Sectarian wrangling over sharing and integration can only be averted by raising sights towards higher standards

A debate on the future of education has begun in confusion but at least it’s underway. Since Obama’s speech which was accorded more significance than it deserved, the debate on sharing or integration in education got into a terrible muddle straight away. Is sharing a big step towards integration or the very opposite?  Since promoting its comment columns as The Home of Debate NI, the Belfast Telegraph has thrown its usual ”on the one hand, on the other – let’s be reasonable “ caution to the winds and come out in favour of  shared education which it seems to equate with  integration.

 Deadlock over academic selection is the other big issue entangled with sharing. Does the one inhibit the other?   Prof Paul Connolly’s report in April highlighting selection as a bigger problem than sharing  was dismissed by the DUP as ” an opportunity lost.” The Newsletter naturally blames Sinn Fein for “threatening academic excellence by putting grammar schools on the slippery slope to abolition.”  This hare is running over council recommendations to be made in the Craigavon area  which throw into doubt the future of the Dickson plan, which favours a choice of schools at  14+ rather than selection at 11. But this is where decisions on area based planning for closure or amalgamation of schools on efficiency grounds are becoming very complicated and perhaps politicised.

Area based planning process was recommended by the Bain report all of seven years ago. But although Bain clearly sympathised with integrated and non selective education, he finally ducked the issues and allowed  rationalisation to proceed on the basis of the existing sectors. This was the huge opportunity missed, even if the politicians would have remained deadlocked . A more prescriptive report would at least have kept up the pressure for rational reform.

Are the obstacles to reform more political than religious?.  Sharing is being used as a distraction from debating  selection and  ending selection  is being  used as an alternative to facing up to integration.  The ships have been passing in the night.  Bishop McKeown  who heads the Catholic Commission for Catholic education clearly feels under unreasonable pressure.

“(Peter Robinson’s view) certainly was perceived in the Catholic community as nakedly sectarian – talking about reconciliation, but ultimately saying the fault is with the Catholics, they really are the ones who are to blame and, specifically, the Catholic Church. I suppose at the present time, kicking the Catholic Church really won’t lose you too many votes in many places.”

Sectarian wrangling is I suppose inevitable in this debate. I confess I’m puzzled by the DUP’s stance on education, unless it is limited to point scoring, knowing that nothing apart from some school closures will happen. Why is it that what used to be a working class based party is so in favour of entrenching the status quo when performance lower down is so poor?

Is it the case that most Protestants are in favour of mixed schools and most Catholics are opposed? Are Protestants mainly in favour of selection at 11? Too much comfort or concern  should not be taken from one set of polls. Are those Catholics who are also in favour of selection starting to bend to pressure?

How will sectarianism affect decisions? When area based planning presents the opportunity, will decisions on school closures or amalgamation be taken on sectarian political grounds which will push sharing, never mind integration, further away than ever? What by the way has happened to local option? And why leave the real choice to councils?

What is totally lacking in the area plans is the vision of how a different pattern of sectors based on   subject specialisation and  school networks  could create better schools and improve performance. These issues should be gripped at Stormont level. Parents and teachers  should lobby and pressurise  MLAs  to  raise the quality of debate  to cut through the default sectarian positions  with better choices  The education debate has far to go to reach maturity  But at least it seems to have begun.

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