DUP petition of concern bid over integrated schools proposal

Around 24,000 pupils in Northern Ireland attend integrated schoolsAround 24,000 pupils in Northern Ireland attend integrated schools
Around 24,000 pupils in Northern Ireland attend integrated schools
Concerns that new legislation will “elevate the integrated education sector above others” will be addressed with a petition of concern, according to the DUP.

However, with the DUP block at Stormont just short of the required quota to trigger the controversial mechanism, the party is urging others to join them in opposing the bill.

DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson said the “challenge now lies with other MLAs” and “whether they are prepared to stand up for controlled and maintained schools across Northern Ireland”.

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The bill has undergone a number of amendments since Department of Education officials raised concerns in November last year – including concerns “regarding the requirement for every new school that is established to be an integrated school”.

DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson said the bill needs further scrutiny and consultationDUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson said the bill needs further scrutiny and consultation
DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson said the bill needs further scrutiny and consultation

During the same committee stage of the bill’s scrutiny, the department officials also flagged up the potential for “judicial reviews” and other “financial implications” if the legislation progressed as drafted.

The Assembly record notes that, following those concerns being raised the bill’s sponsor, Alliance MLA Kellie Armstrong, addressed a number of the points raised, including clarifying “that the term ‘new school’ did not include amalgamations”.

Ms Armstrong also “undertook to draft amendments”.

On Friday, Sir Jeffrey Donaldson said he was aware of concerns raised by both Controlled Schools Support Council and the Council for Catholic Maintained schools that “schools outside the integrated sector, and consequently the pupils attending those schools, would be placed at a disadvantage by this bill. This proposed legislation requires much more consultation within the education sector and across the community and it ought to be subject to greater scrutiny.”

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Ms Armstrong hit back at the DUP’s claims, telling the News Letter that her bill “does not take funding from any other school or children, nor does it put integrated education above any other sectors,” and adding: “Rather it is about making provision for its support and ensuring parents who want to send their children to integrated schools are given the opportunity.”

Sir Jeffrey said: “Rushing this private member’s bill through without that consultation and scrutiny and in circumstances which fail to adequately meet our Section 75 obligations on equality is simply unacceptable.”

He said that currently neither the Department of Education nor the Education Authority promotes “one education sector over another”.

Sir Jeffrey, who has indicated his intention to stand down as the MP for Lagan Valley if elected to Stormont, added: “As a party we want to see children educated together, but this bill doesn’t advance that cause or break down barriers in our society. Nor does it deliver any benefit to 93% of our school pupils.

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“We are listening to concerns and we will table a petition of concern to protect these schools and the pupils who attend them.

“The DUP cannot trigger the petition of concern alone, however, so it will require others to come on board before it would take effect.

“MLAs from all sides of the chamber will have heard the voice of parents, teachers and pupils loudly over recent weeks.

“The challenge is now whether they are prepared to not just listen to those voices, but to take action. It will only take one additional MLA to mean the petition of concern is activated.”

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The DUP leader went on to say: “Signing this petition of concern is not a narrow sectional interest, but is taking a stand for those across our society who recognise and value our schools here.

“Those schools, across different sectors, are educating children from all faith backgrounds and none.

“The DUP has opposed this bll from the outset and we are giving practical effect to that opposition. The decision now lies in the hands of other MLAs whether they will act also.”

Ms Armstrong has strenuously denied that her bill does not place the integrated sector at an advantage over other sectors.

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The Alliance MLA for Strangford said: “I expected those with a vested interest to attack this bill to support integrated education, which is sadly now happening.

“While many talk a good game on supporting integrated education, unfortunately their actions don’t match.

“The bill, which was promoted and consulted on via social media and online, received over 800 responses from stakeholders and those who also gave evidence to the education committee.”

There are currently 65 grant-aided integrated schools in Northern Ireland.

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Last year there were 10,665 primary and 13,467 post-primary children attending integrated schools.

Ms Armstrong added: “Integrated schools are currently being denied extra places because of available spare places at other non-integrated schools in the same area.

“I am proud to have the chance to change that.

“If the DUP and others wish to use a petition of concern to prevent children from being educated together, the question needs asked – just how committed are they prepared to go to stop Northern Ireland moving forward?”

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