Assessing demand for integrated education
Measuring the demand for integrated education in Northern Ireland is a complex issue which requires robust and accurate measures says Dr Paula Devine, Dr Erin Early, Dr Minchen Liu and Professor Dirk Schubotz.
The first integrated school in Northern Ireland (Lagan College) was established over 40 years ago, in 1981. This was very much a grass-roots initiative, relying on support from parental initiatives and philanthropic organisations. Since then, integrated education has become more embedded in our society, for example, through legislation such as the Education Reform Order (NI) 1989. The Integrated Education Act (Northern Ireland) 2022 extended the responsibilities of the Department of Education and the Education Authority (EA) to encourage, facilitate and support integrated education.
Alongside this legislation, the Integrated Education Fund (IEF) supports the growth and development of integrated education in Northern Ireland. At present (2023), there are 70 integrated schools in Northern Ireland, comprising 6% of schools and 7% of pupils. This number is likely to increase in the incoming years as existing schools vote to change to an integrated management structure. In the past fortnight alone, the parents of pupils at two schools in Bangor – Bangor Academy (the largest school in Northern Ireland) and Rathmore primary school ‑ have voted in favour of moving to an integrated status.
The definition of integrated education has changed over time. Within the 1989 legislation, the focus was on educating Protestant and Catholic pupils together at school. However, reflecting the demographic and societal changes over the past 30 years, the Integrated Education Act (Northern Ireland) 2022 provided a more inclusive definition: integrated education relates to educating pupils of different cultures/religions, socio-economic backgrounds and abilities together.
Attitude surveys have consistently shown public support for more religious mixing and integration in schools. For example, 68% of respondents to the 2022 Northern Ireland Life and Times (NILT) survey would prefer that their children attended a mixed-religion school (up from 35% in 1998). The 2022 Young Life and Times (YLT) survey of 16 year olds shows a similar pattern (57%). However, survey data can be confusing, as terms such as “mixed”, “shared” or “integrated” education are used interchangeably despite referring to distinct types of schools. As a result, the data do not provide clear evidence on attitudes towards integrated education specifically.
The 2022 Act outlines that the Department of Education is responsible for assessing and reporting on the demand for, and supply of, integrated education, whilst the EA is responsible for determining demand for integrated education. However, measuring such demand is a complex issue, which requires robust and accurate measures.
In a recent project commissioned by the IEF, a team from ARK led by Erin Early, explored the methods of measuring demand for integrated education that are used by stakeholders such as the EA, IEF and the Northern Ireland Council for Integrated Education (NICIE). These include:
- First preference applications of pupils to schools.
- Oversubscription or undersubscription of integrated school places.
- Parental ballots on the integrated status of existing schools.
- Expressions of interest forms.
- Registrations on the website integratemyschool.com
- Attitudes surveys (micro polls, opinion polls and surveys).
- Participatory research methods (deliberative polls and Community Conversations).
Each method has its own strengths and limitations, which are fully explored in the project report. Notably, a common feature across all of these measures is the failure to capture the myriad reasons why parents select integrated schools for their child’s education. These include school quality, proximity to home or parents’ workplace, and school admissions criteria, as well as a preference for integrated education. However, for other parents, a school being integrated may play no role in their decision.
Our report emphasises that demand for integrated education is situated in a complex landscape, not least due to the range of school management structures which co-exist. In addition, school choice and the demand for specific school types are multi-faceted. Importantly, within this complex landscape, demand for integrated education is dependent on the choice of (alternative) schools available, which is context specific.
With this in mind, any assessment of demand requires an improvement in the way that information is captured through research. Our report therefore recommends that survey questions are reworded to explicitly refer to integrated education. However quantitative measures alone will not provide an adequate understanding of this issue. Qualitative or mixed-methods approaches are therefore recommended to further explore the reasons for parental decisions of school choice.
The report also suggests the utilisation of the school admissions portal, which is a centralised system used by all parents to apply for a pre- /primary/post-primary school place for their child. This provides a vital opportunity to ask parents about their reasons for school choice, at the time that the decision is made.
The report also highlights how assessing demand is dependent upon parents’/pupils’ awareness of the different school types available and what they have to offer. Increasing the availability and accessibility of information on all school types (including integrated schools), enables parents to make an informed decision about school choice.
Current information on integrated education and alternative school types is almost exclusively targeted at parents, and legislation prioritises parents’ choice of a school for their children. However, the views of children and young people need to be considered as schooling is obviously a key issue in their lives. Nevertheless, the children and young people are not systematically consulted within the current processes. The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child (2001) have emphasised this and it remains of importance today. Article 12 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child stipulates that children have a right to express their views, wishes and feelings in all matters affecting them, and that these views should be considered and taken seriously. With this in mind, there is a need to take children’s and young people’s views on their education and choice of school more seriously to shape future planning.
Integrated education does not exist in isolation but is part of a complex – and confusing ‑ education system that reflects wider societal and residential segregation in Northern Ireland. Within this system, integrated education provides a mechanism to promote reconciliation among divided communities. Reliable and robust indicators to assess and monitor demand for integrated education are therefore central to ensuring that stakeholders meet their duty under the Integrated Education (Northern Ireland) Act 2022.
As outlined in the recent Strategy for Integrated Education in Northern Ireland, no single data source or measure will provide the type or range of information needed to measure demand, resulting in the need for a suite of measures.
Importantly, the recommendations outlined in the project report provide mechanisms for recording and understanding the preferences and choices of parents, children and young people in relation to all types of schools, regardless of whether they are integrated or not.
About the Authors
All four authors are members of ARK, and are based in the School of Social Sciences, Education and Social Work at Queen’s University Belfast.
Dr Paula Devine is Co-Director of ARK and director of the Northern Ireland Life and Times Survey.
Dr Erin Early is a Lecturer in Sociology.
Dr Minchen Liu is a Research Fellow.
Professor Dirk Schubotz is a Professor of Youth and Social Policy, and director of the Young Life and Times Survey.