Is Peter’s sudden move towards integrated education the game changer?

Peter Robinson’s belief in integrated education comes out of the blue.

I believe that future generations will scarcely believe that such division and separation was so common for so long. The reality is that our education system is a benign form of apartheid, which is fundamentally damaging to our society

I have to point out that the real savings in terms of education will not be gained by simply creating a single educational administrative body but by creating a single educational system.”

Just in case you harbour the unworthy thought that this is an anti-Catholic ploy, note that his views appear to chime with Martin McGuinness’s. The DFM confirmed them at a meeting on the fringe of the Conservative party conference

“The first decision I took as minister of education was to establish two integrated schools in Belfast”, he said. “I’m all for it”.

So on the eve of the comprehensive spending review, is the dam about to burst on the Executive logjam at last?

Not so fast. Nearly 150,000 children – 45% of the total – are educated in the Catholic maintained sector, fully funded by the State since the 1970s.  As the CCMS don’t hesitate to point out, Catholic education enjoys very deep conscientious and widespread support- though how wide isn’t certain of course because most Catholics simply send their kids to the local Catholic school without necessarily feeling strongly about its governance.

How to proceed? Peter urges the go- ahead for the stalled single Education  and Skills Authority, partly on  reasonable efficiency grounds.  The  Catholic co-ordinating  body the CCMS point to a possible conflict of interest between that authority’s  projected management of  the State sector and its more arms length role with maintained schools.  Yet this appears to be only a temporary problem.

  And yet the question persists: can integration happen without replacing the present system of school ownership which through various reform programmes  has privileged the Churches in  different ways on both sides since partition?  Can that happen without a  confrontation with the  clerical and lay faithful?

Confrontation would seem a luxury we cannot afford. I detect no appetite for a French- style anticlerical crusade, more a desire to try to work with every force for social good in the community including the Churches. It was once memorably said that they were part of the problem  but undeniably they were part of the solution too in holding society together.  

More fundamentally, a vision of integration  has to crystallise which is acceptable to conscientious opinion throughout  the community, one that  preserves a Catholic ethos without imposing it on Protestants, another that is mutally acceptable.   No doubt this happens in those controlled schools with a Catholic majority. But this is a difficult one. A Catholic ethos is supposed to permeate all subjects and  all aspects  of life, even though in practice it avoids fights with the Enlightenment tradition.

 The small integrated sector was an ideological creation, however benign and voluntary. Universal integration is completely different. Can a system be created that is compatible with human rights and commands widespread support?

If the Executive leaders are serious about it, they must raise their game far above the lamentable performance level over the 11 plus. It is no more possible to compel integrated education on an unwilling section of the public as it is to abolish selection at 11 at a stroke. The very idea is so much hot air.

Integration in any form is a far bigger issue, exciting and potentially transformational certainly, but as huge can of worms as can be imagined, and one that goes to the heart of our divided society.

It will require more than the threat of big budget cuts to bring integrated education  about, useful catalyst though these might be. A “one size fits all” will no more work in this area than it will over selection. It will probably require a new term to separate it out from the minority  sector of the same name.

 A united Assembly and a unifying society is essential to bring it about over several years. We pray that FMDFM can get their act together and are  not raising false hopes.

Adds  First reaction to  the FM’s speech from Sinn Fein’s John O’Dowd is  confusing.

“The principle of children going to school together, no-one can argue against,” he said.

“However, I suspect that is not the motivation behind the DUP leader’s statement last night.

What we are witnessing is an attack on the Catholic education sector, not based on the principle that the DUP support integrated education.

How does John O’Dowd know that and how do his remarks square with Martin’s?

Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London