noreen campbell was a senior member of the pioneering staff team that launched Hazelwood Integrated College in North Belfast. She has since retired as a principle and as CEO of Northern Ireland Council for Inclusive Education (NICI).
As our legislative system comes to a standstill, great efforts are being made to “kill” the Integrated Education Bill presented by Kellie Armstrong of Alliance. This modest bill would redress the long-standing inequality faced by integrated schools by requiring the government to support planning for integrated schools.
Educational planning in NI continues to operate on the assumption of a controlled and maintained two-sector system, each of which plans for the needs of its sector.
Despite the Education and Libraries Ordinance 1986, which “sets out the duty of the school authority to secure an effective and sufficient supply in number and character of primary and secondary education in the region to meet the needs of all students”.
Despite the Education Reform Ordinance 1989 which stated: “It is the responsibility of the Department to encourage and facilitate the development of integrated education. » ;
And despite the introduction of Zone-based planning in 2011 which claimed to ensure: “the right type of school and the right size in the right place to meet the needs of children and young people”, parents wishing to send their children to an integrated school must always demonstrate a need to create their own schools or campaign for their local school to be included through the transformation process.
This is due to the fact there is no planning authority for integrated schools. Forty years after parents opened the first integrated school in 1981, parents are still expected to plan their own schools. It is unequal, unfair and discriminatory.
All opinion polls show strong parental support for integrated education. Unsurprisingly, without planning to ensure an integrated offer, there are not enough integrated places to meet the demand of parents. Recent research from the UNESCO Center at the University of Ulster found that 28% of households “are located in areas of Northern Ireland where access to integrated primary schools is limited and a similar percentage (26 %) is far from integrated post-primary schools”.
He further notes, “even in areas where there are integrated schools, high demand means families may still struggle to find a place.” On this basis, the authors say that the choice of an integrated school is often “illusory”. The Integrated Education Bill aims to correct this inequity in planning and provision.
The two bodies representing the Catholic sector, (CCMS) and the Controlled sector, (CSSC) attacked the bill. The DUP has indicated that it intends to use the “petition of concern” to halt the progress of the Inclusive Education Bill. If parents in Northern Ireland were able to start a concerning petition for politicians, they could legitimately ask:
- Why does the DUP put the political interest of the party above education and the best interests of children?
- Why don’t parents who seek an integrated education have the assurance that it will be accessible to them?
- When will all of our political parties actively promote an education system that reflects our increasingly diverse society rather than our divided past?
Outsiders to Northern Ireland frequently note the link between our separate education system, our divided political system and the continued division of our society. As President Obama pointed out in 2013:
“…if Catholics have their schools and buildings, and Protestants have theirs, if we cannot see each other, if fear or resentment can harden — that too encourages division. This discourages cooperation.
Time and time again we see in our politicians a lack of understanding of the “other side”, a reluctance to understand each other’s backgrounds, culture and viewpoints, an inability to accept the other, fear to be seen as giving to the ‘other side’. In government, we see a lack of communication, an inability to compromise and an inability to cooperate.
These politicians did not have the opportunity to attend an integrated school. Inclusive schools celebrate diversity, promote debate and challenge, inculcate the traits of tolerance, and practice good communication, cooperation, and acceptance of others. It is their mission to do this, they can do this easily due to the diversity of their student populations and the philosophy that has been developed to ensure this happens.
It’s time for reform. It’s time to take that small step toward normalizing inclusive education as a legitimate choice for parents and to make this bill into law. All major parties have in the past expressed some support for inclusive education. Now is the time for them to make that support a reality by rejecting the concerning petition and approving this bill.
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