A Review of Policy Areas Affecting Integration of the Education System in Northern Ireland

This scoping exercise, carried out by the UNESCO Centre at Ulster University for the Integrated Education Fund, provides an analysis of current education policy and practice in Northern Ireland across four key areas. The review involves an analysis of legislation, policy and practices within the existing system of education where change might lead to better integration of the education system as a whole. The study focuses on the following policy areas:

  • Ownership and financing of the school estate;
  • Area based planning of education provision;
  • School governance arrangements; and
  • Policies related to teacher training, recruitment and deployment.

The review provides a succinct summary of the current position with regard to the ownership, funding and capital value of schools in Northern Ireland. It outlines the current enrolment and distribution of school pupils and the range of providers – Catholic Maintained, Controlled, Controlled Integrated, Grant Maintained Integrated, Voluntary Grammar and Irish Medium.

The majority of school pupils in Northern Ireland continue to be educated in schools primarily associated with one of the two largest communities and that despite a statutory duty on the Department of Education to encourage and facilitate integrated education for more than twenty-five years integrated schooling still only caters for 7% of the total school population. This suggests that the obstacles to integration may be deeply imbedded within the education system itself since we know from public surveys that parents are highly supportive of their children being educated together.

The review looks closely at the history of area based planning of education provision in Northern Ireland and highlights a number of deficiencies raised by educational stakeholders, politicians and local communities in both the planning and implementation of the process. These include concerns around the approach to consultation and stakeholder engagement, the Needs Model, the attitude and approach of the various educational providers, the failure of the process to fully take into account the statutory duty to encourage and facilitate the development of integrated education, and the entire process taking place during a time of wider educational uncertainly and political disagreement relating to the ultimately failed attempt to establish an Education and Skills Authority for Northern Ireland. This has led to a deeply unsatisfactory situation in which opportunities for real change to the educational landscape have not been taken and retrenchment of resources has become a hallmark of the process.

School governance is another policy area where the composition of Boards of Governors reflects historical and political interests associated with separate school sectors. In Northern Ireland the composition of Boards of Governors varies depending on school management type as does the various categories of governors. It has been noted that the approach taken in Northern Ireland can be best described as a stakeholder model, where the governing body represents a range of interests, including parents, the school founders and the employing authority. The review notes that challenges exist with regard to the role of Governors, the recruitment and active participation of parents on Boards of Governors, and the relationship between Governors and the churches. The growing cooperation between Governors from different schools and sectors, particularly with regard to shared education, is also discussed alongside a short discussion on school governance models in other contexts, for example, the establishment of School Boards in Scotland or the more decentralised Finnish delivery model.

The final section of the review focuses on policies related to teacher education, recruitment and deployment in Northern Ireland, outlining and reflecting on the distinctive elements of the education system as well as on the factors which have contributed to shaping it. The section also discusses policy approaches and initiatives which have aimed to reform the system of teacher education in Northern Ireland, including issues such as overall student numbers and providers, Fair Employment Legislation, the Certificate in Catholic Education, and opportunities for deeper cross sectoral collaboration.

This short scoping study draws a number of conclusions, mainly in terms of where more research is needed to identify potential policy changes in each of these areas that could be beneficial for the development of a more integrated system of education in Northern Ireland and one that takes account of multiple stakeholder expectations.

The main conclusions are:

  1. There may be a case for a more thorough analysis of ownership and financing of the school estate. The current arrangements have evolved over many years to take account of changing relations between the state, churches and other providers. However, the current situation is that virtually all capital and revenue funding to education comes from the taxpayer via the state. Rationalisation could include a study of the feasibility of the transfer of school property into common ownership by the state. Apart from revealing any cost benefits from an economic perspective, this could have benefits in terms of removing anomalies between different school sectors and emphasise education as a common public good for the benefit of all. This might include a similar process to the Forum for Pluralism and Patronage in the Republic of Ireland.
  2. The current Programme for Government commitment to shared education includes significant capital as well as recurrent expenditure. There are competing arguments about the cost benefits of these initiatives, particularly where the intention is to build new separate schools that only share some facilities. There is also an unaddressed question of how much shared education would cost to roll out to every school within the current structures. So far there has been little analysis of how shared education will be ‘mainstreamed’ after the initial tranches of philanthropic and European funding run out.
  3. There is general consensus that area based planning has not worked well. It has been criticised on at least three fronts. Firstly, in the absence of ESA was driven by sectoral interests, rather than exploring opportunities for rationalisation across sectors. This suggests there is a case for establishing an overarching authority for education planning that is more representative of multiple stakeholder interests. Secondly, more effective processes for ascertaining parent and community preferences for schooling are required as part of area based planning. Some models such as deliberative polling already exist, but much clearer guidance is required. Thirdly, the current approach to area based planning highlighted weaknesses in the Needs Model, including a failure to take account of the statutory duty to facilitate and support integrated education.
  4. In terms of governance, the establishment of the Education Authority appears to replicate the sectoral representation that existed in the Education and Library Boards. At school level, different permutations for school governance are still largely based on historical and political associations with separate school sectors. However, all schools are now funded from public finance and there is a case for greater diversity to be represented in the governing bodies of all schools, perhaps through revised arrangements for membership based on individual merit rather than representative rights of sectoral interests.
  5. There have been numerous reviews of teacher education in Northern Ireland over recent years. A key issue is that there are multiple providers, providing more teachers than can find employment within the system. Rationalisation seems a logical course of action, but there are concerns that faith-based provision needs to be protected and proposed changes have become highly politicised. Nevertheless, there are additional issues that could be addressed. Data related to employment and movement of teachers across sectors is out of date and we would benefit from better understanding of the experiences of teachers teaching across the traditional sectors. Given separate teacher education, the system would also benefit from better understanding of how teachers could be incentivised to teach across sectors so that all children can benefit from being taught by teachers from diverse backgrounds and experiences.
  6. There appears to be a consensus that the employment of teachers should no longer be exempt from Fair Employment Legislation, but action has yet to been taken to implement this. There is a case for reviewing freedom of conscience issues with regard to schools in Northern Ireland given that all are financed through public funding. The implications of requirements to hold a Certificate in Catholic Education would also need to be reviewed if it is the intention of the policy commitment to shared education to include teachers being shared between schools. Any review would also need to examine how this requirement affects policies to encourage and increase teacher employment and mobility across all sectors.

Read the full scoping paper here.

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