We need to fight for secular education says former teacher

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John McAnulty

John McAnulty, former teacher and ex-chairman of the Northern Committee of the Irish National Teachers’ Organisation (INTO), argues that a call for integrated education should be a call for secular education

Our local integrated school system boasts 42 primary schools and 20 secondary sector schools. Where schools are established they are routinely over-subscribed. A council to promote integrated education is well established, as is a charitable fund to provide seed funds for new schools.

A March 2000 survey showed 85 percent of parents supporting integration. The Good Friday Agreement pledged to encourage and support integrated education. Yet Sinn Fein organised street protests to block the suggestion that two tiny teacher training colleges, situated within a mile of each other, be merged into one.

Before Stormont collapsed a DUP minister managed to return to Westminster almost £50 million which had been earmarked for integrated education.

The majority of the political parties and the trade unions are enthusiastic supporters of “integrating” or “shared” education, where segregated schools share sites and/or resources. Hundreds of millions of pounds have been diverted to this approach. As local columnist Newton Emerson pointed out some time ago, this is a pretty transparent way of opposing integration.

The movement for integrated education is like a punch-drunk boxer with tunnel vision. As the blows rain in from all directions, they focus on the next school, hoping that in the time of our children’s children we will see an integrated school system.

Yet this is impossible within the current dispensation. The most recent attempt at modernisation was the Education and Skills Authority (ESA). The aim was to combine all five education boards into a single authority and, more widely, to pull together the different sectors. After years of sectarian wrangling the ESA was finally established. Rather than replacing the various sectors all the old divisions were bolted together in the new structure. In fact state secondary schools claimed that they were being discriminated against and were duly given a representative body and added to the pile.

It should be evident that accepting sectoral designation is simply a way of allowing integrated education to be penned in a middle class ghetto with no real challenge to the status quo.

So what is the alternative? Any teacher will tell you that the many attempts to reform society through school programmes have limited effect. Progressive societies produce progressive schools to a much greater extent than the converse. The history of educational reform in Britain and Ireland is one of mass political movements, not glacial administrative adjustment. A call for integrated education should be a call for secular education. Bowing to all points on the religious compass will leave one dizzy. Integration of religious groups is largely meaningless outside a broader movement for social justice.

We can hardly support integration while supporting ongoing discrimination on grounds of social class. We should not fudge on history and culture. An agreed Irish history may not be immediately available. An inclusive one certainly is. It is the duty of schools to provide grounding in basic elements of the Irish language and to provide space so that anyone who wishes to can achieve fluency.

Applying these axioms means building a movement for social justice that rejects absolutely bigotry and discrimination in all areas of society. It means absolute separation of church and state. It means comprehensive education that aims to overcome educational disadvantage rather than amplify the effects of social class.

Most of us have an inbuilt reflex when it comes to naked bigotry. We avert our eyes and declaim our neutrality. That is the foundation of the “equality of the two traditions” position. That’s what has led to growing and more systemic sectarianism, to greater and greater barriers to integrated education and to the corruption and decay of political institutions.

We want a society that allows each child to reach their full potential, where no one has special privilege, and where adults can live in comfort and dignity. And if we want that, we’ll have to fight for it.

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