Belfast Telegraph

Now’s the time to integrate our two schools of thought

The demand for integrated education far exceeds the places available. That must change, says Trevor Lunn

The debate about the future structure of our school system has moved up the agenda following, firstly, the publication of the scoping paper, Developing the Case for Shared Education from consultancy group Oxford Economics and, more surprisingly, the speech by Peter Robinson, in which he said, “For me, this is not just an economic, but a moral question.

We cannot hope to move beyond our present community divisions while our young people are educated separately.”

In those few words, Peter Robinson recognised the two imperatives: the economic/financial and the moral/social, which have long been acknowledged by those of us who espouse a shared future and an education system fit for purpose and open to all.

By bringing our children together naturally and in their localities at an early age, we have the potential to avoid the problems that have bedevilled our society.

Is there a way forward? The Catholic education authorities have confirmed that their schools are open to all, not just Catholic children. The controlled sector has reiterated that their schools are open to all, not just Protestants.

There is a willingness expressed by all sides for co-operation between schools across sectors at all levels.

There are too many maintained schools. There are too many controlled schools.

The integrated school movement has demonstrated, through its short history, that Catholic and Protestant children can mix through schooling and that the benefit of that experience stays with them in later life.

The demand for integrated places far exceeds places available. Polls suggest overwhelming willingness for shared education.

We have 50,000-plus empty desks. School buses pass each other going in different directions because two schools have been kept open where there are only enough pupils for one.

There are hundreds of millions of pounds being wasted annually because of unnecessary duplication of services, in the midst of the worst recession in years.

Every expert and sector acknowledges that this cannot go on, but decisions continue to be made without consideration of the overall good.

Currently the Catholic authorities are advancing plans to reorganise their schools without any obvious account being taken of the needs of wider society.

Sharing in education allows schools to come together and provide a wider breadth of subjects for pupils than they may have been able to study without sharing resources.

For example, maintaining two technology or science departments is extremely expensive and sharing facilities will ensure a higher standard. Also a wider variety of sports and activities can be provided, from GAA to rugby and soccer.

Progress on this also means we can start to make more savings on buildings, on staffing and on transport for children to schools.

It would also mean more standardisation of education here, which would make it easier to identify and address inequalities and underachievement.

The First Minister has advocated the creation of a body tasked to “bring forward recommendations for a staged process of integration”. This body should also deal with the issue of religious education and school assembly devotions.

If such a body, with suitable terms of reference, can be established, the Alliance Party will co-operate fully. We await developments.

Trevor Lunn MLA is Alliance education spokesperson

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