Another bid launched to heal rifts in NI's schools

26th October 2012 at 01:00
Panel will tackle entrenched divisions in Northern Ireland

In a society torn apart by decades of sectarian violence, it is no surprise that Northern Ireland's education system is still one of the most divided in the world. It has been said that if you can think of a way to divide pupils, it exists somewhere in the province, from religious segregation and single-sex schools to academic selection and the more insidious, class-based division that critics claim follows.

But now, driven by economic and cultural concerns as much as educational ones, the Northern Ireland government is leading an effort to overturn the status quo.

An independent group set up by education minister John O'Dowd is giving people across the province the chance to have their say on the future of "shared" education, which puts the needs of pupils before sectors and institutions. Chaired by Paul Connolly, professor of education at Queen's University Belfast, the group's aim is to formulate an approach to the delivery of quality education to all children in a way that fosters equality, good relations and community cohesion.

A desire is growing among the population for more cross-sector cooperation and collaboration in education, and opinion polls consistently show huge support for integrated schools, which must contain a reasonable number of pupils from both Protestant and Catholic communities. The first integrated school was set up in 1981 and, 31 years later, 18,000 pupils are now enrolled in 61 integrated primaries and post-primaries out of a total of 1,210 schools.

Additionally, since 2007 the Sharing Education programme has worked with more than 100 schools at primary and post-primary level to encourage cross-sector collaboration concentrating on curriculum-based activities.

In rural areas, some small schools have been forced to collaborate to provide the full academic offer of the Entitlement Framework, the post-14 curriculum that guarantees all pupils access to a minimum number of courses. But the fact remains that 95 per cent of Northern Ireland's pupils are still educated in either Catholic- or Protestant-only schools.

The economic need for more shared education is urgent. Northern Ireland's schools have an estimated 85,000 surplus places and the cost of duplication of services has been estimated at #163;1 billion a year.

The advisory group, which is inviting written submissions until 9 November, has been asked to be "bold and imaginative".Professor Connolly said that the issue is crucial for the future of Northern Ireland's society, and he wants as many people as possible to join the debate.

"It's not a good model when children are educated separately from each other," Professor Connolly said. "There are always things to be gained educationally when children learn together.

"Shared education is children from different backgrounds learning together. A number of schools are already sharing by bringing classes together, and there are programmes trying to bridge some of the cultural divisions through a range of extra-curricular activities and sporting events.

"But there's a whole cultural phenomenon where children are being brought up culturally and socially separate. There's still a legacy of many years of conflict and divisions that needs to be addressed."

The group is due to report to the education minister on 1 February 2013. Its members hope they can stimulate the debate about shared education - which Professor Connolly said has become "polarised and entrenched" in recent years - and set an agenda for the Department of Education Northern Ireland. They also hope their work might start a much broader civic debate on the subject of cross-sector cooperation and collaboration.

THE EXPERTS

Paul Connolly Professor of education at Queen's University Belfast. Holds the Donald Dewar visiting chair in social justice and public policy at the University of Glasgow. Editor of the journal Effective Education.

Dawn Purvis Former Independent Unionist member in the Northern Ireland Assembly and former chair of the All Party Group on Children and Young People. An independent consultant and chair of the Healing through Remembering organisation.

P.J. O'Grady Founder member of the Catholic Principals Association. Former principal of St Patrick's College, Belfast. Awarded an honorary doctorate for "school transformation and contributions to cross-community life" by the University of Ulster.

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