First to give evidence was the Northern Ireland Children’s Commissioner Patricia Lewsley-Mooney and Alison Montgomery, Senior Policy & Research Officer at NICCY.
Opening the session, the Children’s Commissioner noted that NICCY had carried out a consultation with children and young people to explore their views and experiences of Shared Education. The consultation findings, she told the Committee, were filtered into the Ministerial Advisory Group (MAG) Report commissioned by the Education Minister to explore and advance Shared Education in Northern Ireland.
The Children’s Commissioner highlighted that one of the key findings in the NICCY report suggested that the P7 primary school pupils who took part in the consultation had a limited understanding of the concept of Shared Education. 75% of primary respondents had been involved in shared trips/projects and had shared facilities with children from other schools.
She said that post-primary pupils were more likely to have taken part in shared projects than shared classes and generally recorded positive feedback in respect of both. Positive views appeared to be linked to the opportunity to make new friends and to a much lesser extent: to gain an insight into other schools or to gain access to a broader curriculum.
The Children’s Commissioner said that a small number of students had expressed concerns relating to being in the minority in the classroom or to receiving adverse commentary from students from other schools. Around two thirds of school children at primaries and post-primaries believed that the main drawback to Shared Education might be increased bullying.
She also discussed feedback from teaching staff who reported generally positive views of sharing activities. However, the Children’s Commissioner added that many had found it difficult to negotiate parental consent for sharing due to the impact “of the Northern Ireland conflict on the local community” and concerns about Shared Education leading to an erosion of identity. Parents were also concerned about transport arrangements for pupils and the levels of teaching quality in other schools.
The NICCY consultation further revealed that Special School staff also welcomed improvements in the inclusion of Special Schools with the wider educational community that sharing facilitates. However, Irish Medium school staff reported difficulties in participation in Shared Education owing to the absence of dual medium learning opportunities.
It was noted that the report findings tended to suggest that many pupils are wrongly viewing any interaction between schools as Shared Education. The Children’s Commissioner felt that this underlined a need to define Shared Education and to clarify aims and intentions. This would include a need to undertake regular pupil feedback, develop mechanisms to promote mutual understanding and diversity and to manage parental concerns and expectations.
You can watch NICCY’s presentation to the Committee below and read their joint written submission to the Committee Part 1 and Part 2.
Also giving evidence at this session were Clare- Anne Magee and Nicola McKeown, both from Parenting NI.
Clare-Anne and Nicola began their session by telling the Committee that Parenting NI had recently undertaken an online survey of parents’ views about Shared and Integrated Education.
The survey involved a limited number of 200 members of the Parenting Forum in early October 2014. Claire-Anne and Nicola noted that most of those who responded were married females from urban areas, with an even split between Catholics and Protestants. Around two thirds of respondents had a child who currently attends an Integrated school or pre-school.
In terms of Shared Education, Claire-Anne and Nicola noted that parents were generally positive, in particular highlighting its value in the sharing of resources and in promoting equality and inclusion. They added that “parents thought that Shared Education should be provided under one roof, in the same school, where there is an ethos of respecting differences and being tolerant of differences”.
According to the survey, parents did report what they viewed as barriers and/or disadvantages to Shared Education which included: limited real mixing between children which does not tackle cultural difference and bullying concerns if one community is in a minority. Parents also cited lack of resources and variable educational quality depending on partner schools as other barriers.
Moving on to views on Integrated Education, both Claire Anne and Nicola again noted that in the main parents had responded positively with many stating “that to be an inclusive school, the teaching of religion needs to focus on all religions or not be taught at all”.
Claire-Anne and Nicola concluded their evidence by stating that parents did seem to be broadly supportive of both Integrated and Shared Education Programmes. The final Parenting NI report highlights a number of suggestions from respondents which include: an agreed vision and commitment from policy makers, a removal of or changes to the teaching of religion in schools. Integration and cross community provision at an Early Years level was also cited as important, as was changes in school policy in respect of flags and emblems and shared 16+ timetabling to promote sharing between schools.
Committee Members were keen to find out how parents could become more engaged in the issues surrounding Shared and Integrated Education. Both Claire-Anne and Nicola said that they were always exploring better ways and mechanisms to reach and engage with parents. They added that they felt that similarly to the success of school councils, Parent Councils could prove to be an excellent way for parents to engage and discuss issues and ideas around their Children’s educational needs.
You can watch the Parenting NI presentation to the Committee below and read their joint written submission to the Committee Part 1 and Part 2.
Shared and Integrated Education Top of the Agenda as Committee Evidence Sessions Begin
Committee for Education