Belfast Telegraph

Two into one will go: it's the way to better schools

We need an independent commission to rationalise our divided education system, says Noreen Campbell

A week is a long time in politics. Yet in spite, or indeed because, of economic crises and impending spending cuts, the issue of our segregated education system remains high on the agenda.

The question is simple: how can we afford to continue with a system which duplicates educational provision? At primary school level we divide our schools on religious grounds. At post-primary level we have the grammar/secondary divide, the gender divide and, again, the religious divide.

Quite rightly, this duplication and triplication is being challenged at the highest level, in a moral, social context as well as in an economic one.

The Deloitte report and Oxford Economics paper outlined the cost of division. The economic argument for rationalisation is clear, the moral and social argument clearer.

It is unfortunate that, instead of Peter Robinson's speech being welcomed as an opportunity to start a debate, it has been sidetracked into a debate on Catholic education.

But structures are not fixed in perpetuity. Society has moved on; it is time for the educational system to reflect this.

Those involved in education recognise the transformational power of the educational system; the challenge is to move from where we are now to a system of shared education.

As a society, Northern Ireland has changed. We have many people who do not espouse any religion. We have increasing numbers of 'mixed' marriages - and yet we still have the absurd situation that children from such marriages are designated by their schools as Catholic or Protestant depending on the area in which they live. The rights of such children to be able to celebrate their 'dual belonging' should be recognised. There are different ways to move forward. The 61 existing integrated schools offer a model of shared education and provide examples of good practice for ensuring appropriate religious provision and celebrating cultural traditions in an environment of mutual respect.

However, there are many ways in which sharing can be promoted: the Sharing Education Partnerships enable young people to meet as part of daily educational provision, linking schools and teachers in innovative partnerships.

The Area Learning Communities have the potential to ensure that all young people have an entitlement to a wide range of subjects in classes which are economically viable through planned coordination and sharing of resources and expertise.

There are many examples of shared schools where Catholic schools work in confederation with others to ensure an inclusive and diverse education. There is an onus on the Catholic Church to face up to the responsibility placed on it by the Eames/Bradley report, which challenged all Churches to discuss the (unintended) negative consequences of our denominational school system.

Our economic situation does not allow us to continue as we are; the threat from dissidents reminds us that peace building is an ongoing process which must engage our youth proactively.

We urgently need to establish an independent commission with the authority to recommend a rationalisation of our educational system based on the recommendations of the Bain report and the Sustainable Schools policy and to do so in a time-bound, cost-effective way which will ensure our young people are educated together.

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