In a recent poll, integrated education was supported by 71% of respondents. It continues to be a popular policy issue; yet, parties have split hairs over the issue for decades. The reality is that because of a lack of will to create one state sector, there is a growing but separated integrated sector.
In their own words I will quote MLAs from a debate in an assembly on 6th July 2021. Kellie Armstrong MLA tabled a private members bill to reform department of education policy and modernise the legal framework around the integrated sector itself here. Her bill doesn’t claim scope into any other sector, yet it didn’t stop some MLAs digging into the clauses in an attempt to discredit what outside observers would view as an fairly innocuous piece of legislation.
In short the bill aims to do the following:
- Provide a definition, purpose & advisory body for integrated education
- Impose a statutory duty the dept to “promote” integrated education
- Reform planning and strategy
In my opinion the final aim is the most impactful. The biggest change proposed is clause 7: “New Schools”
- (1) – When planning for the establishment of a new school, education bodies must apply a presumption that it will be an integrated school unless that would be inappropriate by reason of special circumstances.
(2) The following are not to be treated as special circumstances for the purpose of rebutting the presumption in subsection (1)—
(a) the religious demographics of an area;
(b) the existence of spare places in existing schools.
In sum, this means that a presumption (rather than a rule) is that any new school will be integrated. There are two conditions which cannot be used as reasonable excuses not to integrate but crucially there is no definition given for any other excuse. Therefore the scope is quite wide if a community feels like a catholic maintained or controlled sector school would be preferred, which would be identified as part of a fair planning process.
However, this wasn’t enough for the parties, a sample below:
Robbie Butler UUP:
Clause 7 — the sponsor will know this already — is perhaps most significant among the issues that my party and I have. In its current form, it has to be removed; it is as simple as that. It just cannot float. There cannot be a presumption, without consulting the community, to put a name on a school, whether that be maintained, controlled or integrated.
Jim Allister TUV:
…to the very point that if anyone ever wants a new school under clause 7, the presumption is that it must be an integrated school. How dare anyone want anything else. How ignorant of anyone to think that, maybe, a different type of school is what they want. It underwrites it and guarantees its delivery.
Harry Harvey DUP:
It is in that context that I consider the implications of clause 7, for instance. The clear presumption towards only the integrated sector for new schools pays no cognisance to parental choice, let alone the practicalities of community identity and demographics.
John O’Dowd Sinn Fein:
Ms Armstrong has clarified what she means by “New schools”, which is that it is not new builds at existing schools but rather brand-new schools. I again go back to my comment that that gives quite a significant advantage to the integrated sector.
Daniel McCrossan SDLP
Clause 7 requires all new schools to be integrated unless there are “special circumstances”. Mr Sheehan also made this point: those “special circumstances” are not expressly specified in the Bill. More work — much more work — is needed to clarify that at Committee Stage should today’s Second Stage be agreed.
Party opposition seemed to range from not supporting an undefined situation where a community could overturn the integrated status presumption on any new school created to outrage at the idea of there being any kind of planning presumption. What is striking is that some of the very same parties that expressed this outrage also expressed a wish for integration. The contradiction was best summed up when Chris Lyttle MLA challenged Robbie Butler MLA:
Much has been made of moral choices. Does the Member agree, as the Department of Education has stated, that the education system in Northern Ireland is in financial crisis? Does the Member accept that separation in our education system in some way contributes to that financial crisis? If, indeed, he objects to the proposals, does he have alternative proposals to support a more integrated, sustainable approach to education in Northern Ireland?
Mr Butler answered with an “absolutely” but then went on to hide behind the independent review of education, despite a report on integrated education from 2016 recommending the very points put forward by this bill. The new review which Peter Weir MLA established as minister specifically excludes academic selection from the review’s terms of reference.
Many issues were covered in the debate, the bill proceeded to the next stage but it will suffer multiple amendments based on the comments from all parties (except for the Green Party and People before profit who generally supported the bill). However, I will finish with Mr O’Dowd who took the strongest anti-integration stance (which has been thoroughly debunked) of any MLA in the chamber, possibly excepting Mervyn Storey of the DUP:
The identity in integrated schools is not neutral: in many of them, it is British. You can pay homage to the Crown but to no one else.
Hansard minutes of the debate are reproduced here:
Jay is a Derry native now living in south Antrim and working in Belfast. His writing spans Law, Economics and International relations.