Catholic and Protestant schools to share facilities in North

Funding of £25m announced for initiative to bridge divide in education system

US president Barack Obama and British prime minister David Cameron during a visit to Enniskillen Integrated Primary School when both leaders were attending the G8 summit in the North last year.

US president Barack Obama and British prime minister David Cameron during a visit to Enniskillen Integrated Primary School when both leaders were attending the G8 summit in the North last year.

Fri, Jun 6, 2014, 01:00

Northern Ireland’s political leaders are to announce initiatives this month aimed at promoting “shared education” between Catholic and Protestant pupils, including confirmation of a £25 million (€30 million) investment package

Belfast-based news website The Detail has established that the funding is to help ensure the “mainstreaming” of shared education programmes in the North’s divided education system and will be followed by separate announcements about creating shared facilities for schools and a consultation on potentially drawing down millions in further funding from the EU.

The announcements are due to be made throughout this month but there are concerns that they come against the backdrop of renewed political tensions between the DUP and Sinn Féin at Stormont.

The emergence of “shared education” as a central plank of government policy is the latest attempt to break down deep- rooted sectarian divisions.

It has been 3½ years since First Minister Peter Robinson described Northern Ireland’s education system as a “benign form of apartheid which is fundamentally damaging to our society”.

He said then that consideration should be given to charging a body or commission to bring forward recommendations for a staged process of integration.

Segregated

The vast majority of schools are segregated in their intake, as figures published by The Detail in November 2012 showed.

That research found that almost half of the North’s schoolchildren were being taught in schools where 95 per cent or more of the pupils were of the same religion.

In the 2011/12 academic year 180 schools had no Protestant pupils and another 111 schools taught no Catholic children.

Teachers also continue to be trained separately in the North, with Stranmillis University College training staff for the state sector and St Mary’s University College preparing teachers for Catholic-maintained schools.

Integrated schools bring children and staff from Catholic and Protestant traditions, as well as those of other faiths, or none, together in one school.

There are 62 integrated schools in the North educating more than 21,000 children.

However, in recent years the government’s focus and language has changed.

The desire to fully integrate Catholic and Protestant children in schools has been replaced by an acceptance that many schools remain separate and so instead they are being encouraged to “share” – classes, facilities, teachers and even buildings. Integrated education purists say this isn’t radical enough – while others claim it is a more realistic option for the here and now and may even lead to fully integrated schools in some areas in the future.

Northern Ireland’s Shared Education Campus Programme was launched as part of the Executive’s “Together building a United Community” initiative announced by the First and Deputy First Ministers in May last year.

This included that work on 10 shared education campuses would begin within the next five years.