Urgent call to change NI’s education system for more inclusive society

Urgent call to change NI’s education system for more inclusive society
20 September 2022

As part of Good Relations Week, the Integrated Education Fund hosted an event that focused on the launch of an Ulster University paper, “How education needs to change: A vision for a single system”. The discussion was led by Hugh Odling-Smee, who introduced two speakers, Matthew Milliken and Dr Stephen Roulston from the UNESCO Centre at Ulster University. Their presentation addressed issues with the educational system in Northern Ireland regarding social and economic effects of segregation in schools. The purpose of the discussion was to encourage conversation about what a unified system of education could look like. It was proposed that by revising the current system into a more fully integrated one, young people will benefit from a learning environment that promotes diversity and inclusivity.

Matthew MILLIKEN (Ulster University). © Allan LEONARD @MrUlster

Milliken began by recalling how the Northern Ireland [Affairs Committee] critiqued the educational system as being “unnecessarily complex” and “plagued by expensive duplication”, as Milliken put it. From this came a “transforming education project”, which used academic research and presented evidence to support education reform to facilitate the needs of a diverse society. On this, Milliken spoke about how the current system of education may pose a possible barrier to a shared future and a united community in Northern Ireland. 

On reconciliation, Milliken said how the current system had done little to facilitate relations between Catholic and Protestant communities. The awareness of solving this issue is shared by parents, as there is a demand for their children to be educated “in schools where they sit along people from the other side”. Milliken spoke about opinion polls revealing that two-thirds of parents have indicated a preference for this type of schooling experience, yet only 7% of pupils are able to attend an integrated school.

Milliken concluded with a call for urgency: “If those with power are serious about helping to create a more equal, a more confident, a more inclusive Northern Ireland, then action is needed to transform education. And that action is needed sooner, rather than later.”

Dr Stephen ROULSTON (Ulster University). © Allan LEONARD @MrUlster

Dr Roulston emphasised the role of evidence in the approach Milliken and he took when carrying out their vision of education. By changing the structure of education, the result of a new system would be sustainability, fairness, and simplicity. Roulston spoke on the need for inclusivity and diversity in learning environments, “allowing children to learn together regardless of religious stance, gender, ability, disability, academic aspirations, and social class”. He also made the point that the advantage of teaching children within a context that ignores points of division is that of “a more harmonious trajectory”, as the current system no longer serves current societal needs.

Another aspect of reform Roulston discussed was changing the education system to prepare young people in the 21st century, “for a very challenging world out there”. Doing this would take the form of a curriculum change, revised to focus on skills rather than content, “complex skills going beyond literacy and numeracy — interpersonal skills, social skills, and thinking skills”. In this way, instead of a primarily exam-based system, wider educational skills may be given more focus to prepare young people to be contributors to society.

Moving on, Odling-Smee asked five party representatives for their response to Milliken and Roulston’s proposals.

John KYLE (UUP). © Allan LEONARD @MrUlster

Speaking first was Belfast City Councillor John Kyle (UUP), who agreed with the need for a reformed integrated educational system. However, Kyle acknowledged that to do this would take “considerable time, debate, effort, will, and resilience”. He pointed to the evidence that children who are educated in socially and educationally diverse environments do better in the long run.

Connie EGAN (Alliance Party). © Allan LEONARD @MrUlster

Connie Egan MLA (Alliance Party) also agreed with the premise of an integrated education system. Egan emphasised the high demand for integrated schools, citing 2021 polls that showed 71% of respondents agreed that every school should be integrated: “We see integrated schools are some of the most oversubscribed schools in the country.”

Diane DODDS (DUP). © Allan LEONARD @MrUlster

Diane Dodds (DUP) spoke on the need for a single education system that was completely child-centred and focused on education to give people a “better life, better choices and more freedom to do what they want to do”. However, she criticised the move towards a single education system as it rules out the choice of attending a variety of denomination-based schools: “I find it strange that in Northern Ireland, the debate is leading us into a very narrow pathway for education.”

Pat SHEEHAN (Sinn Féin). © Allan LEONARD @MrUlster

Pat Sheehan (Sinn Féin) stressed the need for an evidence-based education system “that in my view is the single most important statement that could be made with any new system”. Sheehan emphasised the socio-economic background of children regarding an integrated system, rather than focussing solely on religious division.

Matthew O’TOOLE (SDLP). © Allan LEONARD @MrUlster

Lastly, Matthew O’Toole (SDLP) also voiced the need for a more integrated approach to education to fix issues regarding division: “This is the challenge we have, a profoundly complex system which is a reflection of deep historic issues in our society in terms of allegiance and denomination.”

During the subsequent question and answer session, a member of the audience asked about streaming and academic selection: “If I was a teacher, I’d probably feel the need to stream [pupils in a classroom]. So, I’m agnostic about selection. But I’d like to hear about if we were to abolish selection completely, how do schools and educators bring out the best in all their pupils?”

Sheehan replied that his instinct was not to stream: “There seems to be little point in ending segregation between pupils based on ability to put them all in the same school and then segregate them within the school.” Egan responded: “The need to academically select at age 11 is nonsense. Going into streaming, outcomes are better than non-streamed classes.” She referred to Dodds’ remarks about her practical experience as a former teacher, and like Sheehan wanted to know more about how streaming affects teacher workloads.

Another member of the audience asked the panellists if they agreed that a singular education system must be secular (otherwise it would be an oxymoron, as he put it).

O’Toole, who declared that religion is not significant to him personally, replied: “For a lot of people moving towards an integrated system they will want some form of faith in that context.” Kyle added, more specifically: “While religion has been responsible for a bunch of evil that’s been done, it also adds a dimension to life that is very enriching that adds moral guidelines and gives purpose and meaning to many people… They [pupils] do need some sort of moral formation as they go through school… I don’t think we should discourage it.”

Politicians may need to revise Northern Ireland’s education system, in order to address structural issues such as unsustainable financial inefficiencies and environmental costs. A singular education system can also foster a greater acceptance of our increasing diversity in our society and contribute toward a more dynamic and pluralist future.

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