Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Socialists and religiously integrated schools

Two new religiously integrated schools in Northern Ireland are opening this week. Support for such ventures should be a no brainer for anybody on the left. Yet New Labour is refusing to give them financial backing, leaving them dependent on charity instead.

There are plenty of reasons why integrated schooling in the six counties is obviously a good thing. For a start, it is desirable from the community relations standpoint. At present, 95% of pupils attend religion-based establishments, contributing in no small measure to continued social division.

Second, it avoids wasteful duplication. Even the smallest villages currently have separate Protestant and Catholic schools. Yet pupil numbers are falling. Northern Ireland secretary Peter Hain recognises that there are 50,000 empty desks, despite a classroom population of just 387,000.

Third, research indicates that 80% of parents actually want it. What’s not to like? But it seems Labour is caving in to sectarian pressure:

‘In particular, the Catholic Church, which actually owns the land of Catholic schools and controls their boards of governors, is set against integrated education. Political parties are also attracted to the current system, in part because at election time it is easier to identify potential voters as mothers collect their children at school gates.’

The upshot?

‘But Philip O'Sullivan of the Northern Ireland Council for Integrated Education, a voluntary organisation supporting integrated education said: "If we waited for government to help us there wouldn't be any integrated schools in Northern Ireland."’

As I said, backing secular education should be a no brainer for the left. Yet Socialist Workers’ Party activists in the National Union of Teachers have declared explicit support for Muslim faith schools, albeit as a way station on the road to common comprehensives:

‘On faith schools, Kevin Ovenden argues in Socialist Review that "denying parents of minority groups equality with those of the established Church of England will be seen as lining up with an unjust status quo. It is only by making explicit the right of Muslim parents to have state-supported Muslim schools that it is possible to advocate not separation and the embrace of the government’s destructive proposals, but a common struggle for common comprehensive schools" (December 2005).’

Logically, then, that same right should be extended to Christian parents. And thus these revolutionary socialists end up in the same camp as Northern Ireland’s worst religious bigots.

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