Lessons from America on education: Leonard [South Belfast News]

Recently I had the fortunate opportunity to go to Washington, DC for the St Patrick’s Day events. My Party Leader, David Ford, met my Commander-in-Chief several times. I didn’t, but some may consider my miss as my mercy.

But we were there to work, not drown our shamrock.

We arrived the weekend beforehand, and hit the ground running on the Monday morning. They say that St Paddy’s Day now lasts a week, and we were going to make the most of it.

We met several dozen representatives over the week, Congressmen and women and their senior staffers. We also met a variety of officials from the US Administration, including the State Department.

We gave everyone an up-to-date briefing on the political situation in Northern Ireland.

We informed them how many people here are fed up with other parties blocking progress, be it through fundamentalism or unwillingness to accept political and legal structures.

We wanted to make the Americans aware of the support that exists among the general population to build on the progress that’s been made since the establishment of the Good Friday Agreement, and to end the current stagnation.

To achieve this, more needs to be done on policies promoting a shared future. We were lobbying representatives from Congress to back this formally.

Our message is of the vital importance of integrated education in Northern Ireland.

To everyone we met, we pointed out the stark fact that 95% of children here attend schools that are segregated by religion, despite 80% support for integrated education among parents. Each and every time, the response was raised eyebrows, dropped jaw, and astonishment.

Outsiders simply cannot believe that we carry on educating our children separately, to such an extent, when we as a society have progressed so much on fair employment and social housing.

I explained to the American politicians how expensive our policies of segregation are, wasting about £1 billion ($1.7 billion) year-after-year, for a relatively small population. This was so clearly irrational to them.

I am a beneficiary of the US Civil Rights movement and subsequent policies of integration. David Ford and I suggested to the Americans that we in Northern Ireland have much to learn from the US experience.

Some replied that the US record isn’t perfect. For example, forced bussing was very contentious in some areas.

But we explained that Alliance isn’t about forced social engineering. Education policy in Northern Ireland is based on parental choice, and Alliance supports this wholeheartedly.

The problem is that there has been persistent surplus demand for integrated education by parents. The regular oversubscription to integrated schools, at several thousand places annually, masks the even greater desire and willingness of parents who would apply for a place, if there was any chance of securing one.

Thus our own Government has been paying lip service to both the notions of parental choice in its education policy, as well as its declared objectives of sharing resources and eliminating wasteful spending.

We specifically asked the Congresspeople to consider amending a draft resolution in the House of Representatives, to explicitly endorse integrated education in Northern Ireland, which is after all cited in the Good Friday Agreement.

I will, of course, keep all of my many new American contacts up-to-date on this issue. Integrated education provides an ideal role model of how to achieve the best use of our resources, but more importantly, how to move forward together. It is what the majority of parents support, and we in Alliance will keep the pressure on whoever it takes to make sure we achieve this shared future together.

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