‘DE bankrolls segregation’: Northern Ireland education costs additional £226m annually
by Allan LEONARD
11 May 2023
The Integrated Alumni charity, in partnership with the Integrated Education Fund (IEF), hosted an event that looked at the cost of division in Northern Ireland, especially its education system. This included a discussion among a panel of candidates for the upcoming local government elections and an audience of several dozen adding live, interactive responses with their mobile phones.
Matt O’Neill (chairperson, Integrated Alumni) welcomed guests and introduced Dr Matt Milliken (Ulster University), who presented an overview of a briefing paper that he and Dr Stephen Roulston produced last month. Milliken explained that Northern Ireland’s deeply divided education system parallels wider societal divisions. Within education, this includes segregation by: age, community identity, gender, (dis)ability, class, and language. He pointed out that 92% of children and young people are educated separately and that segregation persists “in the classrooms, staff rooms, and boardrooms”, reflected in the history that is taught, the games that are played, and the holidays that are observed.
Milliken outlined societal, environmental, and economic costs of Northern Ireland’s segregated education system. For example, societally he cited relatively high rates of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in Northern Ireland (at 9%); evidence of this being transferred onto a generation of young people with no experience of the Troubles; and the continued impact of paramilitary violence in certain places. Economically, Milliken explained a conundrum whereby even where there is an acknowledgement of the unviability of two primary schools in a village, current legislation constrains planning innovation to address this. He also spelt out environmental costs of travelling to an integrated school further away than a closer, non-integrated one: an annual estimated extra 130 million miles, £20m, and 9,000 tonnes of CO2.
In regards to the administration of education, Milliken said: “The Department of Education bankrolls segregation in Northern Ireland.” He presented a table of relevant costs, such as duplicate teacher training colleges, surplus places in primary schools, and Shared Education and T:BUC programme spending (a resolved education system wouldn’t require this expenditure). The estimated additional cost of education provision in Northern Ireland is £226m — or about £1m per day of school.
Grace Boyle (president, Ulster University Students’ Union; Integrated Alumni member) chaired the panel discussion, which included Will Polland (SDLP), Jessica Johnston (Alliance Party), Jacinta Hamley (Green Party), Rachel McCord (Ulster Unionist Party), and Caoimhin McCann (Sinn Féin). (Sipho Sibanda (People Before Profit) spoke at the end — “Make sure government doesn’t treat integrated education as a tickbox exercise” — and in place of a DUP candidate, a statement was read, declaring its support for the shared education programme and call for a single education system in Northern Ireland.)
Opening remarks included an observation by Johnston that the £226m figure is close to the £200m that the Education Authority is now seeking to find savings for in the recent Northern Ireland Budget statement. Hamley told of how her parents were among other parents in setting up an integrated school and that “the burden shouldn’t fall on parents but by the government”. McCord said that we shouldn’t be shocked about the societal costs of segregating children from the age of four: “We’re not segregated as adults, so why do we do this to children?” McCann reminded the audience of his party’s support for the Fair Employment bill (removing religious employment discrimination in schools) and the Integrated Education bill, “which shows what progressive parties can do when they come together”.
Boyle asked the panellists how education, housing, and other issues related to division in Northern Ireland could be addressed.
McCann said that sectarianism is “a scourge of our society”, but that resolution starts but doesn’t end with integrated education. McCord called for educating children about our past and discussing how we can move on together: “We do not teach the past until Key Stage 4, at age 11, and even that is optional.” Hamley answered that friendship and respect for others are essential, “which is why integrated education is so important”. Johnston argued that education and housing issues are interrelated, and both need multi-annual, longer-term budgets. Polland said: “If you at an early age keep people segregated, naturally that will breed hate into them,” while adding that the values of the Good Friday Agreement are held within integrated education.
Boyle asked about the panellists’ views and experiences with transforming existing schools to integrated status.
Polland spoke of galvanised support for having a new integrated grammar school in Mid Down, to complement provision at Shimna Integrated College in Newcastle. Johnston explained the situation in Armagh City Banbridge & Craigavon Borough Council, where there is no integrated school — the closest to her was Brownlow Integrated College; she “wholeheartedly” supports transformation, citing Lurgan Model Primary School’s current process. In the case of transforming Cairnshill Primary School, Hamley said that it is useful to seek support for school transformation from prospective parents as well as current parents. McCord seeks the transformation of Bangor Academy, because for many in her area the closest integrated school with sixth form (coursework for A-Level exams) is Strangford Integrated College or in Belfast, both long commutes. McCann replied that public policy is not meeting the demand for integrated education: “Stop punishing children for something not in their control.”
Questions taken from the audience included how to overcome class barriers and geographical barriers (especially in rural areas), and how to encourage cross-cultural appreciation. McCann replied that social class “is still the major dividing line in Northern Ireland and the world”, and called for the end of academic selection. Hamley said that “divided education helps divisive politics”, adding that we could learn from better education experiences in Europe. Johnston argued that while the shared education programme “was useful a few years ago, we need to move on to integrated education”. Polland expressed his gratitude for the opportunity to learn both Irish and British culture in his integrated education experience. Regarding the positive role of sports and arts, there was a consensus across the panel that these are sorely underinvested in our schools, which could also be improved by a consolidated teacher training programme.
Dr Milliken answered a question about how integrated education could be developed:
“Creating a new [integrated] school is a really difficult challenge… You will have to take on the cultures, histories, and traditions of the existing schools, embedded for many generations… However, the gap between [supporters of integrated education] and our political representatives is really small; they will listen to you and they do take your concerns on board.
“Lobby. Profile. Get it out in the media. Get the discussion going. Create a snowball effect.
“But it’s a hard push. Look for allies. Use local newspapers.
“Professionally, my view is rather than hoping to transform every school now, immediately, we create a system that is porous — the teachers can move between the schools, the governors are mixed, the pupils are mixed — and the process can keep going that way.
“Shared education does not do that. You need legislative change and policy implementation… and there’s no interest from the organisations that are currently siloed to make that happen.”
Finally, Paul Collins (Integrated Education Fund) gave a plug to support Integrated Alumni, which no longer requires you to have been an integrated school pupil to become a member. He encouraged the audience to go to the IEF website to learn its suggested questions to put to elected representatives (and candidates). Collins pointed out its Integrate My School site and informed all about the upcoming release of a survey carried out by LucidTalk on IEF’s behalf.