The rushed consultation on area based planning in post-primary education is a charade and needs to change, says Noreen Campbell

Noreen Campbell
Belfast Telegraph
Saturday, 9 June 2012

This has been a long week of celebration: Protestant children, along with their Catholic friends, held Diamond Jubilee parties in integrated schools across the province and young and old from all areas cheered on the passage of the Olympic torch.

Its historic cross-border journey confirmed that we are moving towards a society confident and comfortable with itself. Yet there have also been reminders that we must work constructively to embed peace.

There has been the ‘sectarianism in the golf club’ discussion; segregated housing was highlighted in the Girdwood controversy; David Ford walked away from the working party on promoting better community relations, accusing the DUP and Sinn Fein of attempting to create “an illusion” they were working towards a shared future. We also have constant reminders of the dissident threat through bomb-scares.

There is need for a continual public debate on how to achieve and sustain a shared future. When the public have had an opportunity to be heard, their voice is clear.

During recent Nolan Show debates, public and experts alike almost unanimously present a solution: educate children together. In many polls, the public has made clear its support for integration.

This support makes sense. Many people have experienced disruptions to friendships when, aged five, children from the same street go off to school in different directions.

Young parents are increasingly a post-Troubles generation. They do not necessarily designate themselves by religious or national identity. They live in an increasingly secular, multi-cultural world. They want their children to fit comfortably into such a world and want the educational system to reflect this. Why, then, such resistance to dismantling a divisive system?

The UN Convention (UNCRC 1990) in Article 29 argues for ‘the preparation of the child for responsible life in a free society, in the spirit of understanding, peace, tolerance, equality of sexes and friendship amongst all peoples, ethnic, national and religious groups and persons of indigenous origin.’

Research and gut instinct tell us such preparation best develops when children are educated together. A mechanism is available, through area-based planning, to move towards an educational system where this is the norm.

Area-based planning offers the potential for a transformation. Education Minister John O’Dowd has asked for all boards to publish their draft post-primary area plans for public consultation in early-July. The public can then comment on the plans until October.

A rushed consultation period, which does not engage with those most intimately involved in education – parents, teachers, young people and unions – will be a charade.

The timing and nature of this consultation is disappointing: two months will be lost over the summer and the remote process, published in the Press, will not engage parents.

There is an opportunity to develop a structured process of consultation, which will engage proactively with parents and young people on the type of system they want to see.

Think of the many villages with two small primary schools, in effect, Protestant and Catholic. Think of every town with its range of post-primaries, Protestant and Catholic, grammar and non-selective.

Surely parents are entitled to a forum where they can determine the type of school which best meets their children’s needs and serves the needs of their village or town?

It will be a pity if the goodwill among all to re-engineer our educational system for a peaceful 21st century is lost due to a rushed and inadequate consultation period.

The minister does not want the debate dominated by those afraid of change. He can show he means this by establishing consultative forums, which will enable parents, communities and young people to make informed comments, to make their voice heard, to contribute to change.