The Northern Ireland Assembly has voted to weaken seriously a pioneering Bill designed to improve access to integrated schools. Northern Ireland Humanists fears that a series of amendments to the Integrated Education Bill voted through this week mean that, in the event it becomes law, it will now do less than needed to bring different communities together in Northern Ireland.
The damaging amendments were initially discussed at a meeting of the Assembly’s Education Committee last November. At the time, Northern Ireland Humanists, which has long-campaigned for a single-system of education in Northern Ireland and had previously welcomed the Bill, expressed alarm that the Bill would ‘fail to achieve its aims’ if it was ‘watered down’ as proposed. The changes, which were accepted during the Consideration Stage of the Bill include:
- removing a duty for the Government to ‘promote’ integrated education, replacing it with a requirement to ‘support’ it instead;
- removing a presumption that all new schools are integrated, saying that education bodies must simply ‘consider integrated education when planning for the establishment of a new school’;
- removing a duty for the Government to aim to ‘increase demand for the provision of integrated education’ so it need only meet existing demand.
The Bill was introduced by Alliance MLA Kellie Armstrong in June and, in its original form, would have led to a significant increase in integrated schools. Such schools are important because, at present, most children from Catholic and Protestant backgrounds are educated apart from one another, with the majority of children from Catholic backgrounds attending Catholic maintained schools and the majority of children from Protestant backgrounds attending controlled schools. By contrast, integrated schools work hard to balance the proportion of pupils from each community they serve. They aim at having 40% of pupils from Catholic backgrounds, 40% from Protestant backgrounds, and 20% from other backgrounds (including the non-religious and minority faiths).
The original Bill wasn’t perfect – as Northern Ireland Humanists explained in oral evidence to the Education Committee last October, integrated education is still not fully inclusive because it promotes a solely Christian ethos. But the recent alterations have made it significantly worse. On this basis, the amendments represent a blow to future prospects for a single education system.
The weakening of the Bill in this way means that it is now even more important for everyone who wants to see an inclusive education system to respond to the consultation on the Independent Education Review, so as to make it clear that there is a great deal of support for bringing communities together in this way.
Northern Ireland Humanists Coordinator Boyd Sleator commented:
‘It is sad to see a Bill that six months ago arrived at Stormont and filled us with hope, being weakened so much. It will not fundamentally alter Northern Ireland’s outdated and highly segregated education system.
‘Our children deserve to be educated together and grow up in a world where their religious background doesn’t dictate where they go to school or who their peers and teachers in the classroom are.
‘I urge everyone who wants to see a single education system to respond to the consultation on the Independent Education Review and say so.’
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 news item on the Education Committee meeting in November.
Read the Integrated Education Bill.
Read our report on the first Northern Ireland Catholic school to become integrated.Read more about our work on:
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