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Integrated or shared education?

Published: 27 Jun 2013 13:002 comments

One knock-on effect of the visit by President Barack Obama and Prime Minister David Cameron to Enniskillen has been the focus on our education system.

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The two world leaders visited the Integrated Primary School in the town, which has been read as an extremely significant message, suggesting that our children should all be educated together.

There has been a major fall-out by those on opposing sides of the integrated education v shared education debate.

This comes at a time when there is not only a sharp focus on the future of education in the context of dwindling numbers and dwindling resources, but also at a time when the whole issue of a shared future for society is under discussion.

Interestingly, few voices are calling for the status quo, whereby there were very definite demarcation lines between the systems which effectively resulted in most Protestants going to one and most Catholics the other (though by no means all).

It's less than two years ago that First Minister, Peter Robinson described our education system as a "benign form of apartheid".

While he was much criticised at the time, there is no doubt that a combination of the desire for our children to come together more and the circumstances of the challenges facing education is leaving communities looking towards greater integration.

There are those, of course, who insist that only full integration is the answer; that our society's divisions and problems will only ever be healed when all our children go to school with each other, regardless of their religion.

There is also the argument that this is the choice more and more people are making anyway, with enrolment in the integrated sector in demand.

Is this the ideal, though, and an unobtainable ideal?

There are many families and many communities across Northern Ireland where this is a step too far; there are even some areas where it simply would not be practical.

The concept of shared education is also making a massive contribution, especially in an area such as Fermanagh, in getting children together more and more.

This allows them to "retain their own identities", as it is termed, but at the same time to foster relationships with children of other faiths and none.

It has to be said, as well, that there is a lobby of opinion which suggests that this is actually perpetuating division.

As with most things in Northern Ireland, particularly when it comes to identities and sharing, this is not a simple debate.

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