In Northern Ireland we live in a society wrought with deep-rooted divides. Political, religious or other, education should be the answer to ensure that these divides are lessened for the next generation, as only through understanding will real development be made.
Within education, however, 90% of children in Northern Ireland go to schools that are attended only by either Catholics or Protestants. This is a huge amount of religious isolation.
Attempts are now being renewed, after the large failure of programs such as Education for Mutual Understanding (EMU), to breach the gap between Protestant and Catholic schools, with the Consensus for Post-Primary Education proposing 10 shared education campuses, the first looking likely to be an amalgamation of St Patrick’s Grammar and St Brigid’s High School (who plan to develop a Catholic voluntary school as part of the village) as well as City of Armagh High School and Royal School Armagh. Children will be educated separately but given greater opportunity to interact inside and outside of the classroom. In terms of academics, pooling resources will allow children to take a wider amount of subjects, but in the wider sense of an education we must challenge whether or not shared education will be beneficial. Greater contact between Protestant and Catholic schools could well lead to an increased amount of interaction and understanding, but the fact that there will still be different schools leaves the ‘us and them’ mentality intact.
Education based upon religion is the problem. As an atheist I disagree with them for my own reasons, but in terms of the community they are not beneficial, causing further division. What is worse is that our education for teachers at the highest level is also segregated. Segregated teachers are being taught to teach segregated children. I admire people who have faith, but irrespective of their beliefs they should not be allowed to harm the community within which they live. Parents are ultimately responsible for deciding which school their child goes to, and in helping develop a child’s cultural identity. Erosion of cultural identity, of nationalism or unionism would be a travesty and children should develop their own identity individually, but Shared Education, while an improvement on the current segregation, would still be institutionally differentiating children as Catholic and Protestant. Like politics, religion should be kept out of education unless it is religious education that promotes understanding of all faiths.
An exciting concept in terms that our representatives at Stormont are realising that education is the key, the Educational Village concept is a soft option compared to full integration. If we really want to bridge the gap we need to integrate schools.