Shared and Integrated Education: Committee Report

Committee Business – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 12:00 pm on 8th September 2015.

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Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP 12:00 pm, 8th September 2015

The Business Committee has agreed to allow up to two hours for the debate. The proposer will have 15 minutes in which to propose the motion and 15 minutes in which to make a winding-up speech. All other Members who are called to speak will have five minutes.

Photo of Peter Weir Peter Weir DUP

I beg to move

That this Assembly approves the report of the Committee for Education on its inquiry into shared and integrated education [NIA 194/11-16]; and calls on the Minister of Education to implement the recommendations contained in the report.

I was briefly worried that the Minister might be playing truant, but I see that he has arrived for the start of the debate.

The Committee began its inquiry into shared and integrated education over one year ago. That was two Chairpersons and one Deputy Chairperson ago. Unlike with the previous report, I have at least been the Chair for the latter stages of this one. It sometimes feels as though I am taking credit for another colleague's homework, but at least I had the opportunity to write a few notes in the margin for this report.

I begin by thanking my Committee colleagues, past and present, for their contribution to this important work, particularly my two predecessors as Chair, Mervyn Storey and Michelle McIlveen.

It is the case that Education Committee members always enjoy visiting schools, listening to teachers and finding out at first hand what is happening at what used to be called the chalkface but, I suppose, is more an interactive white board nowadays. This inquiry was no exception.

At the start of the debate, I would like to take time to thank sincerely the schools that hosted our meetings and the teachers and principals who took time out to attend our evidence sessions. In particular, I thank the schoolchildren who participated in our focus groups and the other informal evidence events.

The Committee values and enjoys its interactions with representative groups. These are generally very useful and provide an invaluable perspective for the Committee’s deliberations. In respect of this inquiry, I would like to thank the very large number of organisations, totalling over 80, that responded and provided their views. It is also worth mentioning that the subject of the inquiry provoked some strong feelings and terse exchanges. We are used to terse exchanges across the Chamber, but, on this occasion, it was generally between stakeholders rather than between Committee members, and, more often than not, in the press as well.

The education of our children is an important subject, and it touches on issues of identity that can be sensitive for all communities in Northern Ireland. The Committee recognised this in its evidence-taking and in its recommendations and report, and, hopefully, the rest of the House will be cognisant of this in today’s debate.

I want to deal first with shared education, but the question is this: where to begin? There are a very large number of programmes and initiatives with shared education in the title, and there are lots of sharing activities across our schools, some of which appear to date back for decades. What is missing from this picture, which is dealt with in the report, is, of course, a definition of shared education. The Committee agreed that policy clarity is always a good idea and that for this policy area it was of particular importance.

Members were impressed by the experience of the centre for shared education at Queen's University and its argument that the focus should be on educational improvement for the pupils of the participating schools. The Committee felt that important though societal or reconciliation objectives are — everyone would agree that they are very important — shared education should be primarily about improving attainment and the life chances of all our children. That said, the Committee also felt that shared education should, of course, promote attitudinal improvement and meaningful contact involving children and young people from different section 75 groups. Here, Members noted recent reviews that showed the very positive impact of the community relations, equality and diversity (CRED) policy on attitudes among children and young people.

The Committee has been asked on a number of occasions to support statutory obligations in respect of shared education. We have always demurred a little in the past, but, as a Committee, we are generally happy to do so now on the basis of the clear definitions that we have set out in the report. The Committee agreed with the Department about the importance of strong connections between schools and their communities. Members noted what might be termed a certain coyness from officials when witnesses raised concerns about cultural certainty or equality of identity. The Committee felt that addressing the concerns of communities was essential in order to support the involvement of all schools in meaningful, non-tokenistic shared education, particularly in the 25% or so of schools that are not directly involved in sharing at present.

The Committee visited Moy and heard from schools in Brookeborough that are engaged in sharing projects and are planning closer alignment between their schools. The Committee felt that, although there might be other more cost-effective solutions for these communities, the actions taken in both instances were very positive, would improve community relations and had been badly misrepresented by some stakeholders. The Committee felt that there should be more consistent support for innovative cooperation between schools in rural and other areas.

During the inquiry, there appeared to be some wrangling among stakeholders about which sector was the best, which was the most open and inclusive and which was the most inclined to respect a Christian ethos etc. The Committee was impressed by examples of an inclusive and welcoming ethos, by the respect for diversity and religious tolerance in a wide range of schools and by every teacher, principal and schoolchild whom we met. I felt that this was particularly evident in our special schools. Other members identified equally good measures in other sectors and phases, and I am sure that they will say that today and bring more detail to the debate on that front. The Committee hopes that the Department will do more to disseminate this good practice in all our schools. There is an interesting contrast between the tolerant attitudes, openness and obvious intelligence of our teachers and principals — and even of our schoolchildren — and some of the exchanges between some of the representative groups that gave evidence to the inquiry. I think that members drew from that an important conclusion about where barriers to greater cooperation in our school system may occur.

I would like to turn to the last few recommendations in the report, which deal with integrated education. As the House is aware, the Department has long-standing legal obligations in respect of integrated education. Notwithstanding that, uptake remains low. The reasons for that sparked an energetic debate among stakeholders. Quite a lot of sound, heat and newsprint was generated, but, as is sometimes the case, not a lot of light was shed on the subject.

Clearly, there is a demand for this form of education, but the extent of that demand and the reasons underpinning it are disputed by stakeholders. The extent to which the Department lives up to its legal obligations in this regard was also disputed. There is equal disagreement about how and whether integrated education might be facilitated and encouraged.

The sector itself challenged what it felt was the narrow definition of an integrated school, calling into question the validity of the measurement of the minority community representation in the school. In that regard, the Committee noted practices whereby a growing number of parents designate their children as neither Protestant nor Catholic. If true, that would seem to support at least a re-examination of the rules regarding the definition of an integrated school.

The House will not be surprised to learn that the Education Committee could not resolve all the issues relating to integrated education. Given that, members wisely agreed that more thought was needed and recommended a strategic departmental review, setting out the suggested terms of reference accordingly.

Members also noted with interest the level of what might be described as natural mixing in our schools. We can think of examples in different constituencies where children attend a school whose parents would not necessarily identify with that sector. There is in my constituency, for example, the situation of St Columbanus, where many Protestant children attend a Catholic maintained school, or Methodist College, where Catholic children attend a school with a Methodist ethos or interdenominational schools.

These are sometimes referred to as super-mixed schools, and there are relatively few examples of them in Northern Ireland. The Committee was surprised that the Department had not studied in detail the motivation behind that practice or how it might encourage more mixing.

During the inquiry, the Department produced a circular relating to jointly managed Church schools. Members initially struggled to appreciate the material differences between such a school and a controlled integrated school. The Committee agreed, however, that the Department should consider amending its home-to-school transport policy to ensure equality of access for children attending jointly managed Church schools as compared with the integrated sector.

This was a lengthy inquiry. The report includes three volumes of evidence. I understand that this will be the last occasion in the Assembly when we have a fully printed copy available to us as opposed to the more environmentally friendly email versions. If this is the swansong of the printed page in relation to inquiries, it is a substantive swansong, with three volumes of evidence.

I thank the Department for attending quite a few of the evidence sessions and, where we had queries, providing clarification on a large number of issues.

I think that the inquiry has helped the Committee –— and will, hopefully, help the House and Northern Ireland as a whole — to come to a greater appreciation of shared and integrated education and the positive, inclusive practices in many of our schools.

I believe that this report and the Minister's answers will help us all as we deal with potential legislation that is coming forward on this subject and other related policy issues. Therefore, as Chair I commend to the House the Committee's report on shared and integrated education.

In the few moments left to me, I want to make a few brief remarks as a DUP MLA. For any of us looking at the wide variety of sectors in education in Northern Ireland and the multiplicity of the schools estate, it is undoubtedly the case that if we were starting today with a completely blank page to design a system for our schools, we would not arrive at the system that we have today.

However, there is no point pretending that we have that blank page. We have constraints on what is there and, indeed, have to consider the desires of parents and the different pressures in the sectors.

However, rather than dealing with the negative, this is an opportunity for shared education to embrace the positive. We cannot change things overnight, but there are a number of positive developments that we need to embrace. First of all, with the creation of the Education Authority, the various sectors are, probably for the first time, all represented on a fair basis around the table at the same time. That gives an opportunity but also places a great responsibility on the Education Authority. Secondly, we need to see a strong commitment to shared education coming directly from the Department as well. With the legislation, there are indications that that is the case. As has been indicated, we have to celebrate the positive of the wide range of shared education opportunities such as integrated education, joint projects between the schools, sharing of various natures, jointly managed church schools potentially and the super-mixed schools. There is a wide range. It is my belief that, as we move forward with shared education, we need to embrace that flexibility. We need to ensure that we have a definition that can help ground this but one that also embraces the various alternatives rather than having a single focus on one particular aspect of that.

The legislation is likely to be quite framework in nature, but, as we move beyond that, the key point will be the implementation of that. Above all, as has been identified in the report, we need to look at where we can incentivise shared education and where we can try to remove the barriers to shared education, but we also need to see commitment from schools themselves. To that extent, the Committee's recommendation is that it should be done on a full school basis. The focus on the contribution towards the curriculum and education is vital. It is crucial, particularly if financial support is available, that schools do not approach this in a tokenistic fashion and do not do something that simply ticks the box to ensure that they can qualify for shared education. We should see this as a real and meaningful experience that enriches the lives of all our children. To that end, there are clearly two aspects of this in the community relations and societal benefits that I think everyone would accept, but we also need to embrace the educational opportunities that arise with shared education. In particular, we have to look beyond the relationships between the two communities and embrace the various section 75 groups. For example, there should be a recognition of the wide number of pupils who now either come from outside Northern Ireland or whose families do not identify with either community, and we should try to establish help and support across some of the social divides there. I think that the contribution of shared education will also go across the socio-economic barrier. That is important as well.

Mr Deputy Speaker, time is running out. I believe that, if grasped, there is a great opportunity to make real progress and give real advantage to our society and to our children's education, and I believe that shared education can play a very large part in that. As Chair, I look forward to the rest of the debate.

Photo of Maeve McLaughlin Maeve McLaughlin Sinn Féin 12:15 pm, 8th September 2015

Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I speak as a member of the Education Committee. As the Chair outlined, the Committee took a lot of evidence and had a lot of discussion on this very important issue. I want to acknowledge the role that the staff and, indeed, everybody played in this work. I think that in the region of 80 organisations gave evidence to the Committee, and I commend them for sharing their wealth of experience and views.

It is very apparent that there is widespread support for shared education and increasingly a discussion around the need for a definition of what shared education is. Quite often, the conversations at Committee were, "When does integrated start? Is integrated simply the continuum of a shared education process?"

I will start by commenting that there are many solid and robust examples of sharing and cooperation across our society, in many sectors across the North and, indeed, across the island.

The Committee also felt — the Chair referred to this point, and I want to re-emphasise it — that societal objectives are important and would need to extend beyond the reconciliation of both of the largest communities to incorporate fully all section 75 groups. In short, we cannot truly impact on positive outcomes from shared education if we fail to place issues like equality at the heart of the process. We cannot share or integrate in a meaningful way if we ignore the root causes of challenges in our society like poverty, deprivation and objective need.

I want to reference that, on Friday, I participated in the Derry and Strabane community planning process. That meeting specifically looked at education and skills. The very stark fact from that conversation was that 23·8% of over-16s from the city that I come from leave school with no qualifications. I will be an optimist and say that the report provides us not only with an opportunity but with an opportunity to look at shared and integrated education in a meaningful way, but that will have little impact if it is not targeted at the areas where need most exists.

The Committee recommends that there be a:

"statutory obligation to encourage, facilitate and promote Shared Education [which] should be extended to the Department and ... its ... Arms Length Bodies."

There are 11 recommendations in total, but I want to concentrate my remarks on two. The first is recommendation 6, which states:

"the Department should give consideration to a wide range of agreed, objective impact measures ... based on educational improvement ... and societal reconciliation [which] should be published regularly by the Department."

It is important that we have robust measures in place to assess outcomes. It is critical for shared or integrated education, or, indeed, both, that we can measure and demonstrate positive outcomes. I look forward to the Minister's thoughts or comments on how that can be taken forward.

Recommendation 9 suggests that the Department should:

"undertake a strategic review of ... Integrated Education".

It is only proper that we pre-plan and future plan for integrated education. I again look forward to the views of the Minister and the Department.

Much work has been done, to which the Chair referred. There has been a clear commitment from the Education Minister

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

Would the Member draw her remarks to a close?

Photo of Maeve McLaughlin Maeve McLaughlin Sinn Féin

— about shared education. It is important that we monitor those implementation processes and develop the opportunities that exist.

Photo of Seán Rogers Seán Rogers Social Democratic and Labour Party

I am glad to see the report coming to the House after a year's work. I thank the Committee staff for their work in bringing the report together. I am sure that it will provide a useful insight into the state of shared and integrated education in the North and will also be useful for the Shared Education Bill.

Education provides the building blocks of individuals' lives and the society that they live in. Parents should have a wide choice of schools, but one thing that all schools should have is a commitment to high-quality education. Most recently, the Scottish First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, said that improving educational attainment was a priority in her Programme for Government. We have similar ambitions here, but they have to be linked to a strong emphasis on shared education.

We have a rich and varied educational landscape. The focus of shared education should encompass early childhood services through primary and post-primary education, further education and special education. Education is the key way in which we can promote reconciliation in our society, and it is vital that shared education is done right.

Like other Members, I have experienced many examples where it works really well. One that comes to mind was a sharing languages project organised by Shimna Integrated College in Newcastle, where the Spanish teacher delivered a weekly language programme in the primary schools to children from different backgrounds. The project even got the backing of the First Minister when he attended prize-giving. Unfortunately, like many other excellent schemes, the project ended once the initial funding ran out.

On a similar note, perhaps the Minister, in his reply, will address the apparent linking of shared education funding to Key Stage 2/Key Stage 3 statutory assessment. I suppose that I am asking this question: why do schools that are part of the Delivering Social Change shared education programme have their letter of offer rescinded because there are issues with the Key Stage 2/Key Stage 3 assessment in their school?

Shared and integrated education should not be limited to Catholics and Protestants; it should include children of non-Christian religions and no religion and children of different socio-economic backgrounds and of different races. Giving children the opportunity to interact with children beyond their immediate community benefits them and promotes harmonious relationships between communities. Children who are exposed to a diverse range of backgrounds, traditions and cultures will see difference for what it is: natural and something to be celebrated.

I welcome the direction of the Shared Education Bill, but the Bill will not suffice on its own. Shared education has to be embedded in our curriculum. Schools must be encouraged and supported to adopt shared education. Two schools coming together for an annual hockey match or a football match is not really shared education. Shared education needs embedment. The language project that I mentioned is just one example. Shared education can itself be viewed as part of a solution to other challenges faced by schools. Take, for example, the shortage of STEM provision in primary schools. That could be addressed by a post-primary science department and three or four primary schools from both sides of the community coming together to plan and deliver the primary science programme. Such an innovative programme would be a win-win for STEM, for primary and post-primary links, for teachers' continuing professional development and, above all, for embedding shared education. That is just one example. We could do the same with literacy and numeracy and so on.

Rather than becoming an additional bureaucratic burden, shared education should be seen as a natural extension of relationships between schools. It is not a threat to an individual school or school sector but an opportunity to complement it. Many of the recommendations allude to the fact that shared education can become embedded in schools only through the development of strong curricular links and a strong focus —

Photo of Trevor Lunn Trevor Lunn Alliance

I thank Mr Rogers for giving way. This is a report on shared and integrated education, and you have now mentioned shared education about 35 times. When are you going to get to integrated education, or do you not intend to comment?

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

The Member has an extra minute.

Photo of Seán Rogers Seán Rogers Social Democratic and Labour Party

It is just as well that I have that extra minute. Mr Lunn must have been counting the times that I used the word "shared". Did you notice that I talked about Shimna College, a really good integrated school in my constituency? Its improving languages project really brought schools together from different communities and, to me, embedding it in the curriculum is the way that we take this forward. It is not shared for shared sake, but something that is really embedded in the curriculum. The development of those strong curricular links is key, along with keeping a strong focus on school improvement, as other Members have mentioned.

Photo of Neil Somerville Neil Somerville UUP

I am pleased to speak on the debate on the Education Committee's inquiry into shared and integrated education. Like many others, I have been following the debate on the subject, which should be of interest to all MLAs and the wider public. Today in Northern Ireland, progress towards a shared future seems slow and far from assured. Official figures from the school census show that almost half of our school-age children attend schools where 95% of the pupils are from the same community or religious background. That is the background to the Committee's inquiry.

During the evidence-gathering session, one could not fail to notice a rather major difference of opinion between the Council for Catholic Maintained Schools (CCMS) and the integrated education lobby. In its submission to the inquiry, CCMS called on the Department to dispense with the statutory duty to encourage and facilitate integrated education, a stance that, interestingly, has since been adopted by the DUP. That dispute gets to the heart of the shared/integrated education issue.

"Shared education" is a phrase that has come into vogue since the Bain report of 2006, in parallel with the lexicon of a shared future. The Ulster Unionist Party has been very positive towards the idea of shared education, and we have applauded efforts to progress it through the shared education programme, the shared campuses programme and other initiatives. Nevertheless, this inquiry report suggests that hard questions still have to be faced up to and answered. The question is this: what do you mean by "shared education". If it is a flexible system whereby all education sectors go on a journey to a single state system of common schools in Northern Ireland, the Ulster Unionist Party will wholeheartedly sign up for it. It would be in fulfillment of the vision of Lord Londonderry, the first Education Minister for Northern Ireland, 90 years ago, and the last Ulster Unionist Education Minister, Basil McIvor, in 1974. However, as has become clear, that vision, albeit long-term, is not what everyone has in mind.

As I said, during the inquiry it was clear that there was no consensus about the direction of travel for the education system in Northern Ireland. To see that, you need only review the Hansard report of the debates on teacher training before the summer recess. For some, shared education is not a staging post to a fully integrated system; it is an end in itself, a way to deliver the entitlement curriculum with some shared classes while preserving separate parallel systems for controlled, maintained, integrated and other schools. Quite frankly, that looks to me like a thin Elastoplast over a deeply segregated school system.

There is some useful commentary in the evidence-gathering part of the report, and all 11 recommendations are fine as far as they go, but it is an inconvenient truth that there is no consensus across the political spectrum. Unless we as an Assembly come to an agreement on what precisely we mean by "shared" and what we mean by "integrated" education, we run the risk that an enormous amount of scarce public money will be poured into a vague concept called "shared education" that might not make a difference in the longer run. There is a danger that shared education may turn out to be a continuation of "shared-out education", with limited interaction between firmly separated school sectors.

The so-called Stormont House Agreement announced a £500 million capital investment in shared and integrated education. In the current climate of non-implementation of Stormont House, where will the money to support shared education come from? Option 4 in the business plan for shared education would cost £44 million annually, which, after four years, will apparently be absorbed into the mainstream school budget. Is this realistic or sustainable?

To sum up, while I welcome the Committee report, its worth is found in the evidence-gathering sessions rather than in the recommendations.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP 12:30 pm, 8th September 2015

I remind Members that the Business Committee has agreed that we will continue to 1.00 pm.

Photo of Trevor Lunn Trevor Lunn Alliance

When I suggested this review, I did not expect it to go on quite so long or that it would gobble up the time of three Chairpersons. Everyone on the Committee contributed very well to the report, even those who clearly do not agree with me on certain issues. We have always managed to conduct our deliberations in a thoughtful and constructive way, and I thank the present Chair for continuing that approach.

What are the conclusions of the report? The report leans heavily in the direction of shared education. This is the current buzzword. To a lot of people, it seems to be the way forward and the answer to most of our problems in the education system.

One or two people mentioned curriculum delivery. I have no argument there; that is fine. Schools have been sharing with the intention of delivering the curriculum and making it easier to run small classes since long before this initiative ever saw the light of day. I fancy that this initiative — that is what I see it as — might be relatively long-term, but where will we be at the end of it, when the money runs out? There are massive amounts available for shared education programmes at the moment, although some of us think that even they have been set up in a most peculiar way in terms of who is eligible and who is not.

I cannot help but think that, five or 10 years down the line, we will not be any further on. In his evidence, Sir Bob Salisbury indicated that he would like to see a proper measurement, particularly of curriculum delivery, but also of societal benefit of these programmes at various stages. I think that would be interesting, because there is not much evidence, if any, that there is a measurable societal benefit from the shared education programmes that have been running so far. But time will tell.

The whole thing has been quite heavily slanted towards shared education; maybe that was inevitable. I wonder what it is about the integrated model and sector that seems to terrify people and make them think that this is not the way to go. I think that it was Maeve McLaughlin who said that integrated education is seen by some as the end point or ambition of shared education programmes. If that were the case, I would welcome it, but I do not see it. I do not see why, in the right circumstances, we should not bypass the shared programme and go straight for an integrated solution if that is the best way forward.

Inevitably, I have to mention the situation in the Moy, where two small schools were convinced of the need to come together. But what have we done? The Department's plan is to build a new school to encompass two schools. We will have two schools under one roof, with separate uniforms and separate assemblies just to make sure that they do not, what, contaminate each other? It is an absolutely unreal situation and only in Northern Ireland could we have come up with such a solution. I hope it is not too late and that it might be reconsidered. It just defies belief; it is emphasising separation.

What is it about integration that scares people? Two learned professors came to the Committee, Professor Knox and Professor Borooah, and indicated that they thought the results coming out of integrated schools were not as good as equivalent schools in other sectors. Complete nonsense. No harm to the two professors, but it is absolute nonsense. There is a variation in attainment levels, but there is a variation in attainment levels across all our sectors. There is nothing unusual about the integrated model.

The Chairman mentioned the designation of religious background. There is definitely something to be looked at there, because the reason why people do not designate a religious background is because, frankly, in this day and age, so many of them do not have one. That is the problem.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

Will the Member draw his remarks to a close?

Photo of Trevor Lunn Trevor Lunn Alliance

Mr Deputy Speaker, this is a two-hour debate, and I really wish that I had 20 minutes instead of five, but I can see what the clock is doing, so, unless somebody intervenes quickly —

Photo of Basil McCrea Basil McCrea NI21

Will the Member give way?

Photo of Basil McCrea Basil McCrea NI21

I would just like to give the Member an extra minute.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

The Member has an extra minute.

Photo of Trevor Lunn Trevor Lunn Alliance

I do not often thank Mr McCrea.

I believe that the Minister has tacitly agreed — perhaps he can confirm it today — that he is prepared to undertake a strategic review of the integrated model and sector. That would be very welcome and is very much overdue, because there are questions to ask about how the integrated sector has been facilitated and encouraged. We cannot use the word "promoted" because the Assembly turned that down, but they applied it to shared education. I think that a proper review of his Department's actions and attitudes down the years, long before he came along, and of whether it has tried to stifle or encourage the integrated sector, might come up with some interesting answers.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

The Member's time is almost up.

Photo of Robin Newton Robin Newton DUP

I welcome the report and pay tribute to Peter McCallion and his dedicated staff, who carried out their duties not only in a very professional way but in a pleasant manner, which made it extremely easy to work with them. I also welcome the new addition to his staff, Paul Stitt.

I say to Mr Somerville that the work of the Committee was carried out in a very professional manner. The interests of education, the schools, the pupils, the parents and the teaching staff were at the heart of the deliberations of the Committee at all stages. That is evidenced by the fact that we had such a major response to the evidence sessions: there were over 100 written submissions; there was a keenness to give evidence during informal sessions; and there were 24 formal evidence sessions, five school visits and a number of research papers commissioned by the Committee. That indicates the importance of this subject to the future well-being of education in Northern Ireland.

Like other parts of the world, education can be an extremely emotive area. It raises concerns; the bringing together of children for education has to be treated in a sensitive and thoughtful manner. Much effort has been put into the subject matter. It is difficult to say whether there is a subject that demands more time of the Assembly than education and the future of our children. It is so because it is the future of the children, the economy and the well-being of this whole society. As such, it should demand our time.

Mr Lunn has a passion for integrated education. That is fine, but his passion is not shared by the vast majority of parents in Northern Ireland.

Photo of Trevor Lunn Trevor Lunn Alliance

I refer him to the various polls and tests of attitude that have taken place down the years from time immemorial, particularly in the 'Belfast Telegraph'. The figures are well known.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

The Member has an extra minute.

Photo of Robin Newton Robin Newton DUP

I understand what he is saying, but the evidence of pupils enrolling and parents approaching and wanting to be in the schools has not stretched beyond 7%. That is the real evidence.

There are very good examples of where there is a desire to see a sharing of education. They have been referred to; I will mention only three. Two schools in Ballycastle saw it in the best interests of the pupils, the parents and the educational system to come together and work together, sharing education. The Moy was referred to. Trevor was speaking in not the glowing terms that I would have spoken about the two schools in the Moy that recognised the difficulties and addressed them as best they could, despite very intensive lobbying from one sector in particular against them taking the two schools onto one site. Methodist College is a school that I hold dear. It has, for generations, without being coaxed or cajoled or having any other form of encouragement, stood up and integrated the children together; it has shared the education. It has taken steps to make sure that children who may not come from such a privileged background as some others are able to take advantage of that. Shared education, this report and its recommendations will take us forward.

I will dwell on only one aspect. All of the 11 recommendations are important. Recommendation 5 is drafted in such a way so as to encourage educationalists and the Minister to address the teachers' concerns, the parents' concerns, the concerns of the children and, above all, perhaps, the concerns of the communities in which the schools are situated.

If we do not take the communities along with us, we will have done the report a disservice.

Photo of Steven Agnew Steven Agnew Green 12:45 pm, 8th September 2015

The reality, which this report seeks to hide, is that shared education is a meaningless concept. It has no definition yet and very little to recommend it. If we were being honest, we would admit that it is nothing but a repackaged and marketed reform of our segregated system.

A problem with falling enrolment numbers and classrooms with empty desks was identified, and there were two possible solutions. One was to take two schools in the one area that were both undersubscribed and make one school. In many areas, that would have meant one integrated school. Instead, we chose to propose, and this has been promoted in the Programme for Government and by many of the parties in the Assembly, taking the two schools and housing them in one building or on one campus, thereby saving money in capital costs but maintaining our failing system of segregation.

We hear the word "shared" being used, and it is a clever tool. Any PR firm would congratulate the Executive on using it, because it sounds like "integrated" and sounds as though we are tackling the historical divisions in Northern Ireland society. Shared education can equally mean two Catholic schools sharing a single building. What societal benefit does that have other than to save the two schools money? It saves on capital costs and running costs, but it does not achieve the societal objective of educating our children together.

Integrated education is about more than just Protestant and Catholic children coming up together. It is about children of all faiths being educated in one school and teaching them that, although they may have different religions and cultural backgrounds, those differences are not a barrier and that, in education, there is no difference between them. It is not, as some presume, a secular system, although I would challenge that and say that perhaps it should be. At the heart of integrated schools is much of the religious ethos that runs through other schools.

Integrated education is all-ability, which is often missed when people talk about the performance of integrated schools. Integrated schools take pupils of all abilities —

Photo of Peter Weir Peter Weir DUP

Will the Member give way?

Photo of Peter Weir Peter Weir DUP

Although I agree that it is the case that the bulk of integrated schools are probably all-ability, there are some integrated schools that are taking a streamed approach and reserving a certain number of places on the basis of academic selection. There is a concern from some of the schools in the integrated sector that, as all-ability schools, they are being measured against some schools that are ring-fencing a percentage of their pupils on the basis of ability. Therefore, it is not the case that all integrated schools are all-ability.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

The Member has an extra minute.

Photo of Steven Agnew Steven Agnew Green

I thank the Member for his intervention. The point is that the integrated sector has to operate in a system in which there is selection, and different schools have made different decisions on how they approach that. The point is that the children go to the same school: there may be streams in those schools, but we do not set up different schools with different headmasters and different assemblies to deal with children from different religious backgrounds or with different academic abilities.

Integrated schools take pupils from all socio-economic backgrounds and incorporate the full breadth of society in one building and under one head teacher and ethos. I go back to the point that Mr Newton made that parents are ultimately not choosing integrated education. To say that parents in Northern Ireland do not choose integrated education is like saying that people in Northern Ireland do not choose sunshine: it is not a choice for many parents. There are now 64, I think, integrated schools of 1,200. Not every parent who sends their child to school has the option of sending their child to an integrated school, and, indeed, many of our integrated schools are oversubscribed, so even parents who are choosing integrated education where there appears to be a choice are being denied that choice. Until every parent has that option equal to each other ethos of education available, that claim cannot be made. As Mr Lunn pointed out, poll after poll has shown that parents want integrated education, and it is the politicians who are putting the barriers in place. We have to remove those barriers. Today, NICIE has called for an independent review of our education system, and I think that we need to consider that because there are political reasons that are putting barriers up to the progress of integrated education in Northern Ireland.

Photo of Basil McCrea Basil McCrea NI21

I had a chance to look at the report only today, and, interestingly, not much has changed since I was last on the Education Committee. I start off with the premise that says that the future of our part of the world depends on the absolute integration of our children. If you were to ask where you want to be in 20 or 30 years' time, you would say that you want everybody to share some form of common identity. It would not be exclusive to any other identity that they might have, but we must find some way of working and living together. I start off with that premise, and I say that I am for integrated education.

I then look at some of the practical issues, which I think that we do have to address. Maeve McLaughlin was talking about areas in her part of the world. How do you deal with integrated education where you have deeply polarised communities and societies? What are you going to do? Will you bus people from one side of the city to another? I am not for bussing. Where there is a natural integration of a population, I am for saying that they should go to a common school.

One of the things that I find quite strange coming from the Department and the Minister is how, for people who are so adamant about having no selective education, they cannot turn around and say that they want integrated education. Surely, the premise should be that, if you live in a particular area, you go to a local school and that all schools should be equal and should all deliver the same level of attainment. Is that not the goal? You can argue that, and there was a bit of a discussion coming up before about whether you are for selective education or not. That is a different issue, but the principle is that, where you have common populations living together, they should go to school together. I am instructed in this by some experience in Magherafelt, and I look at the really good work that Rainey Endowed, St Mary's and other schools do in the area about how they work together. It is my opinion that —

Photo of John Dallat John Dallat Social Democratic and Labour Party

I thank Mr McCrea for giving way, and I am glad that he made some reference to Magherafelt. Of course, there are many examples across Northern Ireland where schools work together. Will he find it important to put on record that the controlled and integrated schools in this country were not responsible for bringing this country to its knees? Indeed, on every occasion, they provided an oasis of peace for those children who found themselves beleaguered by the violence outside. Will he agree that very little effort has been made to pay tribute to the teachers, boards of governors and pupils of those schools who performed a heroic duty during the darkest days of the Troubles?

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

The Member has an extra minute.

Photo of Basil McCrea Basil McCrea NI21

I am grateful to the Member for his contribution. In fact, I also want to say that I was quite taken by the contribution of his colleague Mr Rogers. I thought that that was quite well argued and thought out. This is where I have a bit of a dilemma. Can you move directly to integrated education, as Mr Lunn was advocating, given that, in certain areas, you have deeply polarised communities? This is a challenge for us. I think that Mr Somerville mentioned that 50% of our pupils go to schools that are made up from 95% of one side or the other. There is a certain issue there that we have to address, but I have to say that I feel strongly that the motion of travel should be some discrete form of integration.

It is something that we should actively do. I think that the real problem in all of this is that education is a political battlefield. The reason education is different from employment and learning — I moved to the different Committee — is that it is accepted in further and higher education that people mix. We do not have a Catholic university and a Protestant university. We have a university — or maybe I should say "an". No; is it "a" university? I will just make sure that, in an education debate, I get it right. The issue is whether we can find a way forward.

Photo of Basil McCrea Basil McCrea NI21

I will if you are quick.

Photo of Steven Agnew Steven Agnew Green

I will be very quick. The Member made the point that we have integrated further and higher education. Does that not challenge his point that our society is so polarised that integration cannot happen?

Photo of Basil McCrea Basil McCrea NI21

I do not think that it does challenge the point, because, if you look at a primary school, you can see that the geographical catchment area is much smaller than it is for a secondary school, and for a secondary school it is smaller than it is for a university. The point is that we are leaving it too late if the first time that you get to meet people from the opposite tradition is at third-level education. Where you have a population that would like to do integrated education, I think that it should not be prevented. What I see is that there are areas where integrated education is capped. I do not think that that is right. I think that the numbers should be released. I understand that the Minister will have difficulties in trying to manage his estate. Populations move, and, therefore, there must be some constraints in that, but, really, look at where we are going to be in 20 to 30 years' time. Are we still going to be in segregated education? Are we still going to have us and them? If we are, I think that we will not make much in the way of political progress.

Photo of John McCallister John McCallister UUP

I would like to welcome the Committee's report. It is always useful to have reference to an amendment that I pushed for when the Education Authority Bill was going through. That was the reason. I believe that shared education can be that vehicle, although I accept others' arguments about integrated education. The fact is that we are still at only around 6% or 7%, despite poll after poll showing that there is a need. We have to look at where our education system is now. Why are so many parents opting for a faith-ethos education? You have Mr McCrea's point that in some of our towns and cities it would actually be very difficult to have a fully integrated system. That is the case in places at the edge of my own constituency in Newry city. You would have difficulty doing that, as you might have in delivering a fully integrated model in parts of Lisburn, Newtownards or Bangor.

How do we get from where we are today to where we would like to be? I see shared education as the vehicle to do that. I see it as the vehicle because it gives parental choice. It protects faith-ethos education, which I want to see protected. It gives you the choice of having, at times, much more organic integration. Some of the figures — I accept that it is a survey from a couple of years ago — show that, in Down High, an estimated 60% of the pupils were from a Protestant background, 24% were from a Catholic background and 16% were from either other or none. Belfast Royal Academy (BRA) was 56% Protestant, 25% Catholic and 18% other or none. You have actually built into some of those schools — Mr Newton cited Methodist College — a very organic level of integration that works. How do we use those models? How do we hold the excellence that we have in schools? How do we extend that ethos base?

Photo of Peter Weir Peter Weir DUP

Will the Member give way?

Photo of Peter Weir Peter Weir DUP

I agree with the Member in relation to that. In some of those cases that has been simply organic. It has also sometimes been helped along the way in organic qualities. It comes back to the Education Committee looking at one of the options on the table in terms of some of the super-mix schools and how those schools have arrived at the position they have arrived at. On some occasions, it has also been because of particular, deliberate decisions.

Mention was made of a number in the maintained sector. St Columbanus' College is a Catholic maintained school; however, a majority of its pupils come from the Catholic community and a minority come from what has been identified as the Protestant community, but it has very deliberately taken action to try to ensure that it has that mix. For example — and, to be fair, I think that the Department accommodated this — when there were caps on numbers, the impact would have been to skew the figures against that sort of mixing, and I think that it successfully argued in relation to that. So, it is about being organic but trying to drill down into why those schools have reached that and what lessons can be learned from the wider education community.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP 1:00 pm, 8th September 2015

I remind Members that interventions should be brief. The Member has an extra minute and he will probably need it.

Photo of John McCallister John McCallister UUP

Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. I am grateful to Mr Weir for his brief intervention. I agree with the premise that we need to look at it. The report usefully talked about the evidence that was collated from that super-mix model, as it has been referred to. It will be important for the Minister to respond today on where his Bill is on shared education. Is he hoping to get it through in this mandate? He is rapidly running out of time to give it the type of scrutiny that I think it will require. The definition that he will put in will be very important.

On Mr Weir's point about how you use that super-mix model and what has worked well in those schools and what has not worked so well, we also need to extend that not just to schools but to boards of governors to look at shared ethos. I welcome the Minister's statement from a number of months ago about joint-faith schools. I think that is important. To almost tackle the elephant in the room, the biggest challenges in sectoral terms is probably to the maintained sector. Those who want to maintain a faith-ethos education have to get on board with shared education. Mr Agnew went over it very briefly and talked about moving to some sort of secular system, and I know that some people might favour that, but the challenge is for those who, like me, want to maintain a faith-based ethos in our education system. That challenge comes to the CCMS as well as to the transferors to ask how do we build on the best that is in our education system, share it, use it and make sure that we can have joint-ethos schools, joint-faith schools, with boards of governors and teachers right across the board? How do we share and maximise the benefits of shared education?

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

The Business Committee has arranged to meet immediately after the lunchtime suspension. I propose, therefore, by leave of the Assembly, to suspend the sitting until 2.00 pm. The debate will continue after the lunchtime suspension, when the next speaker will be the Minister of Education.

The debate stood suspended. The sitting was suspended at 1.03 pm.

On resuming (Mr Speaker in the Chair) —