Integral to the future - integrated education, a choice for everyone

7 Oct 2016 Ryan Miller    Last updated: 25 Oct 2016

Illustration by Patrick Sanders
Illustration by Patrick Sanders

In the first of our big series on education in Northern Ireland, Scope talks to the Integrated Education Fund about their vision for schools.

Gathering momentum during the last mandate and carrying on into the coming parliament, shared education represents the biggest recent shift of direction in local education policy.

Former minister John O’Dowd, of Sinn Fein, and his DUP successor Peter Weir have significant ideological differences but their parties agree on sharing – and it is where those parties agree that policy can move most boldly.

Unsurprising, the Integrated Education Fund (IEF) do not think sharing is far enough and although, in a broad way, it is a move in the correct direction it could also have significant drawbacks.

Supporters of integrated education say it should be a crucial pillar - or even a necessary one - in Northern Ireland's attempts to heal community rifts, and create a more cohesive and better-functioning society. 

Sam Fitzsimmons, from the IEF, told Scope that integrated education is the “logical conclusion” of the argument put forward for sharing, where pupils from different schools and wearing different uniforms go through the same educational, sporting or cultural experiences in the same setting and at the same time.

“There’s political and societal consensus that shared education is a good thing. I think that’s an indication that our children being taught in the same classroom is a good thing - and if you take it to its logical conclusion our children sitting in the same classroom day by day, must be a good thing.”

He also noted that there are various bits of evidence that sharing can backfire, including a Niccy report that noted some issues with the “minority” cohort of pupils who are visiting another school, with the settings highlighting differences rather than helping to overcome them.

Further, he highlighted the fact that in Bosnia shared education has actually been declared illegal because having two schools under one roof had heightened tensions.

What integrations means

However, while the IEF believes that Northern Ireland should just have one schools sector, administrating all statutory provision, this does not mean they think all schools should be integrated – instead that all parents should be able to send their child to an integrated school if they wish.

“There is an argument there for having a diverse range of schools – one sector, but within that sector, different types of schools.

“If a parent wants to send their child to a single faith school they should have the right to do that, just the same as if they want to send their child to an integrated school. But right now only about 10% of parents have integrated schools as a feasible option.

“There is no planning authority for integrated schools, in the same way there is for CCMS schools or controlled schools. They have a statutory role in planning, whereas every integrated school has been established through parental demand – and that is not a level playing field.

“Successive public polls over the last 20 years have demonstrated that there is a desire and appetite for integrated education.”

Mr Fitzsimmons said there are other barriers to the growth of integrated education, citing a lack of community consultation in the Area Based Planning process, and the 2014 High Court judicial review ruling against the Department of Education and then-minister John O’Dowd which found a failure in statutory legal duties to “facilitate and encourage” integrated education.

Competition and cost

The IEF believes our current systemic model is not just economically inefficient – taking resources that could be spent on pupils and redirecting them to unnecessary administration – but also competitive in a way that is damaging.

Mr Fitzsimmons told Scope that, under the current system, individual sectors tend to have sharp elbows and are concerned about protecting themselves, rather than the wellbeing of all our children.

“The structure at the moment makes it a highly competitive system where the sectors are trying to get pupils in the door. If you had a single education system that focused on children, rather than maintaining structures, it would be better for society.”

However, while inefficiencies and wasteful spending on bureaucracy might be clearly apparent, its exact nature and extent are harder to pin down.

“One of the things we have tried to get our head around over the last number of years is a proper method to analyse the costs of education in Northern Ireland. We really struggle to get that information.

“We would like to see some analysis of choice. There is duplication within the system at an administrative level and infrastructural level.

“There are estimates of 75,000 empty school desks, which is trying to be addressed through Area Based Planning but it’s being done on a sector by sector basis, and doing that tends to further embed the divisions within society.”

Mr Fitzsimmons cites the review into the Common Funding Scheme by Sir Robert Salisbury during the last mandate – which has significant criticisms about the current model, and which has many recommendations the IEF says have yet to be implemented.

“In terms of the comparisons, it’s very difficult to compare Northern Ireland with England, because Northern Ireland is much more rural society, but can compare more realistically with Scotland or the Republic of Ireland. There are some figures out there that more money per pupil gets to the pupil in Scotland and Wales than it does in NI.”

The future

Even if costs are weighed up, and a value-for-money system that provides equal choice to all parents is identified and accepted, there is still no guarantee that we will be able to make that transition.

An interesting way of looking at provision is imagining there is no existing starting point, and instead look at what would be the best model we have given current resources.

However, blank-page thinking can produce great ideas but these may bear no resemblance to what is in place, and moving from the latter to the former can be a bloodthirsty process.

“No MLA wants to see a school closing in their constituency and I think that’s a challenge that our elected representatives have to face. If there are better systems with better use of money, and these require rationalisations, it takes strong political will to make this happen.

“If you look at systematic changes and a restructured education system, what you would see is a single education system where all the children are sitting together in classrooms. We don’t care about the branding – whether that’s integrated, a common schools system, or whatever.

“It seems to make economic sense and, given that education is a public service in the same way as health is a public service, you look at the most effective ways of delivering that service for the best outcomes for society. If you directed money at educational outcomes rather than maintaining structures than surely that’s for the benefit of society.

“I think the moral argument has been won. It’s wrong to separate children from the age of four, and send them to different schools. I think the economic argument needs to be detailed, in terms of the benefits. But I think the argument for social cohesion has been won.”

Scope will return with more on integration – and a lot more on education in general – soon.

If you want to see your views given a place in our education series, please email [email protected]

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