With election day looming once more, many people will take the view; ‘they are all the same.’ This article will tackle this by looking at what the Northern Ireland parties’ stance is with regards to the future of education.
Schools in Northern Ireland currently come in three forms: State controlled schools, Catholic maintained schools and integrated schools.
Controlled schools are maintained and funded by the Education Authority, these schools are mostly serve the Protestant denomination in Northern Ireland. According to the Department of Education there are 560 controlled schools in Northern Ireland, making up around 48% of all the schools here.
Catholic maintained schools are controlled by the Council for Maintained Catholic Schools serving the Catholic denomination in the North. There are 466 Catholic maintained schools in Northern Ireland, serving 121,733 pupils, according to the Department of Education, this is around 37% of all pupils.
Integrated schools are controlled by the Northern Ireland Council for Integrated Education working to ‘educate together children from both protestant and catholic traditions, as well as those of other faiths and none, in an inclusive, welcoming and aspiring environment.’ There are 62 grant-aided integrated schools serving 21,956 pupils, around 7 percent of total pupils in Northern Ireland’s education system.
The future of Northern Ireland’s education system has been much debated over the years, with some calling for a move towards a more inclusive integrated education, while others fighting for the status quo to remain. Here are the views of the main parties in Northern Ireland.
The DUP have been supportive of shared education and the Shared Education Bill, whereby schools of separate faiths could use a single campus. Their ultimate aim is to create a singular education sector, but they do not support integrated schools in their current form.
According to their Assembly manifesto for the election earlier this year Sinn Fein will continue ‘to encourage & facilitate the growth of… Integrated and Shared Education.’ However, they also support ‘parental preference – whether it be in the integrated, Catholic maintained, the controlled or Irish medium sectors.’
Similarly, Colin McGrath SDLP MLA for South Down has said, ‘I want to see an Educational system that has parental choice at its core. I feel that our system should be better integrated but also allow for parental choice.’
He was also quick to add, ‘We have the integrated Sector which is small but with over 50% of parents happy to let their children attend this sector, only 7-8% are actually doing so – there are obviously problems.’
The UUP’s manifesto calls for ‘a single education system, where children mix from age four… but which also protects a family’s right to education within a religious context.’ When contacted by Northern Ireland Humanists, the UUP added ‘Religious Education should remain taught in state schools, though school children should also be made aware that there are many different religions around the globe, as well as non- religious viewpoints.’
The Alliance party’s 2017 manifesto makes clear their support of integrated education. They believe “that every child should have the choice and option of attending an integrated school.” The manifesto states that the next Executive needs to make a commitment to integrated education and should set the target of 20% of children being educated in integrated schools within the next ten years. Alliance support the change because of its “educational, financial, economic and social benefits.”
- Reducing the cost of maintaining around 70,000 empty school places.
- Directing funding towards pupils rather than the maintenance of the school estate.
- Allowing children to explore their identity and culture while learning about other identities.
- Making it easier to improve the quality of education and, therefore, address inequalities.
The Green Party also supports a fully integrated education system in Northern Ireland, stating that the current system is “costly both in terms of finance and societal impact.” Their belief is that the segregation that exists is “unacceptable” and that the possibility of integration has been “wasted by those who seek to continue the status quo.”
According to their manifesto, People Before Profit, “wants to see: An integrated, all-ability education system” they believe that social and religious segregation is to blame for the huge gap in attainment between schools. They oppose what they call “the sham ‘shared education’ programme” which they believe reinforces segregation. The party claim that “all children—from the most academically able to those with learning disabilities—benefit from being educated in mixed-ability, socially-mixed schools.”
Cliodhna Scott-Wills, Northern Ireland Council for Integrated Education, refused any comment on the past achievements from previous education ministries, but said that she looks forward to work with the newly formed Assembly.
Ms Scott-Wills praised the work that has been done previous as integrated education has began to grow in Northern Ireland and become more “mainstream”.