Belfast Telegraph

Shared education: No one-size for all, but it ensures that schools do their bit to build a shared society

By John McCallister

As a politician I know only too well that there are times - a lot of times - when it feels as if the business of politics doesn't achieve very much.  Yes, we have our debates, vote in the Assembly, and issue press releases, but does very much change?

There is the odd time when we can feel as if, yes, something actually has been achieved.

I had that feeling last week in the Assembly, when my fellow MLAs voted to support an amendment I had brought to the Education Minister's Bill establishing a new Education Authority.  The amendment simply stated: "It shall be a duty of the Authority, when exercising its functions, to encourage, facilitate and promote shared education".

Why did I feel it important enough to get it written into law?

To state the obvious, our education system in Northern Ireland is, not entirely but mostly, divided on religious grounds.  Poll after poll shows that most people are not happy with this.  We know that deliberately educating our children apart doesn't help reconciliation in a divided society.

But, when parents come to choosing schools, it is very often those schools with a strong ethos - often a with a relationship to a church - that are popular.  This is clearly true of the Maintained Sector i.e. Catholic schools.  It is also the case with a good number of schools (especially primary schools) in the Controlled Sector, in which representatives of the Presbyterian, Church of Ireland Methodist churches are important stakeholders.

This is very far from being unique to Northern Ireland.  Right across the United Kingdom, church or faith schools are incredibly popular with parents.  Irrespective of whether or not they practice a particular faith or attend a particular church, very large numbers of parents like the ethos and characteristics of church schools.

There is, however, a real difference between how church schools function in local communities in England and how they function in Northern Ireland.  There are Church of England schools in some English cities in which the vast majority of pupils are from Muslim backgrounds.  There are Catholic schools in England with very high proportions of pupils who are non-Catholic.  And in Liverpool - a city with historic sectarian tensions - there are shared Church of England-Roman Catholic schools.

The Chair of the Church of England's Education Board, the Bishop of Oxford, has put it this way: "our schools are inclusive as well as effective and distinctive".  So it is possible for church and faith schools to be inclusive while retaining the ethos which adds value to the educational experience.

Contrast this with Northern Ireland.  While there are some exceptions - which should be encouraged and praised - by and large, while we have schools that, while effective and distinctive, tend not to be inclusive in terms of the community background of pupils.  Very few schools in the Maintained Sector have large numbers of non-Catholics.  Few schools in the Controlled Sector have large numbers of Catholic pupils.  Which means that many of our children grow up and pass through the school system without meeting children from another community background.  And that, whether we like it or not, is an obstacle to building a shared society.

My amendment was definitely not an attack on church schools or church involvement in education.  The churches are historic stakeholders in the education system.  They bring much to the table - grounded in local communities, significant parental involvement, and values which most parents believe should shape our schools, not the least of which is the dignity of each person.

Rather than losing this, or placing it in confrontation with the desire to break down the walls of separation in our society, we need a way to combine both.  And that is where the idea of 'shared education' comes in.  It's not a one-size-fits-all approach - a criticism sometimes heard of integrated education.  Shared education does not ignore parental choice or remove the churches' role in education.  But it does say that the new Education Authority must ensure that schools do their bit to build a shared society.

So, no, no one-size-fits-all approach.  For example, what works in inner city area secondary schools will be different to rural primary schools.  It may mean local schools collaborating in terms of resources or property.  It may mean a shared church primary school after the Liverpool model.  It may mean the local Maintained or Controlled school going out of its comfort zone in terms of attracting pupils and parents.  What it definitely does mean is that shared education is not something which education decision-makers - or politicians - can ignore or sideline.

We have two great resources.  We have parents and churches committed to schools grounded in the local community and with a strong ethos that contributes to educational success.  And we have a real desire right across the community to ensure that our children are not educated in tribal blocs.  Rather than place these in opposition to one another, it's time to bring them together. It's time to promote shared education.

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