A bill to reform integrated education is “unwelcome and unhelpful” and would “completely undermine” a Stormont review of the schools system, according to a DUP minister.
Education Minister Michelle McIlveen was speaking during a debate on an Integrated Education Bill brought to the Assembly by Alliance MLA Kellie Armstrong.
“All other schools would become secondary to integrated if this bill becomes law,” the new DUP minister said.
Despite objections from the DUP, the bill passed its second stage by 56 votes to 27 and will go on to the committee stage.
DUP members said there were serious concerns that the bill had reached Stormont without consultation from either the controlled education sector or the Council for Catholic Maintained Schools.
Integrated education also came under attack from Sinn Fein, with former Education Minister John O’Dowd telling the Assembly the current integrated sector did nothing to promote Irishness and was instead seen by many as having a British identity.
“If the integrated sector is serious about respecting all identities, it has to get its head around that one. Very few integrated schools play Gaelic football and none promote the Irish language,” he said.
While Sinn Fein supported the bill, the party warned it would need “serious and significant changes” to make the proposals fit for purpose.
Ms Armstrong told the Assembly that the Executive Office’s Good Relations report said 21% of children whose first preference was an integrated post-primary school were not able to secure a place. “That is evidence of the lack of places in existing integrated schools to meet demand, a demand further evident in last week’s Life and Times survey, which confirmed 69% of parents would prefer their child went to a mixed religion school,” she added.
“This bill aims to address parental demand and grow community cohesion by making integrated schooling a viable choice for parents across Northern Ireland.”
DUP members raised a series of issues with the plans.
“This is a clear attempt to put one sector on a higher plane than others,” said former DUP Education Minister Peter Weir, referring to a clause that would require all new schools to have integrated status.
His colleague Robin Newton asked why the bill was being brought forward when it was “stepping on the toes” of the independent review of education due to start this year.
“The controlled sector and the Catholic maintained sector both say they have serious reservations. Should they not have had involvement?” he said.
“It is somewhat rich that the member at this stage says she is willing to meet with these bodies after they contacted her and after she has published the bill.”
Though supporting the bill, SDLP MLA Daniel McCrossan said his party would rather have waited until the independent review of education had happened before it was brought forward.
TUV leader Jim Allister, meanwhile, described the proposals as “a determined assault on academic selection”.
“You cannot have selection and integrated in the same room. There is breathtaking arrogancy to this,” he said.