Learning Together: NI21 Party Conference

Learning Together: Maximising Common Education
NI21 Party Conference
by Allan Leonard for Northern Ireland Foundation
16 November 2013

At the NI21 inaugural party conference at the Europa Hotel, I chaired a fringe meeting to explore how shared and integrated education could be increased in Northern Ireland, and what potential role NI21 could have here.

The panellists were:

I asked each to tell how they got involved with shared/integrated education.

Ms Campbell explained how important she deemed co-education, as a parent. She didn’t want her children to be put into Protestant/Catholic boxes. Getting involved with the Belfast Charitable Trust for Integrated Education (BELTIE), she was one of the founders of Hazelwood Integrated College in 1985. She sees integrated education as a vital element of overcoming and challenging societal divisions.

Ms Gormley is a former teacher of history and politics in the Bogside, Derry-Londonderry. She noticed then that her classes would be empty during elections; this impressed upon her the link between community issues and education. She became a foundation trustee of an integrated primary school, and constantly worked on building links with schools across all sectors. Even as a head teacher at a Catholic school, she continued to pursue a shared education agenda. Ms Gormley described educating children together as natural — a natural form of integration: “We should get everyone on that journey to integrated education.”

Mr Baker is a former teacher, who has experience in examining educating together programmes in Macedonia and Latvia, and closer to home, the Republic of Ireland. He noted how outsiders find confusing the plural school system in Northern Ireland — controlled, voluntary, maintained, integrated, Irish language — yet is motivated by the potential of collaboration among these sectors.

An informative discussion followed, covering the Education Minister’s statement on the way forward for shared education; the disconnect between parents’ desire for more integrated education, versus what is being delivered by policy; the need to move away from the Protestant-Catholic paradigm (citing the increase of new arrivals from other European countries); the increasing saliency of a “Northern Irish” identity; and organic versus proactive development of shared and integrated education.

For example, Sam Fitzsimmons (Integrated Education Fund), argued that in order to obtain any desired social policy outcome, there are three elements:

  1. Encouragement
  2. Incentivisation
  3. Legislation

He remarked how fair employment reform was not left to an organic process, mooting how much longer would it have taken to reach the level of progress Northern Ireland has achieved in this regard.

In their closing remarks, Ms Campbell said that there remains a lack of political leadership, and that everyone needs to speak to the future. Ms Gormley said that with bringing children together as the new consensus, it is great to be able to lift the phone and talk with politicians across the spectrum. Mr Baker underlined the uniting potential of education, and that sharing and integration must not remain within a community relations policy silo, but permeate across all Government Departments.

Back at the conference main plenary, I provided the following summary:

  1. Bringing children together is the “new normal”; this language is endorsed by the whole Northern Ireland Executive; but follow up action is required
  2. For example, NI21 could propose a legislative initiative/policy change so that collaboration and sharing is codified in the Education and Training Inspectorate process
  3. As there is agreement that children should be educated together, why are we not bringing teachers together, whether by amalgamating teaching colleges and/or other forms of professional training
  4. There is a need to bring in parental consultation in local decisions on schooling and education, to inform choices, whether for an integrated or sharing programme
  5. While sharing occurs naturally in some places (with risk of upsetting this), there needs to be solid public policies to: (1) encourage; (2) incentivise; and (3) legislate for desired results

I encouraged the delegates, as new party activists, to act on the feedback from our session.

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  • MrPMartin

    All nice people talking to other nice people.

    This won’t change a sausage

    The nice people need to get into where the not very nice people love work drink and challenge their not very nice opinions head on

    The nice people who support integration are only talking to other nice integration educationalists. A Protestant bigot or a RC bigot will not voluntarily send their progeny to mixed schools

    What are the nice people planning on overcoming that? Wait until the not very nice people magically have a road to Damascus moment?

    That the trouble with nice parties that mean well. They won’t go into the sewers where the rats lurk.

    Or will they? I could be wrong. If there are any ni21 folks reading this, please tell when you plan to walk the streets of our sectarian working class areas where gunmen and bitterness lurks and plan on knocking on doors, entering pubs and community centres and challenging bigotry where it exists

    Give me the times and dates and I’ll be there

    If you have no plans to do this then why not and are you serious about ending bigotry? Nice documents and coffe mornings with Tina and Basil won’t stop a stone being thrown

  • Charles_Gould

    A good discussion. I agree with your points and especially (3).

    Indeed this has got to be the biggest disappointment of all this: the failure of the Department of Employment and Learning to press ahead with the merger of teacher training. The *Alliance* party hold this brief and they should support that sort of thing in theory – hence the disappointment.

  • MrPMartin

    I heard from a very reliable source that Naomi only won by Pup the. Led by Dawn Purvis telling their drones to vote alliance to get Peter out

    I can’t see that happening in 2015

  • Charles_Gould

    PMartin
    Not sure what Naomi has to do with this?

  • MrPMartin

    Just saying that the Westminster victory for alliance wasnt down to a Damascene moment but PUP chicanery

    ni21 need to do what’s necessary and not rely on magic

  • Coll Ciotach

    Yes – educating together is normal – that is why we have classrooms so the children are taught together.

  • Am Ghobsmacht

    MrPMartin

    “The nice people who support integration are only talking to other nice integration educationalists. A Protestant bigot or a RC bigot will not voluntarily send their progeny to mixed schools

    What are the nice people planning on overcoming that? Wait until the not very nice people magically have a road to Damascus moment?

    True dat, as the man says.

    But, maybe (just thinking out loud) they could have a looksie and see if there are likely to be any sizable savings for the public purse strings for integrating schools i.e. one medium sized school in a village with one Principal rather than two wee schools with 2 Principals in the village? (not to mention flogging off assets to developers).

    If the sums show big savings then perhaps they could whisper this to the treasury who might crack the whip and be a tad ‘insistent’ that integrated schools are given due consideration.

    Just a thought.