A new report designed to promote shared education has been branded a missed opportunity to allow Protestant and Catholic children to sit side by side in class.
That was the damning indictment by educationalists and politicians after advisers appointed by Education Minister John O'Dowd announced their blueprint for shared education.
First Minister Peter Robinson (below) has labelled the Ministerial Advisory Group report, which has been nine months in the making, "an opportunity lost".
He said: "'It is not desirable, either economically or socially, that we continue to perpetuate a kind of benign apartheid within our education system.
"It was for that reason that the DUP pressed to establish the Ministerial Working Group to address the issue of shared education. Even a cursory glance at this document reveals the authors lack any conviction or reforming zeal to tackle the core issues.
"Instead of focusing on the clear desire which exists across the community to promote shared education, they have decided to focus on the divisive issue of academic selection and have placed perceived class issues above the religious divide in their priorities."
The 140-page report was criticised by Alliance, UUP, and integrated and grammar sectors.
It is scathing in its criticism of academic selection, which it sees as a barrier to shared education.
Professor Paul Connolly, chairman of the advisory group, said: "There is clear evidence that the current system of secondary and grammar schooling is not only creating and sustaining divisions on the basis of socio-economic background but it is also exacerbating achievement gaps.
"The current system that only offers two educational pathways – grammar or secondary – and that determines which pathway a child will follow based upon one high-stakes and unregulated test at the age of 11 is divisive and not fit for purpose."
John Hart, director of the Governing Bodies Association which represents 52 voluntary grammar schools, said: "It appears more exercised about rehashing well-worn arguments on academic selection than on how we tackle division across communities. The basic premise of shared education is different types of schools working together for everyone's benefit. But it seems today's report doesn't want to see academic-focused schools offered to parents as a choice in the first place."
UUP education spokesman Danny Kinahan claimed it diverted focus from shared education.
He said: "The primary brief of the panel was to report on shared education and not selection. The whole debate is being poisoned by Sinn Fein's consistent attempts to destroy grammar schools."
Alliance welcomed the stance on selection, but spokesman Trevor Lunn said: "The report fails to define the different levels or types of shared education."
The report was welcomed by Sinn Fein and several teaching unions.
Avril Hall Callaghan of the Ulster Teachers' Union, said: "We welcome the fact that it copper-fastens its beliefs by calling for changes to be enshrined in law and to happen as soon as possible – and that includes consignment of academic selection at 11 to the dustbin of history."
Last July the Education Minister announced the establishment of a Ministerial Advisory Group to provide advice on how the Programme For Government commitments on shared education – to ensure all children have the opportunity to participate in shared education programmes by 2015 – could be fulfilled. Shared education is defined as two or more schools from different sectors working together to deliver educational benefits, good relations and respect for diversity.
By May Blood
The much anticipated publication of the report by the Ministerial Advisory Group on Shared Education sets out the principle of bringing children together from an early age.
It acknowledges the positive impact that cross-community contact through schools can have on our society.
Therefore, I have to ask, if educating children together is such a good thing then why does the report feel the need to largely discount a model of shared schooling with strong public support such as integrated education?
It is outrageous that a group commissioned to look at advancing “shared education” has excluded integrated education so readily.
In fact, this report does little to challenge the continued structural separation of our children from the age of four. That is why I find the report from the Ministerial Advisory Group on Shared Education so underwhelming and disappointing.
For decades many people and organisations have sought imaginative and innovative ways of bringing our community together in Northern Ireland, particularly during our darkest days of our Troubles.
Many people took real risks for peace. By taking those risks we developed a peace process envied across the world for its many successes.
If we as a society are to deal with the fundamental structures that divide and separate us then we need to be more courageous, bolder and creative than the authors of this report seem prepared to go.
Baroness May Blood is campaign chair of the Integrated Education Fund