First Minister Visits Down High School

Down High School Receives Visit From First Minister THE First Minister, Peter Robinson MLA, is the latest high-profile guest speaker to have addressed Down High School’s Current Affairs Society. One hundred and fifty senior students were joined by a number of Sixth Formers from St Patrick’s Grammar School for the after-school meeting on Thursday 31st March. The First Minister  who attended other venues in Down District on his visit, was greeted by Headteacher Mr Paul Logan and the school’s Head of History and Politics, Mrs Colette Wood,  who had organised the visit. The First Minister was welcomed formally to the assembled audience by Year 13 student Courtney Black. Mr Robinson used the visit to reiterate his view, first stated last October, that the current education system in Northern Ireland was a “benign form of apartheid which was fundamentally damaging to our society.” Commending Down High as “an excellent example of a school which educates students from right across the community”, the First Minister  supported the introducion of a roadmap for a single education system. [caption id="attachment_22142" align="alignleft" width="400" caption="First Minister Peter Robinson visited the Down High School and spoke to the Current Affairs Society. Included in the picture are School Head Teacher Mr Paul Logan and pupils from St Patrick's Grammar School."][/caption] After his wide ranging address, Mr Robinson fielded a number of questions on issues such as Northern Ireland’s economic dependence on the British Exchequer,  his vision for the future of Northern Ireland politics, faith-based education, sectarian head-counts in local elections and the possibility of Sinn Fein becoming the largest party after the 5th May Assembly elections. Mrs Wood expressed her delight at how the event had gone. “Down High School is a real hub of political discussion about local, national and international events. Visits like this develop pupils’ political awareness and build their confidence in so many ways”, she said. Earlier speakers at the Current Affairs Society have included Sinn Fein’s Michelle Gildernew, East Belfast Alliance MP Naomi Long, Paddy Corrigan from Amnesty International, Justice Minister David Ford and Deputy Chief Constable Judith Gillespie.

The First Minister’ Peter Robinson’s Speech (Full  Unabridged Version)

Last October I made a speech in which I suggested that our education system was ‘a benign form of apartheid which was fundamentally damaging to our society’. It was significant, but perhaps not surprising, that this speech created controversy. Some questioned my motivation while others claimed it was as attack on the Maintained education sector.  Either way the message was – “back off.”   But in truth, it was simply an attempt to use the platform I have as First Minister to start a debate and seek to break down divisions and build for a better future.  It was certainly not intended as an attack on the Maintained Sector. The academic record of many schools in that sector speaks for itself.

Indeed, not long after my remarks last year it was brought to my attention that they echoed the sentiments of the 19th Century Roman Catholic Bishop James Doyle, of Kildare and Leighlin who said :

‘I do not see how any man, wishing well to the public peace, and who looks to Ireland as his country, can think that peace can ever be permanently established, or the prosperity of the country ever well secured, if children are separated, at the commencement of life, on account of their religious opinions.  I do not know any measures which would prepare the way for a better feeling in Ireland than uniting children at an early age, and bringing them up in the same school, leading them to commune with one another, and to form those little intimacies and friendships which often subsist through life.’ [caption id="attachment_22143" align="alignright" width="400" caption="The media interviews First Minister Peter Robinson at the Down High School in Downpatrick while on his visit to the area."][/caption]

I couldn’t have put it better. Though this was a very different era, I believe that the sentiment holds true today.  That’s why I am particularly pleased to be here today to take this debate forward. Down High School is an excellent example of a school which educates students from right across the community. I have no doubt that you, and we as a society, are the better for it.  It has developed naturally and primarily because of the decision of parents to send their children here.  Down High School is not unique in this regard but there are still too many children that are brought up with little or no experience of meeting people from a different background. I am delighted to see many schools embracing inter-school projects and programmes which bring pupils together in the same way they have with this event today.  I consider that to be a good start. But to those who support a single education system in Northern Ireland I say… “I have no doubt that the tide of history is with us.” Some of this will happen naturally due to a rationalisation of the schools estate in certain areas. Indeed if the Maintained sector moves away from academic selection I suspect there will be many Catholic parents who will wish their children to be educated at grammar schools. But I believe that it is better that it is done in a more “designed manner” where genuine choice for parents is retained. Given our divided history I believe that it is difficult to build a shared and united community while we continue to educate our young people separately. It’s not that separate education facilities are inherently unequal in Northern Ireland, it is just that they do not assist in the creation of the shared community here that we need and wish to see.   This goes to the heart of our vision for the future. On Tuesday, I asked, what kind a Northern Ireland do we wish to see in four years time? For my part, I want to see a shared and united society where everyone is proud to say they are from Northern Ireland. I’m not hanging the cause of division around the neck of our education system.  That would be too simplistic.  But I’ll tell you what I do believe!  I believe a truly integrated system can be a significant part of the solution. I’m not simply talking about an Integrated Sector and I don’t pretend that this issue can be resolved in the next four years but we must make a start.   And we must do so by working with all interested and willing stakeholders. In the next four years I want to see a roadmap produced for a single education system. I don’t know exactly what shape it will take but I want to see all those interested and involved in education sitting down together to explore how this can best be best achieved, while respecting the position of all sectors. I would like to think we will be able to convince the Assembly and Executive to come on board as this phase of the journey begins but if they do not there are Foundations and other interested groups who will facilitate this process. That is why after the election I want to see a commission which represents all interests established to map out a way forward.  I hope that we will be able to agree terms of reference that will allow everyone to participate in a constructive and positive way and with no predetermined outcome. It may well be that in the initial stage we merely encourage greater sharing between schools and sectors, but ultimately I would hope that this could evolve to a fully integrated single education system.  But that will be a matter for the future. I believe it is good that in this new era of politics local people can chart their own way forward. The benefits of devolution mean that local people can take decisions which suit our own circumstances and at a pace which suits those circumstances. That’s why we still allow schools to select on the basis of academic ability. The last Labour Government brought forward legislation to outlaw academic selection but at the St Andrews negotiations we insisted this issue was left to the new Assembly as a condition to the restoration of devolution. And despite the desire of some other parties to ban academic selection we have used our strength in the Executive to block any such moves. We will remain committed to preserving grammar schools and keeping Northern Ireland at the top of the league tables for educational achievement. Devolution also allows us to take a different position on issues such as tuition fees from the UK Government. The new Executive will have difficult decision to take but we are committed to ensure that no one is priced out of education. That may require expenditure to be diverted from other areas but we believe that it is a price worth paying for future generations. One of the proudest achievements of devolution has been the capacity to attract new and better jobs to Northern Ireland from abroad.  One of the key reasons that international companies want to come to Northern Ireland is because of the quality of the young people that are coming out of our educational establishments.  Our educational standard and the work ethic of the Northern Ireland people is cited time and again as key reasons to invest. And it’s not just Citi group or the New York Stock Exchange that we have been able to attract, we have also been able to make Northern Ireland an attractive place for Universal Studios and HBO to come and film major movies and TV series.   We’ve attracted new jobs from Terex, Dow Chemicals,  Allen & Overy, Bombardier, MM Teleperformance, Seagate, Firstsource, Fujitsu and look at our local companies – First Derivitives, Randox, Camden and Norbrook. What I want to see is a Northern Ireland where our young people can stay and build their lives and don’t feel that they need to move away to work and live.  In the next four years I want to ensure we can give you the choice to stay in Northern Ireland, to build your lives here and to help build our society in this new era.  If we can do that then we really will be on the road to success.]]>