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Reconciliation above all
Reconciliation is the primary necessity facing Northern Ireland, believes Peter Osborne. Peter is a former chair of both the Community Relations Council and the Parades Commission. He was talking in the latest Forward Together podcast from the Holywell Trust.
“I come from a perspective of looking at what reconciliation is about,” says Peter. He argues that to achieve reconciliation it is essential to correct the structures that create separation. This has led him to strongly argue for the integration of the education and housing systems. “You need to make the structural changes that created segregation and the conflict,” he says.
“We need to tackle the causes of the problem, not deal with the symptoms. The cause of the problem here is segregation. That leads to sectarianism and all of the other stuff that we see every day. There is a real need to make the structural change around education and around play.”
Many health specialists argue that the NHS in Northern Ireland has the wrong structures, with too many buildings, many of them old and inefficient. The Bengoa review of health services concluded that too much money is spent on buildings and not enough on services, requiring a significant reorganisation and reshaping of the service to correct. Peter has argued that in a similar way Northern Ireland’s education system needs its own Bengoa-type review and restructure, with the possibility of reducing overheads and improving outcomes.
That view is influenced by the Department for Education saying that there are around 60,000 surplus places in Northern Ireland schools – though this is a reduction of 35,000 places since 2006. However, some educationalists argue that there is no indication that financial savings are achieved from school mergers – with perhaps extra costs being generated by the construction of new school campuses.
Peter is clear, though, that having surplus school places is wrong. He says: “It feels as if it's a waste of money. Well, it is a waste of money….There are a number of arguments that are relevant - there's the economic arguments, the political arguments as well.”
Peter stresses that apart from the direct costs of school building and teacher duplication, there is also the issue that “tens or perhaps hundreds of millions of pounds” are spent a year in bringing children and society together in community cohesion projects that would be unnecessary if children were educated together. Moreover, if school mergers led to the vacation of some existing school buildings that land could be sold to generate capital receipts that could be re-invested.
There is controversy around shared education campuses – opposition on the one side from some that the specific identity of faith schools is lost, while criticism on the other from those who believe it is a dilution of what can be achieved from fully integrated schools. Peter believes that shared campuses are clearly preferable to segregated schools.
“A lot of good stuff is happening within shared education,” he says. “There is some stuff that is not good. My criterion is that there is a continuum of moving to a place where children and young people are educated together. If shared education helps us move along that continuum then fine.”
He adds: “I'm not saying one system is all that we need. I am in favour of integrated schools for children learning and developing together: that could be achieved by different models. I think that's a conversation we need to have. But I think from the ground up, parents and young people, when they're asked, very clearly say we would prefer everybody in the same classroom together. There is a demand for that to happen.
“That doesn't mean that the children, young people, don't get any religious education. Actually, the experience from the integrated sector is that there is a greater focus on different types of religious education. Both the Protestant and the Catholic churches like it when they're involved in it, because they see what each other is doing and there is a greater relationship between the churches.”
But are the politicians willing to do more? “I do see a change happening in the political side,” says Peter. However, even if there is a willingness to have more integrated schools and shared campuses, that shift does not extend to the point of merging the Stranmillis and St. Mary’s teacher training colleges. “To have two teacher training colleges when clearly we should only have one, with a cost of millions of pounds extra, is ridiculous,” Peter argues. “I do get a sense that there's an acknowledgement of that politically. And, there was a debate in the Assembly recently where politicians did say they wanted to see an independent review of education. In the context of New Decade, New Approach, that means a single education system.”
But, believes Peter, there is an equally pressing need to develop shared housing provision. “We need to be a lot more ambitious about public housing and about shared housing.” The target now set is the building of 1500 more social housing units over the next 10 years, compared to the 487 in the previous plan – which is less than 1% of total new housing stock. “And we need to defend the policy on shared housing we have, making sure there aren’t paramilitary flags going up.”
While the political system has resisted radical change to achieve a more integrated society, Peter believes that greater progress might be achieved if citizens’ assemblies were used, in the way that has happened in the Republic. “I think citizens’ assemblies and civic engagement more generally are something that we really need to put more resources, more thought into,” he says. Peter hopes that citizens’ assemblies might be used to assist reform of the education system, the environment and other social issues. There is, he says, “a real opportunity to use them to come up with some answers”.
Disclaimer: This project has received support from the Northern Ireland Community Relations Council which aims to promote a pluralist society characterised by equity, respect for diversity, and recognition of interdependence. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the Community Relations Council.