At the chalk face: Michael Wardlow (Belfast Telegraph)

Michael Wardlow, chief executive of the Northern Ireland Council for
Integrated Education, gives his thoughts on how the community can
benefit from shared education.

“At the chalk face: A shared society requires us all to take one small step”
Lisa Smyth (Belfast Telegraph)

This
year, as in every year for the past decade, following continued
parental demand additional integrated places have been made available
through existing and new integrated schools.

Some have involved creativity and
consolidation — such as the development proposal for a new integrated
college for Mid Down, incorporating Down Academy and Rowallane
Integrated Colleges, while others like Rowandale Integrated Primary
School in Moira follow existing patterns of new school development.

This year also witnesses the re-launch of
Tyrella Primary School as Kindle Controlled Integrated Primary School
as it moves into its new transformed status, building on the past
history of cross-community sharing within the school community.

Tyrella is only one example of over 20
such transformations which have taken place over the past decade and
which together with all other integrated schools now offer almost
19,000 shared places — which is still insufficient to meet the current
demand.

The recent report, ‘Research into the
financial cost of the Northern Ireland Divide’, drawn up by Deloitte
reveals that £1.5bn from the public purse is spent annually to run a
divided society.

Although the economic implications are
significant, the real cost of separation and division over the past 40
years must also be measured in terms of the lives lost, families
devasted, opportunities missed, the thousands of young people we have
exported, the businesses which have been destroyed, and perhaps most
significantly, the damage to the fragile trust which existed between
the people who represent what we call the ‘two traditions’.

We are all charged with moving our society ahead, and if the report indicates anything, it is that the future must be shared.

We cannot accept any form of cultural
apartheid, however neatly choreographed that may be. There is no longer
any room for the notion of ‘equal but separate’ being acceptable.

The future is not one in which we can
work out allocations of schools, health provision or housing on a ‘one
for you and one for me’ basis. Hard decisions need to be taken based on
real need.

The report draws a series of tentative
conclusion on education, including “greater collaboration across the
schools sectors and consolidation within the schools estate” which, it
suggests, could “result in savings”. This makes common and exonomic
sense.

It has always been our view that
education provision needs to be based on community audits and area
based planning in local areas involving all the education sectoral
interests as recommended in the Strategic Review of Education by Sir
George Bain.

It is also our view that this recommendation should also involve parents and not reside with the education stakeholders alone.

This needs to be acted upon and we would
call upon the Minister and Department of Education to move ahead with
the Bain recommendations in this regard as soon as possible.

There is a gathering momentum threading
its way through opinion polls that indicates that people in Northern
Ireland are willing to share and want more sharing to take place
between communities.

The NI Life and Times Survey 2005
revealed that 79% of respondents, if they had the choice, would prefer
to live in a mixed religion neighbourhood, 87% would prefer to work in
a mixed religion workplace and 61% would prefer a mixed religion school.

Furthermore, a deliberative poll in Omagh
conducted by three major universities — Stanford University USA;
Queen’s University in Belfast; and the University of
Newcastle-upon-Tyne, in January 2007, clearly indicated that people
want more sharing with 71% specifically stating that they would support
integrated education.

In the recent elections, the Northern
Ireland voters sent a clear message to our local politicians — they
wanted our political parties to work together and share the collective
responsibility to run the region.

Since devolution, we have watched the
politicians take a courageous lead at Stormont to develop a
power-sharing executive. However, building trust must also take place
at local level, within and between communities.

If the Deloitte report does anything at all, it should serve as a call to action.

All of us have been part of the past and
all of us, in one way or another, whether as ‘actor’ or ‘by-stander’,
have some responsibility for bringing us to where we are today.

More importantly, however, is that all of
us take one small step towards creating a society based on sharing and
not predicated upon separation. It was in that way that the movement
for integrated education began and is maintained.

This year’s new integrated school
projects follow on in a long line of courageous initiatives which have
taken One Small Step for reconciliation.

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