Another fudge for Integrated Education
Integration is an oversubscribed aspect of our education system but continually faces barriers to growth. The burial of a new, independent and departmentally-commissioned report is just the latest example.
Burying bad news is a cliché but it represents a technique that often works.
When the media is going to be dominated by other issues, you can publish your own unwanted or unwelcome information knowing it will probably get less attention than it would at other times.
On the eve of last week’s election Education Minister Peter Weir published a report on integrated education that had been prepared on behalf of the Department of Education (DE).
The report was completed in November and the fact that it was only made public hours before Northern Ireland went to the polls means you can guess at its content before you begin reading.
Mr Weir, like his predecessor John O’Dowd, has a lukewarm relationship with integrated education, at best.
It is fair to say that integration does not fit the purported vision of either of the last two ministers, and the behaviour of both has betrayed this. Mr O’Dowd often found himself at loggerheads with campaigners and, on occasion, the courts over the ongoing statutory duty to “facilitate and encourage” integration.
Commissioning this report, as he did in January last year, would have helped with the optics – but, ultimately, he would probably not have liked the reports’ conclusions. Evidently, neither did his successor, who buried the report the night before the election, the last act of his tenure as minister (unless he ends up there again after upcoming negotiations).
So the timing is perfect for Scope to take a closer look at Integrating Education in Northern Ireland: Celebrating Inclusiveness and Fostering Innovation in our Schools.
It is a long report – page 105 before it reaches the appendices and references – and features 39 recommendations, which we will take a look at here.
Some of the requests are fundamental: review the legal definition of integrated education; review the religious balance of integrated schools to take account of shifting demographics; that the department should bring forward legislation to place a duty on itself and the Education Authority (EA), and a power on other arms-length bodies, to “encourage, facilitate and promote” integrated education.
That last point is important. The requirement to “facilitate and encourage” integrated education is decades old. However, the Shared Education Act 2016 placed the duty to “encourage, facilitate and promote” shared education. If this sounds like a word salad, that’s because it is. These are abstractions and the tangible implications are subject to interpretation – but what this move did was push shared education ahead of integration on a statutory basis, effectively pulling the rug from under the long-standing duty.
It says there should be a legal requirement to report to the Assembly on the progress of integrated education at least once every two years; more research should take place to assess “differing pupil outcomes in terms of tolerance and reconciliation across the different school sectors in Northern Ireland” – which should also examine shared education.
The paper calls for several changes to how IE is expanded: the EA should audit demand and use its findings for planning; it should pro-actively plan to increase places in the sector; in areas where demand is identified, expansion of integrated education should take place even if there are empty spaces in schools in other sectors; contingency funding should be freed up for all expansions in integrated schools, not just for growth of sufficient size.
This would represent a huge suite of changes that would provide the sector with less barriers to growth – but the recommendations do not stop there, with the authors offering more thoughts on the interplay between integration and other sectors.
Area planning should have better stakeholder planning, especially with local communities around integration and sharing; financial disincentives should be removed for sharing projects that might want to amalgamate into integration and clear guidance and funding should be available to facilitate this; sixth forms could be commissioned on an area basis; step-by-step guidance should be brought forward on transformation.
Other recommendations include that DE and the NI Council for Integrated Education (NICIE) should have formal agreement over the work the latter should be funded to do.
There are also a number of points made about more backing for capital projects for integration – including a more proactive approach from the department – covering both existing integrated schools and schools aiming for integrated status.
Altogether, the entire tone is one of enabling schools to more easily pursue integration should they wish, while Fresh Start funding was identified as important in supporting change.
All these new measures obviously would require some work, but most of this burden and any according bureaucracy is placed on DE, EA and other agencies – and not on schools themselves.
There are exceptions – with recommendation 20 saying that, “as an integral part of planning the Case for Change when publishing a Development Proposal to transform, each school should prepare a five-year business case outlining its funding needs over that period.”
Of course, recommendations are only part of a report and the entire document, prepared by Prof Margaret Topping and Colm Cavanagh, is worth reading.
The history of integrated education in Northern Ireland is an inessential aspect for a forward-looking report but nevertheless is interesting reading for anyone who cares about the context.
Noting that, since the 1980s, 65 formally integrated schools have been created and, in 2015-16, were educating 7% of all pupils, adding:
“While the number may appear small when viewed in the context of total educational provision in Northern Ireland, parent-led growth at this scale, and in a society emerging from conflict, is unique in the world. Moreover, research suggests that:
‘despite the small number of integrated schools they have had a significant impact and posed implicit challenges to the existing system of separate schools. They have questioned whether it is appropriate for the churches to be directly involved in the management of schools in a divided society and provided models for the involvement of parents on a cross-community basis. Integrated schools have reflected the predominantly Christian society in which they have emerged, but have also had to cope with the need for comparative religious education to be inclusive of other world faiths, and to take account of the needs of parents with no faith, and in this respect integrated schools have been remarkably successful at creating institutions which are neither denominational nor secular’.”
Advocates of integrated education have continually made the case that they have huge public support but that barriers are continually placed in the way of the sector. There are various interest groups who do not want to see massive growth in integration – but this is not in line with what the public says it wants or, potentially, with the best interests of NI society.
As the report itself notes:
“While the remit of the present review is not to make the case for integrated education, there has none the less been a significant body of research – locally, nationally and internationally – that has sought to assess the impacts of both separate and integrated educational systems… a large body of research data suggests that separation risks maintaining ignorance and reinforcing binary perceptions of Self and Other (‘us’ and ‘them’), whereas contact and collaboration creates the conditions for generating mutual respect and understanding.”
Integrated education should, at the very least, get fair treatment. Burying reports you don’t like in busy news cycles is the done thing in modern politics but it is still very poor behaviour.
Hopefully this paper is not now forever lost in time.
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