Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 30 August 2014

There are no arguments to oppose integrated education

If the Executive is truly committed to 'parental choice' it should listen to the vast majority who seek schooling with no sectarian divide, says Robin Wilson

There cannot be a more obvious purpose of the devolved government at Stormont – and it is not at all obvious that it currently has one – than the promotion of integrated education.

Usually, there are genuine arguments on both sides of a policy debate. But, on this one, the moral case, the evidence, public opinion, the argument from efficiency and – not least – a statutory duty all point, decisively, in one direction.

Morally, education is fundamentally about the development of the citizens of the future. But in Northern Ireland we can never treat one another as fellow citizens – as in any normal society – when we have been schooled to think that we have only fellow Protestants, or fellow Catholics.

A body of evidence collected by psychologists and educationalists over recent decades has clearly demonstrated that experience of integrated education encourages young people to think in more tolerant ways about diverse others in the society in which they live.

Survey after survey of public opinion has found overwhelming support for integration – consistently above 70% (with only marginal differences between Catholic and Protestant respondents).

After the cash-strapped devolved Government was restored in 2007, the DUP and Sinn Fein suppressed an independent study, commissioned under direct rule, showing that Northern Ireland's chronic divisions could cost as much as £1.5bn a year.

Education is the biggest source of costly inefficiency, with tens of thousands of empty school places in the segregated system.

The 1989 Education Reform Order, still in force, imposes a statutory duty on the Department of Education to encourage and facilitate integrated education. This was reinforced by the Belfast Agreement – with its 71% popular endorsement.

Yet this commitment has been airbrushed from history, with no reference to it in the Bill establishing the long-delayed Education and Skills Authority, on which the Northern Ireland Council for Integrated Education is not to be represented.

And, yesterday, a ministerial advisory group on 'shared' education, whose terms of reference did not refer to integrated schooling, came up with a report which focused instead on collaboration across the existing fragmented system.

Contradictorily, the group recommended that Northern Ireland come into line with the European mainstream by ending academic selection at 11 – yet baulked at advocating common schooling when it comes to sectarian division.

Only in Bosnia-Herzegovina – hardly a model of reconciliation – are children so systematically divided on 'ethnic' lines for schooling.

Why did they do it? Because, just as racial segregation in the southern states of America was once upheld in the language of 'equal but different' and just as apartheid South Africa was labelled 'separate development' by its beneficiaries, Northern Ireland's communal politicians have succeeded in redefining sectarian educational division as 'pluralism' and 'parental choice'.

And, given the separate vote-banks they have carefully cultivated, they would do, wouldn't they?

Yet inculcating a particular religious 'ethos' at school does not just contradict bona fide educational purposes – the proper teaching of history, biology and physics most obviously – but actually imprisons the child in a monocultural social world. One in which they will not learn equally about all the great world religions, still less the humanistic alternative to them based on reason and universal norms.

And 'parental choice' is being meaninglessly evoked when it is so evident that the vast majority of parents want a better choice of choice, via an integrated system.

The word 'education' comes from the Latin educare – to draw out. It should be centred on the child and should encourage the child to think for him-, or herself, in a Google and Wikipedia world where facts are at the fingertips – and to acquire the combination of competences they need to realise their personal aspirations in life.

Should parents make those choices for them? Or should all schools in Northern Ireland offer every child an equal chance to be the author of their own ambitions?

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