Belfast Telegraph

Protecting identities can help achieve school reform

Integrated education is more than an aspiration - it's an internationally recognised human right that needs defending, says Chris Moffat

Renewed interest in integrated education is welcome. But is it genuine? Politicians have short memories. Quite a lot have courted the idea over the years. What is clear is that significant numbers favour some form of shared education.

The problem is it was bottom of the Belfast Agreement agenda and sidelined at St Andrews.

It is mistaken to think the Agreement solved the Northern Ireland problem. All it did was deal with some realities.

One is that people have the right to designate themselves as British or Irish or both. The 'two communities' also have the right to parity of esteem.

Integrated education, like the Agreement, played a positive role in fostering peace and reconciliation. They both have another important role in the protection of identities.

A little-recognised consequence of the Agreement is that it provides an international legal basis for the right to non-segregated education.

The Irish and British governments signed the European Framework Convention for National Minorities (1994). This means both governments have an international duty to protect minorities and to require minorities to respect individual rights.

A key point of the European Framework Convention is that no one should be disadvantaged as a member of a minority. In education this protects the freedom to exercise the right to identity.

There is no doubt that children's identities develop during their school years. But the only firm conclusion from decades of research into the effects of education on identity is that minority attendance at 'informally mixed' schools is the perceived dilution of presumed cultural identities.

Perhaps more seriously, efforts by segregated schools to inculcate shared concepts of 'citizenship' in isolation are just as likely to foster mutual misunderstanding.

What should be done? Fortunately, the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and modern educational practice are in accord in prioritising the 'best interests of the child'.

Children have the same moral status as adults when it comes to freedom of 'thought, conscience and religion'. Article 12 of the Convention protects the child as an autonomous person 'capable of forming his or her own view' with 'the right to express those views freely in matters affecting the child ... (and) ... given due weight in accordance with the age and maturity of the child.'

So the right to enjoy cultural identity, either individually or communally, should be respected in education. This is the view of NICIE, the integrated education support body.

All parents and pupils should have a real choice of segregated or non-segregated education, especially pupils at secondary level where respect is fundamental to effective learning. Educational reorganisation should incorporate genuine individual choice.

Since 1995, international human rights monitoring bodies have criticised the authorities here for failing to provide integrated education in response to parental demand.

International opprobrium is increasing. In spite of the devolution of education, the British and Irish governments have a duty to ensure that non-segregated education is available.

If a shared, integrated approach which respects difference can be agreed, we can do much better.

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