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New research from the University of Ulster exposes a gulf between political thinking on education and the public appetite in Northern Ireland for integrated schools.

A report from the university's UNESCO Centre shows a clear trend in party manifestos and policy, moving away from the concept of integrated education even though there is continuing, strong public support for the idea.

The report – Integrated Education: A Review of Policy and Research Evidence 1999-2012 -- was written by Ulf Hansson, Una O’Connor Bones and John McCord and was commissioned by the Integrated Education Fund (IEF). It draws together 13 years of studies and research relating to integrated education and draws together successive opinion polls showing overwhelming support for integrated education in Northern Ireland.

The academic study also presents evidence that discussion at the political level has moved to focus on the concept of “sharing” between schools of different sectors and sidesteps the issue of bringing children together in the classroom for all of their school life.

Professor Alan Smith, UNESCO Chair in Education at the University of Ulster, says that current discourse assumes that the vast majority of our children will continue to be educated in separate schools for the foreseeable future:

“By accepting this, political parties move towards education policies that plan for separate development rather than structural change and reform of the school system. However, survey data continues to show. consistent public support for integrated education. We all need to know where current education policies will lead us.

"Is our ultimate destination as a society one that leads to integrated or separate development?"

Tina Merron, Chief Executive of the Integrated Education Fund, said: “There is an urgent need for the Education Minister and the Department to listen to the public. Changes for schools in Northern Ireland are planned – with the introduction of the ESA and Area-based Planning - but it seems that an opportunity for a fundamental change in how education is structured is being missed.

"Successive opinion polls show the public would support a move to integrated education and have been waiting for years for their voices to be heard on this issue. Meanwhile politicians are becoming increasingly disconnected from public opinion in their inability to question the status quo and their reluctance to build anything new.”

The report Integrated Education: A Review of Policy and Research Evidence 1999-2012 –can be downloaded