Belfast Telegraph

Risks must be taken to end divisions in schools

The future of education in Northern Ireland lies in integration and sharing, says Trevor Lunn

We are at a crossroads in education; one where taking the right route will open up many opportunities and where failing to move in the right direction could cost us dearly.

Education Minister John O'Dowd has set out what he sees as the next steps for education, but I believe the real next steps have to be sharing and integration.

The minister must look at the broader picture and look at the education system as one unit in which we must deliver the best possible standard of education, the best possible value for money and move to educate all our children together. I am not sure whether he has gone far enough.

In looking at the viability of schools, the managing authorities should be looking firstly at what types of sharing and amalgamation arrangements can be made to deliver value for money and build on community relations.

This must not be about looking at different sectors in isolation; rather it should be a holistic process with all authorities working together to deliver change for the future. The days of sectors acting on their own are gone. My challenge to the minister is not to shirk the inevitable awkward decisions that will arise.

If we fail to take the chances that creating more shared and integrated education provide, we will not only prevent progress on creating a shared society, we will also place a further unnecessary burden on our already-stretched public finances.

We need to see an education revolution to transform our system and tackle segregation. Division costs our society around £1bn annually and a high proportion of this cost emanates from our education system.

Having good community relations is a key priority for Alliance and we want to see government departments looking at their budgets to identify possible shared future opportunities.

Alliance has led, and will continue to lead, the way in campaigning for an end to division in our schools. We were at the forefront of the creation of integrated schools and we will continue to lead the way on innovative thinking to deliver a shared future.

We have led from the front for 40 years on this issue and it is pleasing that others are finally catching on, but we need real action on this - not simply words.

Making progress on tackling division in education is crucial and this must be done in a way that encourages all schools to consider transforming, or sharing services.

There are a number of different local arrangements that can be made among schools that can bring forward sharing, which could lead to amalgamation and thus integration.

This should not simply be about a one-size-fits-all approach; it is about working with communities, building on progress towards real integration.

I also believe that the Education and Skills Authority (ESA) can play a very important role in transforming our education system.

I believe the ESA can greatly help in the drive to have more children educated together in Northern Ireland.

We should have already seen the creation of the ESA and there can be no more delay on this being implemented.

To create a better future, we need to be bold, brave and ambitious and make changes regarding schools central to our work to unite the community.

There are many opportunities and we need to grasp them to help transform our system.

The consequences of failing to do this would be very damaging - not only to our public finances, but also to community relations.

We need to build a society where everyone is educated, lives, works and plays together. To fail to do so would be to fail future generations.

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