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Ulster's shared education 'error': We can’t afford to burn £44m on policy says expert

By Rebecca Black

A leading academic has questioned a plan to spend £40m on shared education projects as an "expensive diversion" after proposed budget plans revealed that 2,500 teachers and support staff may lose their jobs.

Professor Alan Smith from the University of Ulster has queried whether the investment in shared education is the best use of taxpayers' money in a climate of increasing financial cuts - particularly in light of the Department of Education's draft budget proposals to cut 1,000 teaching posts and 1,500 support staff.

"The Department of Education has recently developed a business plan to promote a £25m shared education project in Northern Ireland schools over the next four years," he told the Belfast Telegraph.

"Closer inspection of the business plan reveals a number of problems and suggests that shared education may be an expensive diversion in the current economic climate, which invests in separate schooling rather than tackling what is a de facto segregated system."

And the Unesco chair in education at the UN warned that the actual cost of the programme could climb to £44m.

Unlike integrated education, where children from the two main traditions here are educated side by side in the classroom, shared education has a wide scope which can include pupils from selective and non-selective schools in the same sector working together to deliver the curriculum, pupils from different backgrounds coming together once a year, to schools remaining separate but sharing resources like teachers.

Professor Smith revealed:

  • Only 11-12,000 children per year (5-10%) participate in shared projects.
  • Investments in shared education has reached £25m.
  • Only two-thirds of programmes were cross-community.
  • The first shared campus at Lisanelly in Omagh, which will house six separate schools, will cost £125m.
  • Stormont wants to create 10 of these campuses by 2018.

Around 93% of children in Northern Ireland attend schools which are identified with one identity despite there being thousands of empty desks in our education system.

The cost of this segregated system has been estimated by a Deloitte report as being as much as £80m each year.

Just 7% of pupils are educated in one of Northern Ireland's 62 integrated schools, which have opened since 1981.

Integrated schools must have 30% of pupils from the minority community of their catchment area.

Since 1998 the Executive has had a statutory duty to "facilitate and encourage" the development of integrated education.

Following a judicial review into the Department of Education's refusal to allow oversubscribed Drumragh Integrated College to increase its enrolment, Mr Justice Treacy said the department had failed in its legal duty to "facilitate and encourage" integrated education.

Following Stormont's toughest ever budget unveiled by Finance Minister Simon Hamilton last month, Education Minister John O'Dowd has been ordered to cut £198m from his budget.

Professor Smith has urged the department to reconsider where it can find savings, particularly in the area of shared education.

"This is a time to pause and ask if this course of action is the best use of taxpayers' money in a climate of increasing financial cuts to frontline education services," he said.

"In the current financial context, with dire warnings over the future of up to 2,500 and support staff in our schools, surely it is time to tackle the fundamental, unnecessary, and financially unsustainable divisions in our education system.

"Government should not continue to hide behind the smokescreen of parental choice."

Chief executive of the Integrated Education Fund, Tina Merron, said: "At a time of painful pressures on the public budget, it is shocking to see evidence of how millions of pounds will be spent on education project which cannot be sustainable," she said.

The department was unavailable for comment.

Profile: A Specialist in education and a Unesco chair

Professor Alan Smith is a specialist in education, conflict and international development based at the Ulster University's Coleraine campus.

He is the holder of the Unesco chair in education and heads up research unit based within UU's School of Education.

Prof Smith has taught in Northern Ireland and Zimbabwe and was a senior research fellow at the university's centre for the study of conflict.

His work includes research on education and the conflict in Northern Ireland, young people's understanding of human rights and the development of social, civic and political education.

He was involved in the establishment of integrated schools in Northern Ireland was the founding chairman of the Northern Ireland Council for Integrated Education (NICIE).

Prof Smith is currently a technical advisor to the Unicef's Peacebuilding, Education and Advocacy programme, an initiative involving conflict analyses in up to 14 conflict-affected countries.

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