The following letter from Gillian McGrath of the CEP appears in today’s Irish Times newspaper on Education in Northern Ireland:
Sir, – I refer to The Irish Times editorial “The Irish Times view on schools in Northern Ireland: segregated classrooms” (February 19th). The comments made by President Michael D Higgins about education provision in Northern Ireland were unhelpful to all sectors of the community there.
Throughout the conflict in Northern Ireland, Catholic schools and schools across all sectors provided not only education but sanctuary and care for their students and often a calm, counter-narrative to the raging Troubles beyond their gates.
Post-Troubles, much work has been done through the Shared Education programme to ensure great collaboration between the sectors. Staff from Catholic, controlled, integrated and Irish-medium schools work closely to share good practice and develop strategies for school improvement. They work together to develop a better understanding of one another and to explore difficult and sensitive topics.
This work is further enhanced by the work with students and families, breaking down mythologies and false narratives and developing relationships which extend beyond the school gates onto the sporting field, among other places.
Schools in Northern Ireland, across all sectors, by nature of their admissions criteria are inclusive and welcoming to all (with the exception of schools which select their pupils on the basis of academic selection).
The admissions criteria for schools in Northern Ireland do not specify religious or ethnic background. Indeed, they prioritise siblings and proximity to the school. Catholic schools have, in particular, an inclusive and welcoming ethos which is rooted in gospel values. The community dimension is central to the Catholic school.
All children, young people and their families, irrespective of their background, culture or creed, will find a welcome and a strong bond of community and fellowship within the Catholic school.
Indeed, 52 per cent of newcomer children opt to go to Catholic schools, where they are welcomed and cherished. The family of Catholic schools represents the largest single provider of education in Northern Ireland.
Catholic education is provided through schools in the Catholic maintained sector, Catholic voluntary grammar schools and St Mary’s University College.
In Northern Ireland, the education system faces many challenges, including underfunding, underachievement in some sectors and social and economic division, which impact on the educational experiences and outcomes of young people.
It will be important that these issues are addressed in a collaborative and respectful manner that ensures the needs of children and young people are met and that their educational experience is life-giving and fulfilling, allowing them to become active participants in building the peace in Northern Ireland.
Integrated education has a significant role in building the peace as do all the other sectors within the system. It will be important going forward that through, for example, effective and efficient area planning processes, duplication of provision is avoided and creative solutions such as the shared campus model are developed to meet the needs of local communities.
It is important also to preserve, where possible, the right of parents to choose the type of school that best suits their children.
That choice is available within England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland, where no sectarian label is applied.
Perhaps President Higgins doesn’t understand the Northern Ireland education system when he seeks to criticise the Catholic and other schools that have served the population so well. Language that can be interpreted as disrespectful and unfounded does nothing to help build a peaceful future. – Yours, etc,
Catholic Education Partnership,