Parents have sent an unequivocal message to the Education Minister as he prepares to make major decisions on the future rationalisation of the schools’ estate — they want their children educated side by side.
And they believe the community — not politicians and civil servants in the Department of Education — should have the say on how closures and amalgamations are carried out.
More than six out of 10 people support merging schools of various backgrounds as a way to save money, according to the latest Belfast Telegraph LucidTalk opinion poll. The survey asked respondents, in light of under pressure education budgets, which of the following options they would consider as a way to save money.
The options included a) cutting back on maintenance in existing schools; b) merging Catholic maintained, state controlled, integrated and Irish medium schools if pupils numbers were low; c) raising taxes and rates or d) abolishing free school transport for children whose parents work.
The overwhelming majority of respondents (61%) stated they would prefer to see mergers of schools with low pupil numbers as opposed to cutting back on school maintenance (10%), increasing taxes and rates (9%) or abolishing free school transport for children whose parents work (20%).
The findings come two days before Education Minister John O’Dowd is due to take receipt of Northern Ireland’s five education and library boards’ area plans for the post primary sector. The North Eastern Education and Library Board last night published its proposals.
The boards should give the Sinn Fein minister food for thought as he considers how the rationalise the schools estate. Proposals to reduce the 85,000 empty desks in our schools include closures, mergers, extending some schools to cater for up to 2,000 pupils and retaining the status quo.
“There is enormous waste with school resources; all schools should pool their resources and facilities,” one respondent said.
There was an almost even split in the level of support among Protestants and Catholics for cross-sector mergers with 63% and 56% respectively.
Trevor Lunn MLA said: “These results confirm our impression that the public is more prepared than some politicians to consider radical moves to merge more schools across the different education sectors.
“It will bring economic as well as social benefits to our society, and I would urge the department to make it easier to do so.”
The poll also reveals more than half of those surveyed (57%) were unaware of the public consultation process that was criticised for running over the summer holidays with only 15% of poll respondents having given feedback on the area plans.
The Programme for Government has made a commitment to substantially increase the number of schools sharing facilities by 2015 while an advisory group on shared education is due to make its recommendations to the Education Minister in February.
The North Eastern Education and Library Board last night unveiled plans for its post primary schools.
They — along with wider proposals for the rest of its area — will be submitted to the Education Minister (right) and published in due course.
The initial proposals involve schools in the Antrim, Ballymena, Coleraine and Newtownabbey areas.
Key proposals include:
The Minister for Education must listen to parents and teachers about school reform — and make it easier for them to speak out.
Certainly these poll results suggest that the preference parents would voice would be a long way from the structures enshrined in the area-based plans from the education and library boards.
The answers to the survey implicitly portray a public mistrustful of policy makers, left out of the consultation process and with a clear preference for cross-community education.
The public consultation on plans for post-primary education has ended, the process having been carried out with a majority of those polled not aware that the exercise was under way.
Community and voluntary organisations, including the Integrated Education Fund, have been hosting public meetings on the future of education, offering a platform for discussion and creative thinking, but surely this initiative should not be left to the voluntary sector?
The responses to the question about alternative ways of saving money in education show that mergers, even across sectors, are a popular option.
Cross-community sharing was urged by the minister at the beginning of the area-based planning process but it has been conspicuously absent in the plans from the respective boards.
With the boards due to report shortly on their consultations and with the plans for primary provision in the pipeline, these poll findings are a timely signal that the whole process is flawed and needs to properly engage the electorate and truly reflect public opinion on education reform.Tina Merron is chief executive of the Integrated Education Fund