Belfast Telegraph

Together we can grasp the opportunity for integration

The Department of Education's viability audit creates the chance for truly shared schooling, says Noreen Campbell

On March 2, the halls of Stormont rang to the sounds of laughing children, the beat of a samba band and the sweet sound of a primary school choir. Sixty-two schools had sent children from all parts of Northern Ireland to celebrate the launch of Integrated Week.

No one present could doubt the value of educating children together. In the week that the Peace Monitoring Report was published, who could deny the urgent need to educate our children together?

This report noted that 'Fourteen years after the Good Friday Agreement, Northern Ireland remains a very divided society ... There is evidence of continuing deep division in housing and education. According to the NIHE, 90% of social housing in Northern Ireland is still segregated. And while 6.5% of children now attend integrated schools, this means the other 93.5% are separated into Catholic and Protestant schools.'

There has been no political engagement with this issue of 'benign apartheid' or of 'peaceful co-existence'. Why is there a reluctance to engage with the reality of division as painted in the Nolan Report?

The story of integrated education illustrates this reluctance. There are 62 schools established over 30 years, schools which were founded through parental effort not political will, with parents doing what Government should be doing: creating schools which model the type of society we wish to see.

The recent intervention by Peter Robinson in support of integrated education is welcome, but why have political parties, other than the Alliance Party chosen not to engage with this issue?

An opportunity exists to radically re-engineer our educational system. The viability audit, published this week, shows the necessity of doing so.

The analysis of the overall performance of our system proves that such an overhaul is necessary.

The process of area-based planning provides the forum through which such an overhaul could take place.

The benchmarking for this process should be the extent to which it creates a shared and equal system of schools. Decisions should be tested against the moral imperative of increasing integrated provision and the justice imperative of offering equal opportunity to all children.

Unfortunately, it seems that this will be a missed opportunity. If schools are reorganised on a sectoral basis, then division is further embedded and no tinkering around the edges with 'sharing' will disguise the fact that we educate our children separately.

The aim of area-based planning should be to make real the minister's direction for the right school for the area and the community. He surely cannot have meant a Catholic school for a Catholic area and a Protestant school for a Protestant area?

The minister called for innovative solutions, but without a commitment to educating our children together, this is an opportunity which will be lost.

Our school system is 'shared out', reflecting the divisions Nolan refers to. For a shared future, our segregated system must be tackled.

We have the opportunity to do so. We have a model of education developed for such a post-sectoral world.

For how long will our politicians ignore the fact that we start children on their educational journey in a segregated nursery school?

Nolan asks: "Which is it to be? Are we leaving the Troubles behind, or does the continuation of sectarian division mean that at some point in the future the underlying tensions could see a violent eruption? Is it possible that this period of peace might turn out to be only a generational truce?"

We owe it to our young people to ensure the structures which form our young people are those which connect - not separate.

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