Prospect of integrated schools in Northern Ireland still a distant dream
When Peter Robinson described Northern Ireland’s segregated education system as “a benign form of apartheid” in a speech in October 2010, it was a remark that had the potential to be a major turning point for integrated schooling in Northern Ireland.
The DUP leader said: “If one were to suggest that Protestants and Catholics would be educated at separate universities it would be manifestly absurd; yet we continue to tolerate the idea that at primary and secondary level our children are educated separately.
“I believe that future generations will scarcely believe that such division and separation was common for so long. The reality is that our education system is a benign form of apartheid, which is fundamentally damaging to our society.
Criteria of race
“Who among us would think it acceptable that a state or nation would educate its young people by the criteria of race, with white schools or black schools? Yet we are prepared to operate a system which separates our children almost entirely on the basis of their religion.” He said consideration should be given to asking a body or commission to bring forward recommendations for a staged process of integration.
Wind forward almost two years and in July 2012 Northern Ireland’s Minister for Education, John O’Dowd, announced the establishment of a ministerial advisory group to look at shared education. Its findings are due to be reported to the Minister by February 2013.
The department’s definition of shared education does not refer to any plans to create a fully integrated school system in Northern Ireland.
It states: “Shared education refers to the organisation and delivery of education to meet the needs of learners of differing community background, race, ethnicity, political opinion and socio-economic status involving schools and other education providers of differing ownership, sectoral identity and ethos, management type or governance arrangements.”
View The religious divide in Northern Ireland's schools in a full screen map
Less challenging aims now appear to have been set by the department for more “sharing” and “collaboration” between different school types.
In July 2012, secretary of state Owen Paterson said that over 90 per cent of public housing in Northern Ireland was segregated. This means thousands of children are continuing to both live and learn with only others of the same religious background.
Prof Tony Gallagher is pro-vice chancellor at Queen’s University Belfast and former head of the university’s school of education. He said: “These new figures suggest that our schools remain strongly differentiated on the basis of religion, with only limited evidence of any change between 1997/8 and 2011/2.
“There has been a significant increase in the number of pupils in integrated schools over that period but the overall proportion in that sector remains low. It is likely most young people will continue to be educated in schools where the majority of their peers are from the same religious community.”
Mr O’Dowd said: “It has to be remembered parents and pupils choose which school they would prefer to attend, I have no power to direct anyone as to which school they should attend.
“It is important that in an open, modern society parents have the right to express a preference for schools that reflect a religious, or integrated, ethos. Indeed it would not be appropriate for me to attempt to force parents to choose one type of school over another.”
He said the department had put in place a new community relations, equality and diversity policy which helped ensure children and young people developed self-respect and respect for others by building relationships with those of different backgrounds and traditions.
“Although we have a variety of different sectors, there is already a significant degree of sharing taking place between and across sectors.
“I want to build existing practice and further boost such co-operation between schools in the future.”