Northern Ireland has thankfully enjoyed a period of peaceful, social stability for the past 20 years since 1998.
However, as political instability & stalemate continues to plague Stormont, many of the by-gone, progressive commitments of the Belfast Agreement appear to be stagnating. Has the development of integrated education, among other important issues, been left behind since the signing of the GFA?
In 1981, with the backdrop of deep political unrest, the All Children Together movement founded Northern Ireland's first integrated school, Lagan College, which was a watershed moment for the education sector. This laid the foundation for the creation of a further 61 integrated primary and secondary schools to date. With the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 came an end to violence but also an acknowledgement of the importance of integrated education as an 'essential aspect of the reconciliation process'.
Yet, despite this assertion, it's evident that post 1998 successive Northern Ireland Executives have failed to provide the support for integrated education that it deserves - leaving the battle to be fought purely by external entities such as NICIE and the IEF. Of the 62 integrated schools, only 19% of these have either been formed or transformed since 2000. The focus has clearly shifted towards supporting 'shared education' - a dangerously misleading term - which appears to be more of a box ticking, money saving exercise than a genuine attempt to teach our children together. Having attended an integrated school, and reaped the benefits of both the fantastic teaching and unique ethos, it's very frustrating and deeply disappointing seeing the shared education sector being veiled as a solution to our segregated schooling system. As the Good Friday Agreement becomes a small dot in the rear-view mirror, positivity in the top levels of our local government is being replaced by a throwback to sectarian tribalism. It's known that integrated education is seen as a threat by a number of political and religious groups in Northern Ireland - but how can teaching our children together, instilling tolerance and preparing them for an 'integrated' world be anything but positive for the future of this country.
We must not let the attrition and noise of mainstream politics hinder the development of integrated education. Only 7% of children in Northern Ireland attend integrated schools in 2018 despite an ever-growing civic appetite for integration - this simply needs to change. We don't want to transform every school - we simply want all children to have the option, the choice, of attending an integrated school which isn't the case for the majority as it stands.
I don't think this is too much to ask.