As time runs out on the allotted lifespan of this Assembly politicians of all hues are rushing to get their ‘pet project’ over the line before Stormont is prorogued and Purdah kicks in, drawing down the policy-making curtain in readiness for May’s election.
Amid this logjam of legislation one proposal has attracted more attention than most: the Integrated Education Bill.
Polls consistently show that something around 70% of parents want to send their children to a mixed school. In an era of declining numbers on school rollcalls, integrated schools are generally over-subscribed.
There are many familiar celebrity advocates for cross-community schooling – Liam Neeson, Paddy Kielty, Adrian Dunbar and Carl Frampton have all been vociferous in their support for Integrated education.
This throng has recently been swollen by controversial contributions from President Michael D Higgins and the NI Secretary of State Brandon Lewis.
In the face of considerable hullabaloo in the media, the established, segregated sectors of education have been queuing up to parade their integrated credentials.
Mark Baker of the independent (but Department of Education financed) Controlled Schools Support Service said that “Controlled schools are inclusive and promote diversity”.
This is an audacious claim given that DE records around 7% of those pupils that attend Controlled schools as being Catholic.
This already low figure obscures a deeper story. The Controlled sector includes 37 Special schools (which have a highly mixed enrolment) and 27 Controlled Integrated schools, there are also a few Controlled primary schools which, for historical reasons, have served a predominantly Catholic community since their inception.
It follows that Catholic pupils are disproportionately distributed across the sector — with comparatively high numbers in a small number of schools while the overwhelming majority of mainstream Controlled schools have few (if any) Catholic pupils, teachers or Governors.
On the Maintained side, Bishop McKeown has stated that “an ethos of diversity” is intentionally promoted in the schools that he presides over. Again, although a small number of Maintained schools do include a high proportion of non-Catholic pupils, across the board approximately 1% of those who attend Maintained primaries are designated as being Protestant.
I am approaching my sixtieth birthday and have worked all my adult life to develop improved community relations through education. I have seen and experienced many things, but I struggle to understand how it is possible to effectively promote diversity in a mono-cultural setting.
How can institutions that celebrate the Queen’s birthday, occasionally fly the Union flag and whose assemblies are regularly presided over by Protestant clerics ever feel wholly inclusive to those of an Irish-Catholic identity?
How can educational establishments whose physical infrastructure includes holy statues, whose daily routine includes prayers and Gaelic sports ever seem truly welcoming to those from the Protestant-British community?
Integration is about so much more than merely a headcount of pupils. Integrated schools consciously employ a mixed team of teachers, have a diverse board of governors (including a high proportion of parent-governors) and provide options and alternatives in their syllabus that recognise and celebrate both British/Protestant and Irish/Catholic culture and aspirations (and those of other identities).
The Belfast Agreement included explicit and implicit commitments to Integrated Education, but today only around 7% of our pupils are educated in Integrated schools. Since the creation of the NI Assembly in 1998, Education Ministers have only ever been drawn from two political parties - DUP and Sinn Féin – neither of which has been particularly fulsome in their support of Integrated Education. It has been suggested elsewhere that, to maintain their grassroots support, these parties require division and mutual animosity between the two dominant communities. It is not in their political interest to promote compromise, acceptance and a diminution of hostility – particularly in the run-up to an election! Notably, DUP and Sinn Féin have thrown their heft behind Shared Education; a policy that leaves the fundamental, structural segregation of education unaddressed and bank-rolls arms-length contact between those schools on either side of the divide.
Sinn Féin have softened their position recently but the progress of the Integrated Education Bill is nevertheless on a knife edge. The DUP (who campaigned against the Belfast Agreement) have, with the support of Jim Allister, sought to raise a Petition of Concern – ironically, seeking to employ a mechanism designed to ensure cross-community decision-making to scupper a cross-community enterprise.
The changes proposed by this Bill are ultimately very minor, it does not herald radical, social-educational revolution. Its aspiration to open up our education system is however seen as a threat by vested interests - organisations and institutions that see long term benefit to themselves from maintaining segregation. Greater Integration of our schools may not immediately ease deep, inherited inter-community pain and animosity but it certainly won’t damage it. If they are successful, those who seek to stymie the modest reforms proposed in this Bill will be judged by the generations that follow and possibly even as soon as May.
Dr Matthew Milliken, Research Assistant, School of Education UNESCO Centre, Ulster University, Coleraine