Could this be the model for integrated education?
As the Assembly prepares to debate how schools can work more closely together, Professor Tony Gallagher outlines the collaborative work already taking place
Over recent years primary and secondary education has been much debated in Northern Ireland, with our political leaders finding few areas to agree on. Until now that is.
The latest flurry of comment on the consequences and future funding of denominational schools provoked another round of defensive responses from interested parties.
But amidst all the claims and counter-claims, a consensus has emerged among political and education leaders that schools ought to look at ways of working together.
The Bain Report in 2006 suggested that it might be possible to save up to £75m in the education budget if schools worked collaboratively. As we approach a time when public spending and resources are going to become increasingly stretched, there is a growing recognition that schools ought to work together to maximise their effectiveness.
It has been interesting to note that many of the statements made acknowledging this fact, however, have been aspirational in nature. As if such school collaboration ought to be a future target, or a 'great idea' that should be taken to a higher level.
But in actual fact, such effective collaboration is already occurring on a large scale in Northern Ireland.
Over 4,000 pupils from over 60 schools here have been working together across the denominational divide for the last three years.
This collaboration has been happening as the result of The Sharing Education Programme (SEP). And following its success, a second round of three-year partnerships has just begun.
SEP provides enhanced educational opportunities for all the pupils involved. It supports schools in working together by facilitating collaboration and sharing on a regular and sustained basis, across a wide range of curricular and extra-curricular activities. The programme also promotes social cohesion and reconciliation. This enables schools to meet one of their key objectives, which is to help prepare our young people to live and work in a diverse society.
The first group of partnerships clearly demonstrated the effectiveness of cross-sectoral collaboration, and has been embraced enthusiastically by pupils, teachers and parents. The second group will now build upon, and enhance, the experience gained by their predecessors.
On a day to day basis, thousands of pupils from across Northern Ireland are now being given access to enhanced educational and development opportunities, while at the same time building positive relationships with those from different backgrounds and cultures. And this is happening in schools right across the different management sectors, controlled, maintained, Catholic voluntary and other voluntary schools.
In short, Sharing Education encourages schools from across all the sectors to work together for the greater good of their pupils.
It allows parents and pupils to choose a school with a particular ethos, while at the same time giving them the access to the different expertise and experience available in other schools.
By doing this we retain the richness provided by a diversity of schools types, while overcoming the risk of dividing youngsters into impermeable silos. Importantly, it also helps schools meet the challenge of providing all pupils with access to the widest possible range of educational opportunities.
Real, practical, evidence has been provided by the Sharing Education model that collaboration in Northern Ireland works, to the benefit of schools and pupils.
Moreover, the potential societal benefits from young people working together towards shared goals and benefits, regardless of community background, is an opportunity we as a society cannot afford to miss.
Education has appeared to be something of a political football for the last decade, but a real opportunity now exists to transform the educational experience we can provide for our children, whilst respecting the rights of parents to choose the ethos of the schools they attend.
The Sharing Education Programme will continue to support schools in the development of practical, collaborative partnerships, but there is no doubt that the hard work and dedication of all the staff, pupils and parents in SEP partnership schools has been the bedrock upon which success has been built.
In many ways these people involved across the schools have acted as pioneers, trying new ideas and pushing the boundaries of what was previously thought possible.
They have demonstrated the enormously positive potential in collaborative learning.
SEP has been able to release the imagination and creativity of staff, pupils and parents, and their response has been astounding and inspirational.
What they have achieved provides a model for the whole of society, as they have developed ways of working together for the common good.
Our hope now is that this model is taken up by other schools and encouraged by our leaders in politics and education - our children deserve no less than our best efforts towards a shared and better future.