Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 18 September 2014

Young can't tear down walls society continues to build

The integrated education mantra holds that to heal division you must start with the children. Wrong, says Alex Kane. It's the parents who must change

It's very hard to argue with the recent Belfast Telegraph/LucidTalk poll, which suggested that 79% of respondents would support a request for their child's school to become integrated; and that 69% of them agreed that an integrated school was the best setting to prepare children to live and work in an increasingly diverse society.

By any definition, those are thumping endorsements for a new approach to educating our children.

Yet it's equally hard to argue with the electoral evidence, demonstrating that more than 90% of those who vote here (including, I presume, many of those pro-integrationists) vote for parties which don't prioritise integrated education; or that Alliance, the one party which has been unambiguously pro-integrated education, is still receiving single-figure support and has only eight MLAs out of a total of 108.

It's also hard to explain why, if so many people 'support a request to transform your child's school to an integrated school,' boards of governors and parent-teacher associations haven't been pushing for it and campaigning for it more vigorously.

It's a bit like those opinion polls which indicate that an overwhelming majority supports the concept of a shared society, yet the same overwhelming majority has shown no inclination to voluntarily create their own mixed housing/social communities.

In other words, we are getting mixed messages from the opinion polls and from the ballot box: people seem to want a shared society and integrated education, but not so much that they vote for it, campaign for it, or do anything about it themselves.

It strikes me, too, that integrated education is regarded as a political/social tool by many of its supporters. Trevor Lunn, Alliance's education spokesman, claims that "it will be very difficult to break down the barriers and divisions in our society if we do not start with our young people".

Again, I don't really understand that. Most people vote for polarising parties and live, by choice, in us-and-them areas: why, then, would they want to send their children to schools which 'break down the barriers,' which they, the parents, have built? There is no point starting with the children. You need to start with the parents.

There is a political/electoral reality which cannot be ignored. The constitutional question remains the fixed point of politics here.

Most people have a very specific view when it comes to whether they wish to remain in the United Kingdom, or build a new united Ireland.

Four of the five main parties split along unionist/republican lines and those divisions between them are often reflected in the decisions they make at council and Assembly level. Indeed, the past year has been dominated by increasing fractiousness over flags and parades in what has been, to all intents and purposes, a turf war.

I don't see how you create an integrated education system against that sort of background and expect it to work. How do you 'give equal recognition to, promote equal expression of all cultures and encourage the development of understanding and mutual respect' at school, when our political institutions remain underpinned by veto, petitions of concern and mutual hostility?

How do you do it against a background in which the political vehicles representing the two community blocs are pursuing contradictory political/constitutional goals?

Schools cannot easily operate in isolation. They cannot easily remain outside the political/electoral norm. Or, putting it another way, you cannot have an integrated system unless it is a reflection of integration which already exists within the political system. I mean, how would you even agree a curriculum for the system when the Department of Education – like the other Executive departments – operates as a silo under the control of one party and one agenda?

And why would any political party give the imprimatur to a system whose long-term impact, if successful, could undermine them and their political/electoral agenda?

And, not to be too cynical about it, I suspect that Alliance reckons that its political/electoral agenda would be boosted by the success of integration.

So the campaign for integrated education requires more creative, calculated thinking than we have seen up to now. It's too simplistic, too unrealistic and too naive to believe that integrated education – as its supporters seem to understand it anyway – is the answer to anything.

The Belfast Agreement (which was endorsed by 72% at the 1998 referendum) created a vehicle for all of our opposing factions and it was hoped that co-operation in close-quarters would pave the way to new trust and a new era.

It hasn't worked out like that, though, has it?

My own view is that we have more political and psychological barriers between us now than we did in 1998.

I have no hang-ups with integrated education: my elder daughter attended one.

But I still think that to believe that creating schools and an educational ethos can form a 'solution' to wider, deeper political/sectarian problems is fundamentally misguided.

You need to change the political/electoral/government background first. That's the real lesson to be learned.

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