Northern Ireland

Michael D Higgins: ‘Segregated education holding back children and peace’

Contributing to a new book calling for more integrated education, Mr Higgins said it was past time policy makers caught up with the public mood

President of Ireland Michael D Higgins
President of Ireland Michael D Higgins (Brian Lawless/PA)

Irish President Michael D Higgins has said segregated education in Northern Ireland is holding back both children and peace.

In a contribution to a new book about what the future holds for the next generation across the border, Mr Higgins said it was not helpful that 93% of schools in Northern Ireland remained segregated, dividing children in the languages they speak and sports they play.

The President said while communities today were more peaceful and equal in some metrics, young people were also denied the chance to build lasting relationships in schools.

He noted that the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland’s findings that segregation harms poorer families, such as “persistent underachievement” among Protestant boys entitled to free school meals.

In addition, with paramilitaries still active in working-class communities, he said “segregation only fosters hostility and harms vulnerable, disillusioned young people who can be misled by violent actors within their communities who hold significant powers of influence.”

Reproduced in the Sunday Times, Mr Higgins cited a recent survey that indicated 71% of people in Northern Ireland thought integrated education should be the norm and that integrated schools were consistently over-subscribed.

“Surely this is a matter on which we can all unite,” he said.

“I believe strongly that integrated education is a key element to a successful, inclusive and harmonious future in Northern Ireland.”

The New Decade New Approach agreement of 2020, which restored Stormont after a three-year collapse, had agreed to an independent review of education which is still in the early stages.

Mr Higgins said a familiar theme was that community action on the ground was often far ahead of the policy makers when it came to reforms.

He said it was understandable that commentators often viewed separate schooling as “a cynical tactic aimed at satisfying their core support base.”

While the Integrated Education Fund (IEF) has helped several schools to become integrated since 1981, Mr Higgins said that none of the 68 integrated schools had done so through government action alone – but were galvanised by parents’ groups working with teachers and schools.

Calling integrated education a key means to promoting peaceful co-existence, Mr Higgins said: “Young people should feel that they belong in any school irrespective of their religion, or lack of religion.

“Young people should not feel segregated from others based on dangerous sectarian criteria that merely reinforces notions of ‘the other’.”

On a practical level, the President said a good place to start would be curriculum reform in Northern Ireland, agreeing core elements as well as trialing others and optional elements.

“I suggest that matters concerning sexuality education would be a good place to achieve such consensus.”

Mr Higgins also said there could be no complaceny in the Republic either, with a growing desire for co-educational, multi-denominational and non-denominational schools and primary and secondary levels.

The Sundered Children: First a United Northern Ireland and that through educating together, edited by David Rice, is available to buy on Amazon.