Dunsilly Shaping the Process conference

“SHAPING THE PROCESS”: A NICIE conference report.


Tuesday 17th June saw the Northern Ireland Council for Integrated Education (NICIE) holding a conference on “Positive Partnerships for Integration (PPInt)” and “Achieving a balanced intake: Admissions Criteria” in the Dunsilly Hotel, Antrim.

The conference was attended by principals and governors of integrated schools, NICIE directors and associates, members of the Integrated Education Fund (IEF), the Education and Training Inspectorate (ETI), the Department of Education and the Centre for Shared Education at Queen’s University.

Noreen Campbell, CEO of NICIE gave the introductory speech to the audience. In her speech she said that the pace of transformation of schools in Northern Ireland had slowed and yet surveys show the vast majority of parents would like to see their children educated in an integrated environment.

She said that the one place change has not occurred in recent years is in the “political sphere… politicians are wedded to tribal politics”.

She stated that economics also played a part as schools are not developing the necessary technological skills for today’s economy; but that society in Northern Ireland today is much more secular and “mixed” than it was 40 years ago.

Noreen described PPInt as a model of education that is evolving, promotes change, and is a model for respectful dialogue in schools – it is a fledgling policy that is now being “road tested” in an attempt to engender more cooperation among people from various backgrounds.

She concluded: “Our children are entitled to the experience of being educated together. PPInt is one way of making this happen.”

Peter McCreadie then spoke describing “where NICIE is at the moment”. He said: “NICIE are in listening mode. Integrated education needs to grow. We need to reach out to the whole community and seek to empower young people. We want to gain understanding from parents, pupils and participants here.”

A short presentation from Colm Davis, the principal of Tor Bank School in Dundonald was shown to the audience and he described how the school was linking up with other schools in the area and was looking for ways that schools could support each other and learn from each other.

He said he was extremely interested in how PPInt could be used to further the goals of the Integrated Education movement in Northern Ireland.

Numerous aspects of PPInt were discussed during the conference such as incentives to enable schools to join, the idea of a “Kitemark” type award for schools that have not attained true integration for whatever reason but are on the way to becoming one, or as close to one as they could possibly be given the realities of division in Northern Ireland.

A group discussion session followed; attendees were asked their thoughts on what would be needed to help schools utilize the PPInt approach and their thoughts on such an approach.

In the afternoon session of the conference Eileen Lenehan, a past Hazelwood Principal talked about how to achieve a balanced intake in post-primary colleges.

She said: “All ability education has met an impasse but that people are now thinking in a different way.”

“We’re falling down the list. People send their children to integrated primary schools and they think they’ve done their bit. And they send their children to grammar schools for a “better education and career”.

“Our schools were started to solve the very essence of what’s wrong in this country – sectarianism.”

She described how three schools; Strangford, Drumagh, and Sperrin are running a pilot scheme where children between P5 and P7 were to undergo diagnostic tests using the PIE and PIM systems that parents and teachers can use to ascertain what would suit their child’s needs best. She made clear that these tests were not the 11+.

The principals of those schools described aspects of the pilot system and the floor was opened up to debate. A number of attendees questioned the scheme from the outset; describing it as “selection by another means”. Some attendees expressed concern about the potential for parents or teachers to distort diagnostic test results.

Clarification was requested in relation to Nigel Frith’s reference to the “flocking effect ” i.e. the critical mass deemed necessary in any group to impact on learning outcomes for all students. Nigel explained that in his experience a group of 10 of the most able children is required to create such an effect.

There was sustained discussion as to whether or not Integrated Colleges could continue to guarantee places to Integrated Primary school applicants, if dual entry admissions became common practice. Principals responded by saying that in their experience to date, pupils from integrated primaries have been continuing to secure places in colleges. They envisaged no threat to IP applicants from dual entry.

The following points were also covered during question and answer responses:

• All integrated schools are different because they reflect the unique context and times of when and why they were founded

• Integrated Colleges may be described as both grammar and high schools due to their mixed ability intakes

• Many Integrated colleges already use a mixture of banding and/or streaming

• Once pupils are admitted, one principal described their education as “all bets are off” i.e. Integrated schools will do as they have always done and add value to pupils’ educational experiences and achievements

• Drumragh currently operates a gifted and talented programme

• By operating a dual entry system, the principals argued that it makes them more all-ability

• Would it be useful to survey the parents about their reasons for choosing grammar schools?

• Why is there “seepage” of pupils who attend integrated primaries but who do not follow through their education in an integrated college?

Whilst there was honest and frank exchange of views, the conference agreed it was a good thing that a dual entry admission was first being piloted.