A plan for parental choice – the route to transformation

 

“This is typical Peter Robinson,” said Ms Ritchie.

“On the one hand he says the most visionary thing ever said by a DUP politician about our divided society, and then he spoils it with an old-fashioned political sideswipe at Catholic schools.

“He is still right that we should aim for a future where our children are increasingly educated together – but blaming Catholics for the division is shameful and totally the wrong place to start.”

 

OK, so there’s a squabble about Peter’s sincerity. Perhaps he sees a chance of long term efficiency savings. Or he might mean that if a majority of Catholics were to embrace integration, the rump would have to go private. This won’t happen. A new system based on integration must allow state funded opt-out and probably privately funded opt-out too. If by some remote chance the Assembly abolished religious education tomorrow, the courts would not let it stand.

But look on the bright side. Three leaders including Peter have uttered soundbites in favour. We can factor in the Alliance party. Integration presents one type of challenge to Catholics and another to Protestants and “others.” It’s at least interesting that the politicians are talking as if these challenges can be met. This could be the moment when powersharing springs to life and presents a clear vision that goes to the heart of our divided society. Will they seize it? The even bigger question is whether they are speaking for a public mood which up to now has been suppressed by tradition and by the weight of the Troubles. Could this be peace at last?

But simple idealism is not the only motive. An integrated school can help halt Protestant flight in areas of Catholic population growth. Bigger pressures in favour of integration have been clear for years but generally dismissed as incapable of being fulfilled. Key among them are the marginal costs of division during the years of austerity ahead. Another is the wider range of subjects of the entitlement framework needed to upskill our young people for a modern economy. Some State and Catholic schools should federate in order to provide the full range. There is also a chance here to cut by consent the Gordian knot over academic selection.

Problems over the curriculum are exaggerated. It works well already and is designed to teach students to think for themselves and appreciate diversity rather than fear it. Education does not exist to promote national, cultural and religious stereotypes.

All parties have to agree what they mean by integration. One size fits all: or most children educated together regardless of religion, but still differentiated by aptitude and type of school? I suggest the latter: one size fits all is not viable for reasons given above.

Integration is unlikely to happen in a Big Bang and is more likely to catch on in stages. People must be allowed not to join in or the whole system might never get off the ground even with all party support.

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I’m no expert but here’s an outline action plan.

 1.    Not only the political parties but the churches and lay bodes involved have to agree the principle of an integration plan. Integration becomes the norm. The issue of Catholic and integrated school ownership has to be settled. It is stressed that implementation is voluntary and protects ethos based on parental choice. 

2.   The present system of schools sectors and management is replaced.

3.    Regional management of schools, which goes again the grain of new developments in GB, is designed for the stalled Education and Skills authority (ESA) to administer the present segregated system. This bureaucratic system should be radically amended in favour of a new one based on parental choice exercised at school level on the model of the new English academies or similar. Only a system based on choice can deliver the diversity to make integration possible (a necessary paradox).

4.   Area based planning extends to all primary and secondary schools in all sectors. It is based in the first instance purely on demographics – (without regard to State and Catholic and integrated, controlled and maintained sectors) – and on implementing the entitlement framework in the area’s secondary schools (curriculum choice

5.    On the basis of the area plan, parents, teachers and other interested        parties form consortia to refine the plan for each school to suit their needs and aspirations and then bid to ESA to control it. Cross community consortia would be encouraged, some of them to amalgamate state and Catholic schools to provide wider curriculum range

6.    Clear differentiation by school type is created: academic or specialist music, sport, vocational. A faith category is essential as an enforceable human right. If the parties are right and the integrated system is attractive, faith schools will be a minority. ESA the regulator awards control of each school on the basis of its fit for the local entitlement framework and the degree of local support the plan enjoys. All plans are open to consultation by local councillors, civil society, teachers’ unions, educationalists and just plain folks. The Assembly education committee holds hearings on the new system in advance of a Green Paper, a White Paper and primary legislation. The area plans are scaled up into a regional plan describing the options for each school in the province before local bidding for control of each of them opens

7.   The present Catholic and integrated sectors are already well placed to make bids to control schools. Other groups must be given time to emerge. The new system might take five years to launch, from initial debates to the point where kids, parents and teachers are working the new system.

8.   Fair employment law is extended to teaching, to close up the Protestant/Catholic/secular split

9.   The exercise of parental choice in a new governance system obviates the need for academic selection in most cases

10.  The Assembly has to decide whether to create a category of schools with matching private funding. Since Catholic schools finally became fully funded in the 1970s, there is not much of a tradition of private funding in NI.

11.  Matching private funding might be allowed where:

the state school pupil quota isn’t met but a strong minority still want a school;

a strong minority wants an entry test;

business or charities wish to invest in a specialist school

12.  Schools attracting little or no interest are earmarked for closure or transformation by ESA, depending on local needs. By the same token local groups may also bid to set up new schools on green field sites on the academy or integrated school models.

13.  Appeals and disputes are referred to the Department of Education and can be debated in the Assembly. Councils are invited to give their opinions.

14.   School performance and governance are reviewed every five years. If the first phase is very popular, more schools may opt for integration.

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