefit our children in every way.

The recommendations, which have also done nothing to reduce parental choice in Northern Ireland, can only be a good thing.

There is much still to be done and Early Years, along with interested groups and people, will continue to push for changes we believe will improve Northern Ireland.

Shared education will not be the only action needed to support an agenda of sharing, cohesion and integration, but we cannot let the values laid down in the ministerial advisory group's report be overshadowed by the important, related but ultimately different issue of selection.

Now is a time to be happy in the knowledge that we have an important opportunity to improve our education system for all our children and that this generation of children and young people could experience an education very different than our own, where inclusion and achievement for all is at the heart of the agenda.

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