For Northern Ireland to become more integrated, there has to be a greater focus on integrated schools and integrated housing, argues the chief executive of the Integrated Education Fund, Tina Merron. She was interviewed for the latest Forward Together podcast.
“I think the majority of people in Northern Ireland want a shared future and a united community,” says Tina. “We need to give civil society more of a say. We need to encourage people to speak up and especially young people. And then when we do get them to speak up, we have to listen to them.
“Integrated education has been run for the last 35 years as a kind of model for wider society and it’s a model that empowers parents, communities and young people. It encourages people to speak up and encourages children to look at what unites us, as opposed to what divides us. Integrated schools are safe spaces to have these discussions – children from different traditions sit side-by-side, day-by-day, learning about each other, from each other. This experience removes any fear of other traditions, different cultures and enables them to express their identity. And this has a ripple effect.”
The basis for integrated education is not just about bringing pupils together from the two main traditions – the schools also attract children from other backgrounds. Integrated schools also aim to ensure children value themselves. “The ethos is about encouraging children to talk about themselves,” explains Tina. “It’s about them being open about discussion. It’s not about burying things under the carpet. It’s an opportunity for them to express themselves, to have open discussions about different issues…. It’s about those from all faiths and those from no faiths at all.”
Integrated schools seek to connect with local people to engage them in discussion about the future of education policy, through a programme called “Community Conversations, which empowers parents and the wider community to become involved in education, especially in area planning of education”, explains Tina.
The integrated education movement wants to work more closely with elected politicians, across the range of the spectrum. “We would encourage the politicians to go into integrated schools and have these conversations,” she explains. “It is very important I believe for young people to vote, but young people are more interested in the social issues, health, well-being and the environment, less interested in constitutional issues. But they have to feel that their voice is being heard.”
Tina adds: “We need young people to enter politics. I mean if you think about it, it’s 20 years since the Good Friday Agreement. So anybody under the age of 30 is less likely to be aware of, or directly impacted by, the Troubles. So what we need is for these young people to start going into politics, to become politicians of the future.”
In many areas, integrated schools have insufficient places to meet the demand. But existing non-integrated schools can convert to become integrated. Tina explains: “Parents who want their school to be integrated can register their interest. Once that gets to 20% the board of governors of the school must then have a parental ballot for all parents of the school and they then can decide if they want to transform the school to become integrated.”
The latest podcast interview is available here. The podcasts are also available on iTunes and Spotify.
- Holywell Trust receives support for the Forward Together Podcast through the Media Grant Scheme and Core Funding Programme of Community Relations Council and Good Relations Core Funding Programme of Derry City and Strabane District Council.
Paul Gosling is a writer, public speaker, broadcaster and researcher. He specialises in the economy, accountancy, the co-operative sector and government and the public sector.