Belfast Telegraph

Donal McKeown: Still lessons to be learned by school integrationists

It may not suit ‘integrated’ dogmatists, but increasing numbers of pupils are happily opting into Catholic education, writes Donal McKeown

Belfast Telegraph LucidTalk poll on segregated education in Northern Ireland. June 2013
Belfast Telegraph LucidTalk poll on segregated education in Northern Ireland. June 2013
Belfast Telegraph LucidTalk poll on segregated education in Northern Ireland. June 2013
Belfast Telegraph LucidTalk poll on segregated education in Northern Ireland. June 2013
Belfast Telegraph LucidTalk poll on segregated education in Northern Ireland. June 2013
Belfast Telegraph LucidTalk poll on segregated education in Northern Ireland. June 2013
Belfast Telegraph LucidTalk poll on segregated education in Northern Ireland. June 2013
Belfast Telegraph LucidTalk poll on segregated education in Northern Ireland. June 2013
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Statistics and questionnaires are both helpful and dubious sources of information. You can use them to deliver almost any preferred answer. And the LucidTalk poll (on behalf of the Integrated Education Fund) is a prime example of that.

It uses the loaded ‘segregated’ language that President Obama's used last week. So, of course, you'll get the answers built into the questions. And if you use the fuzzy term ‘integrated education’, most people — including those with a passion for Catholic education — will agree they want to ‘integrate’ education.

But it is culpably dishonest to identify the widespread support for the global process of ‘integrating’ education with the comparatively small integrated education movement. So, if you really want to know what people think, watch the customers and not the polls. First preferences are the most reliable indicator as to demand for a school.

Across Northern Ireland, this year the formally ‘integrated’ post-primary schools filled to only 85% of their potential intakes. In total, there were only seven integrated post-primary schools oversubscribed at first preferences.

That is not surprising, because the Bain report of 2006 stated clearly that “all schools and, indeed, all educational interests need to, and wish to, play their part in the journey towards the goal of a shared future ... We advocate, therefore, not a single approach to integration, but a more pervasive and inclusive strategy, focused on the dynamic process of integrating education across the school system”.

George Bain was right. Parents aren’t driven by dogma. They will always prioritise what works best, academically and socially. Catholic schools so often deliver that.

Unfortunately for the ‘integrated’ dogmatists, increasing numbers of pupils from across the spectrum are opting into the Catholic sector.

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In towns like Bangor, Lisburn and Coleraine/Portstewart, pupils are passing the local ‘integrated’ schools and choosing Catholic schools as the preferred schools both for academic standards and for integrating local populations.

Furthermore, the superficial, pre-Bain ‘integrated v others’ paradigm ignores the fact that there is an enormous amount of integrating and sharing going on between post-primary and primary schools.

There is a significant appetite in many communities to retain diversity and a distinctive ethos, while maximising sharing in order to support and enhance opportunities for all children. And that also delivers.

Across modern diverse societies, the state has the duty to facilitate the citizen’s right to choice. Those taxpayers who prefer Catholic education — whatever their religious belief, or non-belief — are entitled to have that choice, as long as it contributes to quality outcomes.

And the Catholic sector is particularly good at producing above-average outcomes for pupils of all levels of ability. Catholic schools are not some relic of a divided past. They are key architects in creating a future where diversity is celebrated and not demonised.

As for the Obama speech it is very passe to use the hackneyed ‘Protestant v Catholic’ caricature.

Some 15 years ago, the Good Friday Agreement showed that the core problem in Northern Ireland was political, not religious.

In its 2011 report, the International Fund for Ireland talks about “helping unionists and nationalists to learn, work and live together”.

We are a much more diverse society than 20 years ago. As in Britain, Catholic schools in Northern Ireland are among the most racially and linguistically integrated. In a society where church-going is a minority interest, it is ridiculous to trot out a simplistic denominational vocabulary.

The Secretary of State openly supports church schools. George Bain and Nick Clegg sent their children to Catholic schools — and value them.

Can we move beyond slogans and support best practice in all schools? Then, together, we might focus on what actually creates most division and damage — the so-called “academic selection” at 11.

Most Rev Dr Donal McKeown is Auxiliary Bishop of Down and Connor and chair of the NI Commission for Catholic Education

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