Belfast Telegraph

Shared learning must not slip through our fingers

The Education Minister’s proposals for area-based planning are a missed opportunity for true integration in our schools, says Nigel Frith

As various options for re-organising post-primary education are published, I find myself torn between discouragement and pride.

Pride because, in many instances, there is an acknowledgement that integrated schools are the popular choice, but discouragement in that proposals to revise the system fail to plan true integration.

While there is vague encouragement to share across sectors, there is no firm proposal setting out both the savings and social benefits which would follow if we embraced this remarkable opportunity.

A recent academic article, reported in the Belfast Telegraph, asked ‘Is shared space really shared?’ and implied that integrated schools do not in practice promote cohesiveness. In fact, integrated schools do much more than ‘share space’.

Given the watered-down approach to shared education emerging from area-based planning, I would like to highlight some of the opportunities we will lose if this moment slips through our fingers.

Firstly, integration does not simply share space. It actively seeks to embrace difference as something to be understood, respected and celebrated. Equality, yes; uniformity, no. This is part of the reality of running an integrated learning community, where there is potential conflict to be pre-empted, or dealt with, societal prejudice coming through the gates in the heads of youngsters who have been listening to contradictory voices in their local communities and yet where young people do learn to be friends with those from other traditions.

This is what we see and this is how we consciously and carefully organise an integrated environment.

For example, to challenge the social perception of remembrance, we run a programme in personal development before Remembrance Day. We acknowledge the school’s view that we are saddened by the tragic loss of life in any conflict, wish to learn the lessons of history and emphasise the rights to wear a poppy, or not, as one chooses.

Or another example: Ash Wednesday. The entire school meets for the Ash Wednesday services in the school hall. Clergy from both of the main traditions speak. An invitation is extended to all staff and students to come forward to receive the ashes, if they wish, or, equally, they may remain in their seats.

Or what about when young people do get into conflict, for example following rumours about who is flirting with whose boyfriend. We clear up the mess together.

Firstly, students face the consequences of their actions, before being given an opportunity to start again. Secondly, they are challenged on how their actions measure up to the school’s integrated values. Thirdly, the principles of restorative justice can be employed in order to help both parties reconcile and move on. Integration is not always pink and fluffy, but it does work.

Unfortunately, the research that forms the basis of ‘Is shared space really shared?’ is limited in both scope and sample, including the age-range of the pupils and the number of schools involved.

It looks at where pupils sit in class as an indication of the success of integration; but what does this actually tell us? Are the pupils in these classrooms aware of who is from which tradition? How do the pupils interact in other areas? What are their views, values and friendships?

The report cited is right in many ways, including in its assertion that ‘It is important to be realistic when considering the impact that developing shared space can have, especially in societies with a history of conflict’. If only this principle was embraced throughout the education system and by our politicians.

Integrated schools are not simply shared spaces. Shared space is not necessarily integrated space.

The questions asked by the report are important. What is needed now is research that looks more appropriately and more comprehensively for the answers.

Nigel Frith is principal of Drumragh Integrated College, Omagh, and chairs the Association of Principal Teachers of Integrated Schools

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