Political leaders in Northern Ireland must do more to support integrated education, a new report has argued. Northern Ireland Humanists, which has long-campaigned for a single-system of education that teaches children from different backgrounds together, has welcomed the conclusions.
The report was published by the University of Ulster’s UNESCO Centre this week. It says that ‘the majority of parents favour integrated education, and wish it to be more widely available’. For this reason, it argues political leaders need to demonstrate ‘courage and ambition’ to ‘radically change the system’ as ‘preserving the status quo… is neither fiscally nor socially prudent’.
The current education system in Northern Ireland is almost entirely segregated. Most children from Catholic backgrounds attend Catholic schools, and most children from Protestant backgrounds attend controlled (de facto Protestant) schools. By contrast, integrated schools try to balance the number of pupils from a different religion or belief backgrounds – aiming at 40% Catholic, 40% Protestant, and 20% other. However, despite a recent poll showing that 71% of people in Northern Ireland support integrated education, just 7% of schools have integrated status. This means most parents who want to send their child to an integrated school cannot access one.
In addition to integrated education, the report also considers the impact of shared education on helping to desegregate the education system. Shared education brings children from different schools together to participate in joint educational activities and lessons. But, the report says that, unlike integrated education, shared education largely ‘leaves the divided system untouched and unchallenged’. It is therefore less effective than integrated education, although it may be a ‘pragmatic response to the slow growth of integrated schooling’.
The report comes as the Integrated Education Bill – a private member’s bill tabled by Alliance MLA Kellie Armstrong – reaches the end of committee stage in Stormont. In its original form, the Bill would require the Government to ‘promote’ integrated education. It would also introduce a presumption that all new schools are integrated schools. However, last week, Northern Humanists expressed alarm after Stormont’s Education Committee discussed significantly watering down the Bill by changing the requirement to promote integrated education to merely supporting it. Other amendments the Committee considered included removing a need to ‘increase’ integrated provision to simply ‘meeting demand’ and replacing the requirement for new schools to be integrated with one to look at options for different school management types ‘on an equal basis’. This would include segregated denominational schools.
Northern Ireland Humanists 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. This will allow the current system of segregation to continue.
Northern Ireland Humanists Coordinator Boyd Sleator commented:
‘Integrated education represents our best chance to move away from our highly religiously segregated system towards one in which pupils from all backgrounds are educated together.
‘But, as this report highlights, this goal will only be achieved if policy-makers are prepared to have the courage of their convictions and give integrated education their unqualified support. Amongst other things, this means promoting integrated schools over other types of schools, including when new schools are established. For this reason, we urge MLAs to reject amendments seeking to dilute the Integrated Education Bill and make sure every child in Northern Ireland has access to an inclusive, integrated school.’
For further comment or information, media should contact Northern Ireland Humanists Coordinator Boyd Sleator at firstname.lastname@example.org or phone 07918 975795.
Read our latest article on the Education Committee discussing massively diluting the Integrated Education Bill.
Watch Northern Ireland Humanists give oral evidence to the Education Committee (from 01:09:00 onwards).
Read our written response to the call for evidence.
Read the Integrated Education Bill.
Read our previous article on the Integrated Education Bill.
Read our report on the first Northern Ireland Catholic school to become integrated.
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