Integrated education in Northern Ireland has suffered a severe setback. Four secondary schools seeking a Government go-ahead for September under the province's new Department of Education guidelines have been rebuffed.
The Northern Ireland Council for Integrated Education (NICIE) said the decision made it clear that the Government has reduced its commitment to integration.
Laurelhill High and Bangor Girls High are state schools seeking to become integrated. Strangford College and East Antrim College are proposed new schools for children who have been to integrated primary schools.
All but 100 of the province's 1,142 schools are more than 95 per cent Protestant or Catholic. 773 schools in both the Catholic-maintained and controlled (Protestant) sectors do not have a single pupil from the other religious group.
NICIE chairman, Michael Wardlow said: "It is now evident that the new guidelines are designed to reduce the statutory requirement for the Department to facilitate parents choosing integrated schools. We have to advise the parents of 110 children already enrolled for East Antrim and 200 enrolled for Strangford to move to their second choice." However, local campaigners have not ruled out attracting independent money to open the two colleges.
The Department said it did not believe there was sufficient evidence of the schools' potential to achieve a sustainable integral balance over the long term. But Mr Wardlow said the Department was imposing restrictions which do not apply to non-integrated or Irish language schools.
Four state schools have been given new integrated status and the Department has given permission for a fifth - a new school at Malene in south Belfast still waiting for a confirmed site.