Why our parties are strangling the integrated system
Much has changed for the better since the Good Friday Agreement. So why is education still stuck in the sectarian gulch, asks Lindsay Fergus
Since the Good Friday Agreement was signed in April 1998, the number of pupils availing of integrated education has increased from 11,382 to 21,031, according to the latest school census figures. The number of integrated schools has also climbed, from 40 in 1998 to 62 in 2013.
That means, in 15 years, there has been a 46% rise in the number of pupils being educated in the integrated sector, thanks to a 35% jump in the number of integrated schools.
So it would appear that the wheels of progress are turning, with more and more Catholic and Protestant children being educated side-by-side on a daily basis.
On initial inspection, those figures appear good.
But, if you take a closer look, they are in fact a damning indictment of our political parties' failure to honour their statutory obligation to facilitate the development of integrated education.
Broken down, this means that just 9,469 extra pupils will avail of an integrated education this year, compared to 1998. That is an average annual increase of just 631 pupils over that timeframe.
Yet there are more than 333,400 pupils registered in Northern Ireland schools this year, representing an annual rise in pupil numbers in the integrated sector of less than 0.2%.
At that pace of change – based on the school population staying the same – it will take another 499 years for our deeply-divided education system to become fully integrated, safeguarding the sectarian politics of our main unionist and nationalist political parties
When it comes to the increase in integrated schools, the figures are no better. Today, there are 511 controlled schools and 519 schools under Catholic management, compared to just 62 integrated schools.
Again, that means that, of almost 1,100 nursery, primary and post-primary schools here, just 6% are in the integrated sector.
So it should come as no surprise in a sector that small – and one that has been politically thwarted from reaching its true growth potential – that hundreds of pupils are being turned away from oversubscribed integrated schools every year.
Integrated Education Fund statistics show that, last year, almost one-in-five pupils (16.5%) who applied for an integrated school failed to secure a place.
With so few integrated schools, many parents have no option but to put their child into a Catholic or controlled school.
Yet if 16.5% of pupils were unsuccessful in securing a place in controlled schools (21,604 ), or in Catholic schools (24,188), there would be political uproar, with the DUP, UUP, SDLP and Sinn Fein, in particular screaming from the Assembly's benches about the denial of parental choice.
The reality is that only one party has remained committed down the years to integrated education in its manifestos, policies, words and deeds: Alliance.
However, as a centrist party, it has no real firepower against the bigger parties – on both the nationalist and unionist side – which have no genuine commitment to integrated education, yet continue to monopolise the votes of parents whose children attend controlled and Catholic schools.
By 2010, Alliance wanted to see 10% of all pupils educated in integrated schools. Three years later, the figure is well below that (6%).
It has now increased that target to 20% by 2020, but unless there is a major change in educational policy with the other main parties, that figure is pie in the sky.
The DUP has shifted its focus from integrated to 'shared', which is a continuation of the status quo, although its vision is for a single education system that is not a single integrated sector, but the controlled sector, which all pupils attend.
The party has also complained in the past about "special privileges for integrated schools which consequently draw resources away from other sectors".
Sinn Fein, for its part, wants secular education in multi-denominational schools, but says "it would be mistaken to confuse these norms with how the British Government handles integrated education in the Six Counties".
The party is in favour of integrated schools being an option and made a specific election pledge to enhance the Irish-medium sector.
The UUP makes little reference to integrated education in its manifestos, or policies, mentioning 'shared' and collaboration.
It, too, wants a single education system, but like the DUP, you can be sure that is not a single education system where all pupils integrate into Catholic, or Irish- medium, schools.
Like Sinn Fein, the SDLP also wants pupils and parents to have guaranteed access to their choice of integrated, faith-based, or Irish-medium education.
There have been momentous changes in the politics and governance in Northern Ireland since the end of direct rule and the establishment of local devolved institutions.
But all the evidence points to political parties still entrenched in the past, which are either unwilling, or afraid, to embrace integration in our schools.
Perhaps the prospect of pupils who are more tolerant and mutually respectful strikes fear into the hearts of parties like the DUP, SDLP, Sinn Fein and the UUP.
Research has found that a sectarian education system maintains division and fosters mutual ignorance, while pupils educated in the integrated sector are more likely to adopt a positive position on key social issues, such as politics, religion and identity, which extends into later life.
So great news for Alliance leader David Ford, but not for the other Executive parties, when those pupils turn 18 and are able to vote.