Belfast Telegraph

The people have spoken but are the politicians listening?

Integrated education poll is a message the next Executive must heed, says Tina Merron

The case for integrated education, in both social and economic terms, has taken centre-stage in the political arena over the last few months, alerting the Assembly and Executive to the increasing appetite for sharing which we have seen for years at grassroots level.

Through our work with schools of all management types and in communities, we at the Integrated Education Fund have become aware of how much of a move towards sharing and collaboration there is in many areas.

We have known for a long time ordinary people are not afraid to reach out, if only the mechanisms were in place to facilitate this.

Now the opinion poll from Ipsos MORI has produced figures underlining this aspect of modern life in Northern Ireland.

The research - an attitudinal survey of 1,007 adults aged 16 and over in all counties and from all communities - has given us the numbers to present an important message to the incoming Executive. Firstly, 88% of respondents said they favoured integration as a level of sharing, yet after 30 years of integrated education just under 7% of young people have the opportunity to be taught in integrated schools.

And there is strong support for sharing in general; that is sharing of capital resources, sharing teachers and other resources. For too long the current system has not provided support for those parents who wish their children to have the opportunity to grow together. Children's needs must be put first.

Not only is there overwhelming support for integrated and shared education but, secondly, a compelling call for the initiation of a body - impartial and not connected to any political sector - to take over the job of rethinking education delivery and to advise the Executive on the way forward.

One of the clearest signals coming across from the results of this survey is that there is a general impatience with the Executive and with stagnant debates over education.

Researchers asked people if they thought that an independent commission should be instigated to review the education system in Northern Ireland - with the proviso that the commission would report on its findings and make recommendations within a year.

The majority of people who were asked said they were in favour of this initiative, with more than four-in-10 declaring themselves 'strongly in favour' of the proposal. Backing for a review by an independent commission is similar across the spectrum of political party support.

Ipsos MORI then put a further question: 'To what extent do you agree or disagree with this statement: If the education minister and the Executive were unable to reach agreement on a commission's recommendations, there should be a referendum on the future education system in Northern Ireland?'

A substantial majority - 74% - agree. When the responses are broken down by demographics, we see that the majority is even higher amongst parents of children under the age of 16: 80%.

It seems that all sections of the community see an Executive failing to do what the voters put it there to do, which is to legislate to enable our society (including our education system) to move forward.

The responses to the Ipsos MORI research indicate that the new Executive can progress with confidence to develop an education system for everyone; one which answers the needs of the modern world and which contributes to, and reflects, a more cohesive Northern Ireland - that is what the majority of the voters in this poll want.

The full, illustrated report of the poll results can be seen by clicking www.ief.org.uk.

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