Teachers, principals and key policymakers are meeting today at the third annual Queen's University School of Education Sharing Education Conference to examine the delivery of religious education here.
One of the issues being considered is whether religious education can increase tolerance between pupils, or if it is possible for schools from different ethos and backgrounds to deliver religious education in a shared manner.
The Executive's Programme for Government (PfG) has ambitious and laudable targets relating to the promotion of shared education, while on the ground, more and more schools are forming collaborative partnerships.
The concept of shared education has gained increasing prominence and this is to be welcomed. However, while schools continue to lead the way in terms of developing new strategies to provide the best education for all, others seem stuck in the mire around a definition of what exactly 'shared education' is.
At Queen's, we are very clear, as we have supported schools through the Sharing Education Programme for the past six years. For us, shared education involves schools from different sectors engaging in collaborative activities, especially shared learning between pupils on core curriculum areas.
Shared education recognises the value of school ethos to pupils and parents and is designed to support the retention and celebration of ethos, providing access to a wider curriculum range and promoting social cohesion.
Sharing also allows teachers and principals to form networks to share expertise.
Shared education has an important community relations role, but goes beyond this; it brings young people together in regular contact which we know supports the development of positive relationships.
More than this, the schools we are working with are leading the way in providing wider educational pathways and opportunities for young people. We feel strongly they should be supported by the Department for Education. By working together, schools provide tailored solutions to meet local educational needs. Additionally, by sharing resources and expertise, schools can reduce duplication of provision.
Shared education is not an aspiration; it is a reality for schools across Northern Ireland. But it will only become ubiquitous if the minister and his department do more to support schools in the enhancement of collaborative links.
Recent rhetoric regarding the future of education has given cause for hope and concern in equal measure. On the one hand we hear talk about encouraging schools to work together, but at the same time others claim future provision should be based on larger schools, which risks building, even higher, institutional barriers between young people.
A sobering thought is provided by an analysis carried out at the University of Ulster, which suggested that if all primary and post-primary schools not meeting the department's minimum enrolment figure were closed, it would displace approximately 50,000 pupils for a saving of £35m – the cost of one medium-sized post-primary school.
Schools, principals, teachers, parents and pupils have demonstrated their appetite for shared education through school collaboration. Evidence points to improved social relationships and enhanced educational opportunity.
We await with interest the recommendations of the ministerial advisory group on shared education, but virtually everyone we talk to sees obvious merits in the idea of schools working together.
We have a unique opportunity to put this at the heart of our school system, by placing a commitment to shared education in the ESA Bill now before the Assembly.
For too long the legacy of separate schools has been a symbol of our divided community. But we know schools can work together, for the common good and provide a new symbol of a reconciled community, committed to a shared and better future.