Learning Together: NI21 Party Conference
by Allan LEONARD for Shared Future News
16 November 2013
At the NI21 inaugural party conference at the Europa Hotel, I chaired a fringe meeting to explore how shared and integrated education could be increased in Northern Ireland, and what potential role NI21 could have here.
The panellists were:
- Mark Baker (Programme Manager, QUB Centre for Shared Education)
- Noreen Campbell (Chief Executive, Northern Ireland Council for Integrated Education)
- Kathleen Gormley (Principal, Hazelwood Integrated College)
I asked each to tell how they got involved with shared/integrated education.
Ms Campbell explained how important she deemed co-education, as a parent. She didn’t want her children to be put into Protestant/Catholic boxes. Getting involved with the Belfast Charitable Trust for Integrated Education (BELTIE), she was one of the founders of Hazelwood Integrated College in 1985. She sees integrated education as a vital element of overcoming and challenging societal divisions.
Ms Gormley is a former teacher of history and politics in the Bogside, Derry-Londonderry. She noticed then that her classes would be empty during elections; this impressed upon her the link between community issues and education. She became a foundation trustee of an integrated primary school, and constantly worked on building links with schools across all sectors. Even as a head teacher at a Catholic school, she continued to pursue a shared education agenda. Ms Gormley described educating children together as natural — a natural form of integration: “We should get everyone on that journey to integrated education.”
Mr Baker is a former teacher, who has experience in examining educating together programmes in Macedonia and Latvia, and closer to home, the Republic of Ireland. He noted how outsiders find confusing the plural school system in Northern Ireland — controlled, voluntary, maintained, integrated, Irish language — yet is motivated by the potential of collaboration among these sectors.
An informative discussion followed, covering the Education Minister’s statement on the way forward for shared education; the disconnect between parents’ desire for more integrated education, versus what is being delivered by policy; the need to move away from the Protestant-Catholic paradigm (citing the increase of new arrivals from other European countries); the increasing saliency of a “Northern Irish” identity; and organic versus proactive development of shared and integrated education.
For example, Sam Fitzsimmons (Integrated Education Fund), argued that in order to obtain any desired social policy outcome, there are three elements:
He remarked how fair employment reform was not left to an organic process, mooting how much longer would it have taken to reach the level of progress Northern Ireland has achieved in this regard.
In their closing remarks, Ms Campbell said that there remains a lack of political leadership, and that everyone needs to speak to the future. Ms Gormley said that with bringing children together as the new consensus, it is great to be able to lift the phone and talk with politicians across the spectrum. Mr Baker underlined the uniting potential of education, and that sharing and integration must not remain within a community relations policy silo, but permeate across all Government Departments.
Back at the conference main plenary, I provided the following summary:
- Bringing children together is the “new normal”; this language is endorsed by the whole Northern Ireland Executive; but follow up action is required
- For example, NI21 could propose a legislative initiative/policy change so that collaboration and sharing is codified in the Education and Training Inspectorate process
- As there is agreement that children should be educated together, why are we not bringing teachers together, whether by amalgamating teaching colleges and/or other forms of professional training
- There is a need to bring in parental consultation in local decisions on schooling and education, to inform choices, whether for an integrated or sharing programme
- While sharing occurs naturally in some places (with risk of upsetting this), there needs to be solid public policies to: (1) encourage; (2) incentivise; and (3) legislate for desired results
I encouraged the delegates, as new party activists, to act on the feedback from our session.