So much comment about tactics and process! If they are to capitalise on a public mood for change, the SDLP like all the parties will have to concentrate on what they stand for beyond the old definitions.
Reforming the education system to promote social integration and a diverse identity would be one big bold and creative approach to “making Northern Ireland work” And it’s actually in their manifesto. The SDLP appear to acknowledge that preserving the elements of the traditional Catholic state within a state is an anachronism in a reforming state in which equality and power sharing will not be reversed and in which Catholics are barely a minority.
The SDLP’s view is that the current DUP/Sinn Fein ‘Shared’ education model does not go far enough. That model, which brings Catholic and Protestant schools closer together to share some facilities, maintains segregation. It has the advantage of cross party agreement and seems to go as far as majority opinion on both sides is prepared to go for now.
While there would be risks for the SDLP in challenging conservative Catholic opinion – which is still stronger than much comment suggests – assurances can be given that nothing can be done that lacks the whole hearted consent of the tradition that has championed separate Catholic education for centuries. That tradition has a powerful ally on the other side of the divide. Neither will lightly abandon control over schools systems which nurture their separate identities within the framework of a common but very wide curriculum, in the name of a vague diversity. . These have been more powerful forces than casual answers in opinion polls in favour of integrated education. The existing third sector of integrated schools despite its achievements and idealism, has not managed to provoked wider change. And yet – might the balance of opinion be changing? What is “parental choice”? Have parents been asked?
The SDLP model for integration means” all children wearing the same uniform being taught by the same teachers in the same classroom”. Within this framework it is still possible to have a diversity of religious elements built into the students’ weekly schedule. The present demographic context in education – a very substantial oversupply – presents a tremendous opportunity to rationalise the school estate in favour of integrated education…”
They add : “For example there is no reason why a Catholic school cannot become an integrated school”
But how can Catholic schools stretch their appeal to Protestants and people without faith if they remain – well – Catholic and are managed by an organisation called the Council for Catholic Maintained Schools (CCMS)?. This I hasten to add, is not to disrespect the CCMS record of achievement and its good intentions.
The answer may be to vest the top schools management in the regional Education Authority and allocate “ ethos “ to the management of the individual schools run by local governors with more power. In short, it means the academisation of Northern Ireland schools with incentives for rationalisation on integration principles where local people want it.
Previous attempts at reform were botched, foundering over Catholic resistance to a powerful Education Authority and Protestant ( and some Catholic) resistance to academic selection at 11. Area plans simply replicated the existing flawed system. Sharing has become the new orthodoxy but it avoids genuine integration.
A DUP Education minister would be no pushover for radical reform even if the CCMS dissolved itself into a advisory network of schools governors. Amazingly a party which relies of Protestant working class support, the DUP has so far refused to contemplate streaming and setting to replace the waning relevance of academic selection which does little to guarantee standards and nothing to improve prospects for poor Protestant boys at the bottom of the heap.
In Fresh Start, the British government promised “a contribution of up to £500m over 10 years of new capital funding to support shared and integrated education subject to individual projects being agreed between the Executive and the UK Government”. Whitehall should encourage real ambition in exchange for the extra funding
The SDLP have raised an issue which could define progress towards a more integrated society. Is this sheer fantasy? Or they up for the challenge and can they win allies across the board?
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