The Council for Integrated Education welcomes the further consideration of the Integrated Education Bill and the surrounding debate as it moves through the legislative process in the NI Assembly. Chief Executive Officer for the Council, Roisin Marshall stated:
“The Bill will support Integrated Education to grow in line with the preference of parents who want the opportunity for their children to learn together in the one school, every day. Every Integrated school to date has been established by a parent group or through a parental ballot to Transform an existing school to Integrated status. The Bill enables parental choice to continue to guide the development of Integrated Education.
Integrated Education enables children, staff, governors and parents from Protestant and Catholic traditions, as well as those from other faiths, cultures and communities, to work together every day. This means exploring what we hold in common and where we might differ. This is not always easy, but we believe it can play an enormous role in helping us all learn together for a shared society.”
The Council for Integrated Education considers this Bill as playing an important role in the future development of Integrated Education where there are not enough available places in Integrated schools in an area at present. It will enable a levelling up where the supply of places does not yet meet parental demand.
Forty years on from the establishment of the first school in 1981, Integrated Education has grown to 68 schools enrolling just over 25,000 children and young people. This is around 6.5% of the total number of Primary and Post Primary schools and approximately 7.5% of the total number of children enrolled in all schools. This story of growth is remarkable as it has been mainly parent led with support from the Council for Integrated Education, funded by the Department of Education, and the Integrated Education Fund, a charitable organisation. Whilst the Department of Education funds the Council for Integrated Education as part of its duty to encourage and facilitate Integrated Education, there has never been an actual government strategy that plans for its development. Up until now the Area Planning process has largely consolidated the number of schools on a sector-by-sector basis. This has left little scope for exploring how an Integrated school could maintain educational provision in a local community. The Council for Integrated Education believes the adoption of an Integrated Education strategy outlined in the Bill, could help parental preference to be better met through proactively measuring demand across areas. The Executive Office’s Good Relations Indicators cite that in 2018/19, 21% of first preference applications to Post-Primary Integrated schools did not result in admission to that particular school and this statistic continues to remain approximately at this level. Research conducted by Ulster University (2021) also states that up to 28% of families live in an area where an Integrated school is not a realistic option in terms of distance to travel. At present, there are around 30 schools actively exploring Transformation to Integrated status, which further evidences demand from parents and school communities.
The Bill includes an updated definition of Integrated Education that better reflects the diversity already in Integrated schools and wider society, whilst honouring the foundational aspect around educating children together who identify as being from Protestant and Catholic backgrounds. Analysis of Department of Education statistics outlines why the planned and intentional bringing together of children from Protestant and Catholic backgrounds should continue to be central. In the 2020/2021 academic year, there were 996 schools (Primary and Post Primary) with only 143 reaching a base criterion of 10% mixing i.e., a minimum of 10% of pupils from the ‘minority’ tradition, either Protestant or Catholic enrolled in the school. If we remove the Integrated schools, only 83 schools reach this level. There are 287 schools that have no pupils from the other main tradition within their enrolment. Roisin Marshall stated:
“Throughout the debate on the Integrated Education Bill we have heard a strong stated commitment from other school sectors, educational leaders and politicians around the need to educate children and young people in Northern Ireland together. This is very welcome, yet given the current low levels of mixing, there is much work to be done. The planned and intentional mixing of pupils, staff and governors in Integrated schools will continue to be essential in providing a choice for parents who want this for their children.”
The Bill states that in the case of planning for a brand-new school, that Integrated Education must be considered. This provision again relies on the opinions of parents as well as children, teachers, governors, and others who would be affected by any such proposal. It is the Council for Integrated Education’s view that this form of in-depth consultation will lead to a more democratic and cross sectoral approach to school planning, whether or not the final option is for the establishment of an Integrated school.
All schools are funded according to the Department of Education’s Common Funding Formula and that will continue. We believe that parents should be able to send their children to a school of whatever ethos or management type that best reflects their preference. It is our view that this Private Member’s Bill will allow continuity of parental choice for schools that already exist and increase access to Integrated Education in line with preference. This Bill is specifically about Integrated Education and removing some of the barriers that exist to its development. The Council believes this is a reasonable aspiration.