WPY comment on integrated education

Belfast Telegraph editorial on Integrated Education welcomed by Workers' Party Youth

Speaking at a Workers’ Party seminar on integrated education, Workers’ Party Youth Chairperson, Conor O'Gorman commented on a Belfast Telegraph editorial which stated that while integrated education “is  not the answer to all our woes … it can be an important component for softening the distinctions between our two sides.” (Editorial 22nd September)

“It is good to see the Belfast Telegraph championing the cause of Integrated Education in Northern Ireland” said Mr. O’Gorman. “We would hope that the paper might go further and actively campaign in support of integrated schooling. If recent opinion polls are anything to go by, the paper would have a majority of the people here behind it.  For example, in  a poll conducted in May this year 63% of  the 1001 respondents saw integrated education as ‘very important’ and a further 21% as ‘fairly important’ in promoting mutual respect and understanding in Northern Ireland..

“When asked what type of school they would prefer their children or grandchildren to go to, 43% stated that they would prefer that they attended an integrated school while 29% preferred state controlled, 22% said Catholic maintained and 3% Irish Medium. Moreover, when respondents were told that a school could become integrated if 20% of parents with children at the school made a written request for this to happen, 64% said that they would support a parents’ request to transform their child’s school into an integrated school.

“So, given this degree of support, why does the integrated sector remain so comparatively weak in Northern Ireland?  None of the politicians and bureaucrats who oppose the extension of the integrated sector claim to be opposed to the idea of integrated education per se. Indeed in 2006 the DUP’s Nigel Dodds declared that ‘the best way is for people to be educated together” and argued that “if we were starting again with a blank sheet of paper....the state would fund the education of kids and anyone else wanting to educate their kids separately [should] pay for it.’ At the other sectarian extreme, Sinn Fein’s website states that the PSF ‘have no quarrel whatever with those parents who choose to send their children to these schools, nor with those teachers who teach in them. They do so for the best of reasons. We can see some advantages and we are in favour of their being there as an option for parents.’ This isn’t as strong an endorsement as that provided by Dodds, but clearly Sinn Fein isn’t overtly against the idea.

“The reasons given for the lack of development of the integrated sector are that while Northern Ireland's birth rate is the highest in the British Isles, the rate still falls short of the so-called replacement level of 2.1 children, which in the absence of immigration is needed to maintain a population size. As a result, rather than developing the kind of system that the majority clearly want, it is argued that the government cannot afford to develop integrated schooling at the same time as other schools are being shut down. The problem of empty classrooms is a real one but Workers’ Party Youth believes that the integrated sector, which is oversubscribed, must continue to expand in spite of these demographic considerations. (It is worth noting that, contra the Department of Eduaction,   Professor Bob Osborne, Director of the Social and Policy Research Institute at the University of Ulster, argues that ‘Now that the birth rates have gone up there is a big worry that we don't have enough services for the community as many schools have been merged or closed, ….we now need all the schools and maternity units.’)

“And what about the financial cost of continuing with the sectarian staus quo? A report commissioned by the government last year estimated that sectarian division in Northern Ireland in its widest sense cost the taxpayer an extra 1.5bn every year.  According to the report, segregated housing has increased costs by 24m and greater collaboration between schools could lead to savings of between 16m and nearly 80m.  The report mentions the practice of bussing Catholic children from the Short Strand by a circuitous route via the Ormeau Road, in order to avoid the so-called ‘loyalist’ Lower Ravenhill area. It is interesting to note that Sinn Fein attacked the report as part of ‘a calculated attempt to dilute the equality agenda’.

 “Fundamentally, the reason why the people don’t get what they clearly want in relation to education is that the mainstream politicians will only act in the peoples’ interests when it suits their own sectarian ends. Because integrated education is off the sectarian radar, they haven’t the courage for a fight that the majority of people here would favour them taking up. Workers’ Party Youth will campaign vigorously against sectarian education and against the democratic deficit that the main parties in Stormont have engineered for themselves.”

Issued 23rd September 2008

Peace, Work, Democracy & Class Politics