Baroness Blood: Nothing to Fear from Integrated Education
By Baroness May Blood
It has been twenty years since I first volunteered my time and support to the cause of Integrated Education. I have never such momentum, or debate, around the issue as there is today.
Support for educating children together has never been higher, with polls consistently telling us that over 70% of Northern Irish parents believe that Integrated Education should be the norm.
Four new schools joined the Integrated Family in 2021, with another confirmed to Transform in 2022. Marking 40 years of Integration with Lagan College not only allowed us to celebrate how far we’ve come but focus on the future.
There are 69 Integrated Schools in Northern Ireland. Each and every one of those schools has either been set up from scratch by committed parents or Transformed through a successful parental ballot and a long review process. Each one of those parents has shown massive courage and belief in the ideal of educating children together, not only for the benefit of their own children, but for generations to come.
This parent power has been exercised in the face of indifference, and in some cases hostility, from many of those in power at Stormont. The advance of the Private Members Bill on Integrated Education through the Assembly and the recently launched Independent Review of Education has focused minds up on the Hill, while high profile support in the press following the launch of Kenneth Branagh’s Belfast has brought the issue to the fore in the public domain.
With success comes scrutiny. Recently the leaders of the Council for Catholic Maintained Schools (CCMS) and the Controlled Schools Support Council (CSSC) have gone out of their way to argue that all schools within their sectors need to be recognised as inclusive, diverse and in some cases integrated in all but name. We welcome the news that any school wants to reflect society and encourage integration, but the figures do not add up.
The inescapable reality is less than 2% of pupils enrolled in Catholic schools here come from a Protestant tradition and less than 8% of children in Controlled schools are Catholic. It is also an education system where we have two separate planning authorities for schools, one just for Catholic schools and one for the rest. Notably, it is a system of education that leaves many of our young people wanting to leave Northern Ireland, never to return. (Pivotal, 2021)
I would be interested to learn if the CCMS and CSSC are proactively encouraging more children from the Protestant and Catholic tradition to enrol in their schools in numbers that reflect the demographic.
I’d like to know if they support the ending of the exemption from Fair Employment legislation for Northern Irish teaching staff. I’d like to know what steps they’re taking to ensure that the membership of their Boards of Governors is representative, inclusive and diverse.
Let me be clear; wanting to advance Integrated Education is not about detracting from any sector or belittling the achievements of any schools and teachers who work incredibly hard to provide the best education for our children. It is not about removing choice, rather working towards providing a place in an Integrated school for any child who wants it.