SHARED education has come a long way since it first originated as an idea in the School of Education at Queen’s University Belfast in 2007.
It is currently delivered to approximately 12,000 pupils in 165 primary and post-primary schools on a daily basis throughout Northern Ireland.
Such has been its success that the Programme for Government has two commitments for shared education.
These are, firstly, to ensure all children have the opportunity to participate in shared education programmes by 2015; and secondly, to substantially increase the number of schools sharing facilities by 2015.
Shared education refers to schools from different sectors working together in a sustained process ranging from two or more schools making shared use of specialist facilities, through to coordinated timetabling, and pupils taking classes across a network of schools. It is different from integrated education in that it involves educational collaboration between school partnerships while preserving each school’s community ethos and identity.
There are now three organisations involved in delivering the Shared Education Programme: Queen’s University; the Fermanagh Trust; and the Primary Integrating/Enriching Education (PIEE) Project in the North Eastern Education and Library Board, which are funded by Atlantic Philanthropies and the International Fund for Ireland.
Six years on there is a wealth of accumulated experience and proven shared education models. But how does shared education help to address some of the problems facing our schools?
At present there are three key weaknesses in the existing system of education in Northern Ireland. First, education outcomes are hugely variable: the average secondary school in Northern Ireland can only offer a third of its pupils 5+ GCSE passes at A*-C grades, including English and Mathematics.
Second, pupils on free school meals do not get sufficient access to grammar schools – they constitute 17 per cent of post-primary pupils, but only seven per cent of grammar school enrolments.
Finally, there is a high level of segregation in our schools and limited change in patterns of enrolment across controlled and maintained schools since the Belfast Agreement. Taken together, these represent a major indictment of the education system.
Shared education provides a mechanism for peer learning whereby schools could be incentivised to collaborate through sharing best practice. There is strong research evidence which indicates that peer learning leads to improvement across schools in teaching and learning, pupils’ behaviour and education achievement.
If the focus is to raise educational outcomes through mutual collaboration then all schools, regardless of pupils’ background, have the opportunity to improve.
The overarching theme underlying shared education is that the rising tide of peer learning between schools will lift every school’s educational boat. The mechanism through which this peer learning takes place is shared education. So why do we not see shared education as an integral part of area planning and the Education Bill?
Dr Adrian Johnston is chair of the International Fund for Ireland