Integrated schools strategy needed... but the devil's in the detail
The overwhelming majority of people here support integrated education but as yet there is no consensus on how to deliver it, writes Bill White
LucidTalk recently carried out an opinion poll on behalf of the Integrated Education Fund (IEF), which was reported in the Belfast Telegraph and has raised a fair amount of debate both in this newspaper and in other media.
There have been points made in commentary articles about the poll, suggesting that some of the results were contradictory and that the poll questions were designed to achieve a particular, pre-determined outcome. But what did the poll results really say?
To set the context, perhaps we should note recent comments from the Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness: "If we were starting with a blank sheet of paper, with no education system whatsoever, we would plump for a fully integrated education system.
"But that is not where we are at. We have to deal with the legacy that we have been inheriting."
The LucidTalk poll reflects these comments. The first poll question was that "blank sheet of paper" measuring support for the concept of integrated education.
This showed that the vast majority of Northern Ireland citizens – and particularly parents – support the concept of integrated education. However, when you ask specific questions, for example about combining local schools, then you receive what could be concluded as different answers.
However, they are not different answers, but answers to different questions. This is not contradictory but reflects the complex issue of starting from an already established educational structure and not from a blank sheet of paper, as Mr McGuinness has said.
These variances happen in all polls, because polling (unlike public elections) can research a vast array of factors related to one subject, including, for example, demographic analyses covering gender, age-group and occupation.
It is the combination and analysis of all this data that can show patterns of opinion that public elections can't record; patterns and trends that would otherwise go undiscovered. For example, public elections only record a voter's preference for a candidate, with no indication why that voter chose that particular candidate.
There's no record of whether a particular vote is cast by a male, or a female, or whether the voter chose the specific candidate on his/her own merits, or more for the political party the candidate was representing.
Currently in the UK (based on polling in Britain, not Northern Ireland), Labour have been averaging a 10-point lead, but when asked who would manage the economy better, the Conservatives have consistently polled ahead of Labour.
Again, some may conclude this as contradictory, but it isn't. It shows that, if an election were held tomorrow, Labour would probably win, but an election isn't going to be held tomorrow and polling trends show that Labour's lead is vulnerable on the economy (and also in terms of their relationship with the trade unions).
So, in terms of the integrated education debate, what conclusions can we draw from the polling?
We can say, in a broad sense, that the poll – and all previous polls – show that a substantial majority (80%-plus) of citizens here – and particularly parents – support the concept of integrated education.
However, although 80% of those polled support the overall integrated education concept as a final goal, the results from further, specific poll questions show that there are many different opinions and ideas as to how to get there.
Perhaps the politicians and the educational professionals should agree on and design a road map that moves towards the final goal of integrated education for all, which opinion polls consistently show the Northern Ireland public want.
However, as always with complex subjects, the devil is in the detail.