Kellie Armstrong MLA's Private Members Bill on Integrated Education

Children who experience integration at a young age have been shown to have a confidence in themselves and respect for each other’s culture. It’s this refreshing and positive approach that will enable a new future for Northern Ireland.

I am a passionate advocate of integrated education and as a mother who sends her child to an integrated school, I decided after being elected to the Assembly in May I would bring forward proposals for a Private Member’s Bill on the issue.

The Bill will seek to expand and reform the current legislation framework, which provides for the provision of integrated education. This Bill is not about devaluing any other sector but rather it is purely about strengthening the current provision, so every parent who wishes to send their child to an integrated school is able to do so.

I am today launching a 10-week consultation exercise to seek your views on the need for reform of the current system of integrated education in general, and your views on the proposals I am suggesting to address the need for change.

​The need to strengthen legislation 

The Department of Education (DE) has a statutory duty to encourage and facilitate integrated education but this current legislative framework is insufficient for delivering the significant increase I and others would like to see. The Bill would provide a more robust framework, ensuring the DE is fulfilling its obligation and making integrated education the norm, not the exception.

Integrated education has been advocated as a crucial part of improving good relations among and for our young people ever since the All Children Together movement was established in 1974. It saw a number of parents organise in a response to the violence of the Troubles to provide something different for their children, lobbying the churches and Government to take the initiative in educating Protestant and Catholic children, as well as those of other faiths and none, together in one school.

They hoped that bringing children together in the class room every day would ensure future generations would not be growing up in a deeply divided society, providing a vision for the future we are still helping to realise.

The UNESCO centre at Ulster University conducted a review which looked at previous policy and research into Integrated Education. The research revealed that attending an integrated school is, ‘claimed to be significant in shaping identity without a loss of community or social individuality’ (Niens et al., 2003;Montgomery et al., 2003). They also found in regards to contact theory, ’the role of intergroup contact in fostering good relations suggests that integrated schooling has a significant and positive social influence on the lives of those who experience it, most notably in terms of fostering cross-community friendships, reducing prejudicial attitudes and promoting a sense of security in religious, racial, or ethnically diverse environments.’(Stringer, 2009, 2000; Montgomery et al., 2003; McGlynn, 2001; Irwin, 1991).

The Good Friday Agreement also saw integrated education recognised as an

important element of bringing communities together to heal the division from

years of violence, stating ‘An essential aspect of the reconciliation process is

the promotion of a culture of tolerance at every level of society, including

initiatives to facilitate and encourage integrated education and mixed housing’.

The DE, meanwhile, has a statutory duty to integrated education set out in the Education Reform (Northern Ireland) Order 1989 – ‘It shall be the duty of the Department to encourage and facilitate the development of integrated education, that is to say the education together at school of Protestant and Roman Catholic pupils’.

DE currently fulfils this by giving a small grant to the Northern Ireland Council for Integrated Education (NICIE) to work with integrated schools. NICIE does not have statutory powers which means they can’t plan for integrated education and have limited powers and resources. The integrated movement need to have a body to actively plan and set targets for its growth. Even though the Department has a statutory duty for integrated education it does not plan, set targets or collect information on the demand for integrated education.

The Department also has a policy called Transformation which is a process of change of status of an existing school to integrated status stemming from an aspiration to provide an integrated school in an area. This policy has not been updated since 2005. 

The Department of Education’s policy on religious balance in integrated schools states, "Schools must demonstrate the ability to achieve a minimum of 10% of their 1st year intake drawn from the minority tradition (Protestant or Roman Catholic) within the school’s enrolment and the potential to achieve a minimum of 30% in the longer term." 

I would like to see this reformed to recognise those children of mixed, other or no religious background.

I want to build on that statutory duty in my Private Member’s Bill and respond to the clear demand for change. A poll carried out by Milward Brown in 2013 showed 83 per cent of people here believe integrated education is a vital part of creating a shared future in Northern Ireland, while 60 per cent of parents would prefer new schools resulting from consolidation of smaller schools be integrated.

Last year’s so-called Fresh Start Agreement ensured an investment of £500 million for integrated and shared capital projects over the next 10 years. The capital investment will allow existing integrated schools to expand and grow, while creating the opportunity for new integrated schools to be established. The Private Member’s Bill will complement the capital investment by ensuring the DE can fulfill its statutory duty.

Nearly 20 years after the Good Friday Agreement, integrated education is still seen as an integral part of healing a divided society. Integrated education provides not only social but financial benefits. It can help reduce the cost of maintaining empty school places, it enables funding to be directed toward pupils rather than sustaining a divided school estate, and it improves sustainability, making it easier to fund the modernisation of the school estate.

Aims of the Bill

In order to realise all of those reform goals, my Private Member’s Bill will contain provisions setting out the ways in which I propose they can be best achieved.

In consulting you, I am asking you to consider: the proposals below; whether you agree that they will achieve my stated aim; and whether there are other measures which might achieve my stated aim. Should you have reservations about the proposals below, I would be grateful if you could perhaps suggest adjustments or alternative proposals which would allay your concerns.

  • The Department should set minimum targets for children being educated in integrated schools within the next decade.

  • To amend the current statutory duty on the DE to actively promote and not just merely encourage integrated education, the Department needs to plan effectively for integrated education, which will require it to develop an integrated strategy to map out and ensure the implementation of the Bill.

  • The current transformation process is lengthy and complex, which has created an extra barrier for those who wish to see integrated provision in their area. A complete review of the transformation legalislation needs to be conducted by the Department.

  • I would also like to see the Department audit communities to assess the demand for integrated education and to use this information when preparing area plans. Many integrated schools have to turn away pupils because they are oversubscribed. This would also help to formulate for and grow integrated education in the future. It also helps communities feel more involved in the planning of education provision for their children and young people.

On a personal level, I never had the opportunity to attend an integrated school, so I have found the integrated experience for my child enlightening and inspiring. Looking wider, Northern Ireland is becoming more culturally diverse and an increasing number of parents and children want to attend an integrated school.