Robinson: “shared education is the way forward”

I was fortunate enough to catch the end of an event in Newcastle last night when children from thirteen maintained, controlled and integrated primary schools ‘graduated’ from the Shared Languages, Shared Cultures programme, run by the town’s Shimna Integrated College.

The programme, supported by Queen’s University’s Sharing Education Programme (hats off to Prof Tony Gallagher) and funded by Atlantic Philanthropies and businessman Gerard O’Hare, recently picked up the TES Outstanding Community Partnership Award.  The TES judges’ commented: “The main hope for Northern Ireland’s peaceful and prosperous future lies in its schools and the brave pioneers who are devising shared education programmes between educators in either sector. Shimna’s example is at once humbling and inspirational.”

Guest of honour was First Minister Peter Robinson. Thirteen months ago he sparked a major public debate when he condemned Northern Ireland’s segregated school system as “a benign form of apartheid, which is fundamentally damaging to our society.”

He used last night’s speech to reiterate his aspiration for “shared education”.

Of detail, there was none, although he teased the audience that the long-awaited Programme for Government might have something of interest.

Later this week the Northern Ireland Executive will announce its Programme for Government and its plans for the next four years. While I can’t say too much about it tonight, I hope that when it is published you will see the inspiration that projects like this one have provided.

Yet, if the PfG is as hollow of substance on integrating education as is the OFMDFM Programme for ‘Cohesion, Sharing and Integration’ (condemned by the Integrated Education Fund which said it was “very disappointed by the absence of any analysis, vision or focus in the proposals outlined”), then few in the audience will give it as warm a reception as they did to Robinson’s excellent speech last night. Extracts below (full version on the DUP website):

I believe that shared education is the way forward for Northern Ireland and you have taken an important step along that road and one which is supported by schools across the community.

I want to see what you are doing as the start of a process by which all of our children from the earliest age have the opportunity to live and learn together. If we are to make a real impact we must build bridges not for a single crossing but for a permanent link from one side to another. This programme has laid a solid foundation.

I know I startled some people when I told an audience in Downpatrick that I agree with the 19th Century Roman Catholic Bishop James Doyle, of Kildare and Leighlin – He said:

“I do not see how any man, wishing well to the public peace, and who looks to Ireland as his country, can think that peace can ever be permanently established, or the prosperity of the country ever well secured, if children are separated, at the commencement of life, on account of their religious opinions. I do not know any measures which would prepare the way for a better feeling in Ireland than uniting children at an early age, and bringing them up in the same school, leading them to commune with one another, and to form those little intimacies and friendships which often subsist through life.”

Whenever I was growing up I had friends from across the community, who I played with every day but when the time came to go to school we went our separate ways. We ended up making new friends and living separate lives.

Living close together, but living separate lives is not the kind of society that I want to see.

The concept of separate but equal was rejected in the United States in the 1950s and it should have no place in the Northern Ireland of today. We want a society where people work and live and learn together – not apart. That is our best guarantee that we will never return to the conflict from which we have emerged.