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.

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  • Morpheus

    Promotion of documents like this might help when it comes to what integrated education actually is:

    “The integrated school promotes equality in sharing between and within the diverse groups that compose the school community. This occurs structurally at every level amongst pupils, staff and the board of governors, as well as culturally within the overt and hidden curricula of the school. To achieve these ends each integrated school aspires to the following:

    (a) an annual intake of at least 40% pupils from a perceived Catholic background and at least 40% pupils from a perceived Protestant background;
    (b) a board of governors comprising at least 40% members from a perceived Catholic background and 40% from a perceived Protestant background; and
    (c) the active recruitment of teachers whose cultural or traditional background reflects that of existing or potential pupils.

    Furthermore the integrated school subscribes to:
    (d) maintaining high academic and vocational standards within an all-ability framework and providing equal access to the curriculum for all its pupils;
    (e) supporting the personal and professional development of all members of staff, with particular emphasis on enhancing the integrated learning experience of each pupil;
    (f) ensuring that all policies developed by the school reflect and respect the diversity within the school community; and
    (g) taking a democratic approach to all relationships between pupils, staff, parents and governors.

    This is all good, reassuring stuff.

    “The integrated school provides a Christian based rather than a secular approach. It aspires to create an environment where those of all faiths and none are respected, acknowledged and accepted as valued members of the school community. In this context:
    (a) pupils will learn together all that can reasonably be expected for them to learn together;
    (b) the school will facilitate specific provision, where necessary, for Catholic pupils whose parents wish them to undergo sacramental preparation. It will also seek to acknowledge significant religious and cultural celebrations which are representative of other faiths;
    (c) the school will encourage religious and community leaders to visit and participate in school activities;
    (d) pupils will be introduced to the ideas, beliefs and practices of the major world religions and humanist philosophies, in a manner appropriate to their age and ability, and in line with the NI curriculum; and
    (e) alternative provision will be made for those pupils whose parents do not wish them to participate in any religious activities or classes.”

    One question though – how dow e get integrated education in areas like Ards, Ballymena, Strabane etc. which all have large majority communities?

  • Kevsterino

    The only thing I can contribute to this discussion is my own experience with integration through the schools. Here in St. Louis, this drama played out somewhat longer than other parts of the country, as real integration in the schools between whites and blacks was delayed until the 80’s. But now, 30 years later, St. Louis remains one of the most segregated cities in the nation.

    In my opinion, what needed to be done to integrate society remains undone. Exploiting children to do the job is a drop in the bucket to the real task at hand. Housing patterns that are driven by fear and bigotry will not change by integrating schoolchildren.

  • Mick Fealty

    The trouble is that that ambiguity that Brian detected in Bain is now the status quo. No one is saying what they really mean, not even Bishop McKeown…

    And what of the deputy First Minister? He’s standing firm with the First Minister (although largely I suspect because Bishop McKeown pointed out that SF cannot afford to have Northern Ireland work too well in the UK than through governmental solidarity)…

    The dFM noted it was a ‘highly political attack on my party’s strategy for a united Ireland” and “worthy of any SDLP press operation…”

  • Brian Walker

    You’ve given me my excuse for Part 2.
    There’s no point in prescribing an ideal that can’t be reached. My own ideal is not the third sector Christian integrated sector but the replacement of all existing sectors with local option under the single Education and Skills Authority (ESA). Elected school governors with enhanced powers would replace the present State sector with transferor governance rights for Protestant churches, and the Catholic, integrated and Irish medium sectors. Choices identified by local schools bodies but finally made by local councils would be available for 14+ transfer or specialist schools to replace academic selection at 11. The Board would ensure that each travel to school district would provide the range of the curriculum entitlement framework. As now schools would be able to opt for subject specialisms.

    I have long argued for each council area to be shown a range of sample models for each school, as part of area based planning. I believe this approach would have been viable today to cut the twin Gordian knots of selection and segregation. But the opportunity was missed due to sectarian lack of mutual trust and Catholic principle.

    Peter Robinson is probably right as far as he goes when he claims that the Catholic establishment is a major obstacle which is immovable at the moment. On the other hand, his challenge to Catholics is also his response to Protestant fears that Catholics (especially SF) would have too much power under the delayed single Education and Skills Authority to undermine grammar schools.

    We simply do not know if the implication of Robinson’s comments is correct, namely that Protestants parents would be happy to have their children taught by devout Catholic nationalists under equality employment laws for teachers. Similarly Catholic parents may not be prepared to abandon a Catholic ethos ( whatever that entails ) for the sake of full-on, religion-blind integration.

    Whatever the political jawing, no one will allow good schools of whatever ethos to be harmed for an ideal. The best approach now is to share facilities and staff of all kinds according to local demand and without regard to confessional allegiance. An investment programme of £700m + is already underway with allocations already published,

    Would someone tell me – who is taking the initiative along these lines? What resources and guidance are available to help make it happen? The good bishop’s response to Robinson has been to identify the sectarian based political system as the key obstacle to genuine sharing. This undermines to the core the whole idea of a Catholic party. For his part there is an onus on him to explain area by area how the Catholic sector will reach out to Protestants and begin sharing as soon as possible. Similar initiatives are awaited from the State sector.

  • Ruarai


    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.

    It’s not that much of a puzzle, Brian, surely?

    Robinson has been chasing/consolidating the non-yahoo middle class Unionist vote for many years in part by presenting himself as a contrast with the DUP of old: rhetoric like “shared future”, “Catholic outreach”, and now, “integrated education”.

    It’s obvious to anyone who looks at the actions of him and his party that he doesn’t mean a word of it – it plays well. Just as Mitt Romney had to be seen as a non-bigot to attract the soft-right vote, Robinson is playing to this narrow audience and Catholics are a rhetorical prop.

    The “integrated” education is his best move so far. Again he plays the tune of non-sectarian ideals but this time by touching the erogenous zone of the soft-Unionist vote who while being quick to condemn Loyalists are most comfortable with the idea that sectarianism, division, and the “troubles” are fundamentally the fault of the “others”.

    This is a real shame because not only will Robinson kill the prospect of a serious discussion about what integrated education could mean as long as he keeps this up, he’ll do it in a way that leaves everyone yet more entrenched in their suspicions of the motives of the others than ever before.

    He’s racing us to the bottom.

  • aquifer

    “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.”

    Shared education is a slippery red herring thrown over the wall that divides us. It will go off soon enough.

    The Telfast Bellylaugh is so scared of losing a single complacent muddle-class reader it has become an embarrassment.

    Closure would be a mercy.

  • son of sam

    Micks point about D F M is well made.He seems unduly sensitive on the matter and it will not go unnoticed in sections of the Catholic community that he is content to align himself and his party with Peter on this issue.Presumably Peter has strategic reasons for his new found enthusiasm for integrated education but it is a bit rich coming from the party of Paisley.Is there likely to be a rush from D U P voters to send their children to integrated schools?Hardly.

  • jagmaster

    Nick Clegg’s son is enrolled in a Catholic school and the Church of England enjoys exalted status in England amongst Cameron’s core middle class voters. He wouldn’t dare upset them but feels free to stick his oar in here.

    As for America, Obama should worry about how easy it is for a person to obtain weapons to carry out a massacre of innocent children in his schools before sticking the boot into us.

  • Zig70

    A lot of people seem keen to see PR’s comments on education as wanting a shared future with nationalists. You’d just have to mention something like shared space and taking down union jacks from primary schools to see the true colours. The debate on integrated education would benefit from those who are sincere about it grasping the DUP’s monocultural view. They need to challenge the DUPlicitious language rather than naively thinking they are on their side.

  • Neil
  • BluesJazz

    Nick Clegg’s wife is nominally catholic, but it’s all about class. Social class trumps religion (or mostly lack of it) and even ‘nationality’ every time.
    Russell group universities have no more time for magic beads and weeping statues than creationist 6000 year old earth bollocks.
    As I’ve said before, the FE model is the model to go for.

  • Brian Walker

    Ruarai and others,
    Actually the FMdFM alliance on this subject could be more interesting than you think – if people were to hold them to it. Like the shared future strategy itself it would better to take it at face value than retreat into cynicism. Cynicism only entrenches the inaction it mocks, don’t you see; playing it straight would give then the fright of their lives.
    Integration “stage by stage” says Peter and Martin agrees. What do stages 1 and 2 look like guys? Are you going to bid to change schools governance? Might your unholy alliance produce a deal over academic selection which would preserve the character of the grammar schools as beacon schools? Now that would be some achievement. Under political direction for the very first time, a structural reform of this kind would transform the whole Executive experience and create a new momentum in politics and community development.

    Or would you fear gifting a cause to the SDLP as the conservative Catholic party and life support to the UUP, the real architects of academic selection?

    In the real world I fear that stage by stage means leaving it up to the professionals to deliver efficiencies without a reform strategy and no political risks for Peter and Martin. Same old, same old. I would be delighted to be proved wrong

  • Sp12

    “As I’ve said before, the FE model is the model to go for.”

    Which is what exactly?
    You throw that suggestion out every time the topic comes up with no explanation.

    Further and higher education isn’t compulsory, primary and secondary education is. Students at F/H Education choose their own subjects, they don’t sit through School Assemblies for Poppy season, Protestant Ministers don’t get automatic places on their equivalent of a Board of Governors. They don’t celebrate the various milestones of the Royal Families in their place of education. They are immune from whatever hair-brained scheme Gove comes up with next to teach them how to be good British citizens. They don’t get recruited for grunt positions in the Army (probably not the target market anyway in fairness)

    There’s a reason the DUP’s new found love of ‘integrated education’ is laughed at, they can’t even spell out the basics of what it would entail, probably for fear of one of their elected representatives letting their mask slip again.

    Unionism is 50 years too late in trying to construct a neutral/equally weighted environment at the compulsory education stage.
    It’s too late to cry about it, and all those hypocritical politicians parachuted in to tell us how they love integrated education because it ‘teaches children to respect one another’ whilst sending their own children to single denominational or exclusive schools in the world just makes it funnier.

  • Zig70[11.04]You hear Robinson claiming that SF and SDLP voters are really closet conservatives so it’s instructive to hear him wanting to restrict freedom of choice to Catholic parents, who actually favour Catholic scholls for their higher academic standards compared to state schools. Freud wouyld have had a field day treating Robbo

  • BluesJazz

    From next year, education to 18 *is* compulsory.
    Actually de facto is, given the economic situation.
    The rest of your statement is spot on. Why not educate all post primary pupils under the FE system of secular education?
    Of course they’re post 16 but why not apply it pre 16?
    I agree all the royal/poppy/ prod minister stuff should be done away with as should the weeping virgin statues etc.
    Army recruitment is a matter for career advisors, similar to PSNI and Fire Brigade.

  • Decspur

    Why is all the focus on schools? I’ve lived in England all my life, I went to a catholic school but everyone in my street went to either non religious schools or CoE schools, in fact we were the only catholic family in the street. Yeah we got stick in the early eighties being called IRA scumbags by older kids because my mum was Irish but being good at football got me and my older brother accepted eventually. I’ve been visiting Derry on a regular basis from birth and I’ve always seen the segregated housing estates as the core problem. Why not start there? Make people live together!! If someone needs help in housing so much then say its there or nothing, the kids will soon learn that they are not so different and get on with life. It already happens away from the estates in Derry where catholic and protestant kids mix in the slightly better area’s. introduce mixed estates and then all of a sudden you have mixed football teams, social circles and so on. Over here other than private schools catholic schools getter the best results which is why I send my son to one, I wouldn’t want to lose that just because we can’t live next door to a catholic or a Protestant. Simple answer government you own the houses make people mix in everyday life!! Leave school alone, they are there to teach academics not mix cultures, cultures mix in there everyday life!!

  • MrPMartin

    I didn’t know people went to school to Strabane. Perhaps intercom unity stick-rubbing might be in order

    Seriously, the state doesn’t have RC and P car tax offices or roads etc so why schools? Look at the French model where religions are banned from setting up divisive and sectarian schools. They seem to manage quite well but the key is housing otherwise we end up with socio economic apartheid. Right now there is a sickening chicken run by parents to buy houses near the sainted Stranmillis Primary school. If u talk to such parents as I have they will tell you all the right reasons for doing so ie its ethnically and religiously mixed etc but to be franks the real real reason is toensure their kids are not mixing with the great unwashed

    A RC son of a doctor mixing with a P son of a lawyer and a white daughter of a surveyor mixing with a black daughter of a business man from the outset seems laudable, it is as much an apartheid along class and money lines as ethnic/religious divisions. It is as evil for society for a rich kid to never socialise with a poor kid as it is for a RC kid never to socialise with a P kid

  • MrPMartin.

    I resent your slur on Strabane. Totally uncalled for. Man playing on a grand scale.

  • Morpheus

    I agree Mister_Joe, the rest of his post fads into ‘blah blah blah’ after an opening line like that, joke or not.

  • Mick Fealty

    I think it was contextualised by the subsequent use of the word ‘seriously’… Come on lads, there’s a serious point in there…

  • Sp12

    “I agree all the royal/poppy/ prod minister stuff should be done away with as should the weeping virgin statues etc.”

    As a parent of a child at a CCMS school, I could go for that, I leave the holy stuff to her mother to teach her, she can absorb whatever she likes from me regarding her history/culture and the school can concentrate on her academic development.

  • Mick,

    Change Strabane to Holywood and then say that. It was extremely rude and, as I said, uncalled for.
    Or change Strabane to Shankill Road and await UPC’s response.

  • Dec

    ‘Change Strabane to Holywood and then say that. It was extremely rude and, as I said, uncalled for.’

    shakes head

    I’ve yet to hear any proponent of Integrated education explain to me how it’s going to work in West Belfast (for example).

  • Morpheus

    I think you have lost all control of this forum Mick.

    Seriously, I agree with Mr Joe, it is out of order to be that disparaging to an entire town with nearly 17k inhabitants. Just as it would be out of order to talk about the great uneducated in the Shankill

  • BluesJazz

    “I’ve yet to hear any proponent of Integrated education explain to me how it’s going to work in West Belfast (for example).”

    How does it work on the Millfield and Springvale campuses?

    BRA seems to operate fine in North Belfast

  • Am Ghobsmacht

    “I’ve yet to hear any proponent of Integrated education explain to me how it’s going to work in West Belfast (for example).”

    The whole idea of integrated education is to suffocate the animosity that is fostered by division.

    It’s not a one size fits all solution, especially in places where there is no one to mix with.

    I’m not a city boy so I don’t want to speculate on forcibly (if even?) mixing pupils from the Shankill and Falls but if the rest of the country can mix and not have to learn about ‘themuns’ from teachers or encounters at the bus stop then surely it’ll help to reduce the suspicion and quite frankly unchallenged views of dogmatic playground chat.

    I much appreciate what some of the nationalists here said about a banal/homogeneous education system that would potentially castrate Irish culture.

    So, with that in mind, can I ask, from the point of view as an someone who has become somewhat detached from reality given my embracing of Gaelic culture; HOW off putting and unacceptable would it be to Unionists to have a spot of choice regarding Gaelic sports and language in state schools?

    (I understand that there are a few lessons sprouting up here and there as it is)

    Surely it’s a small price to pay if it can end this apartheid?

  • Reader

    Am Ghobsmacht: HOW off putting and unacceptable would it be to Unionists to have a spot of choice regarding Gaelic sports and language in state schools?
    Choice is good.

  • MrPMartin

    Such a humourless crew in some quarters. I make no apologies. Anyway I’m sure no one from Strabane is offended as it would imply they can read

    Oh dear, more indignant knives out are they? Tsk tsk

    Mark Steel says a lot worse about all the towns he visits on his Radio 4 series so chin up people

    I refer you all to the point i made after the word ‘seriously’ in my last post or was it too much of an uncomfortable truth to handle?

  • MrPMartin

    uneducated people are uncouth and uncultured and tend to break the law a lot and take part in riots and sectarian activities. They are not the kind of people one would like to live beside or have in your family.

    They should be sent to camps where they can make cheap ornaments

  • It would seem that it isn’t only the uneducated who are uncouth and uncultured. Some “educated” ones need to look down their noses at those whom they consider inferior in order to feel comfort in their superciliousness and smugness.

  • Red Lion


    “””We simply do not know if the implication of Robinson’s comments is correct, namely that Protestants parents would be happy to have their children taught by devout Catholic nationalists under equality employment laws for teachers.”””

    Surely this problem is got round, or diminished, by the fact that teachers, as professionals, have to adhere to a code of ethics and professional practice as laid down by the NI equilvalent of the General Teaching Council for England.. And can such a code of ethics etc be tailored for intergrated education in NI?

    So, for example, a member of SF who happens to be a teacher at an integrated school can not start promoting his political beliefs to the kids, and this is policed by kids/parents who have recourse to professional conduct procedures the minute such a teacher steps out of line??

    Teachers are professionals, and have to act as such, and this means setting aside any personal beliefs in the course of their duty. Failure to do so = professional conduct committee procedures.

  • BluesJazz

    Apart from History, what’s the difference?
    Religious Studies is a joke subject taken by a minority of superstitious loonies

    State grammars do Rugby and Cricket. CCMS grammars do Gaelic football and hurling. .
    The great unwashed (nominally taigs and jaffas) do football, maybe basketball.

    Even CCMS schools struggle with ‘Irish/Gaelige’.

    All optional.
    But the system will stay the same until economics (pretty soon) becomes a game changer, in all senses of the term.

  • Morpheus

    Not only free from reprimand but actually commended – shocker

  • It’s awfully hard to take anyone seriously when they first make an uncouth slur on a large group of people.

  • Morpheus

    Any relation to Peter Joe?

  • Nearest brother (he’s 15 months older) and best friend during childhood if it’s the same Peter.

  • Morpheus

    Retired headmaster from Victoria Bridge?

  • Yep; That’s him. How do you know Peter?

  • Morpheus

    I have links with the school. You are from good stock then Joe 🙂

  • Thank you, Morpheus. There is a large bunch of us and, even though coming from Stabane, all of us passed the 11+ and have succeeded well in life.