Reject sectarian politicians phoney war over education

For a fully funded integrated education system First Minister Peter Robinson’s announcement that he is supposedly in favour of a fully integrated education system has fooled nobody.

His statement was designed to pump sectarianism into the debate on cuts by advocating that funding to Catholic maintained schools be completely cut. It is not a coincidence he made this remark at the height of the announcement of major cuts in the Comprehensive Spending Review. As with Sinn Fein’s attempt to portray the cuts as “British” Tory cuts, this demonstrates how unionist and nationalist politicians will attempt to play the sectarian card as they come under increasing pressure.
Indeed, Robinsons comments elicited predictable responses from the Catholic church, with the SDLP and Sinn Fein doing their best to out-green each other. Sinn Féin MLA John O’Dowd, for example said the DUP wants “all our children educated in the image of a Protestant state for a Protestant people”, with the SDLP’s deputy leader Patsy McGlone likewise describing Robinsons comments “as the sort of thing we used to hear from ministers in the old Stormont regime addressing Orange rallies on the 12th”.
Robinson cynically attempts to hide his real intentions behind a call for integrated education. He argues “The reality is that our education system is a benign form of apartheid, which is fundamentally damaging to our society”. His comments wrongly imply however that the state controlled sector as it currently exists is somehow neutral and could form the basis of a new integrated system. The churches are deeply embedded in both the maintained and controlled sectors which both function to promote rival communal identities. Much of the integrated sector even attempts to instill a broader Christian or religious ethos in their pupils.
The education system should instead be run on an entirely secular basis. It should be funded entirely through public money and democratically run and controlled by elected representatives of staff, trade unions, students, parents and local communities. Socialists fully defend the right of individuals to religious freedom. However religion should be a private matter conducted in individual churches and homes and not imposed on anybody. We also defend the right of pupils to voluntarily study religion as part of wider philosophical studies. Socialists have long argued that under capitalism organised religion becomes a powerful tool of the establishment. This is particularly true in Northern Ireland, where although religious leaders make frequent calls for peace and reconciliation, the churches continue to cement sectarian division on the ground in working class communities.
Integrated education is not a magic wand in itself. If not accompanied by wider social change the segregated nature of many areas in the North would mean many schools would continue to have similar populations regardless. It is important to recognise that Peter Robinson and most church leaders also stand fully in support of academic selection, another “benign form of apartheid”. The Socialist Party stands for a fully comprehensive system combined with a complete separation of church and state.

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