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Bill proposing all new Northern Ireland schools should be integrated passes first stage

A Bill that would require new schools in Northern Ireland to be integrated passed the first stage in the Assembly yesterday. Northern Ireland Humanists has campaigned for a single system of education that teaches pupils from different backgrounds together for many years. It has welcomed the news.

Integrated schools try to balance the proportion of pupils from each community they admit. At present, they aim at 40% Catholic, 40% Protestant and 20% other. However, they are popular with families from non-religious and minority religious backgrounds. For example, 37% of the pupils at controlled integrated primary schools are classed as ‘other’.

The private members’ Bill is called the Integrated Education Bill. It was introduced by Alliance MLA Kellie Armstrong. It proposes to place a duty on the Executive to promote integrated education. This includes introducing a presumption that new schools will be integrated in all but ‘special circumstances’. These do not include the religious demographics of an area. The Bill also seeks to alter the legal definition of integrated education so it explicitly includes the non-religious. At present, the law defines integrated education as ‘the education together at school of Protestant and Roman Catholic pupils’. But, if it were to become law, the Bill would change this to ‘the education together… of… those of different cultures and religious beliefs and of none, including reasonable numbers of both Protestant and Roman Catholic children or young persons.’ It is not clear whether this means the existing quotas would be scrapped, but these changes appear to make integrated schools inclusive of those from all backgrounds, not just Christians. This is something Northern Ireland Humanists has been calling for for many years.

Integrated schools are increasingly popular among parents in Northern Ireland. In a recent survey, 69% of people backed integrated education. A 2018 poll showed that 67% of parents would support their child’s school becoming integrated. Previous research also suggests that 91% think these schools are ‘important for promoting a shared and better future’. But just 7% of children currently attend integrated schools. The rest of the Northern Ireland school system is highly segregated. Most children from Catholic families attend Catholic schools and most children from Protestant families attend Controlled schools. These are theoretically open to pupils from all backgrounds but are effectively Protestant.

Northern Ireland Humanists Coordinator Boyd Sleator commented:

‘If Northern Ireland is to tackle the problem of community segregation, it is obvious that schools must educate pupils from all backgrounds together. We are therefore delighted this Bill has been introduced.

‘We are particularly pleased that the Bill seeks to amend the definition of integrated education so that it explicitly includes the non-religious and those from backgrounds other than Christianity. Only a system that treats all children equally can be truly integrated. That’s what this Bill proposes to do, and we very much hope it becomes law.’

Notes:

For further comment or information, please contact Northern Ireland Humanists Coordinator Boyd Sleator at boyd@humanists.uk or phone 07918 975795.

Read the Bill and Explanatory Memorandum.

Read our most recent article on why a school row over relationships and sex education shows the problems with Church-appointed governors.

Read our recent article on why integrated schools are an illusory choice for many families in Northern Ireland.

Read our article on the DUP MLA who says all schools should be integrated.

Read more about our work on denominational schools.

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