Tinkering won't end religious apartheid

11th March 2005 at 00:00
An article in The TES (February 18) outlined the findings of a major study into pupils' reactions to sectarianism in Northern Ireland. Seamus Hegarty, director of the National Foundation for Educational Research, said he was "deeply disturbed" at pupils' reactions.

Half the pupils questioned at Protestant schools, and 40 per cent at Catholic schools, said they would rather go to an integrated school. Even teacher training in the province is segregated into Protestant and Catholic colleges, and they have very little opportunity to learn about each other's religion and culture. Is it any wonder that they find it difficult to be open and discuss the issues with their students?

I was not surprised at the findings of the survey. Following a spate of racial violence and gang warfare in and around my school some years ago, we decided to take a party of youngsters to Belfast to see what a divided community looks and feels like. This is now an annual visit and pupils always come back shocked. The intransigence of some of the youngsters they meet is particularly worrying.

Many of those questioned in the study said they do not want to change and do not want to know more about each other's religions and cultures.

However, everything our youngsters witnessed was enough to convince them that they do want to mix and socialise and do want to learn more about each other. They don't want to live in a divided community. This gives us a starting point to open discussions and tackle the issues head on.

The push for more state-funded Muslim schools (TES, February 25) is only to be expected. The present Government has made clear its commitment to increasing the number of Church of England and Catholic schools. Muslims feel that they should be treated equally. Yet, I believe that funding such schools, particularly in the area I work in, would be very damaging.

The housing policies of the early 1990s means that youngsters are already segregated on different estates. If they were then to be segregated on religious and ethnic grounds, most would never get to know each other. Many of our pupils do not speak English at home and only get to use the language at school. If all their friends speak the same language, they will have a very limited vocabulary. More worryingly, they will never mix and never get to know each other. They will grow up to be suspicious and to distrust anybody who is different.

Dr Hegarty pointed out that conventional measures of a successful education system do not reflect the true picture in Northern Ireland. It is true that achievement is high, but pupils rarely have the opportunity to discuss the issues that have a major effect on their lives. They never get to meet or work with young people from different religions. The troubles in Northern Ireland will never be resolved if we continue to support religious apartheid.

Social inclusion is the biggest issue facing our communities. Yet, the most obvious solutions seem to have been ignored by our politicians. Instead of policies designed to bring us together, we have no joined-up thinking and no coherent plan. Every Child Matters could be the vehicle to make more radical changes that would address the issues, but only if our politicians can take the occasional risk. As we head towards a general election, playing safe seems to be the order of the day.

Kenny Frederick is headteacher of the George Green's community school in Tower Hamlets

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