Shared education or Shared-out education?

This was amongst a number of key questions raised at the “Sustaining Schools, Sustaining Communities” Community Relations Week Conference organised by Rural Community Network, in partnership with the Integrated Education Fund recently.  A high turnout of rural community groups, local schools, trades unions, government departments and education sectors along with politicians, considered the current economic, political and educational context as outlined by Neil Gibson, Director of Oxford Economics, and Professor Tony Gallagher, QUB.

Both speakers highlighted that it is within citizens’ power to shape education and that with a collective voice we can strive towards an education system “fit for purpose” for the needs of all children across Northern Ireland. The heart of the discussion focused on “what’s best for children” and highlighted that a recent Ipsos MORI poll, commissioned by the IEF, indicated a large majority of people across Northern Ireland (88%) supported integrated education and 91% of people supported shared education.  Tony Gallagher gave a brief historical overview of education on this island, clearly showing that the debate around building a shared education system is an old conversation woven into the politics of this contested place.
Four case studies followed: the Primary Integrating/Enriching Education Project (PIEE) (an NEELB initiative); the Fermanagh Trust (a community- initiated project); the West Tyrone Educational Partnership (a school-led model) and Brownlow Integrated College, (a parent-driven process). All the case studies gave an insight into what different kinds of education systems might feel and look like; they also showed that there are different starting points on this journey with different solutions for different areas. These examples highlighted the point that shared and integrated education needs to be incentivised by government, rather than external donors, with schools rewarded through funding and the inspection process for becoming shared spaces and community-based schools.

RCN and the IEF agree we need to stop treating schools as autonomous competitive units and there needs to be political vision and leadership to shape an education system driven by sharing. All the parties have made a commitment to doing this - civic society now needs to hold them to their promises.

For further information in relation to the conference