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Leona O'Neill: Boxer Carl Frampton leading the fight for integrated education

Despite increasing support for integrated education in Northern Ireland, there hasn't been a new integrated post-primary school opened here in almost 20 years. Leona O'Neill finds out more about a campaign to open a new integrated post primary school in the mid Down area...

Carl Frampton with Elle Brown (5) of Cairnshill Primary School, Rafe McKervey (13) from Blackwater Integrated College and Felix Jackson (8) of Cedar Integrated Primary School as the boxing champion supports the establishment of a new integrated post primary school in the mid-Down area.

IN JULY, I spent some time in Belfast covering the pinnacle of the marching season with Vice News. During a week-long period we situated ourselves along the peace lines, talking to families from either side about their lives, about their concerns. It struck me as to how very divided we still are.

At the bonfires, I saw children the same age as my own writing horrible slogans about their Catholic neighbours. A month later the same sentiments were expressed in reverse about their Protestant neighbours.

I have long felt that separating our children in education, making them feel different from and alien to one another and putting barriers up to long-term, meaningful social interaction is one of the catalysts to our never ending problems here.

Integrated schools bring together children of all backgrounds giving them the opportunity to learn side by side. An integrated education helps children develop mutual respect and understanding, breaks down barriers and fosters cross-community relations.

While a recent survey has shown that support for integrated education is growing, with 71 per cent believing it should be the 'main model' for Northern Ireland's education system, only seven per cent of children here attend integrated schools.

Out of 1,136 schools in Northern Ireland there are only 72 formally integrated schools and colleges. And, despite the growing support for integrated education, there hasn't been a new post-primary school opened in Northern Ireland in almost 20 years.

This statistic might soon change following a proposal to the Education Authority by a Parental Steering Group in the mid-Down area to establish a new integrated post primary school accommodating 600 pupils.

The Development Proposal, for which a period of public consultation is currently underway, seeks to provide places for the many children and families who currently cannot access the post primary education of their choice.

I spoke with Tim Jackson, co-chair of the Parental Steering Group. His four children, aged from eight through to 15, attend integrated schools, so he says he knows first hand of the extensive benefits integrated education can provide.

"In Northern Ireland, when you hear of integrated education, people's first thought is that it is for children of all religions, and whilst that is the case, it is much more than that," he says.

"An integrated education provides a child-centred education and is for children of all abilities, from all religious, social and cultural backgrounds. It champions equality and inclusivity and provides a broad and balanced curriculum to promote academic success for all students, including those with special educational needs."

Another parent, Steve Comiskey whose sons are aged seven and 11, said: "I'm excited by this project because I believe that integrated education is an important step forward for our society.

"As a parent, it represents a greater choice for ourselves and our children to continue in the integrated sector up to sixth form, and also as the parent of two boys on the SEN register, I'm particularly interested in the learning support units and the autism class."

Carl Frampton is an ambassador for the Northern Ireland Council for Integrated Education (NICIE) and is supporting the proposal for the new Mid Down Integrated College.

"I am a strong supporter of integrated education and I believe that children from all backgrounds and religions should have the opportunity to learn together from a young age," he says.

"And whilst integrated education has progressed in recent years, there is still a lot of work that needs done to address the lack of provision across Northern Ireland. I am pleased to support the proposal for the new Mid Down Integrated College and we need more projects like this around the province to grow and develop integrated education and help our children build a society together that is more tolerant, respectful and understanding."

For the last two years the steering group has been gathering expressions of interest with the view to submitting a Development Proposal for a new 11 to18 integrated school in the Mid Down area. They say engagements with the local community have highlighted the fact that there is very substantial demand for a school of this type.

With the support of the Integrated Education Fund (IEF) and Northern Ireland Council for Integrated Education (NICIE), they have now submitted a Case for Change to the Education Authority which will then progress to the Minister for Education.

Tim Jackson says there is real momentum for the project and hopes the people of Northern Ireland will get behind them.

"There is a real hope, desire and appetite for fresh opportunities for our children to be educated together in a new integrated college," he says.

"We are inviting the people of Northern Ireland to support this proposal and to help us to secure the first new post primary secondary school here in almost 20 years."

Parents wishing to give their support for the new Mid Down Integrated College proposal can complete an Expression of Interest form before Thursday September 16 2021. Others wishing to show support can complete a Community Support form. Both forms can be found at nicie.org/mid-down-project/eoi.

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