Belfast Telegraph

Rising tide of optimism is opportunity for real change

When hope and history rhyme, we are challenged to change, writes Noreen Campbell

So hope for a great sea change on the far side of revenge,' wrote Seamus Heaney in The Cure of Troy. Last week, we saw and felt such a sea-change.

The universal revulsion at the murder of Constable Ronan Kerr provided unequivocal evidence of a society united in its commitment to the peace process.

This election campaign, instead of politicians beating the tribal drums of the past, they are, for the first time, campaigning on the issues affecting people's daily lives.

The Belfast Telegraph/Ipsos MORI poll, published last week, reflects and captures this mood. Nine out of 10 people polled supported an integrated system of education.

Atrocities such as the murder of Ronan Kerr place a responsibility on all of us to make a difference. We all know education is one area where we can make immediate changes which will make that difference.

The public has expressed that they want to see a changed education system. The challenge for a new Executive and a new minister of education is to respond to this wish for change. There is a societal and moral imperative to move towards integrated education. We can no longer tolerate a situation where 90% of our children are educated separately from the age of three to the age of 18.

The funding crisis in education provides the opportunity and final argument for such change.

There are more than 50,000 empty desks in our schools. Rationalisation must happen. At the moment that rationalisation is taking place within sectors, potentially deepening segregation and damaging communities.

A first action for the new minister of education must be to halt this ad hoc approach to rationalisation. There must be a province-wide approach to such planning and it must be underpinned with a commitment to the principle of integrating and sharing.

The starting point for all educational decision-making should be based on the entitlement of our young people to learn with each other and from each other. Our young people are entitled to be able to express openly and with pride their identity and culture and to learn in an environment of respect about the identity of others.

Over recent years, there has been increased collaboration and sharing between schools; barriers are breaking down.

All sectors profess their commitment to inclusivity. The challenge is for them to examine their present school climates and to engage in a process of change which will open them up to be truly welcoming to all.

This is a truly educational and life-changing process which touches hearts, open minds and changes perceptions. Those of us who are privileged to have been involved in integrated education have enjoyed the benefit of it.

There are 60 integrated schools in Northern Ireland, educating Catholic and Protestant children together as well as those from different faiths, or none, all-ability in intake, inclusive and committed to ensuring educational excellence for all through partnership with parents.

Over the 30 years, these schools have developed a range of good practices which provide a template for schools starting on a process of change. The building blocks for an integrated system of education are in place.

Seamus Heaney also wrote, 'Whatever you say, say nothing'. A society gripped by fear does not speak out.

We have moved beyond fear. A great sea-change creates a momentum which carries society forward. The time has come to move our educational service forward.

Nine out of 10 people surveyed believe that integrated education was important in promoting a better and shared future, in promoting mutual respect and understanding and was important to the process of peace reconciliation.

Nine out of 10 people are right.

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