Belfast Telegraph

Religious apartheid in our schools just doesn't add up

We cannot wait another 30 years for a truly integrated education system, says

Noreen Campbell

The new year is a time for new hope. We look to the future and we plan ahead with hope in our heart and with a determination to make the right decisions.

Most important are the decisions we take regarding our children's education and January is the time when vital decisions are made about choosing schools, either for primary school or secondary-level college.

In today's Belfast Telegraph, there is a supplement on integrated education, presenting an overview of our integrated schools and of the work of the Northern Ireland Council for Integrated Education (NICIE).

It is fitting that, 30 years on from the start of the integrated education movement, we should reflect on the reasons why parents took the courageous and challenging step of embarking on the arduous journey to establish the first integrated school - Lagan College in Belfast.

Parents came together because they rejected the divided educational system which existed then and which, with the exception of the 61 schools which are integrated, remains divided.

Today Lagan College is one of the most over-subscribed and successful schools in Northern Ireland.

And it is fitting that the subject of integrated education is back on the political agenda. The public is asking how we can build a truly shared and peaceful future if 90% of our children are educated separately.

No one would or could defend a system where children were educated separately on the basis of the colour of their skins. A system of segregated education on the basis of religion, in a society which has been as divided as ours, is indefensible.

The founding parents of 40 schools were determined their children would not be educational guinea pigs; that their children would not have to pay a price for being in a new type of school. These parents knew integrated education would only succeed if it also guaranteed educational excellence.

And so a model of education was developed and has been perfected over 30 years; a model of education that places the individual child at the heart of the school processes, an education that recognises and celebrates that child and his/her background, culture and tradition.

Schools founded by parents are based on the concept of community: a community of staff, children and parents working together in a shared educational journey.

These schools flourish because no one is asked to give up anything; rather everyone gains from the respect for, and celebration of, diversity and different cultures.

They flourish because they recognise they must ensure religious education and support for the sacraments is provided as a right. They harness the idealism and energies of our best teachers, they are reflective and committed to open debate and ongoing improvement. They are self-evaluating and committed to educational excellence.

Northern Ireland is a changing society. Parents look for what is best for their children and what is best for the society their children are growing up in.

Integrated education enables them to make a positive choice for their children's future and to make a statement about the type of society they want them to live in.

It is 30 years since the first public meeting was held about the founding of Lagan College. Our society cannot wait another 30 years for a shared system of education.

Our children are entitled to be educated together, our young people want to be educated together. This year all involved in education should commit to finding a way to building a shared system of education.

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