Why is integrated education getting nowhere?

20 Nov 2014 Nick Garbutt    Last updated: 18 Dec 2014

Lagan College
Lagan College

The founders of Northern Ireland realised that having segregated education would make division worse. They wanted kids to be taught together. Almost 100 years later this prospect looks as distant as ever. Scope asks why.

On the face of it there is irresistible pressure for integrated education.

  • Public opinion is overwhelmingly in favour with the latest poll indicating almost 80% support.
  • Academic research consistently points to the benefits of educating children together in divided societies.
  • The Good Friday agreement binds all signatories to promote and facilitate it.
  • The Department of Education has a statutory duty to promote it.
  • Analysis of budgetary spending in Northern Ireland clearly shows significant overspend here compared to the rest of the UK as a result of the combined burden caused by duplicating resource by academic selection and schools segregated on sectarian lines.
  • And at a time when the maintained and controlled sectors have more than 55,000 empty desks between them, integrated schools are having to turn away between 500 and 700 prospective pupils a year.

Despite all this, only 7% of our children go to an integrated school and opposition is as robust and outspoken as ever.

Something, somewhere is going badly awry.

Smelling a rat

The row over Clintyclay Primary School in Co Tyrone has brought this issue into sharp focus. Faced with falling rolls the school authorities, with the support of parents, applied for integrated status. This would have been the first Catholic school to have done so. Almost simultaneously the Council for Catholic Maintained Schools applied to have the school closed down. Sinn Fein Minister John O’Dowd opted for closure.

Sam Fitzsimmons communications director of the Integrated Education Fund smells a rat: “We suspect that the CCMS acted like this because it was afraid that Clintyclay would start a domino effect and that if their bid to be integrated was successful then plenty more Catholic schools would have followed suit.”

Yet this is not the first time that the Catholic authorities have flexed their muscles. In the CCMS submission to the education committee’s inquiry into shared education it called for the statutory duty on the Education Department to promote integrated education to be dropped – effectively unravelling a commitment made in an internationally binding treaty.

It is hardly surprising that the Catholic church is fighting change so hard – after all it has huge vested interest in maintaining the status quo with more than 428 schools at the last count and it also believes that Catholic education is not just about RE lessons but is embedded in its schools ethos and culture.

Powerful vested interests

But it is not just the Catholic establishment that is blocking change. Fitzsimmons believes that the way the system works gives little opportunity for change. Everyone agrees that the school estate needs to be rationalised because of the vast numbers of empty desks.

“Let’s take an example of, say, where there are two schools in a town, one maintained and the other controlled and both are no longer sustainable. Logic would suggest that they join forces into a single integrated school. But that’s not what happens in practice. The CCMS will close its school and pupils will have to travel to the nearest Catholic school and ditto with the controlled school. So the rationalisation is happening entirely within silos and none of this is necessarily good for communities."

He believes that a combination of a lack of political will, the existence of powerful vested interests in the status quo and a lack of discernible commitment from the Education Department, despite its statutory duty, combine to lead to the current impasse.

Fitzsimmons adds: “Let’s not forget that there has never been an integrated school set up by the authorities it has always been parents who have been the driving force. Even changing status is a challenging and difficult process."

He says what makes change even more difficult to accomplish is that most of the policy makers in the Department are alumni of Catholic or Controlled Grammar Schools and as such creatures of the system which appears to be so impervious to change, despite the cost, the evidence and public opinion.

So what does he think of the new policy initiative which is promoting shared education.

“Well it is a fluffy term,” says Fitzsimmons. “Don’t get me wrong, we support any steps towards educating children together. So it’s a good thing. Our concern is that if the end of it is just collaboration it just maintains the status quo and that is not good – if it is a transitional step to having a system that reflects a normalised society where kids are going to a good local school rather than a Protestant school or a Catholic school then great. What matters most is for our children to be educated side by side in the same class and are not separated aged four because of their religion.”

What depresses Fitzsimmons most is that this issue was recognised by Northern Ireland’s first Education Minister Lord Londonderry at the inception of the state – his Education Act which envisaged a single system for all was wrecked by an alliance of Catholic and Protestant churches who were appalled at the prospect.

“Almost 100 years later, our children are still not being educated together. We’ve dealt with employment issues, we’ve tackled the really difficult issue of policing and justice. The two big issues that divide us housing and education remain. My biggest fear is that education will be the last to be resolved."

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