Time to start process of ending separate schools
It is time that we tackled segregated schooling properly. A 'shared education' alone is not enough, says Denis Rooney
The most-recent Belfast Telegraph/LucidTalk opinion poll on integrated education, which re-affirmed strong majority support, has added to the need to take steps to provide what the majority in Northern Ireland really wants.
Of all the shared future issues facing us, integrated education is surely the easiest one to tackle. And the question now is: what is the best way to achieve this and what steps need to be taken?
The integrated education sector has done a great job in demonstrating the viability of shared education and in developing the practices which support it.
The Sharing Education programmes initiated by the by the International Fund for Ireland (IFI) have demonstrated the demand for co-operation by schools and their communities.
Both of these initiatives – however successful in their own right – only impact a small proportion of the total school population and we need to look at a more radical way to answer the desire of the majority, as evidenced by the opinion poll.
The Department of Education holds the purse-strings and it is in a very strong position to deliver change.
I believe that the department should issue a statement of intent that it will take all the necessary steps to phase out segregated education, but in a manner which does not go against substantive parental choice.
The department should organise a phased ending to the separate classification of the sector on the basis that all state-funded schools will by, say, the year 2016 be structured, funded and managed on the same basis, with no distinction between the controlled, maintained and integrated sectors.
Religious education can be made available in all schools in response to parental choice and in appropriate response to the demand in each school.
Support should be given to all schools in dealing with the implications of the change throughout the transitional period. Schools will, however, be expected to make genuine efforts to ensure, going forward, that enrolment represents, within reasonable parameters, the religious mix in their catchment areas.
Segregation of teacher training should be ended.
Real effort needs to be applied to achieve a successful transition. And while this should be a consensual process, target-setting needs to be applied and incentivised and sanctions should be available for significant non-compliance.
The ultimate objective will be to have a school system free from direct, or undue, religious/denominational control, while accommodating religious teaching in response to parental wishes.
All schools could incorporate the best practice from our present system, but will have an increasingly balanced denominational roll-call, with parents feeling increasingly free to select the nearest school which delivers a good-quality education for their child.
The adoption of this proposal will not alter the religious mix of schools overnight and will not threaten the ethos and nature of any school.
Indeed, post-2016 the changes in any school will be minimal and will certainly not impact on the day-to-day experience of pupils and of staff there.
In due course, however, schools will gradually reflect better the denominational balance in their immediate neighbourhood and we will be well on the way to having for the first time an ever-increasing number of Catholic and Protestant children getting to know one and other from an early age.
Just think of the benefits this will bring for tomorrow's society.