Belfast Telegraph

The solution for education can be found in integration

The economic crisis means the time is right to integrate our mainstream schools, says Noreen Campbell

Last week, the Northern Ireland Council for Integrated Education held its 22nd AGM. It reflected on the progress of integrated education over the last 30 years and asked the question: is the time now right to bring integrated education into the mainstream?

Northern Ireland is a different society today to what it was 30 years ago: we have moved beyond violence and there is an increasingly proactive approach to building peace in a shared society.

The divide between the two main traditions, identities and religions remains but increasingly people do not want to be identified as belonging to one particular box, nor do they want to see themselves as being in opposition to others.

Many no longer designate themselves by religion and many can see it is possible to hold different identities, to be both Irish and Northern Irish or British and Northern Irish. To many, a personal, self-constructed identity is more important than that into which he/she was born.

Northern Ireland is also a more diverse society than 30 years ago. We have had a significant increase in newcomers - families who enrich and add to our society and our schools through their diversity.

There is a responsibility on our educational service to provide for this range of diversity. There is a challenge to our educational sectors to move beyond a selective, sectoral approach to education.

We wish to build an inclusive society based on equality and respect; and the educational system must change to model the type of society we aspire to.

There is no place for exclusive education in such a society, whether that be of grammar schools which embed inequality, or faith schools, which are exclusively denominationally-based.

Our integrated schools provide a model for this new educational system: they are all-ability, co-educational and welcoming to all; they celebrate diversity and challenge bias and prejudice; they practise an overt policy of parity of esteem for different traditions and cultures.

All schools can adopt this model and embark on a journey of change which will ensure that schools are open and welcoming to all.

All schools can examine their culture to ensure the individual child in not expected to assimilate to a dominant culture. All schools can promote a celebration of difference in a ethos of tolerance and respect.

The time is right to embark on this journey of reflection and change. The economic crisis is having a big impact on our schools. The process of area-based planning must be based on the need to provide the best possible education for all of the children in a community.

The economic crisis has generated an educational crisis. Such a crisis presents an opportunity for schools to reach out to serve all in the community; for schools to transform at a fundamental level without necessarily becoming involved in the legal process of transformation.

True change and transformation is about changing hearts and opening minds - not changing names and structures.

It is through this change of hearts and minds, this process of reflection, this opening up of schools to be inclusive and diverse, that a way will be found to share education, to save money and to achieve the Minister of Education's vision of the 'right school in the right area for that community'.

So yes the time is right to mainstream integrated education. Educational change and rationalisation must happen.

Let us ensure that the beneficiaries of such change are our children and young people, who will at last have as an entitlement the right to learn with each other, from each other and about each other.

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