Time for all main parties to show their true selves and support the Integrated Education Bill…

Noreen Campbell was a senior member of the pioneering staff team which initiated Hazelwood Integrated College in North Belfast. She has since retired as principle and as CEO of Northern Ireland Council for Integrated Education (NICIE).

As our legislative system grinds to a halt, great efforts are being expended to ‘kill’ the Integrated Education Bill brought forward by Kellie Armstrong of Alliance. This modest bill would rectify the long -standing inequality faced by integrated schools through placing an obligation on government to support the planning of integrated schools.

Education planning in NI continues to operate on the assumption of a two-sector system, controlled and maintained, each of which plans for the needs of its sector.

Despite the Education and Libraries Order, 1986, which ‘outlines the duty of the Education Authority to secure efficient and sufficient provision of number and character of primary and secondary education within the area to meet the needs of all pupils.’.

Despite the Education Reform Order 1989 which stated: ‘It shall be the duty of the Department to encourage and facilitate the development of integrated education.’;

And despite the introduction of Area Based Planning in 2011 which purported to ensure: ‘the right type of school and of the right size in the right place to meet the needs of children and young people.’, parents seeking to send their children to an integrated school are still expected to show a need for and to establish their own schools or to campaign to have their local school to become integrated through the process of transformation.

This is because there is no planning authority for integrated schools. Forty years on from the opening of the first integrated school in 1981 by parents, parents continue to be expected to plan for their own schools. This is unequal, unfair and discriminatory.

All opinion polls show significant parental support for Integrated Education. Unsurprisingly, without planning to ensure integrated provision, there are not enough integrated places to meet parental demand. Recent research from the UNESCO Centre at Ulster University established that 28% of households ‘are located in areas of Northern Ireland where access to integrated primary schools is limited and a similar percentage (26%) are remote from integrated post-primaries.’

It further notes: ‘even in areas where there are integrated schools, high demand means that families can still find it difficult to secure a place.’ On this basis, the authors say that the choice of an integrated school is often ‘illusory’. The Integrated Education Bill seeks to redress this inequality of planning and provision.

Both bodies representing the Catholic sector, (CCMS) and the Controlled sector, (CSSC) have attacked the bill. The DUP have indicated that they intend using the ‘petition of concern’ to halt the progress of the Integrated Education Bill. Were the parents of Northern Ireland able to issue a petition of concern to politicians they might legitimately ask:

  • Why are the DUP putting party political interest above the education and best interests of children?
  • Why can parents who seek an integrated education not have the assurance that this will be available to them?
  • When will all of our political parties promote actively an educational system which reflects our increasingly diverse society rather than our divided past?

Outsiders to Northern Ireland frequently note the connection between our segregated education system, our divided political system and the continuing division in our society. As President Obama pointed out in 2013:

“…if Catholics have their schools and buildings, and Protestants have theirs, if we can’t see ourselves in one another, if fear or resentment are allowed to harden — that too encourages division. It discourages cooperation.”

Time and time again, we see in our politicians a lack of understanding of the ‘other side’, an unwillingness to understand each other’s background, culture and viewpoints, an inability to accept the other, a fear of being seen to be giving in the ‘other side’. In government we see a lack of communication, a failure to compromise and an inability to cooperate.

These politicians did not have the opportunity to attend an integrated school. Integrated schools celebrate diversity, promote debate and challenge, inculcate the traits of tolerance and the practice of good communication, cooperation and acceptance of others. It is their mission to do so, they can do so easily because of their diverse student populations and because of the ethos which has been developed to ensure this happens.

It is time for reform. It is time to take this small step in normalising Integrated Education as a legitimate choice for parents and to ensure this Bill becomes law. All the main parties have, in the past, expressed some support for Integrated Education. It is time for them now to make that support a reality by rejecting the petition of concern and approving this bill.

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