Confirmation that the Stormont Executive is to fund “shared education” between Catholics, Protestants and those of other or no faiths is welcome. But more laudable is the commitment to “mainstreaming” shared education programmes in Northern Ireland, where division, religious sectarianism and racism remain stubbornly prevalent.
Integrated schools, whose intake mirrors the wider community they serve, have long been a growing and significant sector within the Northern education system. While many denominational schools have done commendable work, it is undoubtedly overdue for schools which expressly integrate children from all backgrounds to be given more support.
It is unfair and misleading to refer to current schools as “segregated”. They are not, in the dictionary sense . But, undeniably, large percentages of Catholic children attend schools where there are no Protestants and vice versa. It is an unacceptable reality that of 291 schools in Northern Ireland in the 2011-12 school year, 180 had no Protestant children and 111 had not a single Catholic on their roll.
The £25 million in funding expected from Stormont and Atlantic Philanthropies will be used to create so-called shared campuses – a step short of complete integration. But at least they will provide common territory and facilities for all children, hopefully leading to a natural mutual acceptance and accommodation.
John O’Dowd, the capable Stormont Education Minister, has announced the plans to share facilities as “a game-changer in terms of how we plan education”. He is right. But education provision has long been in need of reform, and not just because of the generations-old separation of Protestant and Catholic. Demographic changes and greater cultural diversity are not least among the drivers for change.
There is also a dire need to address second level problems. While there is excellence at the top of the academic scale, there is lamentable under-achievement at the other – a particularl challenge in loyalist working class areas.