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The challenge of diversity in schools

Last update - Thursday, December 11, 2008, 12:27 By Conor Lenihan

Preparations are continuing apace for a national policy on diversity within the schools system, with this week seeing the seventh and final consultative gathering to discuss how the intercultural strategy for schools can be driven forward.

The latest seminar was conducted with NGOs and community groups, with participation from interdepartmental representation at official level so that there could be a maximum input from all sectors. This drive to create an intercultural strategy for the schools is thanks to the prompting and encouragement of the National Action Plan Against Racism (NPAR) which has been ably led by Lucy Gaffney.
The NPAR has done very valuable work under its mandate and has recognised that increasingly the agenda must now move beyond mere campaigns to counter racism to the more mainstream area of emphasising integration. This is something NPAR chair Lucy Gaffney has been at pains to point out as her body finishes up its work.
The work of both the National Consultative Comm-ittee on Racism and Interculturalism (NCCRI) and the NPAR must now be continued by a mainstream ministry, namely my own Office of the Minister for Integration (OMI). In my policy document Migration Nation published last May, and consistently since being appointed, I have emphasised that the architecture and structures around integration would change by dint of the creation of the new office.
In education there is now a drive to create a policy template that will guide schools and educators in their efforts to manage diversity properly and appropriately. Clearly there is a need for a greater sharing of best practice across the system so that everyone benefits from the good things that are working in individual schools.
In this sense – as in the situation of the hijab in schools – our primary and secondary school system is locally led; it is pointless imposing a one-size-fits-all regime. Local arrangements that work must be encouraged and good examples of positive integration need to be shared around the system.
As luck would have it, in the coming months new studies from the ESRI, the OECD, the EU and of course the report on language teaching in schools will become available to me as minister and allow for a further improvement in the intercultural strategy. The aim is to produce the new strategy for handling diversity in the schools by August/September of next year. Hopefully we will make that deadline and confirm the best practice that already exists, and suggest improvements where possible.

Immigrant children or the children of immigrants make up 10 per cent of primary school enrolment across the country, and seven per cent of intake at secondary level. This is a huge challenge for the long term. But the good news is that immigrant parents are by and large very ambitious for their children in the classroom.
Already we are getting experiences and evidence that classroom outcomes are actually improved by the presence of the children of immigrants. This confirms international evidence on this point. At least one international study has suggested that results and outcomes were marginally better in schools where immigrant children are present. This should act to mitigate the fears in some quarters of ‘white flight’ from certain schools.
In Ireland the results in the medium term are likely to be a lot better than elsewhere, precisely because the predominant 18–44 age demographic that represents most immigrants means they are more likely to be holders of third level degrees than our own population. The likelihood is as this age cohort begins to settle down and form families, they will be even more ambitious on education than immigrant parents in other European countries.
The challenge now is to derive a diversity policy for the schools that is not hostage to resource allocation but is able to respond to the pressures that show themselves in our country’s very different range of schools and school experiences.

Conor Lenihan TD is Minister for Integration and represents the constituency of Dublin South West, which includes Tallaght, Greenhills, Firhouse, Templeogue and Boherna-breena

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