Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Thursday, 16 July 2015
Joint Oireachtas Committee on the Implementation of the Good Friday Agreement
Integrated Education in Northern Ireland: Discussion
On behalf of the joint committee, I am pleased to welcome Mr. Nigel Frith, a director of the Northern Ireland Council for Integrated Education and principal of Drumragh Integrated College; Ms Cliodhna Scott-Wills, the council's senior development officer, and Mr. Jake Proctor, a student at Strangford Integrated College. They are here to represent the Northern Ireland Council for Integrated Education. I also welcome Ms Tina Merron, chief executive officer of the Integrated Education Fund, and Mr. Paul Caskey, the fund's campaign director. They are here to discuss the proposals for current and future integrated education.
Members are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice or ruling of the Chair to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the Houses or an individual official by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable. By virtue of section 17(2)(l) of the Defamation Act 2009, witnesses are protected by absolute privilege in respect of their evidence to the committee. If they are directed by it to cease giving evidence on a particular matter and continue to so do, they are entitled thereafter only to qualified privilege in respect of their evidence. They are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise or make charges against any person or an entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable.
I ask Mr. Frith to make his opening statement, followed by Ms Merron.
Mr. Jake Proctor:
Good morning. My name is Jake Proctor and I studied at Strangford Integrated College in County Down from September 2008 until June 2015. I am eternally indebted to NICIE and those brave parents, governors and teachers who took a brave stand to create an integrated school on the Ards Peninsula. Strangford Integrated College has changed my life for the better. From the outset I felt like I truly belonged there. There is a real community feel at Strangford and the word "school" is not used. We use terms like "community" and "family" instead. It is an inclusive learning environment, like all integrated schools in Northern Ireland. We need more integrated schools and more places in them so that a greater number of young people can have their lives transformed by integrated education.
One of the key aspects of integrated education that I identify with is that it engages with division and celebrates difference. Sectarianism is combatted in integrated schools. For example, I have strong friendships across the divide, friendships I did not have before I joined Strangford and which I would never have had if I had gone to a controlled school. It is not just a buzzword or tick-box exercise; difference is actually celebrated in integrated schools. Just last month, I took an assembly at Strangford where I asked the younger students to find a person who was not like them and to find out three things that made that person who he or she was. I have seen very positive outcomes of this including strengthened friendships and better understanding of the past and of where we are going in future. Integrated education works as it encourages children to work with people from other communities and backgrounds from an early age. It has been a pleasure to be part of that. Educating children together works well to break down myths, stereotypes and perceptions, which is crucial if we are going to have any type of reconciliation in Northern Ireland.
Better than any of that, integrated education prepares young people for a very diverse life in the 21st century. It has helped me to prepare for a rapidly changing world and an uncertain future. I feel ready for third education and to start my degree at Queen's University in September thanks to Strangford College and integrated education. I do not have to think about mixing with the other as I have done it since I was 11 years of age. If I had gone to a controlled school, I guarantee that I would not have this luxury or this weight off my shoulders. I know this because I was the only one from my friendship group from primary school who went to an integrated school. The other four went to grammar schools in Belfast. Academically, we have performed equally over the last seven years but as far as making us 21st century citizens is concerned, they all agree that I have the upper hand. The notion of the other is not in my mindset or vocabulary. I am a non-believer so people's religion will never be a question I ask. The notion of the other has proven to be a challenge and an obstacle for the other boys. They know that when we walk into Queen's in September, we will enter an integrated environment. Each of us knows what we will face but thanks to integrated education at Strangford College, I am more than equipped with the tools to deal with this.
What do I blame the boys' fear on? It is a failure of the education system. The current segregated system of education in Northern Ireland is, as NICIE puts it, a key component of a negative peace. Is it fit for a society emerging from conflict? No. Are integrated kids better prepared for life in the 21st century and the diversity of university and the workplace? Absolutely. The last time I researched it, I found that 92% of school kids in Northern Ireland were being educated separately. Of every 100 young people, 92 are being denied the opportunity to learn together. In 2010, I made a speech at Stormont through our education committee and told the members that I believed the time was right for a fully integrated system of education. I still do, but I respect parental choice. The fact is, however, that parental choice is being denied. It is void and hollow for many people in Northern Ireland. Underfunded and oversubscribed integrated schools as well as vast areas across Northern Ireland which have no integrated option is a situation which is, frankly, unacceptable.
I place the blame for this firmly at the feet of those who are failing to implement the Good Friday Agreement and a framework for the peaceful, equal Northern Ireland that 75% of the population pledged to support. Not all young people are going to be world leaders, doctors or teachers, but we are all going out into a very diverse 21st century. Integrated education gives us a helping hand. Mahatma Gandhi said that if we wanted world peace, we should start educating children. Jake Proctor says, "If we want progress in Northern Ireland, we need to start educating children together". The assumption is true that children learn better in a place where they are fully accepted. At age 12, I very much fitted the Protestant working class underachieving schoolboy stereotype. I had failed my 11 plus and no one had high hopes for me. Strangford College transformed Jake Proctor. It accepted me and in the space of five years, I fell in love with school again. I was in the top 10% in Northern Ireland at key stage 3 level. I got first place in Northern Ireland in GCSE business studies, and I got three As at AS level, including 100% in two subjects with a similar outcome expected in August. Working in an open, honest, caring environment has helped me and I feel I have excelled in integrated education. I have found a new confidence and belief in myself.
I hope a time comes in Northern Ireland when educating children together will be the norm and not the exception. We all need to work together to achieve this. We have the framework as integrated schools exist and we have organisations like NICIE and the IEF here for support. We clearly have the interest as existing integrated schools are oversubscribed while many controlled and maintained primary and secondary schools in Northern Ireland are showing interest in joining the integrated movement. Yes, there are problems and barriers, but let us leap them. In five years, when I hopefully re-enter education as a history teacher, I will want to work in an integrated school. I want to send my kids to an integrated school. For the sake not only of my kids but of all our young people and future generations, let us leap the barriers and solve the problems. We have ignored article 64 for 17 years. Let us not leave it any longer.
The witness groups placed a very powerful speaker first. It is interesting that Mr. Proctor wants to master in history. I think politics could be a future for him. I thank Mr. Proctor for his powerful contribution.
Mr. Nigel Frith:
I thank the committee for the opportunity to speak with the members today. Before I begin, I once again offer apologies on behalf of Noreen Campbell, who would have loved to be here today. I am trying to fill her shoes albeit I ask the committee not to go with the mental image that creates. I will try to summarise the report she has presented.
Our overall concern within NICIE and the IEF is that some of the principles contained within the Good Friday Agreement are not being delivered in keeping with the way the agreement was designed and what was in mind when it was drafted. That is the overall framework for what I have to say today. There are missed opportunities and work to be done and we urge the committee to use its influence to try to bring about positive change in terms of that process, notwithstanding that time has passed since 1998. Our concern is that the education system in Northern Ireland remains one built on the basis of segregation while divisions between different sectors remain as strong as they ever were. Jake quoted the statistic that 92% of schoolchildren in Northern Ireland continue to be educated within what is essentially a segregated system. With all the time that has passed and, indeed, the funding that has been poured into various projects since 1998, we should surely have expected to see greater progress.
In her paper, Noreen Campbell quotes Professor Brandon Hamber who talks about the absence of violence without underlying reconciliation and genuine peace-building. He describes this as a "negative peace". The absence of violence is not the true peace we seek for Northern Ireland. If one adds to that the concept Jake has touched on that one of the key drivers to real and sustainable change within Northern Ireland has to be children and the educational system, the deficiencies within the current system suddenly appear stark and urgent. Ms Campbell quotes in her paper research which shows that sectarian attitudes are formed at a very early age and she quotes Hayes and McAllister who said that individuals who attend integrated schools are significantly more likely to have friends and neighbours from across the divide. These friendship networks translate into a more optimistic view of future community relations. Hayes and McAllister conclude, therefore, that an integrated education system is not only a fruitful place to start, but should be a key element within a wider strategy to address community divisions. I would like to pause over that. The first time one sees research which concludes that children coming out of integrated schools are more likely to have friendships from across divides, it sounds relatively unsurprising.
However, if one considers the ripple effect, it becomes very exciting because the children who are learning to grow up without barriers and the baggage of the past and willingly build friendships with children from all parts of the community and across the divides, as used to be the case, are the ones who, like Jake, are growing up to become the future generations. Whether Jake goes into teaching or becomes a politician - I share the Chairman's feeling that perhaps he should - he is one of the shapers of the future. If he is coming into adult society without the barriers and divisions of the past and becomes one of the shapers of the future society of Northern Ireland, suddenly we may feel we are in good hands.
We need an education system that encourages the attitudes Jake is carrying into his university career from September onwards. The concept of children building firmer friendships within an integrated school is central to a better future for Northern Ireland and is a key way of fulfilling the Good Friday Agreement. The current position is that the segregated system in Northern Ireland is not sustainable. It has been made very clear from within the education Department that we cannot afford, even at a financial level, the education system we have in place. In these times of austerity, we are funding multiple schools, all with their own identity and all within one relatively small town or part of a city, when it could all be much more financially economical.
The real cost, however, goes way beyond the finance involved. It is about whether we are genuinely transforming the hearts, minds and values of young people. There is a raft of shared education projects which have been funded and which continue in Northern Ireland today. Some of them are very good, while some of them are not, but they all boil down to one single question: what is the genuine impact and quality of what is going on and is it, therefore, money well spent? We have found during the years and throughout the history of integrated education that by bringing children together under one roof, day in, day out, they sit in class together, play football together at break time and the barriers are dismantled day by day. They are genuinely coming through an integrated system and leaving to move into the adult world with the barriers removed. They have a positive outlook. They think, "I can do this; we can do this." They move into society ready to play an active role, not only in changing the historical picture of Northern Ireland but, again, as Jake mentioned, in the increasingly diverse and multicultural society Northern Ireland has become, with the rest of Europe and the world.
Ms Campbell goes on in her paper to talk about a number of opportunities she believes are open, even now, within the remit of the Good Friday Agreement and to those charged with fulfilling it. She speaks, first, as I mentioned, about the economy and the fact that we simply cannot continue to maintain this duplicating system. Second, she talks about the concept of identity and the fact that the idea of identity as it applied 30 years ago in Northern Ireland has changed and that society demands that we keep step with the changes taking place. We now live in a multicultural society. There are increasing numbers of younger generation parents and families coming through who are saying they do not want these labels to be applied to them. Some of them only have recourse to describing themselves as "Other". Surely it is time we moved forward to a slightly more positive concept.
Ms Campbell goes on in her paper to talk about the concept of human rights, by which she means the belief of the Northern Ireland Council for Integrated Education that a right to an integrated education is a human rights issue. It is the right for which the young person has to be prepared in a diverse society and world, wherever they may spend their working careers, and the right of parents to be able to say they want their child to have an integrated education. The picture today in Northern Ireland is that not all parents have this right either because there is no integrated school within their geographical location or those that are available, including the one of which I am principal, are too small and, therefore, routinely turning children away when they have asked to join to receive an integrated education.
Ms Campbell goes on to talk about educational administration. The committee may be aware that recently the structure of the five Education and Library Boards in Northern Ireland was replaced with a single Education Authority. Therefore, massive change is under way. What better opportunity is there to take a fresh look at the concept of integrated education and give it more formal backing than when we are designing a new education authority?
There is also within Northern Ireland the concept of area-based planning. This, essentially, is where one looks at a single area as, perhaps, the cake with the different slices which are given to different sectors.
Mr. Nigel Frith:
I was referring to the section in Ms Noreen Campbell's report where she discussed opportunities for the future and the importance of building on the Good Friday Agreement. She refers in the section to such issues as the economy, the concept of identity and educational administration. As she notes, the establishment of a new education authority presents opportunities for change.
The report goes on to discuss the process of area-based planning which has been established in Northern Ireland for the past four years, whereby the planning of educational provision within an area is strategically identified and explored. Unfortunately, under this system, we still have different sectors fighting for their own interests. The process remains partisan and there is no sense of a genuinely fresh look at educational provision within an area or any consideration of what is in the best interests of that area. Moreover, it does not take on board in a wholehearted or honest way the concept of integrated education. As such, it is a deeply flawed system. We ask the committee to consider challenging the basis on which area-based planning was designed and is being implemented.
Ms Campbell goes on to talk in her report about the fact that the Northern Ireland Council for Integrated Education, of which she is chief executive officer, has designed a new pathway into integrated education - Positive Partnerships for Integration.
This is a way in which schools that are not currently integrated can express an interest in gradually taking steps towards becoming integrated schools with the support of the Northern Ireland Council. Ms Campbell states that on a first request for expressions of interest relatively recently, more than 50 schools expressed a interest in exploring this as a way forward. There are ways of developing the concept of integrated education within Northern Ireland. She went on to talk about the Stormont House Agreement and the capital funding package of €500 million. We are not sure where we are with the Stormont House Agreement at the moment, but if it does goes through we would love to think that some of that funding would be diverted specifically into integrated education. In addition, PEACE IV will come online in September. The figure of £45 million has been allocated for shared education. One of our questions is how to ensure that a healthy proportion of that is put towards integrated education.
Ms Noreen Campbell is asking that we explore the possibilities of the PEACE IV funding, specifically addressing integrated education and the possibility of calling for an independent commission to be established to reform the education system in Northern Ireland.Our concern is that, within the current remit of the different political parties and sectors, it is almost a mandate for no change. Because the existing bodies are being given the task of looking at the system we have, there is very little hope for substantial change, whereas an independent commission could look at it with fresh eyes and say that it proposes a way forward - it would be a different approach entirely, with a fresh look at the whole system.
Ms Noreen Campbell's final paragraph states:
The embedding of peace needs constant attention; the dangers of following a path of 'separate but equal' must be challenged. The endorsement of the Good Friday Agreement by the vast majority of people on this island represented vote for a 'shared future'. Educating our children together is a critical building block of such a future.
I thank the members for their attention.
Ms Tina Merron:
I thank the committee for this opportunity to contribute. I want to outline briefly why the Integrated Education Fund, IEF, exists, why we no longer want to exist and then I will hand over to my colleague, Mr. Paul Caskey, to make a few concluding remarks. The Integrated Education Fund, which was established in 1992 as an independent charitable trust, seeks to bridge the gap between finance and support that is available from the government and what it takes to set up an integrated school. Twenty three years later, the IEF still exists with that core aim and we seek to increase the number of places in integrated schools and also to meet demand and advocate for structural reform of our education system, with the objective that the IEF will no longer be needed in the future. If that financial gap were met, we would no longer need to exist. We would not need to fund-raise continually for integrated education.
Since the Good Friday Agreement, we have spent more than £20 million in seed funding for integrated schools, and today, despite the Good Friday Agreement, we are still needed. It is parents who set up integrated schools, not the Department of Education. We provide support to parents to establish schools. For example, we funded the school that Mr. Proctor attended, Strangford Integrated College. We funded it for two years as an independent school; it is established now and it is very much oversubscribed.
The fund also provides capital support for 13 new integrated playgroup facilities. The Department, for the first time ever, funded an integrated playgroup this year. It is big positive achievement for us. We funded the rest to date and it has all been in terms of capital.
In the last three years we have provided more than £2 million in funding to help existing integrated schools grow. We know the demand exists and they want to grow. We provided additional capital funding for additional classrooms, and they then meet the demand and can prove to the Department of Education that the demand exists.
We also fund and encourage transformation of existing schools that want to become integrated. To date, 20 controlled schools, which are mainly Protestant schools, have transformed to integrated status. However, the first Catholic school recently applied to transform and was refused approval from the Department of Education to do so. The Department provides some financial support but it is not enough to do this work. It is challenging and it takes time to transform a school
Transformation is cost-effective and sustainable with respect to integration, which can help resolve the over-provision of school places. It was recently identified in a Northern Ireland Audit Office report that there is over-provision in respect of at least 20% of the places. Transformation offers a school the opportunity to increase enrolments through working with the entire community, but it needs to be effectively supported.
We have supported the grant-aiding of cross-community education programmes during the past 15 years. We had a programme called PACT, Promoting A Culture of Trust, and we spent more than £1 million and more than 500 schools were involved during those 15 years. The programme is a precursor to some of the shared education programmes that are currently being funded. This work was important for us at the time and it still is important as it demonstrates the appetite for this work, but the time has come for more ambitious programmes with the potential for sustainable structural change. We have put money into this for 15 years and we could do it for another 15 years, and it is great that children have an opportunity to meet each other, but there is no structural change and it is not sustainable. Unfortunately, the PEACE IV programme suggests a similar type of funding, this type of shared education approach, and this will continue to dominate both policy and funding, but we would question whether this is another lost opportunity. Should we not be able to do more? I will pass over to my colleague, Mr. Paul Caskey, for some final comments.
Mr. Paul Caskey:
I will make some brief concluding remarks. One of the observations we can make is that there is tremendous support for educating children together in Northern Ireland across all political perspectives, but what we need now is structural reform and change. We believe the appetite is there for that. Much of the cross-community education work that has gone on for many years shows that the appetite is there, but we need more ambitious reform. We need integrated education to be properly planned. Seventeen years after the Good Friday Agreement, it should not be beyond us to ask communities and parents what types of school they desire in their area and not just rely on the current existing sectors and institutions to provide that.
We need a vision for the future, which is sadly lacking. We need a roadmap on how we will get there. If we could plan for integrated education, we could start to meet that demand. It is not imposing anything on anybody; rather, it is reflecting what communities want. PEACE IV could present a big opportunity. Shared education has been agreed. There is a good deal of money available. I know it has not been ratified yet, but it would be pleasing if we could see some element of support for integrated education just as in the Stormont House Agreement.
I have one final request. I would love if the committee would consider visiting an integrated school in Northern Ireland, perhaps even Mr. Proctor's old school, Strangford Integrated College, which might be amenable to such a visit, as there is nothing like seeing this in action to get a feel for what it is about.
I thank Mr. Paul Caskey, Ms Tina Merron and Mr. Nigel Frith for their contributions. We would be delighted to accept Mr. Paul Caskey's invitation to visit an integrated school. Our secretariat will work closely with him on that. We go on many outreach visits to Northern Ireland. My colleague, Deputy Joanna Tuffy, when she was Chairman of this committee, pioneered many of those visits, which were very worthy and interesting, and they have given us an in-depth knowledge of what is happening. I thank Mr. Caskey for the invitation and we will be delighted to accept it. We will fit that trip in.
I have one or two questions before I bring in the members of the committee. Ms Tina Merron said that the first maintained Catholic school recently applied for and was refused approval to transform by the Department of Education. Why did that happen? Second, regarding an independent commission to reform the education system in Northern Ireland, could our guests expand on who they consider should be members of such a commission? Why do they consider it has not been progressed? Is there any way this joint committee could be of assistance to them?
Ms Tina Merron:
I will take the transformation question. Clintyclay is a small school that was refused approval to transform by Department of Education based on its size, and it is also in financial deficit. There was subsequently a judicial review and the decision was quashed. We are not sure where it sits at the minute.
Mr. Nigel Frith:
I would need to talk to Ms Noreen Campbell in some detail about what she has in her mind on that. She has not gone into detail in the report.
The basic principle behind it is that it needs to be led by someone and composed of a group of people who are prepared to rise above the tribal politics that presides in Northern Ireland. The power-sharing Executive is, on the one hand, a brilliant step forward from where we were before, but, as we can see even in the current wrangles and difficulties it is facing, it has flaws built into it. When there are sectors representing their own interests, there is no agreement or synergy. We are looking for something that is beyond this. I apologise because I cannot comment further on the proposals for the mechanics of this.
Mr. Paul Caskey:
Let us consider education in the light of the example of policing, which was a very difficult, sensitive issue in Northern Ireland and investigated by the Patten commission. We recognise that how we educate children is a very sensitive issue for many. We are all very proud in most cases of the education we received across the various sectors. It is a question of trying to remove education from the difficult, sensitive space and using external, independent expertise to help to examine all of the various issues involved.
Mr. Francie Molloy:
I thank the delegates for their presentations and raising all of the various issues involved. It is good to explore what has held back to some degree the development of integrated education. The delegates have said there is sometimes a halfway house in dealing with issues. How does one develop the concept of integrated education in an area? Do the delegates regard the shared education concept proposed and talked about by Minister John O'Dowd as a benefit or an obstacle to integrated education?
With regard to the educational benefits of integrated education by comparison with the community benefits, how do the academic benefits of integrated education compare with those of mainstream education? How does one judge the after-effects of community involvement in trying to develop a new society in the North?
Ms Tina Merron:
There were many questions asked. I will take the very first one, on how we assess demand for integrated education. In the past parents' groups came to us stating they would like to open an integrated school. That has now become more difficult with over-provision of places and too many schools. We would like to see a mechanism whereby the Department could assess parental demand. We are examining some pilot schemes that would allow us to carry out a community audit in an area and to ask parents and the community what they actually want in their area. In that way, what is desired by the whole community, rather than just one section thereof, could be identified. We are piloting a mechanism to assess parental demand.
Ms Cliodhna Scott-Wills:
One of the issues is that if schools are to close or amalgamate, they are only ever given one option. If it is a controlled school, it is given the option to amalgamate with another controlled school. If it is a Catholic school, it is given the option to amalgamate with another Catholic school. The parents are never presented with the option of an integrated school that might be more beneficial for the community. We would like to see it becoming an option for parents in such circumstances.
Mr. Nigel Frith:
I will pick up on Mr. Molloy's question on shared education and whether we regard it as good. Shared education is regarded by many as an alternative to integrated education. There is a dangerous line of thought suggesting it is easier than integrated education. Let me unpick that suggestion. For me, it really boils down to the question of quality, by which I mean the impact on the values of young people. At its worst, shared education becomes a kind of sticking plaster on a broken leg, whereby schools can tick a box and access funding allowing them to say they are providing shared education. The real question, however, is whether the delivery of what they are calling shared education is having any meaningful or lasting impact on the young people involved in it. Second, we must ask whether it is sustainable. If the pot of funding comes to an end, does everything collapse or is there something being developed that has momentum and can be continued? Quality, therefore, is about genuine contact between children from different areas of the community or across the divide. It is a question of what is actually happening to shape them to help them to prepare for a meaningful future and their roles as citizens when they are adults.
Let me give an example of a practice in my school that might perhaps serve as an instance of what I am talking about. Every year before Ash Wednesday, one of the questions asked is about how the school should approach a practice often regarded as rooted in one part of the community and deliver what is required within an integrated school. For us, the Ash Wednesday service is a service held for the entire school community, including Protestants, Catholics and others. Staff, students and even the canteen staff gather together in the hall. We invite clergy from all sides of the community to help run the service. I begin the service every year by saying we have come together on the day to explore the ways in which we are living our lives and ask ourselves whether we could be doing so better than we have been. We then reach a point in the service where both Catholic and Protestant clergy speak to the children. Without using the terms "Protestant" and "Catholic", we say, "You now have an opportunity to receive the ashes if you wish, and if you would rather not, that is your choice and you may remain in your seat." We play a PowerPoint presentation and some reflective music while the ashes are being dispensed and we invite those present to think, reflect or pray; it is entirely their choice. Those who wish to receive the ashes, queue for them in a very dignified manner and those who would rather not receive them remain in their seats. After this, we close the service. It is a beautiful, dignified occasion on which students from all parts of the community can see each other in action and deem it to be okay if their friend goes up for ashes if they do not. I always invite the clergy for a cup of tea afterwards. Approximately three years ago the Catholic priest said, "My goodness, the presence of the Holy Spirit in your school this afternoon was phenomenal." I believed that was an interesting reflection.
That is an example of what I am talking about. I refer to children who are genuinely learning to tolerate and respect one another and the differences in the various communities. Where else would they receive that experience? My challenge to those delivering a shared education project is to determine whether the quality of what they are doing will match this and, consequently, whether the funding being poured into their project is worth it. Putting it bluntly, we offer shared education under one roof from 9 a.m. until 3 p.m. and beyond every day. We see the transformation in children's values that we believe should be the aspiration of any shared education project.
Mr. Paul Caskey:
Educational attainment is a complex issue. People's perception will be based on five GCSEs, with results from A to C in subjects including English and mathematics, and the barometers associated with examination results. The big divide in Northern Ireland in terms of that crude barometer is between selective and non-selective schools. Most schools are on a par with one another, be they Catholic non-selective, integrated non-selective or controlled non-selective. There is a difference of approximately 1% at GCSE level. Catholic schools are approximately 0.5% ahead, followed by integrated schools, with controlled schools being marginally below that level. Sometimes it is presented that certain schools in certain sectors are outperforming others because of their ethos, but it is important to note that it is really about selection and non-selection. There are good, well performing Catholic schools and also poorly performing Catholic schools. It is no different in the case of integrated schools, controlled schools and grammar schools. Sometimes it is a very complex area, but these are the facts. Is that a fair description?
Mr. Nigel Frith:
Yes. Ultimately, the only way forward is through what is called a value-added system. We talk a lot at Drumragh about personal best. We need a system that evaluates. Children are benchmarked academically when they join the school, which is not difficult, and then one measures the extent to which they are over-performing based on the initial predictions. A value-added system would determine whether each youngster had performed below, on a par with or above what had been expected initially.
Out of that, one has a value-added system which asks whether a youngster achieved below par, on a par or above par, with regard to their initial expectations. If we could design a barometer that picked up on that system rather than asking how the grammar schools did or how the non-selective schools did and all of that, we would have a way of genuinely measuring the quality of each school and its delivery.
I will ask some questions in order to understand better the system in the North of Ireland. Many of the challenges faced in the North are not a million miles away from the challenges we face. We are looking at the issue of the predominance of faith patronage. I am a member of the Joint Committee on Education and Social Protection and we have discussed whether there should be an increase in the diversity of patronage or whether to provide one model to cater for all. It is very welcome that a recent call for expressions of interest received a positive response from more than 50 schools.
Will the delegation clarify whether the integrated schools are state schools under private patronage or a mixture of both? Do the integrated schools tend to be co-educational? I am aware that the North also has the phenomenon of single-sex schools but since the 1990s, no new school in the Republic is allowed to be established as a single-sex school. Any single-sex schools are legacy schools. What is the position in Northern Ireland? Are the integrated schools multi-denominational, non-denominational or a mixture of both? In some cases, schools here that are non-denominational describe themselves as multi-denominational and vice versa, which can cause confusion.
We have published new legislation on a schools admissions policy. The current legislation has been in place since 1998, under which schools must publish their enrolment policy. The new legislation, if passed, will put further requirements on schools to be open and transparent in their policy in order to limit, to a certain extent, barriers and discrimination against children. Is similar legislation planned or in place in the North?
One phenomenon which sometimes occurs here is when parents decide to set up a school with the ideals of Educate Together, for instance. These schools are often predominately middle class. However, it is not always the case because Educate Together schools contain a mixture. Is this an issue in integrated schools? Is there an equivalent of vocational educational schools in the North? These schools have a much broader mixed socio-economic background. Mr. Proctor referred to the pitfalls of parental choice. This is an issue of concern to me. Some parents can use choice to the advantage of their children while other parents are not able to do so and their children are disadvantaged as a result.
I thank the witnesses for their presentations. I was inspired listening to Mr. Proctor. I am deeply interested in education and I spoke on the subject of junior cycle reform in the Seanad this morning. Education is for everybody and every career path is equally valid. That is what we are moving towards here. There was an elitism in education but now, we value things like self-esteem and a path for life so that a person can start as an apprentice and end up being a doctor in one's subject. Integrated education is part of this process. I commend the work of Mr. Frith. Last year or the year before, we had a community audit in the South in a number of towns. I was struck by the number of people who wanted to retain the status quo. I ask the witnesses to comment because it is a big question for me as to why people wanted to retain the status quoin terms of the management and the control of schools. I am not criticising any of the bodies which manage schools. However, change is happening in other areas, such as the introduction of marriage equality and many other social changes, but in the area of education, it seems that parents are reluctant to change.
I was in Derry last summer when people were celebrating the fact that their son or daughter got into the school of choice by means of the 11-plus exam. They were booking holidays in Tenerife because it was a big celebration for all the family. I was also struck that one of the schools in Derry had stipulated that as well as academic achievement, a student had to be able to play a musical instrument. I do not know whether that is right and I suggest to Francie that he should discuss this with his Minister.
Through the Chair, talk to your Minister about that.
What is the socio-economic profile of Mr. Frith's school? I have a question for Mr. Proctor. Will he elaborate on how integrated education has helped in his development and how he regards it as helping others?
I thank the witnesses for their presentations. I am only sorry I was unavoidably detained and did not hear all the presentations but I enjoyed listening to the members and Mr. Proctor, whom I believe gave a very powerful speech. He is a credit to integrated education and I wish him great success with his exam results and into the future.
As a former teacher I find this subject fascinating. I will follow on from Senator D'Arcy's point about why he could not understand why people would have to be able to play a musical instrument. As a former music teacher, I would strongly advocate that every child in school from four to 18 years of age should play a musical instrument. For many years I saw students starting school who did not play an instrument and I was particularly delighted when I saw them leaving school, not only playing an instrument but continuing to become musicians and to study for degrees. Some of them even became lecturers in music at university. Music is the universal language. A person with a musical instrument under his or her arm is always welcome in every house in this country.
I am a strong advocate for music. Until recently, part of the criteria for entrance to primary school training was that one had to play a musical instrument. This change may have had a knock-on effect when I see students who have had no or very little music in primary school.
To be able to play an instrument is a great string to one's bow.
Can the witnesses comment on the criteria for entry? In the notes it states that, to date, no Catholic school has transformed to become an integrated school. Can they elaborate on why that is? I understand one school applied for the process and that it is going through a judicial review. How can we as a committee help implement the commitments in the Good Friday Agreement? It is the way forward when one sees the calibre of student it produces and Mr. Proctor is certainly a good role model.
Apologies for not being able to hear all the contributions but there have been votes and I was in another meeting on the way back. However, I have gone through the documentation. Shared housing and integrated education are contained in one sentence in the Good Friday Agreement but there has not been progress on shared or mixed housing to the extent we would like either. In the early 1990s the British-Irish Interparliamentary Body, of which the Chairman was co-chairman with a member of the British House of Commons, visited Lagan College which was one of the first integrated colleges. A founder member of the Alliance Party was very much to the fore as a champion of integrated education at that time and in 1993 or 1994 a number of us from the Dáil, the Seanad and the British House of Commons visited various educational establishments. We met with unions, management bodies and the governing body of Lagan College, who had a very progressive programme. I see that Ms Scott-Wills taught there
Is that college still to the fore as a model? Are there still big numbers attending? Am I right that the initiative is not intended for whole schools but there are shared classes such as where students are together in a campus or adjacent in a town? Is it intended that this initiative move forward incrementally, with shared classes rather than a shared or integrated school? It seems, unfortunately, to be a slow process. Is there any willingness on the part of the Department of Education to push the boundaries? Has any Minister shown any interest in driving it forward? I am from Cavan-Monaghan and my constituency borders a number of counties north of the Border. There has been huge concern about smaller schools being closed and a major reduction in funding for education. Is there any interest, politically or administratively within education, to drive this forward?
Ms Tina Merron:
Yes, it would be for salaries and resources for the school. They do not get capital funding for at least three years until the school has proved itself viable. This is why the IEF was set up originally and much of our funding has been put in place for such things. After the school has proved itself viable the money is then refunded. There is no capital funding from day one but there is recurrent funding if they meet specific criteria.
Ms Tina Merron:
They use mobiles on a temporary site which is rented for a period of time until the school is established. It is easier to do this with a primary school because one needs fewer facilities but post-primary schools are different. Jake's school was a post-primary school, one of three we were funding for a period of two or three years at the same time. The IEF funding was very important at that time and we had to raise it ourselves. There are fewer schools being built nowadays but existing schools are growing and other schools are transforming to integrated status because there is an overprovision of places in Northern Ireland.
Ms Tina Merron:
Once the schools have been established and get capital funding after three years if they want to grow the Department of Education steps in and will continue funding them until they reaches a certain stage. The problem is that the Department of Education demands that schools prove there is the demand and one of the few ways it can prove demand is to put up another mobile and encourage other pupils to come in. If that can be done the Department will subsequently fund it but we have to fund the mobile initially. In the past couple of years we have funded some 13 additional mobile classrooms for schools to prove demand.
Ms Tina Merron:
I agree but before a new school starts all the existing schools in the area are asked if they wish to transform to integrated status. They have an opportunity to respond via the Department of Education's proposal system and to state whether they support this or not. Some schools have transformed for that purpose.
Ms Cliodhna Scott-Wills:
A question was put on co-educational schools. When Lagan College opened in 1981 a lot of schools were single-sex but Lagan wanted to make sure it was mixed at all levels so it became co-educational. All integrated schools are co-educational. On the question of multi-denominational status we have a statement of principles, dating from 1991, in which we state we are Christian in nature but we are there for children who come from the faith, from other faiths and from no faith at all. We cater for them too. While there is a Christian ethos and the religion taught in schools, because it comes from the Northern Ireland curriculum, is Christian we have always been open in a multi-denominational way. People would be concerned about this at times and we have had a lot of discussion about what it means.
Mr. Nigel Frith:
An integrated school follows the same religious education curriculum as any other school in Northern Ireland. The difference is that, like the history syllabus, it is delivered in an entirely balanced way because the staff are aware that there are Protestant and Catholic children in front of them in the class so there is an imperative to deliver the subject in a completely balanced and harmonious way. In our RE curriculum we follow a philosophy and ethics route.
The older the children get, the more we are adopting this route which is fundamentally about not only understanding world faiths and religions but also asking huge questions and, out of that, exploring what one's own values and beliefs are going to be. It seems to me that that is a healthy outlook for children to take out into the sometimes very confusing world in which we live.
In terms of the socio-economic make-up of integrated schools, we often find that integrated post-primary schools attract higher numbers of special needs children than any other sector. In our own school, for example, we have something in the region of 70 children with statements of special need, which is the most acute level of special need there is, and an entitlement therefore to a classroom assistant. Some 35% of our intake are on the special needs register somewhere with some form of identified special need. That is significantly above average.
The difficulty is that because we are competing in a system where the grammar schools are creaming off some of the more academically able children, rightly or wrongly - in my view wrongly. We are therefore competing to ensure our intake is entirely balanced with all ability levels and all gifts and talents. For that reason we have introduced a gifted and talented programme whereby staff are tasked with ensuring gifted or talented children in their classes are offered additional challenges. When a child finishes a piece of work, do not offer them more of the same, but ensure they are given an extension activity which builds on what they have already achieved. We must ensure we are offering extracurricular activities, which might be a science competition or a maths challenge, that allows them to go beyond what their peers are doing. We compile a gifted and talented register every autumn where staff identify the gifted and talented children in the school. As I will explain in a moment, that is also built into our admissions criteria.
I see integrated schools as a great leveller. When we have prospective children and parents looking around, I will often ask the child whether he or she thinks this is a grammar school or a high school. They will screw up their chins and have a little think for a minute. The answer is, however, that we are both under one roof. Therefore, not only do we have all faiths and none under one roof, but we also have those who might have gone to a grammar school or a high school. It is a fully integrated education system whereby every child can then be nurtured, supported and developed according to their personal capacities.
I think it is immoral to rubber-stamp a child at the age of 11 with the words "pass" or "fail". The damage some children carry into their adult lives because they were told at the age of 11 that they failed is irreparable. At the age of 40 or 50, some of them are still carrying the damage to their self-esteem that test at the age of 11 inflicted upon them. It should never have made it into the 21st century. It is wrong that we have a system that still does that.
Mr. Paul Caskey:
I have two quick points about the socio-economic profile. It is a rather crude indicator, but free school meals are one way of measuring. There are issues about uptake within particular communities. Some 28% of children who attend integrated schools in Northern Ireland are entitled to a free school meal. Within selected schools it is about 8%, while the Northern Ireland average is around 25%. It depends where the school is located. We have schools in working-class communities and schools that sit on the interface in Belfast and other places. We also have some schools that sit in very affluent communities.
One of the myths about integrated education is that this must be a middle-class phenomenon. The truth of the matter is that working-class communities are perhaps more receptive to integrated education than middle-class ones, because middle-class communities do not like to admit there might be an issue around some of the schools in the area.
A point was made about auditing, but we are not afraid of auditing. That is the one thing that is missing from the area-based planning process. We want communities to be asked what type of schools they want. If they want something else, that is fine. As I said earlier, it is not about imposing this on anyone. If they opt for the status quothat is fine, but give them a choice and a voice. Ms Merron spoke about transformation and that allows parents to have a democratic ballot overseen within their school. That process is delivered in many integrated schools in Northern Ireland. Faced with that realistic choice, we should not be afraid of auditing.
Ms Cliodhna Scott-Wills:
In attitudinal polls it comes up time and time again that over 80% of parents would favour integrated education. When one drills down into the reasons, much of the time it is because there is not an integrated choice in their area. Many would say that if the local school transformed, they would send their child to that school. There is not that much choice for parents, especially when one moves outside Belfast. Therefore, while they would want integrated education, the only choice given to them is either a controlled school or a Catholic school, and then they send their child to that.
Mr. Nigel Frith:
I want to touch briefly on two things. When I was a child there were a lot of cows in the area where I lived, and one horse. The horse thought he was a cow. He had never seen that there was any possibility of anything different from a cow, so he assumed he was one. The point I take from that is that a vision for change in a place like Northern Ireland has to include a vision of what could be. On the question why more people are not opting for something different, they have not been given a vision of what could be. Therefore, the family tradition of opting for the grammar school and that being seen as the pinnacle of achievement persists because it is just that - it is tradition. There is not a solid vision of what could be. It is down to organisations like NICIE and the IEF to say that things could be different, but we are not seeing that vision from the political leadership of Northern Ireland. The political leadership of Northern Ireland continues to deliver the segregated, sometimes tribal, approach that is impeding Northern Ireland's progress.
The second point I want to touch on briefly is the question that was asked about our admissions criteria. When we are beginning a transfer process, we make it clear that we intend if possible to admit 40% Catholic, 40% Protestant and a maximum of 20% other. Within each of those groupings we have a series of admissions criteria which we begin with. First, a child who is coming to us from an integrated primary school has a very easy transfer into a post-primary school because they have begun the integrated journey and it is only right that they can continue it. Our second one is children of members of staff or governors because there has to be a perk in the system somewhere.
We admit children who are gifted and talented, but not in terms of a transfer test. It is simply a way of saying that if a child has a gift or talent in two or more subjects, there is an opportunity for them to have some preference. The point of that is not to recreate a transfer test. It is this goal of achieving an even ability intake and therefore a way of saying to parents who are thinking of a grammar school that there is an alternative and they could look at the gifted and talented programme operated by Drumragh. It is not a narrowly academic model and does not recreate the 11-plus. Children who are sporting, musical, budding engineers or academic all have an equal opportunity to present a case for being gifted and talented.
Our admissions criteria also offer the opportunity for parents to make a special case based on a child's learning difficulties, medical needs or social needs for some reason. There is an opportunity to say that they are from a mixed marriage and therefore essentially the child is receiving an integrated home environment, and for that reason the parents want the same ethos to be present in their child's education.
Those are the sorts of criteria we have built into the system. Our regret every year is when we run out of places and then have to say that one child can come in but another cannot. That seems to us to be entirely wrong.
Mr. Jake Proctor:
If I may I will respond briefly to the question Senator D'Arcy asked me, and I hope it will help him understand the reason integrated education has aided my development. To pick up on what Mr. Frith said about the 11-plus transfer test and how individuals in their 30s and 40s are still damaged by that, it had really damaged me, and after I got my results I suffered depression for a brief stage. I spent a long time alone in my bedroom. I was very upset about that but when I went to Strangford, which was a non-selective school, I got a fresh start academically and socially, and that has helped me achieve academically. I do not want to repeat what I said at the outset but that is one of the main benefits that has aided my development.
Another benefit would be that we explore culture in classes such as history, religion and citizenship. We explore culture in physical education, PE, by playing Gaelic football, something I would not have had the opportunity to do in my own community. In terms of language, we were laughing coming down on the train because I said I was not much of a linguist but I would not have had the opportunity to learn the Irish language if I had attended the local controlled school. I got that opportunity through integrated education at Strangford.
In terms of friendships, as I said at the outset, I would not have made the friendships I have made across the divide had I gone to the controlled school. That is another opportunity integrated education has given me. I could go into more detail but I am aware we do not have much time.
Those are the four points I wanted to make. Integrated education has aided my development. I know it is not easy for the members to grasp that in the brief time available to us but they have to understand that when I came into integrated education, I did not know one Roman Catholic person. Now, my four best friends are Roman Catholic. My four best friends went to a maintained primary school. My friendships now are across the divide and in my mindset, as far as Jake Proctor is concerned, there is no divide.
I was in Drumatee, a townland in south Armagh, not long ago and a family of high achievers told me that Mary got into grammar school but that Anne was not good enough for that school and she went to St. Paul's in Camlough. It was awful stuff.
I spoke about music earlier. Two of my three children have degrees in music and play with the Cross Border Orchestra, which is an integrated project. Music breaks down barriers also. Having an extra criteria to allow a child get into a grammar school through playing a musical instrument favours the middle class because it is middle-class children in primary school who get the extra tuition in music. That is the point.
In 50 years from now people will say: "Imagine there was a time when one chose one's school on the basis of one's religion."
The committee visited a campus near Omagh on which a Catholic, a Protestant and another school were to be built. How many of the integrated schools arose from mergers of Catholic and Protestant schools, and is more of that taking place? Is it none?
Ms Tina Merron:
Someone asked a question about shared classes and shared education. We see this as a step in the right direction, and we have funded it for the past 15 years, but it is only a step. We need them to progress further. Currently, they can get funding to work together but there is no expectation that they will go any further than that. We would like to see them move on to the next steps to ensure an outcome. In that way it will be sustainable. Currently, that cohort just work together. There is no sustainability in it, and we would like them to progress to the next step.
Mr. Nigel Frith:
At best, shared education is a series of incremental steps, the key question being what the vision is for this and where it is leading. At worst, it becomes an excuse to avoid the real issues, and that is a huge concern for us looking at the amount of funding being poured into shared education as opposed to integrated education. If the two concepts could be given even a level playing field in terms of political support and funding, we would be a lot further forward from where we are now, and we could be in danger of putting the Integrated Education Fund, IEF, out of business as it would like to happen.
Mr. Francie Molloy:
The high number of children with disabilities who attend integrated schools was mentioned earlier. From my experience in Dungannon, I thought it was another part of the educational programme because it gives young people the opportunity of working with other children who have disabilities. I was greatly impressed by that when I was a member of the council in Dungannon. It is something we do not see enough of. When I was in school I never met someone with a disability whereas in the school in Dungannon, the children were helping a child in a wheelchair and helping another child to get about. That experience is very useful.
I live close to Moy and Clintyclay, and therefore I am between two situations. If a school is failing, and particularly a primary school, the danger is that people come up with the idea of creating an integrated school, but there must be more planning involved in that. In the Moy situation, it was envisaged that this would be the first step. It could have become integrated in the future. The intentions of those who were planning it and the ideas behind it were good in terms of how it would develop. There was too much emphasis on the fact that there would still be two schools on the one campus, but sometimes that can be a good development. In the Omagh example, the Irish language and the other schools were put on the one campus. Instead of building new schools, if schools can share the one facility it can lead to an integrated school in the future, which would bring people together who would not normally meet. Do the representatives agree that can be an advantage in the future?
Ms Tina Merron:
On the issue of Clintyclay, it was not a failing school. It was a small rural school and it did not have financial problems, as outlined in the judicial review. It is a small rural school which could, if it transformed, open its doors to the other community. It would have been a welcoming presence, and it could have grown. I would point out that transformation is a process of helping with the oversubscription problem in the area.
In terms of shared education, it is certainly a step in the right direction but there must be something more to it. It has to progress to the next stage.
Mr. Nigel Frith:
I will make a few more brief points. The system is so rigid in Northern Ireland that it does not cater for real children. I can tell the members about Grace, who is in year 9 in our school. In terms of her mathematical ability, she is at the very top of the scale on the tests we ran with her when she joined the school. Cognitively, she is extremely high functioning. She was in the top ten of a competition for writing in The Guardianlast year, and yet she has a statement of special educational needs and needs a classroom assistant. Where else would we find a school that caters for that child's needs? She spans the divisions that are built inherently into our education system.
A question was asked about the shared education campus. I refer again to the question of a vision and purpose. The shared education campus in Omagh will be built on what used to be an army base site. Obviously, there is some significance to turning an army base into an educational site, which in itself is great.
Those schools will be built on that campus with their own front doors and fences, with their own badges and forms of governance. They will be as separate on the site as they are on their existing sites. Ours is the only post-primary school in Omagh not invited onto the campus. It comes down to money and the fact that we moved into a new building six years ago. We have accepted this, although we do not necessarily agree with it. However, the remaining post-primary schools in Omagh will move onto the campus within the next four or five years.
Nobody has yet answered the big question: what will happen there? There will be three shared blocks on the site and a great many separate classrooms behind their own front doors. The big question which will not be answered for years is whether it will gradually become an integrated campus or remain a set of separate schools built on one piece of land, with the tribal politics continuing. Nobody has answered that question. If it does become an integrated site, I will applaud it, but my fear is that that is not part of the vision at present.
Democracy is interfering again as there is another vote in the Chamber. On behalf of the committee, I thank the delegates for meeting us. The discussion has been very informative on an issue of profound importance to long-term peace and reconciliation in Northern Ireland for future generations. Looking to the future, as distinct from living in the past, the presence of Jake today clearly demonstrates how the issue is about the future. The delegates' articulate engagement with the committee and its powerful message give great hope for the future of Northern Ireland. The committee looks forward to travelling to Northern Ireland to visit a school of their choice. It is great to create links. The committee is very united on one matter, the need to be helpful.