Shared education: Northern Ireland Assembly committee backs expansion

By Robbie Meredith
BBC News NI Education Correspondent

Image source, Chris Radburn
Image caption,
The report contains 11 recommendations aimed at enabling more children from different backgrounds to spend time learning together.

The Northern Ireland Assembly's education committee has backed plans for the expansion of shared education.

The committee's report into shared and integrated education, published on Tuesday, is the result of a year-long inquiry.

It contains 11 recommendations aimed at enabling more children from different backgrounds to spend time learning together.

Shared education is not the same as integrated education.

In integrated education, schools enrol approximately equal numbers of Catholic and Protestant children as well as children from other religious and cultural backgrounds.

About 7% of children in Northern Ireland are educated at 64 integrated schools in Northern Ireland.

Shared education projects can range from large-scale campuses like Lisanelly in Omagh, where six schools will be based, to pupils in separate schools engaging in joint classes or activities.

The committee's recommendations include the need to provide incentives for schools to participate in shared education, and increased training and support for pupils, teachers and parents involved in collaboration.

The report also calls for the impact of shared education projects to be measured, and says that it should be based on "educational improvement in the first instance and societal reconciliation progress in the second."

It also says that more attention needs to be paid to the development of non-integrated schools where there is "natural mixing" - for example, where children from Catholic backgrounds attend controlled schools, or vice versa.

'Heated and antagonistic exchanges'

However, while there is broad consensus on shared education, the report also mentions disagreements over how exactly progress will be achieved.

"The committee was non-plussed by the heated and antagonistic nature of some of the exchanges between representatives from some of the different education sectors in their evidence to the committee," it says.

"The committee was forced to the conclusion that a key barrier to improved co-operation between sectors and increased mixing in schools may be the unhelpful attitude of some of the representative bodies of the educational sectors."

'Non-tokenistic shared education'

Introducing the report in the assembly, the committee's chair DUP MLA Peter Weir said that: "Important though societal or reconciliation objectives are - and everyone would agree that they're very important - shared education should primarily be about improving attainment and the life chances of all our children."

He also said the committee wanted all schools to be involved in "meaningful, non-tokenistic shared education."

However, the chief executive of the Northern Ireland Council for Integrated Education, Noreen Campbell, said the report was disappointing and was a missed chance for reform.

Education Minister John O'Dowd is ready to introduce a shared education bill to the assembly, but this may delayed due to the cancellation of an executive meeting on 10 September.

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