Schools hang in the balance unless we learn our lesson
Shared education has worked but it needs a formal package of incentives to flourish, says Denis Rooney
The Executive's new Programme for Government (PfG) expresses a clear intent to deliver on shared education. But, as we all know, putting policy into practice is not often easy, or swift.
There is however, an unprecedented momentum and desire to tackle the absurdity of segregated education which has had a silent, malign influence on our society for too long.
The proposed new Education and Skills Authority (ESA) offers the best overall vehicle for change, because it can to an extent, dilute the impact of vested interest groups and roll out policy more effectively.
However I believe that the only way to achieve the desirable scale of change in any meaningful timescale is by providing incentives.
In 2007, the then Secretary of State, Peter Hain, in his response to the Bain report, announced a Shared Future Accreditation scheme, but this has not been implemented in any shape of form.
Incentivising schools is not easy to implement and has its own potential pitfalls, because it must avoid penalising schools which, through local demographics or particular historical context, would find it more difficult to respond to the opportunity. There must be a balance between driving schools hard in order to make it effective and being patient with others who face more complex situations.
But I believe it is possible to create a fair and effective system, which recognises that some schools face tougher challenges than others.
Such a scheme would create an annual, specific budget ring-fenced for the sole purpose of developing the shared education agenda.
This would encourage all schools to move towards shared education by rewarding those that take significant steps along a defined path, starting with creating a welcoming environment right through to achieving full community balance.
The steps along the way should involve support for schools to:
â€¢ change their ethos and practices to better equip them to encourage sharing;
â€¢ engage with the wider community by opening up their facilities to those with whom they hadn't previously engaged;
â€¢ share social activities;
â€¢ share curriculum-based classroom activities, and;
â€¢ achieve improved balance in the denomination mix of their roll calls.
There is clear evidence that progress in all of the above categories can be achieved.
It has been amply demonstrated by the Sharing in Education programmes funded by the International Fund for Ireland and the Atlantic Philanthropies, as well as through other initiatives launched by the fund, such as the Welcoming Schools Programme.
There is also evidence from the many schools which have, over the years, decided to encourage mixed roll calls and resource-sharing.
A recent conference, organised by the Sharing Education Learning Forum (SELF), reviewed the benefits of the Sharing in Education Programme, which now involves 150 schools, across 48 separate partnerships and more than 10,000 pupils throughout Northern Ireland.
Feedback was positive and encouraging. Schools running regular shared classes reported improved standards and better understanding and new friendships among pupils.
There are clear-cut economic advantages in greater educational sharing, which have been officially recognised. But it is beyond the school gates and outside education budgets that we should look for the most positive development.
Young people who learn together take their newly-formed impressions and attitudes back into their homes, creating a positive ripple effect through local communities.
Our experiment in shared education has been successful, but now only a formal programme of incentives can unlock the bigger prize that awaits Northern Ireland.
Every school can play its part, even those in the heartlands of loyalist or nationalist communities.
If we can succeed in this challenge, then, at some time in the future, we may no longer have such clearly-defined loyalist and nationalist areas at all.