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Shared facilities offer path towards an agreed future

The leaflets have been delivered, the shoe leather has been sacrificed; now the decision rests in our hands. Those Assembly hopefuls that make the cut after today's poll - and it'll be around half of them - will, I hope, be heading for Stormont full of ideals and a commitment to address the issues they've heard about on the doorsteps in recent weeks.

Some of them will be asked to form the Executive. While heading up a department may seem a good career move, ministers will be taking office at a time when they will be required to take tough decisions, faced with an unprecedented reduction in the Northern Ireland block grant.

It is obvious to me that, in the case of our education system, a radical approach is needed. It's crucial that we use scarce public resources more creatively to achieve quality outcomes for our children.

When I look at the education system, I take no pleasure in saying that I see waste. We've upwards of 80,000 empty desks; a crumbling schools estate; a black hole in the capital and maintenance budgets; ad hoc rationalisation in some sectors which will lead to dislocation of school communities and, worryingly, deepening division in our schools.

The political scientist John Kingdon listed three elements for bold policy making: the right political leaders must be in place; they must have the right plan; and - vitally - they must agree on a problem that needs fixing.

Using that 'exam test', how will we shape up? Previous performance, financiers would tell us, is a predictor of how things will perform in the future. Recent history has shown us that in spite of broad agreement on what needs to be fixed in education, previous Executives lacked the right plan to fix the problem.

Hopefully, we will get an Executive that is sufficiently emboldened to shape an education system fit for purpose for the 21st century.

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The recent Ipsos MORI research should give politicians the encouragement that sharing within and between schools is clearly the way forward to a truly reconciled Northern Ireland. They can start to take action, confident that they have the backing of the public on this issue.

The Belfast Telegraph captured the essence of a new approach to education in its election manifesto: schools built around children and communities.

Falling school rolls provide an opportunity to bring children together. Fully-integrated schools provide one route. Providing incentives to share facilities and teachers is another way to offer our children a shared future, more choices and state-of-the-art-facilities.

If schools pool resources, every child will have an opportunity to try the best that is on offer.

I wholeheartedly endorse that position and would commend it as a starting point for the new Education Minister, the Executive and the Assembly; it is practical, it is sensible and it is do-able. If they cannot agree a way forward - one that commands the confidence of civil society - then civil society must call on the Executive to establish an independent commission.

Such a commission should, in my view, look at the current model of education delivery and bring forward a new deal for education.

The establishment of a commission must not be a tactic to kick the 'too hard' issue into the long grass. It must deliver its recommendations to the Executive within 18 months. If the stalemate in education reform continues then the recommendations should be the subject of a referendum within the life of the new Assembly.

It is incumbent on the new Executive to demonstrate the bold policy-making to which John Kingdon refers. It can do so in the confidence that the recent Ipsos Mori polling supports practical and meaningful sharing of facilities and resources - indeed, many schools are already on this very journey.

What they need from our political leaders is a strong commitment to broaden and deepen this work within an agreed new policy.


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