The Northern Ireland Education Committee yesterday discussed significantly watering down the Integrated Education Bill. In its current form, the Bill requires the promotion of integrated education, but this may be removed following a meeting in Stormont. A number of amendments to the Bill were proposed, including changing the promoting requirement to merely supporting integrated education. There was also a discussion on removing the need to ‘increase’ integrated provision to simply ‘meeting demand’.
The current Bill would also introduce a presumption that all new schools are integrated schools. But it has now been suggested that this be replaced with a requirement that, when a new school is proposed, all options for all management types are looked at on an equal basis. This would include segregated denominational schools.
Northern Ireland Humanists has warned that if these potential changes are accepted as amendments to the Integrated Education Bill, it will largely fail in its aim to reform and expand integrated education and the current system of segregation will continue. The Department of Education has already had a legal duty to “encourage and facilitate the development of integrated education”. This is underlined in the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 and yet 23 years later only 7% of schools are integrated. In actual fact the new language could be a huge step backwards. At present, Northern Ireland’s education system is highly segregated along faith lines, with most pupils from Catholic backgrounds attending Catholic schools and most pupils from Protestant backgrounds attending controlled schools. There is no real consideration in these schools of the growing number of those from other religions or the non-religious.
The objective of the Bill is to educate ‘children and young persons in schools which promote an ethos of diversity, respect and understanding between those of different cultures and religious beliefs and of none in the same school on a daily basis’. This can only be achieved if the Government promotes integrated education as the first choice for any new schools and encourages existing segregated schools to consider converting to an integrated approach.
During an oral evidence session last month, Northern Ireland Humanists supported the Bill in its current form but also told the Committee that it must address the Christian bias in the education system to achieve its aims.
Northern Ireland Humanists Coordinator Boyd Sleator commented:
‘When the Integrated Education Bill was first proposed it gave us hope that children in Northern Ireland would finally be given access to the type of inclusive education they have the right to. Integrating children in schools can only help create a more cohesive society.
‘If the Bill is watered down in the way that is now being discussed, it will largely fail in its aims. We urge the Education Committee and all MLAs to hold fast to the original intentions of the Bill and move towards a more inclusive curriculum. Backtracking will simply remove any power the Bill might have to create real and positive change.’
For further comment or information, media should contact Northern Ireland Humanists Coordinator Boyd Sleator at email@example.com or phone 07918 975795.
Watch the Education Committee evidence session (from 01:09:00 onwards).
Read the Integrated Education Bill.
Read our report on the first Northern Ireland Catholic school to become integrated.
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