A challenge to the separation of schools…

A closed and boarded-up primary school must be one of the commonest, and saddest, local sights.  Crumbling façades. Peeling paintwork. Broken windows. The silent playground that once resounded to excited chatter.  Weeds breaking through the tarmac where generations of children played football, rounders and ‘chasies’.  Schools aren’t just places of education, they are centres of community and repositories of communal memories, but there is little place for such sentimentality in educational planning.  Empty school desks and restrictive budgets mean that savings are imperative.

Duplication is surely the quintessential indicator of luxury – the two-car family, the second home – when money is tight the aspiration shifts to having just one that does the job efficiently.  Yet it seems, at times, that even the smallest community requires two schools – one for them and one for us.  Keeping both sustainable in the face of declining primary school enrolment is inevitably going to be a losing game.  As has recently been seen in Desertmartin, where the Church of Ireland and the Catholic church have been unable to reach consensus on establishing a joint-faith school and closure of one of the schools, as a consequence, appears unavoidable.

There has been considerable investment in Shared Education which maintains separation by supporting schools of different community profiles to work alongside each other. In some cases, this has involved Shared Campuses. Each proposal for such a shared campus seems to be fraught with difficulty.  In Moy, consensus over housing two schools under one roof has so-far proved impossible in the face of demands that St John’s Primary and Moy Regional Primary schools should have separate buildings, sitting alongside each other on the same piece of land. Initially, the plan had been for these schools to share a building with a common front door but with their own classrooms. Whether separate buildings or the same building, each school would retain their own uniforms, teachers and governors. A clergyman has recently stepped aside from the project, reportedly saying that many parents would prefer a fully integrated school.

It is not only pupils and schools that are separated; division is endemic at every level of the education system from primary schools to Initial Teacher Education. Schools are managed and teachers are appointed by Boards of Governors that are largely composed of members that share a common community identity, and, on both sides, are often heavily influenced by clerics. Teachers are not protected by the hard-fought-for fair employment laws that the rest of us can take for granted; many will have been wholly separated from their neighbours from the other community as they passed through every stage of education and teacher education.  From top to bottom the system reflects community division and assures it for generations to come.

This was not the vision of either the architects of education in Ireland when the National Schools were established in 1831, nor in Northern Ireland when there were opportunities for a fresh education system across the new state in 1923.  Both aspired to the creation of a common, non-denominational system.  Both were destined to fail.

The Transforming Education project that has been developed in partnership between Ulster University’s UNESCO Centre and the Integrated Education Fund has been casting light on the various elements of a system where, for over 90% of pupils, community separation is the accepted norm. The project has so far produced four evidence-based Briefing Papers and Infographics that have explored: Teacher Deployment, Religion in Schools, Isolated Pairs of Schools and The Religious Education Certificate. Each of these uses academic research to outline the context, identify the factors that have influenced policy and practice, and examine the real-world manifestation and impact of a system that is characterised by division.  Future papers are in the pipeline which will highlight other aspects of the education system: School Governance, the Separation of Initial Teacher Education, Nursery and Pre-school Education, School Separation and Transport, the Teacher Unions, and the Transfer Test.

The Stormont Government’s “New Decade, New Approach” document boldly asserts that:

The education system has a diversity of school types, each with its own distinctive ethos and values. However it is not sustainable.

If the system is to change then the research undertaken through the Transforming Education project suggests that root and branch reform is needed.  The issue facing the reformers is not necessarily accessing more money, but the challenge of sustaining a vision, motivation and commitment to change in the face of inevitable resistance from the familiar vested interests. Those vested interests cannot be allowed to continue to block movement towards a truly shared future, and that has to start in schools.


Dr Matt Milliken is a Researcher at the UNESCO Centre Ulster University. You can follow him on twitter. 

Dr Stephen Roulston is a Lecturer in the School of Education, Ulster University. You can follow him on twitter. 

All papers produced by the Transforming Education Project are available to view. View Documents Here…

Photo by klimkin is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA

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