Secular control of Northern Ireland’s schools means more than a modest expansion of integrated education. Is that what a majority wants?

Abortion, the legacy, the Irish language and now integrated education; why is secretary of state Brandon Lewis tossing out controversial policy ideas which are largely the prerogative of Stormont?  Real action on any of these hot topics will be held in abeyance until the after the Assembly elections. Then we’ll see won’t we?   Although his ideas lack shall we say, a certain sophistication, they are certainly provocative and seem intended to stimulate a more diverse debate than the same old.   Here, he’s brandishing the old stick used by Peter Hain in favour of banning the denial of a double bed to same sex couples. He seems to be saying that if you don’t sort yourselves out in your own way we’ll do it for you, where the polls show it has significant backing.  But how does Lewis “nudge” when the parties and other vested interests are opposed and others are in hiding over it?   The local parties have already shown an impressive capacity to stall, over implementing abortion regulations and protocol regulations for that matter.

Alliance MLA Kellie Armstrong’s Integrated Education Bill now going through the Assembly has the clear aims of achieving better value for money and – yes – promoting integration at childhood level, specifically…..

Reducing the cost of maintaining around 79,000 empty school places…

 Creating more opportunities for integrated education, with a view to a single overarching education system in Northern Ireland, is a crucial part of improving good relations amongst and for our young people, breaking the cycle of sectarianism and ensuring that the environment of our schools reflects the increasing diversity of our society.

Only 143 out of about 1,000 schools in Northern Ireland have at least 10% of pupils from a Protestant background and 10% from a Catholic background.

There are either no Catholic or no Protestant pupils in 287 of Northern Ireland’s schools – about 30%.

The DUP, the Catholic schools organisations and the churches have all lined up behind the argument that more funding for integrated schools, currently serving only 7% of children,  would favour “one sector over the others.”  What perhaps is lacking in the debate is a clear evidence of greater demand for more integrated schools. What is implied is that the campaign to increase demand is a piece of social engineering that few actually want for their own children. The Presbyterian Moderator has produced his own neat twist.

  Right Rev Dr David Bruce, writes that the ‘integrating of education is to be welcomed and encouraged, but it should not be identified solely with one particular sector.

 Supporting and participating in education has been part of the DNA of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland for over a century. Having originally formed schools in our quest for social justice with the goal of making education accessible for boys and girls, it remains our passionate desire to this day for children and young people to flourish together….

The integrating of education is to be welcomed and encouraged, but it should not be identified solely with one particular sector. It is disappointing that the many proponents of this legislation have failed to publicly recognise that integration and mixing of pupils from different backgrounds occurs across all education sectors. Recent statistics demonstrate that the Controlled Schools’ Sector incorporates more than 30% of pupils who do not necessarily identify as ‘Protestant’.

There is now a majority of Catholic children. I’m happy to be corrected but stripped down is he saying that integration would happen naturally if Catholics occupy empty state school places as the local Protestant population declines? And the main obstacle to that happening is the system of Catholic schools management when they demand more places for their own schools?

The Catholic arguments are that they have open entry (although it is hardly used at all by Protestants) and that if it works, don’t fix it.

Now here’s the rub. Ms Armstrong writes that the ultimate aim is “to create a single overarching education system for Northern Ireland.” The small sector educating Protestant and Catholic children as a matter of religious principle is very far from being the Trojan horse for the secular control of the schools, although that is what the religious establishments ultimately fear.  If we  were in the tradition of the French revolution,  we’d simply nationalise the lot. But we’re not. When state education was phased in from the 19th century, control was ceded to the churches, broadly according to the popular will of the time.   And although specifically clerical control has been largely abandoned, religious structures and influence remain on both sides.

If we want to change, we’ve got to do more than duck and weave and nibble at the margins, and hold an honest debate.





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