Belfast Telegraph

Tuesday 23 September 2014

Why I’m flying a kite for schools that offer choice

In an education system riven with division Integrated Week points to a better future for all our children, writes Noreen Campbell

This week 21,000 students and their families and 61 schools celebrated Integrated Week with a launch at Parliament Buildings. It was a hopeful event as the kites flew high in a bright blue sky representing the hopes of our young people.

It was a unique event: the first time that kites have been flown actually, rather than just metaphorically, at Stormont.

And it was an important event because it launched an important week - perhaps the most important week in the calendar of integrated schools.

Integrated Week celebrates the fact that parents do have an integrated choice. In an educational system riven with divisions based on religion, class, ability and gender, the integrated school is a paradigm of what is possible.

Integrated Week celebrates the work of the parents who made this possible. When in the late 1970s a group of parents united as All Children Together and worked against the odds to found the first integrated school, Lagan College, in 1981, they were faced with opposition, derision and disbelief. Lagan College is today the most oversubscribed school in Northern Ireland.

The courage and example of that first group of parents inspired and encouraged others and over the following years 40 separate groups of parents came together to replicate this success. This spontaneous grassroots movement by parents is unique to Northern Ireland.

The work of existing schools which chose to follow the path to transform to integrated status is equally to be applauded and celebrated.

The process of transformation is a challenging one for staff, parents, students and local communities. More than 20 controlled schools have successfully followed this route.

In Integrated Week we celebrate the work of those who have supported integration and its development.

It also provides a time for our schools to reflect on what makes them unique.

They aim to provide a first-class education for all children in an all-ability setting. Their consistently high results attest to their success.

There is much debate at the moment about selection and transfer at 11. Our integrated colleges allow for a seamless transition from primary to secondary school without the stress of testing and the labelling which accompanies it.

Our integrated schools are child-centred. They offer a personalised education based on the needs and talents of individual children. They are parent-friendly; they are rooted in a strong working and positive partnership with parents.

All of these elements are important, but the central aim of our schools is to create, in a divided society, a shared space where children can learn together.

Our schools aim to engage our young people in an exploration of their own identity and the identities of others.

The First Minister and Deputy First Minister last week announced agreement on a programme for cohesion, sharing and integration. All of those who work in, or support, Integrated Week welcome this.

Time after time, parents have expressed a preference for integrated education. The challenge now is for government, not individual groups of parents, to take the lead in building a shared and integrated future through shared and integrated schools.

This week education has been at the forefront of the news. The news has been dominated by, on the one hand, the plans of the Commission for Catholic Education for the future development and planning of post-primary Catholic education and, on the other, the struggle of grammar schools to protect their privilege through the continuation of testing.

In contrast to these debates, young people across Northern Ireland from all backgrounds have been flying kites for integration.

They have been looking up and beyond, they have been reaching out and learning together, they have been actively engaged in integration and sharing. They and their schools are the building blocks for a shared future.

Noreen Campbell is chief executive officer of the Northern Ireland Council for Integrated Education

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