CAIN: CSC: Report: Inter School Links
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Text: Seamus Dunn and Alan Smith Page Design: John Hughes

Inter School Links frontispiece

Inter School Links

by Seamus Dunn and Alan Smith
Published by the University of Ulster, Coleraine 1989
ISBN 1 87120 660 X
Paperback 71 pp £4.00

Copies are available in bookshops or, by post, from:

Pat Shortt
Centre for the Study of Conflict
University of Ulster
Northern Ireland
BT52 1SA

T: (028) 7032 4666 or 324165
F: (028) 7032 4917

This material is copyright of the Centre for the Study of Conflict and the author(s) and is included on the CAIN web site with the permission of the publisher. Reproduction or redistribution for commercial purposes is not permitted.

Inter School Links

by Seamus Dunn and Alan Smith

Centre for the Study of Conflict
University of Ulster



Chapter 1:

The Inter School Links Project

Chapter 2:

The First Year 1986-87

Chapter 3:

The Second Year 1987-88

Chapter 4:

Issues 1: EMU and the Inter School Links

Chapter 5:

Issues 2: Intervention, Structure and Curriculum

Chapter 6:


Chapter 7:

Suggestions and Recommendations

Appendix A

Appendix B




This report is a successor of the two earlier works published as Schools Apart?, (Darby, et al, 1977) and Schools Together?, (Dunn, et al, 1984) . It is concerned with the contribution that the two schools systems in Northern Ireland might make to the promotion of cross community relations, in particular through the development of structured and coherent inter school links.

The first research in this series was an attempt to try to "fill the gap between the wide general interest in the subject of integrated schooling in Northern Ireland and the shortage of information about segregated schools". (Darby, et al, 1977) . The questions posed by this work were basic and to do with the need for factual information. First: what proportion of children in the province are educated separately according to religion? Or, to put that another way, do the terms Catholic School and Protestant School represent a fair description of the schools? Second: what are the essential differences between the two sets of schools? And in what do these differences lie? Is it in curriculum, or in managerial and administrative structures, or in the qualifications of the teachers, or in the pervading religious ethos, or the cultural choices as in school visits, text-book choices, media programmes listened to, games played, and so on? Third: how do the two school systems perceive each other, and do these perceptions match up with any form of reality.

The report indicated that at that time there was a genuinely segregated system. There was little evidence of any significant level of crossover between the two systems, and this was equally true of teachers and of boards of management. But the results also seemed to indicate that in broad terms the differences were less immediately obvious than the similarities. For example, they were certainly more like each other than they were like schools in England or in France. With respect to such matters as teacher qualifications, work profiles of principals, classroom practices such as streaming, many aspects of the curriculum, many of the games played, there was little obvious difference. Later Dominic Murray carried out a more detailed study with two neighbouring primary schools, with broadly similar results. (Murray, 1983 and 1985).


There were two particular results of this research which seemed to contradict each other. The first was a conviction, expressed by almost all those interviewed, that large scale integration of the two school systems (whether desirable or not) was not likely in the immediate future. And the second was a high level of regret and anxiety about the consequences (or just the possible consequences) of the existing separated schools. The most logical way to reconcile these two apparently contradictory views was to try to discover to what extent the separateness of the two systems was complete and unbroken. It was this that led to a follow-up research, which began in 1982. This looked closely at the extent to which links existed between the two school sectors at local level, by carrying out a survey in four different communities in the province. The results were published as Schools Together? (Dunn, et al, 1984).

The results could be summarised as indicating that, in the context of the contribution that schools might make to the promotion of cross-community relations, very little that was worthwhile was going on. Most contacts between schools took the form of singular, one-off isolated events, which tended to have no structure or follow-up or enduring quality. The characteristics of worthwhile activities were not defined by the researchers but emerged out of interviews with teachers and school principals. They were:

  1. Children need to be brought together systematically and on a long-term basis. Short-term activities without development are of limited value.

  2. Children must be brought together for a valuable and well-planned purpose, and not just to learn to like each other: that is, growth in relationships can only take place within a context that has some worth in itself.

  3. Risk-taking should be avoided since, when things went wrong, it is difficult if not impossible to recover. This is especially true in small communities.

  4. Travel outside the region is important, since, in Northern Ireland, venues and context have so much hidden meaning and local symbolism built into them.

The sum total of these characteristics suggested that this kind of activity required subtlety, creativity and a great deal of thought and planning. It was unlikely to happen overnight, and it was not always likely to be within the capability of a single school or pair of schools to think it out and plan it properly.


The project, Inter School Links, which is described in this report, is a consequence of these two researches. It's task was to try to seek answers to questions such as the following:

  1. What can schools do, and what do schools do, to ameliorate the consequences of separation? What forms do joint activities or partnerships or inter school involvements take?

  2. How can inter school cooperation be generated and made part of the fabric of a school so that it persists after the period of the project?

  3. What resources are needed to make co-operation feasible, and how can they be costed?

  4. How can successful procedures and initiatives be transferred and disseminated to other schools and to other areas?

  5. Which approaches fail, or do not persist, and why? There is a tendency for initiatives not to survive after the project ends. Can this be avoided?

It can be argued that this approach, through the 'development of co-operative links, is the most problematic way to go about the promotion of better community relations though the schools, and that the only really worthwhile approach is to promote a general and widespread form of school integration. However, even if this were true - and taking into account the continuing growth in the number of integrated schools - the great majority of children in this province will continue for the foreseeable future to be taught in religiously separated schools. This is not to express a preference, or to try to play down the importance or the growth potential of integrated schools, but only to acknowledge the current reality. And so, if we wish to have influence on a considerable part of the problem, we must do it through the existing system, and one obvious and important way to do this is through inter school links.

Since the Inter School Links project was established there have been a number of developments in education in Northern Ireland which have important implications for work of this kind. These have included a considerable increase in the availability of money from the Department of Education for Northern Ireland, (DENI), specifically for cross-community work between schools; the preparation of a printed guide for teachers by the Northern Ireland Council for Educational Development, (NICED), which will soon be published; and a dramatic increase in the number of new planned integrated schools. Recently, this project has been funded to continue for another two years until 1990, so this report is in a sense a preliminary one and will eventually be succeeded by a final report at that time.

We are grateful to all the schools involved in this project for their co-operation and enthusiasm at all stages in the work. In particular the principals and staffs who were always available, not only with support and ideas, but with the levels of energy and work that made progress possible. We are also grateful to the DENI for the funding which made this project possible, and in particular to the support and counsel of Donald Davidson. Eric Bullick, the full-time field officer for Mutual Understanding, attached to the Western Education and Library Board, (WELB), must be thought of as a full member of the team and his contribution to the development of the project was extensive and complete at all levels. We are also grateful to the WELB, and in particular to the chief officer Michael Murphy, and to David Vaughan and Victor Carson for their support and willingness to help at all times. At the beginning of the project a liaison committee, which met regularly, was formed to provide counsel, help and advice and we are extremely grateful to all members for their patience and support. The members were:

Eric Bullick. Field Officer, Western Education and Library Board.

Victor Carson. Western Education and Library Board.

Donald Davidson. Department of Education for Northern Ireland.

Vivian McIver. Department of Education for Northern Ireland.

Very Reverend Dean McLarnon. Council for Catholic Maintained Schools.

David Stevens. Irish Council of Churches.

Finally, an earlier draft of this report was read by the involved school principals in Strabane, by all members of the liaison committee, by two external referees, and by Valerie Morgan of the Faculty of Education of the University of Ulster. We are grateful to all of these for suggestions and advice.

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The purpose of this project has been to investigate possible strategies which might encourage inter school co-operation between controlled and maintained primary and secondary schools in Northern Ireland. The underlying view is that it is possible, by adapting the system of educational provision, to have an impact on the social forces and attitudes which generate conflict. The results described in this report suggest that, with support and planning, the schools of a community can develop close relationships, can work together, and can generate worthwhile joint activities. They can build up a considerable and consistent level of pupil contact, involving for example pupils working in mixed classes within each of the schools on a number of school days. This approach is acceptable both to parents and to governing bodies, and there is no obvious reason why it could not be transferred to other communities.

The project has been school-based and interventionist and this has allowed questions about procedures and issues to be posed in a context of attempted change. It is hoped that the results will be useful and encouraging to other schools considering developments in this area, that they will be of help to those involved in making decisions about educational policy. It is also hoped that they will provide some guide to procedures and difficulties in the whole area of education and community relations.

It is with this in mind that we present ten recommendations with regard to inter school links.

  1. This report has concluded that much of the work of inter school links involves the development of curriculum ideas and common curriculum materials. There is, however, a shortage of appropriate materials which exploit the diversity and high quality of local cultural expression. This shortage related to books, films, graphics, videos, and so on. We therefore recommend that attention be given to the need to plan and develop curriculum materials and resources related to cultural differences; that is, material which can present cultural variety, both in the Northern Ireland context and more generally.

  2. We recommend that the problems associated with the evaluation of inter school work and EMU be given a high priority. This project has demonstrated that there is a need for creative and fundamental thinking in this area. There are as yet no carefully thought out schemes for examining such basic questions as what precisely EMU and inter school links are trying to achieve, and how this might be measured. The current situation arises from intuitive feelings about quality and intention and success, and these will have to be converted into more tangible descriptions. There is a need for an approach which is broad-based, imaginative and eclectic with a wide range of methodologies both existing and original. It would involve most or all of the following:

    • evaluating the effects of the work on pupil perceptions and attitudes;

    • an analysis of the difficulties, and the relative strengths and weaknesses, of various forms of inter school activities;

    • examining the changing perceptions of teachers with regard to inter school work;

    • surveying parental opinion on school work associated with mutual understanding;

    • evaluating the extent to which inter school links projects are likely to endure.

  3. Difficulties with inter school work often arise from problems of logistics with respect to such matters as common timetables, forms of transport, the timing of school holidays, arrangements for lunch and bus supervision, and so on. We recommend that some attention should be given to these issues at Department of Education level to determine how far it is possible to develop practical recommendation which would be of general help in this area.

  4. We recommend that projects and programmes of inter school activity should be structured. This means that they display some or all of the following characteristics:

    • developments are in the hands of a team of teachers, meeting and working together. This implies a process of consultation and the development of agreed aims;

    • there is a developed plan and an agreed set of working procedures, and the activities are carefully phased with regard to time;

    • the overall program of work is carefully co-ordinated using a team coordinator. As well, each school should have an internal co-ordinator to act as the organisational focus for inter school work. He or she has a vital role to play in encouraging teachers to become involved, in organising regular meetings, in becoming knowledgeable about the resources and support-systems available from the local Education and Library Board, the Department of Education, and generally;

    • there is a range of forms of contact. The vital condition is that there is contact and that this involves children from both sides of the divide. The form of this contact can range from children working together in small intimate groups in a classroom on an educational project, to a numerically large group involved in educational visits, data collection or some other form of field-work. Both forms are important and should be promoted.

  5. The support and administrative backup of Area Boards is of crucial importance and we recommend that each Board should have a developed action-based policy on inter school links with appropriate staffing and resource allocation.

  6. We recommend that attention be given to a range of questions related to the increased demand for transport which inter school links generates.

  7. We recommend that each school has a policy with respect to its relationships with other schools. This means that it is possible to specify the instances and types of contact in any school year; and that each pupil has a planned accumulation of experience of contact with pupils from other schools.

  8. Inter school links projects are likely to be most fruitful when school Principals and teachers understand fully what is being attempted and are persuaded of its merits. This reflects the view that innovation in the classroom should be school-based and that school staff must feel a genuine sense of ownership for it. We therefore recommend that they be involved in the planning and development from the beginning.

  9. Since the planning and development work involved in inter school links makes demands on teachers' time, this should be borne in mind by principals and others in the allocation of directed time. There are also more general implications for staffing, and in particular for teacher cover. The Department of Education Circular 1988/2, and its successor, making available extra resources in this area is helpful and timely, but the issue should be carefully monitored.

  10. Parents have the right to make decisions about their children's schooling, and inter school activities can cause them some anxiety when they are not sure about what it means. So it is most important that parents are informed about all aspects of such projects and, where possible that they are involved in planning and development. It follows that there is a need to educate and inform parents about what is intended by this work. We recommend that an attempt be made to involve parents more fully in the whole process, and that a part of this should involve organised and structured courses for parents.

These ten recommendations can be summarised as follows:

  1. There is a need for common curriculum materials.

  2. Systems of evaluation need to be developed.

  3. Consideration must be given to logistical problems.

  4. Programmes of inter school activity should be structured.

  5. Each Area Board should develop a policy on inter school links.

  6. Planning should take account of the inevitable increased need for transport.

  7. Each school should have a policy with respect to inter school links.

  8. Principals and teachers must be persuaded of the merits of this work.

  9. Inter school links should be considered in the allocation of directed time.

  10. Parents should be consulted and informed.

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