Friday, 3 April 2009

Less defensible to divide by religion than by academic ability

Historians have often speculated that Northern Ireland’s history might have been less troubled had Stormont’s first Education Minister been able to realise his vision of an integrated education system. Under enormous pressure from Catholic and Protestant clerics, Lord Londonderry’s 1923 Education Act was amended beyond recognition. The Minister retired from politics here in disillusionment and an early opportunity to draw some of the sectarianism from society was lost.

Eamon McCann revisits
those events in his Belfast Telegraph column and laments the lack of any current impetus towards integrated schooling in Northern Ireland. Whilst current Education Minister, Caitriona Ruane, deplores separating children using academic criteria, she is supportive of the religious division and indeed she actively encourages further partition of pupils along community lines by championing separate Irish language schools.

In truth the situation in education is merely one of the baleful consequences of political carve-up between Sinn Féin and its DUP ally. The two parties are content to horse trade their respective communities’ sectional interests and call the process government. Commitments to integrate housing as well as education, which were outlined in the Belfast Agreement, have now been forgotten. Indeed the Shared Future policy document was dropped in the early days of DUP/SF coalition.

It would certainly be wrong to force an integrated education system on children and parents. The argument which I advanced in a previous article (linked above) still stands:

Of course choice is important. Ultimately the responsibility for educating a child rests with its parents and it is the state’s job to enable them to discharge that responsibility by the best means possible. A ‘choice’ argument should not, however, be used to obfuscate half-hearted commitment to principles that integrated education in Northern Ireland is positive, welcome, needs to be encouraged and exerts a constructive influence on our society. After all, the integrated movement has been very much been driven by parental demand from its inception.

A report by the Integrated Education Fund has stressed the importance of persuading church leaders that integrated schooling is not inimical to religion and is overwhelmingly beneficial to children. From the IEF’s perspective, that is a laudable aim. Sustained and genuine commitment from the education minister and from politicians across the spectrum would add weight to its cause. A simple acknowledgment that integration and sharing is a best case scenario for Northern Ireland’s young people would be a start. Concrete encouragement for those schools which seek integrated status, and schools within both the controlled and voluntary sector that wish to cooperate with each other and share resources, must also be forthcoming.

Ironically the divide which serves no educational purpose is not the divide which most concerns Ruane.

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