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Executive needs to put its money where its mouth is

There is at last a growing acknowledgement among politicians, officials and wider civic society that sharing within and between schools represents good value and good practice.

It is expressed in the draft Programme for Government (PfG), with its acknowledgement of collaboration in education as a crucial element in a shared future.

The Integrated Education Fund has been pioneering sharing between schools of all management types for more than a decade, believing any step towards a more cohesive way of working is a step along the right path.

We are very proud of the work done by schools under our Promoting a Culture of Trust (Pact) scheme since it was launched by Senator George Mitchell and supported by the Northern Ireland Fund for Reconciliation 12 years ago.

There are many organisations running programmes which bring our young people together. In many cases, the contact continues after the individual funding grant ends.

The sheer number of schools in Northern Ireland willingly engaged in cross-community contact shows that people do not want to continue working in isolation.

The draft Programme for Government promises an increase in the number of opportunities for children to participate in such projects. I hope this Executive is ready to step in at any point and pick up the reins, because the system for sharing between schools at present is ad hoc and fragile.

Many of these schemes can only be planned from year to year; in common with many charities and cross-community organisations, our work in schools depends on philanthropic funding.

Will the Executive put money where it has pledged support in principle? Will there be a continued, practical commitment to maintaining and increasing sharing between schools? Of course, Northern Ireland owes abundant gratitude to the individuals and organisations, which provide charitable support.

These generous donors have shown what can be achieved, but funding should be enshrined in the statutory system. It would be a sensible use of money; sharing is an investment in a harmonious future.

We should be working towards an education system where children learn, play and grow together in properly resourced schools, in state-of-the-art buildings.

An education system that focuses on the best academic and training outcomes, but also on the social dividends of collaboration. An education system that prepares young people for the global marketplace.

We may all use different language; whether we call it integration, sharing, collaboration - the goals and the outcomes are the important things.

The draft Programme for Government acknowledges that the status quo in education is neither sustainable nor desirable.

There is also an implicit acknowledgement that the work of organisations like the Integrated Education Fund has been and continues to be valuable. The Integrated Education Fund is also initiating pioneering work with communities, engaging politicians, professionals and the wider public in a conversation about new models of education.

We now need the political will to make decisions. I challenge our politicians to focus on what is important and to create a new vision of Northern Ireland's schools, to bring children together to grow in mind, body and spirit, rejecting traditional divisions.

We are calling on the Education Minister and the Executive to make decisions which make financial sense and offer the best learning and social outcomes for all our children.