At the heart of the debate on the future of St Mary’s College is a wider one about the future of education in Northern Ireland. How do we want our children to be educated? Do we want a system that prioritises parental choice between different sectors or one that maximises opportunities for children from different backgrounds to learn together? A number of recent developments highlight a lack of unified education planning by the Executive.
Last Friday the DUP launched its new education policy which endorses shared education and proposes a single education sector that treats all of the different sectors equally. This would accommodate maintained schools and remove the favoured legislative status of the integrated and Irish-medium sectors. Integrated education schools must have a minimum of 30% pupils from each side of the traditional divide, whereas in shared education schools there is no such obligation but opportunities to meet children from across the divide are encouraged. The DUP see shared education as a stepping stone to integrated education yet, it is unclear how much, or how little, sharing constitutes shared education and therefore how much young people across Northern Ireland will benefit.
John O’Dowd has pushed through the creation of Coláiste Dhoire, a new post-primary Irish-medium school in Dungiven, against the advice of his Department. Sinn Féin have argued that the Irish-medium sector is underserved at post-primary level and parents should have greater choice. Unionists today cited the Department’s advice that the school’s enrolment would “not reach sustainable levels in the medium term, if ever.” Given the current economic climate, expenditure on schools that do not meet departmental guidelines will inevitably be scrutinised.
The case of St Mary’s is rather different. St Mary’s is widely regarded as an excellent institution and is certainly sustainable in terms of enrolment. In a Departmental briefing, Brian McFall, Director of Finance and Administration for St Mary’s, asserted that there is no evidence challenging the viability of the college, provided that the college’s current funding streams and student numbers are maintained, as is the case for any publicly funded college. One funding stream that is vital to the college is the small and specialist institution premia worth £1.1 million a year.
In the 2015/16 DEL draft budget, Minister Stephen Farry outlined a set of savings, not considered to have a significant impact on front line services, totalling £33 million to begin to address the total £82 million of cuts in Resource DEL required. Included in the initial £33 million of savings were the removal of the small and specialist institution premia worth £1.1 million each to both St Mary’s and Stranmillis. Despite the department’s budget cut being reduced by £33 million the premia have not been reinstated in the final budget. Sinn Féin have reacted particularly strongly to the removal of the premia, having fought for additional allocations to DEL.
The Alliance Party support a fully integrated education system and the rationale of the Minister is no doubt that funding two separate teacher training colleges is a waste of resources. The Minister commissioned a report to suggest options for a more shared and integrated teacher training system. Four options were rejected by St Mary’s as it wishes to maintain its autonomy in order to fulfil its mission of providing Catholic ethos education. The college is willing to continue with a collaborative partnership approach, involving sharing with other institutions like Stranmillis. This approach is similar to one of the options outlined in the report but that option was not acceptable to the college.
Barring an enormous electoral shock next year, the DUP and Sinn Féin will continue with shared education. However it remains to be seen whether Minister Farry will succeed in establishing an integrated teacher training system. Integration may have a potentially fatal impact on superb institutions like St Mary’s yet maintaining an overwhelmingly segregated education system will not address the divisions within society. The Executive must determine whether the cost of accommodation can be justified and ensure that, whether integration becomes the dominant sector or not, decisions are made strategically relying on strong evidence and as part of long term planning.