Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 24 July 2014

We must make the leap to a single education system

Shared education is a vital stepping stone but only complete integration can address the segregation in our schools, writes Denis Rooney

The recently published independent Sharing Education report has certainly generated a lot of debate and some strong criticism. This serves to demonstrate how important the whole education debate is to us and, in particular, its importance in the wider issue of its impact on the whole question of reconciliation.

Back in 2006, when I was chairman of the International Fund for Ireland, we thought about ways in which we could try to use our funds to make a difference in some of the more complex areas of division in our society.

We looked hard at the education sector and came up with a strategy which would encourage Catholic and Protestant schools to find ways to have more contact with each other in a meaningful way.

We collaborated with The Atlantic Philanthropies, prepared a brief and Queen's University was successful in coming up with the detailed proposal, which led to the Sharing Education Programme (SEP), which has been running since.

This was subsequently expanded to the programmes run by the Fermanagh Trust and the North Eastern Education and Library Board. Since leaving the fund, I have continued to watch these ground-breaking proposals with interest.

The SEP and the linked programmes were almost universally accepted with enthusiasm by the participating schools, although there were pockets of resistance in some quarters. But it certainly demonstrated that teachers, pupils and parents wanted to move forward in a collaborative way, where practical to do so.

I certainly did not envisage Sharing Education as the complete solution to our system at the time we were developing the concept.

I believed that it was an important step in demonstrating the viability of Catholic and Protestant children being educated together in the mainstream sector and would be complementary to the integrated sector, which had valuably paved the way, but which had levelled out in growth terms. In my view, it was a building block which would break down barriers and give us greater confidence to embrace the ultimate solution. Sharing Education still has a vital role to play in helping us to make the transition to a non-sectarian system and this role will continue for many years.

It builds relationships, broadens contact between Catholic and Protestant pupils, teachers and parents and can help to deliver better education outcomes, in some instances.

It is not, however, the sole, sustainable solution to the division in education and, if we are serious about building a viable shared society, we need to recognise both its benefits and its limitations.

It is now time to set the timetable for dismantling the segregated system, so that our children are no longer defined by religious denomination from nursery to university.

When we establish a single education system – and this can be done quickly – the change in the roll calls in our school will be gradual and threatening to no one.

The rights of religious, cultural and philosophical beliefs can easily be respected in a single education system. The vital work of the integrated sector for many years and the work of the SEP in recent and future years will make the transition so much easier.

A fundamental problem with the independent report is that it appears to believe that Sharing Education is the whole solution, rather than an important stepping stone towards a solution.

The experience gained from the SEP will be valuable in supporting the gradual transition to a non-sectarian education system, just as the experience gained by the integrated sector has been.

Investment in SEP going forward is vital, but if it is the only game in town we may well be remaining educationally segregated for a very long time.

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