Belfast Telegraph

Tuesday 23 September 2014

Segregation fails children who need to learn together

If ever we should have a debate about the integration of our education system, the time is now, says Noreen Campbell

A new year and, for parents of children transferring to post- primary school, important choices to be made. Over the next few weeks, parents will visit a range of schools: grammar, non-selective, single-sex or co- educational.

For the majority, their visits will be to schools which are single- identity: ie schools perceived to be Protestant or Catholic.

What will these parents be seeking? Assurance that their child will be stretched to achieve his/her best, assurance that the unique needs and talents of their child will be recognised and supported.

They will want to know that their child will be happy and will feel part of a welcoming community, where the child is accepted, regardless of background.

They, as parents, will want to feel welcomed and accepted as partners playing a full role in their child's education, kept fully informed of his/her progress.

Ideally, the school will be local, but they will be prepared for their child to travel, if necessary.

This is the norm across the UK at this time of transition. But there are two defining features for parents in Northern Ireland which do not apply elsewhere - both of which impact on choice and on future paths available for children. Both are contentious.

Our selective system divides schools into a two-tier system, with the presumption that grammar schools provide a superior education delivered by a superior teacher.

Evidence does not support this presumption. The basis on which grammar schools were founded and are defended - the education of a particular type of highly academic student - has long been eroded, as grammar schools increase intake to an ever-wider range of ability in order to fill desks.

The knock-on effect such selection has on the educational system is well documented - a pecking-order of schools, with little expected of those attending schools perceived to be at the bottom. There is much debate about the underachievement of Protestant working-class boys, a debate that is bound to continue in light of the continuing protests.

Yet unionist parties persist in supporting and defending a system that is as detrimental to their constituents as it is to society as a whole.

The other great divide is segregation. Why do we accept the continuation of a system that perpetuates the concept of the 'other', a system which implies that community division will always be the norm?

If ever we should have a debate about the integration of our education system, the time is now.

Yet there exists a deep reluctance to engage with this question, in spite of the public's frequently expressed preference for seeing children educated together. Area-based plans are based on the segregated system which exists, while the Education Bill, unless amended, ignores and offers no representation for integrated education.

There is time for this to change and the Northern Ireland Council for Integrated Education (Nicie) has submitted amendments that would protect the statutory obligation to encourage and facilitate integrated education.

Nicie has also developed innovative plans which propose quality schools in local areas, guaranteeing excellence in education for all and educating children together in an accepting and integrated ethos.

All children have the right to be educated with, not separate from, their peers. We need schools where our young people can discuss the importance of identity, the importance of flags in symbolising identity and the dangers of using flags as weapons, rather than symbols of pride.

For how much longer and at what cost do we continue to deny our children their rights?

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