Northern Ireland

Building a shared future in schools

Children playing
Image caption Recent schemes to encourage Catholic and Protestant schoolchildren to mix have become much more sophisticated

In Northern Ireland, where more than 90% of children go to schools attended only by either Catholics or Protestants, there have been efforts to breach the barriers between pupils.

First Minister Peter Robinson, DUP, and Education Minister John O'Dowd, Sinn Fein, have both expressed the desire for less religious isolation in education.

The latest report, Advancing Shared Education, was commissioned by Mr O'Dowd to discover if current shared education schemes are beneficial and what shape they should take in the future.

It was carried out by three members of a ministerial advisory group, led by the academic, Professor Paul Connolly.

Ambitions

Engineered meetings between children from different school sectors is not new. Early examples of sharing education have been criticised as a way of funding educational trips, with little effort to allow the children to become friends or, in older groups, discuss controversial issues.

For instance, Education for Mutual Understanding, or EMU, provided funding to allow Catholic and Protestant children to meet each other outside the largely segregated school system.

There were reports of children being bussed to venues such as a museum, being guided round the location in their own groups and retiring to their separate transport to eat their packed lunches.

That does not fit in with the aims and ambitions of sharing in education.

Recent schemes have become much more sophisticated and aim to mingle the pupils in a meaningful way, sharing their learning and play, usually in each other's schools.

The International Fund for Ireland and Atlantic Philanthropies have been active in funding a range of in-school partnerships between the denominations.

A keynote theme in recent times is that sharing education should improve the children's educational prospects and not simply look at the social interaction that might combat sectarianism. An extra strand looks at racism among pupils.

Biased perceptions

The practice of sharing takes different forms, depending on the geographical area and the wishes of the schools. For instance, primary schools in a rural village can walk to each other's buildings to take part in drama or dance classes provided by an outside agency.

The joint effort means a class can be provided that would not otherwise be feasible for one small school alone.

With older children, at GCSE and A level, the sharing of teaching facilities means an exam subject can only be offered if two or more schools link up to provide it jointly. That is almost a pre-requisite under the current rules of the Entitlement Framework that stipulate that a certain minimum number of GCSEs and A levels are offered to pupils in all post-primary schools.

It is unlikely that the full number of subjects could be provided in any but the largest schools.

An added benefit has allowed teachers to see how others control and guide their classes, finding new techniques and generally sharing best practice.

With most children growing up in a segregated school system and two of the teacher training colleges being largely segregated, teachers, like the children, may have had to overcome their biased perceptions about the other religious group.

The integrated system is different from shared education in that it has opened schools which recruit pupils from both the Catholic and Protestant communities. While shared education mixes the pupils who still attend their own schools, attended mostly by either Catholic or Protestant children, integrated schools deliberately seek to admit a mix of both religions and none.

They pride themselves on making no secret of the religious divide in Northern Ireland and actively encourage discussion of contentious topics.

The sector's representatives are angry that their more inclusive system of education has been largely ignored by Advancing Shared Education.

They are worried that the government may favour the softer option of "sharing", which is not seen as threatening the present status quo of Catholic and controlled schools and may damage their long-term aim of expanding the integrated sector.