Education reform: a close look at costs might concentrate minds ...

4 Mar 2022 Nick Garbutt    Last updated: 4 Mar 2022

The Good Book, Unsplash

Every now and again our politicians display the capacity to render the rest of us speechless.

We have reached that point in the debate around integrated education.

Last week the DUP’s Diane Dodds told the Assembly that because 61% of pupils in the controlled sector were Protestant, 10% were Catholic and 29% did not identify as either, that meant that the sector was “very integrated”.

Therefore, she argued the bill does not promote “real inclusion” it “simply supports one part of our education system and discriminates against all others.”

TUV leader Jim Allister accused the bill of “supremacy.”

The UUP’s Steve Aiken took the rhetoric down a notch but still managed to make those schools which are a part of today’s segregated system seem hard done to, discriminated against …

“There is concern about one particular part of the education system being put above the others. Under the Bill, they will not all be equal or, indeed, together.”

Obviously any proposed reform will discriminate against the current segregated system. And the majority of us will be delighted – polls suggest as many as 71% of us would like to see it replaced.

Time and again outside observers express outrage at the failure to reform our segregated system. The latest to do so was Secretary of State Brandon Lewis.

“We are 23 years on (from the Good Friday Agreement) and still … such a small percentage of the population is able to be part of and benefit from integrated education. I think it’s just pretty poor progress,” said Lewis.

“We are in a situation where still, people in Northern Ireland first meet a Protestant or Catholic when they go to work or university. [Segregated education] just isn’t going to ever drive full reconciliation.”

“I do believe in nudging and cajoling. Education is a devolved area, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t have an opinion and we don’t have a right as a co-guarantor and co-signatory of the BGFA to do all we can.”

Lewis was only echoing the words of Mitchell B. Reiss, US Special Envoy to Northern Ireland, who said in 2004:

“After taking on this assignment, I was astonished to learn that roughly 95% of Northern Ireland schoolchildren are educated in segregated schools. As Americans, we have first-hand experience with segregation, not so long ago. And we know it doesn't work. Segregation short-changes the students by denying them exposure to one half their society. And it weakens the country by embedding misunderstanding and distrust”.

The controversy over segregated education is older than the state. The first attempt to supplant it was scuppered by the Presbyterian Church in 1831.

More recent attempts failed in 1923 and 1974 – although this is the first time that opponents of reform have had the audacity to suggest that theirs is the fairer way.

It is hard to know what the fate of Kellie Armstrong’s Integrated Education Bill will be. The concerted opposition of unionists is likely to seal its fate. If so that would be yet another missed opportunity to build a different kind of society.

What we do know however is that demand for places in integrated schools is way above capacity, and that the reason the integrated sector remains relatively small is because of political blockages that have stymied the creation of new integrated schools.

It will then be down to Brandon Lewis and his ilk to do what they can to reform a system.

And if he is really serious about this then he and his colleagues at the Treasury need to have a long, hard look at how much all this costs.

We could start with the 50,000 empty desks across the schools estate together with the £95 million or so wasted on duplication.

To that we can add the £1 billion plus we spent in the past decade alone by bringing our young people into contact with each other in various cross-community initiatives to correct the negative consequences and prejudices resulting from their initial segregation.

Then we could add the cost of home to school transport, approximately £81 million per year, which sees children being bussed past their nearest school to attend a school of a different management type.

Then there are the staggering range of arms-length bodies to support, currently eight, of which five support delivery of education in mainstream schools. These are: the General Teaching Council of NI; the Council for the Curriculum, Examinations and Assessment; the Catholic Council for Maintained Schools; the NI Council for Integrated Education and Comhairle na Gaelscolaíochta.

All of them get grant aid to cover staff salaries, administration costs and the implementation of an annual plan. Each of them has separate sections for finance and human resources. Each has at least one administration building to service and maintain and each has their own management structure and governing board.

 The department also provides grants to “professionalise the contribution” of a number of sectoral bodies – the Catholic Schools Trustee Service (£98,000) the Controlled Schools Support Council (£983,000) and the Governing Bodies Association (£98,000).

 This before we even start to quantify the damage done over many decades by separating communities from each other in a part of the world long scarred by bitter conflict.

Last week David Bruce the Moderator of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland wrote this in the News Letter:

“As a Church we recognise the value of children and young people encountering differing views, opinions and cultures during their educational experience. Formally integrated schools have their part to play in this alongside, but not at the expense of, controlled, maintained, Irish medium, voluntary grammars and others. Furthermore, with the Independent Review of Education underway, to push for this change in the law at this stage seems hasty and premature.

“No one should be in any doubt that we want our children to learn together and build good relations. Both are critical for the future. Ahead of tomorrow’s debate, I have to ask our MLAs to seriously consider - is this the right way and the right time to bring about such significant change in education?”

Presumably given that we’ve been waiting since 1831 for reform delaying matters for a few more decades will scarcely be noticed.

The opinions, views or comments in this article do not necessarily reflect any views or policies of NICVA.

Join the Conversation...

We'd love to know your thoughts on this article.
Join us on Twitter and join the conversation today.

Join Our Newsletter

Get the latest edition of ScopeNI delivered to your inbox.