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NI schools should be 'legally accountable for equality'

media captionThe system is already used in some secondary schools

Schools in Northern Ireland should be made legally accountable for promoting equality and good relations, a ministerial advisory group on shared education has said.

The group, headed by Professor Paul Connolly of Queen's University Belfast, makes 20 recommendations.

Prof Connolly called the current choice of grammar or secondary at 11 "archaic, divisive and not fit for purpose".

He said admitting pupils on the basis of academic tests should be outlawed.

Shared education is usually understood to mean children from the Catholic and state (mostly Protestant) sectors learning together while still abiding by their school's ethos. The term is also used to describe efforts to share resources and facilities across socio-economic divisions.

In some secondary schools it is already used to provide GCSE or A-level subjects.

These would not otherwise be available to students in either controlled (state) or Catholic schools.

The group, appointed by the education minister John O'Dowd last July, says the Department of Education should actively encourage and facilitate collaboration between schools.

'Truly inclusive'

It also recommends financial support and a strong system of training for teachers and says schools from across different sectors should be encouraged to share in a bid to promote equality and good relations.

The panel, which also includes former PUP leader Dawn Purvis and PJ O'Grady, a retired school principal, suggests fundamental changes to the education system - including a review of how schools currently provide pupils with opportunities to explore controversial issues.

In his press statement, Professor Connolly addresses the last three recommendations 18, 19, 20 which deal with academic selection.

Recommendation 18 says the NI Executive should, without delay, introduce the necessary legislation to prevent schools from selecting children on the basis of academic ability.

The panel says that, in future, schools should be required to develop admissions requirements that are "truly inclusive and egalitarian".

The education minister said he wanted to consider the findings in detail before making any recommendations on the way ahead. But he described the report as a very important step.

"I am committed to providing all children with an opportunity to experience shared education."

The DUP said the report was "an opportunity lost", saying it focused on academic selection.

"Instead of focusing on the clear desire which exists across the community to promote shared education, they have decided to focus on the divisive issue of academic selection and have placed perceived class issues above the religious divide in their priorities," DUP leader Peter Robinson said.

Mervyn Storey, the party's education spokesman, said: "There is a clear and growing demand from right across our community for shared education to be taken forward, but the report's authors largely side-stepped the issue."

Trevor Lunn, education spokesman for the Alliance Party, said: "While the sections on academic selection are very well thought out ... the report fails to adequately define the different levels or types of shared education. The sharing of a canteen facility with separate lunch hours will not achieve as much as the sharing of classes that take place daily.

"I am concerned by their lack of support for the integrated sector. I would be worried that the recommendations for the promotion of shared education could come at the detriment of the integrated sector."

John Hart, director of the Governing Bodies Association said: "It appears more exercised about rehashing well-worn arguments on academic selection than on how we tackle division across communities.

"The basic premise of shared education is different types of schools working together for everyone's benefit. But it seems today's report doesn't want to see academic-focused schools offered to parents as a choice in the first place."

Stephen Elliott from PACE - Parents' Voices in Northern Ireland - said the idea that academic selection should end violated "the rights of parents to have their children educated in conformity with their own religious and philosophical convictions".

The Ulster Teachers Union has welcomed the report, saying it could be the final "death knell" for 11-plus style exams.

"We would welcome the robust findings of the advisory group and the fact it has not shirked from stating what it believes must happen if schools here are to deliver a truly 'equal' experience of educational opportunity for all our children," said Avril Hall-Callaghan, the union's general secretary.

"We welcome the fact too that it copper fastens its beliefs by calling for changes to be enshrined in law and to happen as soon as possible - and that includes consignment of academic selection at 11 to the dustbin of history."

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