Shroud education: sharing and the future

20 Aug 2015 Ryan Miller    Last updated: 20 Aug 2015

Les Allamby is the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commissioner
Les Allamby is the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commissioner

Shared Education is the big new thing for helping society come together and improving schooling. But what are we supposed to expect?

The NI Human Rights Commission recently published its latest submission to the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child.

The report garnered some publicity for, amongst other things, calling for an end to academic selection.

This was attacked in some quarters as the HRC “straying outside its remit” and moving into “ideological” waters – though, while it is undoubtedly a political issue, this does not mean it is not a human rights concern also.

As well as the two-way harrumphing over the 11+, more shocking parts of the report – such as statistics about children subjected to paramilitary attacks – have taken up much of the news space for what is a very broad paper.

One very interesting issue that has largely been passed by in public is that of shared education and, to a degree, integrated education also (SE and IE).

Shared education is on the horizon for Northern Ireland but remains a cautious arena for both optimism and criticism because, while we know what it is supposed to look like in theory, the reality remains non-specific.

Its relationship with IE is an interesting one. An innocent view might be that segregated and integrated education are opposite and exhaustive.

Sharing is Northern Ireland’s third way, an attempt to reduce or remove segregation without actually having to integrate.

Different schools, same campus, different uniforms, some shared classes, perhaps some shared sports, overlap in administration - what could possibly go wrong?

Shared future

OFMdFM’s good relations strategy Together: Building a United Community has committed to establishing ten shared campuses within the next five years, while DE recently published a consultation on the best way forward for SE (which includes an attempt to define shared education).

The HRC report devotes a relatively large amount of space to documenting some of the key facts that outline the development of SE in Northern Ireland.

However it is not – and probably cannot be – clear on how exactly this new model will work in practice and, accordingly, hedges its bets:

“The NIHRC has welcomed the proposed legislative changes and will engage further on these when the Shared Education Bill is introduced to the Northern Ireland Assembly. Whilst a statutory definition of shared education and power to encourage it has the potential to contribute to reducing segregation in education, the scope of the definition and the need for a statutory duty rather than a power may yet present barriers to the success of this measure. Additionally, there remains some criticism of the emphasis placed on shared education by the Department of Education from academics and education professionals who argue that this model does not actively promote integration and can lead to the maintenance of segregation of children even within shared facilities.

“The Committee [the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, to which the report was published] may wish to ask the State party what mechanisms it will put in place to evaluate the effectiveness of recent developments in shared education in Northern Ireland.

“In line with its 2008 recommendation to “address segregation of education in NI”, the Committee may also wish to ask the State party to create a legislative duty on the Department of Education to encourage and facilitate shared education.”

The last paragraph’s use of “encourage and facilitate” brings to mind IE, and the Department of Education’s statutory obligation to do precisely that for the integrated sector.

This is something that the report explicitly criticises, saying the department has failed in its duties, highlighting a number of potential barriers to the growth of IE.

Will it work?

Amid all the competing interests within our education system, should we be hopeful for SE given the many problems with integration?

Indeed, the emergence of shared education comes at a time when the IE sector – despite huge public support – has not been able to grow to meet demand.

Sharing has moved forward as a concept designed to placate those who are opposed to integrated education. This may seem like a very negative positive, but it does provide sharing with at least a fighting chance at comprehensive implementation – not that this is any guarantee of success.

SE is set to be the biggest upheaval in Northern Irish education since the Good Friday Agreement. However, while if it is not that big it will have failed, simply being a major change will not be enough.

The Human Rights Commissions observations on shared education are less firm than its statements on selection, and less clear and eye-catching than observations about paramilitary punishments for schoolkids.

But whatever your views are, this is now the premier scheme we have attempting to improve cross-community relations within education. Its importance means it deserves a prominent place in public debate.

If only anyone knew what to really think about it.

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