There are two villages just over two miles apart. They have a population of nearly 4,000 people between them, 760 of whom are under 16 years of age. They have fewer than 300 children of primary school age. Yet, these two villages are served by four primary schools. The villages will remain nameless. But segregation in education will have major and lasting impact on these children as they grow up; as they develop interests and friendships, habits and life-long attitudes.
These villages, like every other hamlet, village, town and city in Northern Ireland are being condemned to another generation of people living parallel lives, coming together too rarely and sometimes in conflict. Segregation in education is socially and morally bankrupt as a concept because it reinforces societal segregation and puts strain on how people live their lives, promoting a separate psyche.
Segregation in education is helping to economically bankrupt how Northern Ireland is governed with millions invested in duplication of buildings, resources and services.
A 2015 Ulster University Cost of Division study showed the number of surplus places in the Controlled and Catholic Maintained sector (32,000 and 35,000 respectively) was costing between £14 million and £93 million each year – and that was for primary school provision alone.
Yet we regularly hear about lack of money within the education sector including delays in infrastructure investment and schools shaving a few thousand pounds off their budgets by making classroom assistants redundant. That is not to advocate a particular system. There is much to be positive about in all forms of education in Northern Ireland, although too many young people are still left behind; often those young people are living in the most disadvantaged communities and in the most segregated areas.
The duplication and waste of the existing system, the moral and social dysfunction that it causes, requires change. Those who advocate ending segregation in education are often accused of social engineering. Yet the greatest practice of social engineering is that which keeps young people apart in their formative years, a segregation which is then easier to sustain in succeeding years.
There is even segregation in teacher training. Imagine if your child wanted to be a GP. Would you say to them: if you want to cure Protestants then you’ll go to this college but if you want to cure Catholics then you’ll go to this different college? Would you add: you can’t actually treat Catholics as well as Protestants – can you? How absurd would that be? Yet it effectively happens in teacher training, costing over £2 million additional public subsidy annually to keep segregated teacher training colleges open; and with significantly more teachers trained each year than we actually need.
No wonder many unemployed young teachers emigrate to get a job.
Sharing makes a positive difference but all programmes and systems should demonstrate a continuum of moving children and young people from segregation to meaningful learning and developing together, sustainable beyond the latest round of funding. It is systemic change that is needed.
In the USA 50 years ago Martin Luther King did as much as anyone to end segregation in education. He once said true compassion isn’t tossing a few coins to a beggar you pass in the street; true compassion acknowledges that the system giving rise to beggars needs changed.
True wisdom in Northern Ireland is realising that the systems giving rise to segregated living over many years need to change; true courage is then speaking out for change.
Acknowledging the cost of maintaining segregation in education is a first step.
More people from all walks of civil society need to speak out to recognise the wrong being done to our children and our collective, shared future.
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