Northern Ireland Assembly preaches integration, but still segregates classes by sectarian background in ‘shared schools.’
“...80 per cent of those surveyed in the Protestant and Catholic communities would support fully-integrated schools...”
“...Despite the costs integrated education was at the forefront of the 1973-74 Executive’s efforts to improve community relations...”
Despite a backdrop of relative peace and stability, today’s Northern Ireland Assembly is showing less commitment to integrated schooling than its precursor in the violence-torn 1970s, according to Dr Shaun McDaid of the University of Huddersfield.
He has also pointed to survey findings which indicate that almost 80 per cent of the adult population of Northern Ireland would back progress towards mixed Catholic-Protestant schools. But the figure is considerably lower among members of some parties, leading Dr McDaid to argue that the Province’s political class may be out of step with public opinion.
“There seems to be a genuine desire among parents to bring about integrated schooling, but it hasn’t materialised. On this issue the Executive is behind the curve,” said Dr McDaid, a Research Fellow at the University of Huddersfield and a member of its Centre for Research in the Social Sciences.
He has contributed an article to the first edition of the online Identity Papers, published by the University’sAcademy for British and Irish Studies. In this, Dr McDaid compares the education policies pursued by the power-sharing executive of 1973-74 with those of the current devolved government.
Today’s Ulster no longer suffers the intense sectarian violence of the 1970s and 80s, but remains plagued by inter-communal divisions, writes Dr McDaid. And despite today’s relative absence of violence, there have been few attempts to improve community relations via integrated education.
By contrast, the executive of the early 1970s formulated what Dr McDaid describes as “one of the most progressive and ambitious strategies for integrated education in the history of Northern Ireland”.
“Despite the costs, integrated education was at the forefront of the first executive’s efforts to improve community relations. That this occurred at a time when the violence was at its most intense is all the more remarkable, and provides an interesting contrast with the education policies of the current executive.”
In 1974, there were ambitious plans that included an expansion of nursery schooling and non-denominational schools for older pupils. They would have been costly and faced opposition from Catholic clergy in particular, but the proposals showed that the short-lived executive was seriously attempting to tackle sectarian attitudes among the Province’s young people, according to Dr McDaid.
However, the current Northern Ireland Assembly has shown no commitment to fully-integrated schools. Instead it has earmarked £25 million for the development of “shared schools”, in which pupils of different sectarian backgrounds share facilities such as sports grounds and assembly halls but are taught in segregated classes.
“This sharply contrasts with the 1974 policy proposals which clearly envisaged something much more expansive and radical regarding what was meant by ‘shared schooling’,” writes Dr McDaid.
Current reluctance is despite the fact that the executive is under a statutory obligation to increase integration – with its social benefits – and despite the finding that almost 80 per cent of those surveyed in the Protestant and Catholic communities would support fully-integrated schools. However, this high level of support is not replicated among political party members, which could explain reluctance to pursue integrated education, in the analysis of Dr McDaid.
His critique of education policy in Ulster has already earned interest in the Irish media and his article is freely available online. Now Dr McDaid in contemplating further research in which he compares the shared schooling approach in Ulster with that which has been adopted in the Balkans.
The Northern Ireland model is not nearly as extreme as that in Bosnia - where pupils from different communities use separate entrances – but there are fears that a shared schools approach can worsen segregation, said Dr McDaid.