John McCallister: Shared education can move us towards more integrated schooling

Shared education is the beginning of a move towards a more integrated system
Shared education is the beginning of a move towards a more integrated system

It is increasingly difficult to argue that our education system is sustainable or fit for the 21st Century and it is clear that if we were designing a new system we would not build the one we have.

There are, however, a significant number of interests and actors in the system and it often feels like each sector has its own political party – or at least its own political block – and this has been unhelpful for driving genuine reform.

John McCallister. Picture by Arthur Allison

John McCallister. Picture by Arthur Allison

There is also a lot of good in our education system – there is no doubt that many parents like ethos/religious based education; it statistically produces better educational outcomes and improved pastoral care. Parental choice is important in this regard.

Shared Education must be seen as a beginning towards a transformed, more integrated and efficient education system (that the public wants, according to the Integrated Education Fund poll in the News Letter on March 23).

All parties and sectors must grasp the opportunity it offers and not turn their noses up at it because it is not the perfect solution or their preferred choice.

I was pleased to amend the Shared Education Bill, to ensure that the legal purpose of Shared Education is not only good educational outcomes and better community relations, but the efficient use of resources.

Shared Education must be closely linked to Area Based Planning; as schools start to break down barriers across sectors, opportunities will arise for greater integration, whether that be through straight amalgamation, the creation of joint faith schools or new Integrated schools.

Our political institutions alone, ensures that we are a long way from creating a single education system – if the public and or political parties want that as a destination, the current sectors will have to go on a journey together.

Shared Education also provides an opportunity to change the attitudes of current schools which are deemed to be exclusively for Catholics or Protestants.

If we can make all schools more open, welcoming and respectful of children from different backgrounds, without changing their status, we have an opportunity to get more children attending their nearest and most suitable school, as opposed to the nearest school for ‘their community’.

The final destination of our education system is as yet unknown, but Shared Education is setting us off in a positive direction which has the potential to better meet the public’s expectations, pupils’ needs and the constraints of the public purse.

• John McCallister is an independent MLA for South Down