Time for action to bring children together at school

News Letter editorial of Tuesday August 3 2021:

Tuesday, 3rd August 2021, 6:59 am
News Letter editorial

There has long been statistical evidence of a widespread desire to bring children together at an early age.

It is also unsurprising that those supporting such an idea are increasing in number. After all there is now an entire generation which has grown up since the Belfast Agreement and have demonstrated in how they live their lives and they vote that they are tired of many of the old ways in which Northern Ireland has operated.

But it is nonetheless significant for several reasons. Tribal positions have hardened since Brexit yet that has not happened here. The Assembly is considering legislation to accelerate the integration of schools and major decisions about closing some smaller schools have been put off for so long that they are getting increasingly hard to ignore.

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While that is happening, the MLAs and the minister who will be taking those decisions are preparing to face voters in next May’s election. In that context, evidence of public opinion on this issue could have added impact.

It is now more than a decade since the then first minister, Peter Robinson, denounced the “benign apartheid” of segregated education systems. But progress at translating words into action has been slow.

One reason has been the Catholic Church’s desire to retain its schools. This is in many ways wholly understandable, given how Catholics have over decades worked to build some of Northern Ireland’s most successful schools. However, keeping children apart is demonstrably problematic and it is time for politicians to lead – but sensitively.

For now, the best way may be through shared education – schools retaining their identity, but pupils coming together for certain subjects. That would also encourage schools to specialise in academic or vocational subjects, thus contributing to improved educational, as well as societal, outcomes.