Normally the power of parents to influence education is limited to the schools their children attend. Up until now parents have not been able to contribute to the wider debate about schools.
Yet at this moment parents do have that power. They have been invited to respond to the plans produced by the Education and Library Boards for primary school education. The response date is 30th June and parents can respond through an online response document, or through email or letter. Parents can put their ideal solutions for education in their area forward and their views will have to be taken into account.
This consultation allows parents to suggest how primary education might look in their area and suggest ways in which it might be achieved. This consultation allows parents to support change in their own school and in the local area.
In some areas, proposals have been put forward for ‘a local solution’. In this case it is anticipated that a number of small schools will close and a new bigger school will open. In most areas the presumption is that these new schools will be single identity. But should that be the case? Surely such a school should be one which meets the needs of all the children in the area? In all public opinion polls in recent years, parents have expressed a preference for integrated schools. Yet, the vast majority of schools at the moment are single identity, either catholic in ethos or perceived to be protestant. But do those single identity schools reflect the reality of the diversity to be found within every school?
We live in an increasingly diverse world; all schools reflect that diversity. Recent surveys and the recent census show us that people are much more fluid in their self-identification and can see themselves as holding a range of identities. Increasingly parents may either not be active church goers or may see religion as a private family choice nurtured and developed in the home and not dependent on a school.
In every area there are newcomers who may be from a different faith tradition or of no religion. They will want to feel that their identity and culture is valued and respected and is not assimilated.
One of our failings as a society is our attitude to those in mixed marriages. Children from these families are expected to be only catholic or protestant depending on what school they go to and where they live. Their double belonging is not recognised; an important part of their identity is denied. Surely we are at the point where as a society we can value these families equally?
Every school is composed of unique individuals; parents want to see that uniqueness recognised and not subsumed under an inherited identity banner. Parents want their child to have an opportunity to mix with a range of children and to learn from, with and about them. Parents want an education that will prepare their child best for living in a shared and diverse future.
The consultation process provides a unique opportunity for parents to make clear their preferred options. Are changes proposed for their area with maybe a number of smaller schools earmarked for closure? Parents can suggest that instead of the new proposals being either ‘catholic’ or ‘protestant’ that a new integrated school opens. Is your own school going to grow or remain the same but, as a parent, you would like to see it to be recognised as diverse and welcoming to all? Now is the opportunity to say you want to see the school move beyond single identity status to embrace diversity and serve the common needs of ‘both sides’ of the community.
Parents should be assured that this can be done in a way that does not take away from the ownership of any sector and does not diminish the history of the school or devalue its contribution to education over the years. This can be done in a way where there is a parity of esteem and celebration of all traditions and preparation for the sacraments for those who seek this.
The process of Area Based Planning recognises that change must happen in our schools. Change is happening in all parts of our society. Parents can, through responding to this consultation, shape an educational system which models and prepares our children for a better future where the concept of ‘both sides’ becomes history.