Trevor Lunn opinion piece on the importance of integrated education

There was great anticipation of the visit by President Barack Obama to Northern Ireland for the G8 summit in Fermanagh. I was lucky enough to be sitting in the Waterfront Hall when he laid down a challenge to our Executive to deliver a more integrated society for everyone.

I was particularly struck by what he had to say about our segregated school system. He did not hold back when he said ‘if Catholics have their schools and buildings and Protestants have theirs, if we can’t see ourselves in one another, if fear or resentment are allowed to harden that encourages division, it discourages cooperation’.

It is clear that he sees integration in our education system as being crucial and fundamental to the delivery a shared future.

His comments are in stark contrast to the view of the DUP and Sinn Fein who are only interested in shared education. In their unimaginative shared future strategy, they do not mention integrated education once. Instead they aim to deliver ten new shared education campuses.

I support shared education initiatives for the original reason they came about, to help schools deliver the full range of subjects. Anything that increases contact between children from different backgrounds is a good thing. However, shared education by itself will not achieve a shared future.

It should go hand in hand with integrated education. I am concerned that there is an attempt to use shared education as an alternative to integrated education. We should not be looking at in terms of shared versus integrated education. We must be delivering both.

As a supporter of parental choice, I do not think that we will see a single education system in the foreseeable future, meaning that shared education initiatives will have a role to play.

However, these ten shared education campuses may not even improve community relations that much. Children will go through the same front gate but they will then effectively go to their almost completely separate schools. I would describe this as being a form of close proximity segregation. It is only by increasing the level of meaningful contact between those from different backgrounds that we can dramatically improve community relations.

If pupils wear the same uniform and are being taught by the same teachers in the same classrooms, then we can reduce the level of mistrust and fear of one another. These shared education campuses will not achieve that.

President Obama’s only mention of OFMDFM’s shared education proposals was to describe it as a ‘step along your transformational journey’. I, like him, appreciate the role it can play as a stepping point, but it isn’t the end goal.

We should be looking to dramatically increase the level of integrated education. This is supported by a recent poll for the Belfast Telegraph in which 68% of respondents said that this should be a priority for the Executive.

In our ‘For Everyone’ shared future document, we set a target of 20% of school places at integrated schools by 2020. However, there is a lack of leadership coming from the Education Minister and the First and deputy First Ministers to increase the level of integrated education. Some of these schools are the most oversubscribed across all the sectors.

We are denying the right of parental choice to those who wish to send their child to an integrated school due to the small number of places available. There does seem to be an unwillingness to help this sector grow.

The Department of Education has constantly failed to honour its obligation to encourage and facilitate integrated schools. For 40 years these schools have proved that it is possible to educate our children together in one school, with all the social benefits that flow from that.

Instead, we are pursuing a separate but equal shared schooling agenda rather than the ultimately more beneficial and more cost-effective solution of real amalgamation. Why build two schools when one would do? Why does Peter Robinson, supposedly a proponent of a more integrated education system not do more to help this sector grow?

President Obama also gave this sector a vote of confidence and support when he visited Enniskillen Integrated Primary school shortly after his speech in Belfast. I am glad that he had the chance to see for himself the good work that integrated schools are doing to break down the divisions in our society.

His visit will provide food for thought to the DUP and Sinn Fein. I hope it sends the message that they cannot ignore integration education.

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