ARMAGH City, Banbridge and Craigavon Borough Council is to urge the Department of Education not to rush through the passage of the Integrated Education Bill.
The issue was raised at a meeting of the council’s governance, resources and strategy committee where it resulted in a hotly contested debate that saw the proposal to send a letter expressing reservations about the proposed legislation pass, with a majority of just one vote.
The proposal passed with nine votes in favour and eight votes against. Of those who attended the meeting, Councillor Louise McKinstry abstained and Councillor Peter Lavery withdrew from the voting process altogether.
Councillor Darryn Causby told the chamber he had been contacted by a “significant number” of schools, parents, governors and pupils and called on the council to convey the concerns of its citizens to the Department of Education.
“It is unfortunate the bill is currently before the assembly, given there is an ongoing independent review of education,” said Cllr Causby.
“My other concern is the bill that preceded the one currently before the assembly was consulted on in 2016/17 and there has been no public consultation around this one at all.
“When we make policy on Council, we don’t rely on information five or six years out of date.”
He continued by telling the chamber the bill will have a “detrimental impact” on both Council for Catholic Maintained Schools and the controlled sector of education.
“It will require the department to support integrated education over and above 90 per cent of the school population across Northern Ireland and that is something we need to take seriously,” he said.
“I propose we write to the Minister for Education, Michelle McIlveen MLA and Chair of the Education committee, Chris Lyttle MLA setting out our concerns and opposition to the bill in its current form.
“We should be clear that our view is that any change to education should come from the recommendations based around the significant piece of work that is going to be done through the independent review of education.”
Alderman Kenneth Twyble, who has been involved in education for more than 40 years, described the matter as “very complex” and urged all involved to spend time thinking carefully about all the issues involved.
“We have to take into consideration this recent initiative that is trying to go through the Assembly about integrated education and there is the concern that if it goes through, it will give a decided advantage to the integrated sector without acknowledging the most natural integrated sector is the controlled sector,” he said.
“There is a complexity to all of these things and I am a bit scared of the speed, the powers that be are trying to use to rush this policy through the Assembly. I think a lot more time needs to be taken to discuss this further.
“I have been in the area of education for over 40 years, there are always issues and we need to spend time and think through the issues carefully.”
Councillor Eoin Tennyson said he did not share some of the views that had been expressed and described the integrated education bill as “long overdue and much needed for progressive change”.
“At the heart of the bill is the desire to have a strategy to meet the demand that is out there,” he said.
“I think if we are serious about making progress and healing the barriers in our community, we need to start by educating our children together and ensuring that integrated education is an option available to parents, just as the controlled and Catholic maintained sector is an option.
“In many areas, integrated education is not a viable option and that is, I would argue, because of political choices that have been made by the DUP and others in order to try and maintain division over the past 24 years.”
Alderman Stephen Moutray said he was fully supportive of Councillor Causby’s proposal and agreed with Alderman Twyble telling the chamber “rushed legislation is rarely good legislation”.
Councillor Liam Mackle said he could not support Cllr Causby’s proposal telling the chamber the matter would be better left to the assembly.
Councillor Kyle Savage described the bill as “ill thought out” and Councillor Thomas O’Hanlon said “no sector of education should be promoted over and above another” though said it would be best for the parties to have this debate is at the Assembly.
Despite some opposition, Cllr Causby told the chamber his proposal would stand as he was of the view Council has a duty to reflect concerns raised by constituents and noted “education is one of the major issues across our borough”.
With no agreement on Cllr Causby’s proposal, the matter was then put to a vote. The proposal received the support of the chamber with nine votes in favour and eight against.
All members of the DUP and UUP present voted in favour of the proposal except Cllr McKinstry who abstained while all members of the Alliance Party, SDLP and Sinn Fein present voted against the proposal, except Cllr Lavery who did not cast a vote.