The landmark decision now compels the North’s Department of Education to encourage and support the integrated sector, campaigners say.
Mr Justice Treacy delivered a ruling on the approach taken by the Department to a proposed increase in pupil numbers at Drumragh Integrated College in Omagh.
The Department initially refused the proposal to increase numbers from 580 to 750 pupils, but later said it would reconsider.
This meant the court could not consider whether the decision was unlawful, but Mr Justice Treacy said there was still a matter of public interest in how such decisions would be taken in the future. In his judgement, he reminded minister John O’Dowd that he had a statutory duty to “encourage and facilitate the development of integrated education”.
Lawyers argued the Department was failing to support integrated education saying it was a legal duty set out in both the 1989 Education Reform Order and the Good Friday Agreement.
One of the issues debated was whether legislation could be applied to any school with both Catholic and Protestant pupils, rather than specifically integrated schools.
A follow-up declaration issued by the judge went further, confirming the legislation “applies only to integrated education as a standalone concept”.
The Northern Ireland Council for Integrated Education says this marks “a significant milestone”.
Just 20 of the North’s 142 secondary schools are integrated.
Chief executive Noreen Campbell said: “It is to be hoped that future demand for integrated provision will now be met and that the barriers that still face it today, 25 years on from the original statutory support offered through the Education Reform Order of 1989, will be removed.”
Tina Merron of the Integrated Education Fund says the judgement brings welcome clarity to the statutory duty of the Northern Ireland Executive to encourage and facilitate integrated education.
“This ruling gives hope to all those families who want to see children of all traditions educated side-by-side but who are denied this by the current, divided education system in Northern Ireland.”