Integrated Education Policy: where is the political will?
As support for integrated education in Northern Ireland continues to grow, Jessica Johnston asks why has there been such political reticence to move integrated education policy forward.
The discourse surrounding integrated education in Northern Ireland has been given renewed attention in recent years due to the recent ‘Integrated Education Bill’ introduced in Stormont and the latest polls conducted which show consistent overwhelming support for improving and increasing integrated education. However, what has also been equally apparent is the lack of visible support for integrated education from larger political parties and therefore, the political will from some to move integrated education policy forward is limited. Similar to many things in a five-party mandatory coalition, consensus is difficult to reach.
The main premise of integrated education is to educate both Catholic and Protestant children together in one school, wearing the same uniform. The integrated ethos of these schools means that children of all abilities learn together which generates respect and tolerance amongst children from a variety of backgrounds. Contact theory provides the basis for which integrated schools are formed because evidence has found that the more contact children have with members of the opposite community, the more likely they are to have respect and understanding for diversity. As a result, sectarian divisions are reduced meaning better community relations can be formed and sustained. With this, the overarching goal is to create a shared and equal society. Sounds achievable, right?
In 1921, Northern Ireland’s first Education Minister Lord Londonderry, wanted an education system that would “create one national identity” by educating all children together. As evident through the past one hundred years, this was not the case. The influence of both Protestant and Catholic churches, of which both envisioned their own education systems for their own communities, won the argument of the day. The religious influence transferred into political influence and so a segregated education system has stood the test of time. During ‘The Troubles’ in Northern Ireland, in 1981 the first integrated school was set up by parents (not politicians) who believed that children should be educated side by side regardless of background or identity. Since the formation of Lagan College, a further 67 schools in both primary and secondary education have opened helping to develop the integrated education sector, accommodating almost 25,000 pupils in 2021, equating to 7% of children in Northern Ireland.
The ‘1989 Education Reform (NI) Order’ enabled a school to transform to integrated status provided a simple majority of parents voted in favour of it and if the school could provide roughly equal numbers of both Protestant and Catholic children. This order also placed a statutory duty on the Department of Education to ‘encourage and facilitate the development of integrated education.’ Furthermore, the 1998 Belfast Agreement had one simple line of creating a tolerant society through “initiatives to facilitate and encourage integrated education.” With only 7% of children being educated in integrated schools, it is questionable the extent to which this has been achieved.
As much as a segregated education system has endured in Northern Ireland, so too has the majority support for integrated education. Poll after poll has proved that a majority of participants favour integrated education. In 2018, a ‘LucidTalk’ Poll found that 67% of parents would support their child’s school transforming to integrated status. A similar poll conducted in May 2021 found this number rising to 73%, with 71% favouring integrated education becoming the mainstream education system in Northern Ireland. Additionally, the recent ‘Northern Ireland Life and Times Survey 2020’ had similar percentages in favour of integrated education with 69% of participants supporting their child attending a mixed religion school.
The reasons for this overwhelming support could not be more simple. Parents see the benefit of their child attending an integrated school as it teaches respect and tolerance for people from different backgrounds, something which is integral for a society in a peace process. They also see the financial savings that integrated education could bring. An Ulster University study found in 2016 that the cost of a segregated education system is estimated to be ‘£16.5-£95 million’.
Subsequently, this raises the question of: why does the political will not match the public support? Ultimately, segregated education maintains education systems for both sides of the community meaning their identities are protected. For the DUP and Sinn Fein, this suits their main aim of protecting their own political and national identities as both believe that an integrated education system would erode this. Out of fear, which is something that unites both parties, our education system remains segregated.
The closest both parties have come to moving on their opposition to integrated education policy is their support for the ‘Shared Education (NI) Act 2016’, in which children will share some lessons with schools of the opposite community but not the same uniform. Often supporters of integrated schools see shared education as a building block for a future of integrated education but with integrated education stagnating since the introduction of this legislation, many see it as maintaining the status quo. It is a political compromise between the two largest parties to divert attention away from implementing integrated education.
To summarize the parties, the Alliance party is clearly the most supportive of integrated education, followed by the UUP as seen by both parties developing significant policies on the concept in their manifestos. The SDLP remains somewhere in the middle on this policy, with a change in policy for supporting integrated education in 2016 but are not very vocal in their support for it when implementing manifesto pledges. The DUP hasn’t changed their policy substantially, but have moved to support shared education and some high ranking party members have spoken out in favour of implementing integrated education. Sinn Fein ranks at the bottom with no significant policy support for integrated education and their actions when holding the Education ministry failed on encouraging integrated education. The party has voiced their concerns for how integrated education would promote Irish culture.
The party which has taken most action on their manifesto pledges is the Alliance party. The party has clearly sought to take action on integrated education by introducing the key legislation and by introducing consultations on ending the exemption of teachers from Fair Employment legislation in Northern Ireland. The UUP also introduced a motion on this earlier in 2021 and many in the party have voiced significant support for integrated education. Not much in the way of policy action can be said of the remaining three parties as it does not seem to be a policy priority for them as demonstrated by their numerous party manifestos.
The attitudes to the current ‘Integrated Education Bill’ are largely mixed and differences in political will are clear to see. With the exception of the DUP, all parties voted for the bill to pass its second reading, but many expressed concern and have stated their intention to significantly amend the bill at committee stage. Only time will tell if the support was a one-off or a substantial change in policy support for integrated education.
So where do we go from here? Not by any stretch of the imagination does integrated education hang in the balance. The integrated sector has developed significantly over the years with very limited political support. The hard work and belief of parents and outside organisations, such as the Integrated Education Fund and the Northern Ireland Council for Integrated Education, that it can work has sustained integrated education for the past forty years, a welcome and notable achievement. What is needed now to advance and progress integrated education substantially, is the political will and the relevant legislation to pass all stages of Stormont’s legislative process.
However, with anything political, sincerity vs. strategy plays a key role. It would not be unreasonable to suggest that parties who change policy at a crucial election times are hoping that it will increase their vote share and seat numbers. With the SDLP in 2016, at a time when they were losing voters to other parties, changed their stance on integrated education from neutrality to support for the policy. The fact that it has not been mentioned in subsequent policy manifestos questions their commitment to this policy. Parties voting in favour of the integrated education bill may have done so given that the summer holidays were approaching, giving them time to process what amendments they could make to the bill at committee stage in the Autumn. Voting against the bill at second reading, therefore not giving it a chance to be considered, may have been used by Alliance at the next election against the other parties. At a time when Alliance has overtaken some parties in recent polls and surveys showing overwhelming support for integrated education, this would not have looked good for some parties. Alliance’s and UUP’s significant commitment to integrated education is one of sincerity given their consistent support for it across a number of party manifestos and party actions.
Strategy works for the short term, sincerity provides long-term political support. The latter is what is needed for integrated education policy in Northern Ireland to progress and become the dominant education system in our region.