02 April 2006

Ulster parents want integrated schools

Sunday Timesl

Liam Clarke
2 April 2006

ALMOST three out of four Northern Ireland parents would like their children’s schools to become religiously mixed.

According to an opinion poll to be published this week, fewer than 6% of people in the province now actively prefer single-religion schools. Only 18,000 out of 387,000 schoolchildren attend integrated schools, however, despite the demand for religiously mixed education that the poll reveals.

Stephen Young of Millward Brown, which carried out the research, said the responses to questions about integrated education were similar among Protestants and Catholics.

“Active opposition is confined to 6% of the population,” Young said. “The interest is there, but choice is restricted because there aren’t enough schools available. It is hard to think of any other policy area with that degree of support.”

Deborah Girvan, of the Northern Ireland Council of Integrated Education (NICIE), which commissioned the survey, said understanding of difference is built into the curriculum of mixed schools.

“In our primaries, children are prepared for the sacraments and the Protestant children can be invited along to watch First Communion as a celebration,” she said. “That should be the norm — Catholic and Protestant children sitting side by side in a classroom building friendships and knowing about each other.”

The survey shows that nearly half of parents (46%) who do not send their children to an integrated school said it was because there wasn’t one in the area. Only 2% preferred single-denomination schools and 3% were opposed to integrated education.

Last month the government refused funding to four new integrated schools, citing falling school-rolls overall. It argued that it could not build new schools while many existing ones were empty. The Integrated Education Fund has now funded two of the schools.

The surplus places are in schools that are largely segregated. While the province’s 58 integrated schools turned away 5,000 pupils due to lack of space last year, the mainly Catholic and Protestant schools had 50,000 spare places and some are faced with closure or amalgamation. Official figures suggest the number of empty desks in largely segregated schools will soon rise to 80,000.

NICIE and the Integrated Education Fund are planning to launch a drive to encourage parents at Catholic and Protestant schools to change their ethos and become integrated.

Michael Wardlow, the chief executive of NICIE, said: “These findings are in line with other survey evidence that most parents want the province’s schools to be religiously integrated with a Christian ethos.”

When the state of Northern Ireland was set up, Lord Londonderry, the education minister, planned a system of secular education, but government resolve buckled under opposition from churches, especially the Catholic church, which retained control of its schools. The predominantly Protestant schools were transferred into the state sector, but Protestant churches retained representation on the board of governors. With the exception of a few grammar schools, which pay 15% of their own capital costs, both sets of schools are now given their running costs by the government.

David Ford, the leader of the Alliance party, estimates that £1 billion a year is wasted on providing segregated facilities in Northern Ireland, about 30% of that on education. “It’s a scandalous waste of scarce resources, especially when it is not what people want,” he said.

Under new regulations, Northern Ireland schools must offer pupils a choice of 24 GCSEs and 27 A-levels. In most cases this can only be done by pooling resources.

Sir George Bain, the former vice-chancellor of Queen’s University, is carrying out a review of schools for the government. In a review of the health service he recommended swingeing rationalisations and the closure of a number of hospitals. He is expected to take a similar approach to education.

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