THE Good Friday Agreement stated that an essential aspect of the reconciliation process is the promotion of a culture of tolerance at every level of society, including initiatives to facilitate and encourage integrated education. In fact there is a statutory duty on the Department of Education to encourage and facilitate integrated education.
Moreover, every major public opinion poll since the 1998 Agreement has overwhelmingly demonstrated that the vast majority of people in Northern Ireland want to see more integrated schools. Yet the figures outlined in this report highlight that our education system still remains deeply divided. Overall the picture of political progress in dealing with the core issues of division and segregation in Northern Ireland is one of abandoned pledges and broken promises.
Area-based planning offers an opportunity for real change; an opportunity to design a future education system which is more integrated and which delivers better educational outcomes than in the past. In reality, the process is rooted in a segregated structure, with not even a mere glance at integrated education. We have been presented with proposals that deal with the economic side of reform but with reduced sharing and the reinforcing of religious segregation. In this respect the proposals seem to be driven by a narrow vision of what education could be, with a lack of innovative proposals for more integrated education in its widest sense.
Given the watered-down approach to shared education that is emerging from area-based planning, there is a real concern that what we will be left with will be merely managed levels of segregation embedded in the structure of our education system.
Thirty years of integrated schools, established through parental demand, demonstrate that it is possible to educate children together without diluting cultural identity. Beyond Northern Ireland we can see education systems where the norm is to teach children together. By joining them we send out a powerful message that we are building a truly shared future rather than merely managing the divisions of our past. We can now celebrate our differences and not fear them. Our children deserve no less.
The time has come for real change instead of a different version of the status quo. The time has come to build an education system fit for the 21st Century – a system based on integration and not separation.