Integrated education bill would create a ‘three-tier system’, DUP MLA says

A private member’s bill aimed at promoting integrated education in Northern Ireland would create a “three-tier system”, a DUP MLA has claimed.

Diane Dodds said the proposed legislation by Alliance MLA Kellie Armstrong was “unfair and unreasonable” as it would force Stormont to “prioritise one sector over all others”.

The Department of Education is required to encourage and facilitate integrated education under current legislation.

Ms Armstrong’s bill proposes the setting of minimum targets for the number of children being educated in integrated schools, as well as providing dedicated funding for facilitation of the sector.

Currently just 7% of children in Northern Ireland attend schools in the formally integrated sector.

Mrs Dodds, who sits on the Assembly’s education committee, accused other parties backing the bill as “playing election games” with the future of children’s education.

She warned the proposed legislation would mean Stormont would have to support integrated education “in a way that no other sector enjoys”.

The Upper Bann MLA said: “This bill, if passed, will create effectively a three-tier education system.

“It will see the Integrated sector elevated to the top, Irish Medium in the middle and Controlled/Maintained schools at the bottom.”

Referring to certain clauses in the bill, she added: “This will mean that the Department of Education will have to prioritise one sector over all others.

“This is unfair and unreasonable. My local controlled school should not be deprived of a new build just because it is not in the integrated sector even though its pupils come from all faiths and none.”

Mrs Dodds described the bill as “rushed” and said matters should instead be considered through the department’s recently launched independent review of Northern Ireland’s education system.

She added: “There have been many claims made about the Integrated Education Bill however what is very clear is that this bill will not achieve the noble aspiration of breaking down barriers and tackling educational inequalities.”

Ms Armstrong has previously said her bill seeks to “grow community cohesion by making integrated schooling a viable choice for parents across Northern Ireland”.

Alliance MLA Kellie Armstrong

Alliance MLA Kellie Armstrong

She said: “For years, people have criticised integrated schools as having low numbers.

“This limit is because there are not enough places for families who want to send their children to schools that deliver an education system not only suiting their ability but providing the future so many of us want.

“A place where we celebrate who and what we are, no matter our culture, religion, socio-economic background and abilities.”

Aspects of the bill have been criticised by representatives for the four main churches.

Gerry Campbell, chief executive of the Council for Catholic Maintained Schools, said the idea that only integrated schools can offer education to pupils from different backgrounds was “fundamentally flawed”.

Children’s Commissioner Koulla Yiasouma told MLAs in her view the bill does not attempt to prioritise one sector over another “but instead tries to level the playing field”.

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