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79% in Northern Ireland said yes they would back a move to see their children’s school change to integrated

Stormont under pressure to meet parents’ demands

By Lindsay Fergus

The Stormont Executive is facing unprecedented pressure to meet the demands of parents and provide more provision for integrated education in Northern Ireland.

A new opinion poll has revealed that four out of five parents here would back a move to transform their child’s school to an integrated one.

Currently only 7% of children go to school in the integrated sector in Northern Ireland. The vast majority of children are educated in the state or Catholic schools sectors.

However, an exclusive Lucid Talk poll, conducted on behalf of the Integrated Education Fund, shows that the demand for Catholic and Protestant children to be educated side by side has reached an all-time high.

The results suggest that our political parties, who were recently criticised for pushing integrated education off the agenda, do not reflect the views of the majority of people in Northern Ireland.

The poll revealed:

  •  79% of respondents would support a request for their child’s school to become integrated;
  • 69% of people agreed an integrated school was the best setting to prepare children to live and work in an increasingly diverse society in the future;
  • 66% of respondents agreed integrated schools should be the main model for our education system;
  • 71% agreed that a single education system was the best way to deliver education in the future.

A number of Northern Ireland’s best known personalities, including former boxing world champion Barry McGuigan and actors Adrian Dunbar and Geraldine Hughes, have spoken of the importance of educating our children side by side.

The Mayor of New York, Michael Bloomberg, has added his voice, too.

Melanie Harland, whose daughter attends an integrated school, said: “I believe everybody should be educated together — Protestant and Catholic.”

“Everybody thinks this is the way forward, to get more children into integrated schools, but there is not enough integrated provision.”

Alliance education spokesman Trevor Lunn said: “Too many of our young people are currently taught in single identity schools meaning they have little or no contact with people from different traditions. We will not be able to break down the barriers in our society if we do not start with our young people.”

This week parent power ensured that the integrated post-primary sector was not diluted after they rejected plans by education bosses. Proposals to amalgamate several integrated schools with schools in the controlled and voluntary grammar sectors could have seen at least three integrated secondary schools disappear.

But parents sent an unequivocal message to the education and library boards.

And last week a damning piece of research by the University of Ulster found that integrated education has been pushed off the political and policy agenda by shared education.

One of the reports authors, Professor Alan Smith, said: “To date government has interpreted its statutory responsibility ‘to encourage and facilitate integrated education’ as a requirement only to be responsive to parental demand, rather than education authorities actively seeking opportunities to increase the number of integrated or common schools.

“Recent Department of Education figures show that almost half of Northern Ireland’s schoolchildren are still being taught in schools where 95% or more of the pupils are of the same religion.

“As a strategy for social change this seems like a passive approach with no real incentives for schools to become more inclusive beyond maintaining school numbers,” he said.

Professor Smith added: “There is an urgent need for much deeper public engagement in these issues and for clearer thinking about the long-term implications of distinctions between integration, mixed and shared education.

“We suggest that there is the need for an informed debate on where current education policies are leading us and what our ultimate destination as a society might be.”

Support for single education system gives food for thought

By Lindsay Fergus

THE vast majority of people believe a single education system is the best way to deliver education in Northern Ireland, according to a new opinion poll.

A massive 70.6% of those quizzed backed the model, which would see Catholic and Protestant children educated side-by-side. Just 15.7% were opposed to the move.

And there is universal support for a single education system with backing from more than two-thirds of Catholics (69.3%) and Protestants (68.3%).

In densely populated areas such as Belfast, more than 89% of people who participated in the Lucid Talk poll support a single education system. But west of the Bann support drops to less than 30%.

The poll found that cross-community school mergers were the most popular option for integrating the school system.

Rural areas including Cookstown, Omagh, Strabane, Castlederg, central Enniskillen, central and west Fermanagh — where many schools are unsustainable — are the only places where there is not majority backing for a single education system.

Generally, support for integrated education is also high with 66% of respondents stating integrated schools should be the main model of our education system, with Protestants more in favour at 75.2% than Catholics at 61.5%.

Again areas including Augher, Clogher, Fivemiletown, east Enniskillen, Cookstown, Omagh, Strabane, Castlederg, central Enniskillen, and central and west Fermanagh are the only places where there is not majority support for integrated education. More than two-thirds of respondents said an integrated school best prepares children for living and working in a diverse society.

Comments included that there was a need for “new policy on education” and accused politicians of being “frightened” to talk about integrated education. Others stated “the Churches should agree a common policy on education”.

It is a clear message to our politicians and particularly the Education Minister that the public wants to move beyond our segregated education system.

Figures from the Department of Education show in the last academic year 291 schools had pupils from only one tradition and 493 schools educated 95% of pupils from just one religion.

Belfast-based Lucid Talk, which ran the poll on behalf of the Integrated Education Fund, found:

  • High levels of dissatisfaction with the education system;
  •  Criticism of Church role in education, particularly the Catholic Church;
  • Criticism of local politicians who are not managing the education system well enough;
  • High level of criticism of the administration of education.

The findings should give Minister John O’Dowd food for thought as he prepares to publish area plans outlining which primary schools should remain open, be closed or amalgamated.

Draft plans, drawn up by five education and library boards and the Council for Catholic Maintained Schools for our 800 primary schools, are due to be released on March 19.

Three victorious in battle against amalgamation

The passion of parents for integrated education has ensured the growth of the post primary sector.

Three integrated schools under threat of amalgamation with schools in other sectors — Sperrin, North Coast and Ulidia — will continue in their own right.

And at least five integrated post primaries are still waiting to learn whether or not they will get the green light to open their schools up to more pupils.

It comes after plans — revised after public consultation — were published this week outlining the future proposals for Northern Ireland’s 200 secondary and grammar schools.

Views expressed included:

  • Slemish College should not be relocated but be permitted to grow as it is oversubscribed.
  • The cap of 500 on integrated schools should be removed to allow such provision to grow.
  •  The proposal to amalgamate the North Coast Integrated College with other schools would impact negatively on those wishing to travel to receive an integrated education.
  •  The intransigence and refusal of the maintained sector to be included in this process means that without integrated education, the plan is not cross-sectoral.
  • Sperrin Integrated College does not support an amalgamation with Rainey Endowed in Magherafelt as it would appear to attempt to subsume the identity of Sperrin into that of Rainey (a voluntary grammar).

However, parents of pupils who attend Ballycastle High School and Cross and Passion College — which already share facilities — were strenuously opposed to the proposal of the schools coming together to form a jointly managed school.

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