Belfast Telegraph

If we want a shared Northern Ireland the Executive has to address 'separate but equal' approach to education

By John McCallister

68%. That's the figure from the most recent Belfast Telegraph opinion poll of people in Northern Ireland believing that the Executive needs to make ending segregated education a priority. Most politicians anywhere else in the world would be bending over backwards to legislate for a stance which had such overwhelming support.

In Northern Ireland, however, politics works differently. While the Executive parties have - to greater or lesser degrees - made some supportive noises, action has been less forthcoming. Despite significant majority support across the community, progress has been notoriously slow.

The one sign of hope has been the Education Minister's decision to call for proposals for shared education campuses. The news that Crusaders FC is proposing a shared education campus is an example of the kind of innovative thinking that Northern Ireland needs.

Ten campuses is a start - but only a start. What other steps can be taken to drive this agenda forward?

In May, the new local government structure comes into effect. The key idea behind the reform has always been to produce stronger local government, giving local communities a greater voice. So let's use the new local government structures. Let's require each of the new councils to come forward with proposals for shared education in their communities - councillors, teachers, parents, governors, and local stakeholders sitting down together to show how this can be done in their local communities.

Like everywhere else in the UK and Ireland, the main churches are major stakeholders in education. In recent decades the partnership between the churches has greatly strengthened. In fact, recently the Catholic Archbishop of Armagh proposed a 'covenant of friendship' between the four main churches.

One practical outcome of this partnership should be in promoting shared education. To help move the agenda forward, the four churches who are major stakeholders in our education system should produce a joint report with recommendations on how shared education can be encouraged and facilitated.

We shouldn't forget that sizeable sections of our education system have experience of sharing and integration - not only integrated schools but also our further education colleges and universities. What lessons are to be learnt from these sectors about what does and doesn't work?

Last but by no means least, there are also examples in both the maintained and controlled sectors of schools which have experience of cross-community intakes. How do they do it? How can their example encourage other schools elsewhere in Northern Ireland?

Each of these steps would help to push the shared education issue much further up the political agenda. They would help create a context for meaningful change and enduring reform. Such incremental steps are necessary to lay the foundations of enduring change. But Northern Ireland also needs bold vision. Real change to bring about shared education requires the Executive to have the courage to act in a decisive way.

What would a bold vision for shared education look like? The Programme for Government of the next Executive should publicly declare that division in our education system will not continue; that a new shared approach to education must be put in place over the next decade; and that by 2025 every child and young person's experience of primary and post-primary education will be shared with children and young people from across the community.

I began with the figure of 68%. I'll end with another figure, very close to it. 63% - that's the proportion of people in Northern Ireland who believe our current education system perpetuates divisions in our society. If we want a shared, reconciled Northern Ireland, the Executive has to radically address the 'separate but equal' approach to education.


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