Centre for the Study of Conflict
School of History, Philosophy and Politics,
Faculty of Humanities, University of Ulster
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Education and Religion in Northern Ireland
by A M Gallagher
Section 10: Schools and Community Relations
Up to now this review has concentrated on the material differences between the parallel religious school systems in Northern Ireland and has examined, within each system, some of the consequences of that division. A further question that has promoted much research concerns the extent to which the segregated school systems have had a societal impact. This question has been posed in two contrasting forms: firstly, does religious division in education help to fuel social conflict? and secondly, can education provide a vehicle towards an amelioration of social conflict? (Boyle, 1976; Darby et al., 1977; Darby, 1978; Fulton, 1980; Dunn, 1986b; for related research see McKeown, 1973; Russell, 1974/5; McKernan, 1982; Harbison and Harbison, 1980; Harbison, 1983; 1989).
Few would argue that the segregated school systems produced the conflict while few would deny any contributory role. A series of studies based in the University of Ulster have indicated that the school systems are segregated, that there are relatively few contacts across the divide and that a fully integrated school system is unlikely in the foreseeable future (Darby et al., 1977; Dunn et al. 1984).
Two basic hypotheses have been advanced on the effect of segregated schooling (Darby and Dunn, 1987). Firstly, it is suggested that segregated schools differ in the cultural environment provided for children, leading to a situation of cultural apartheid'. Evidence on this is not clear: on the one hand research on the formal curriculum of schools points to many similarities between Protestant and Catholic schools (see sections 2 and 5). On the other hand there has been relatively little research on the more abstract notions of 'school ethos' and the 'hidden curriculum' of schools. Darby and Dunn (1987) suggest this is largely because 'the earlier research had reached the classroom door, but had not entered. The difficulty of examining the teaching of controversial subjects alongside the teacher has proved too great' (p.88).
The second hypothesis regarding the effect of segregated schools suggests that the fact of separation is what matters: this is termed 'social apartheid'. This view holds that, regardless of similarities in what is taught in the schools, segregated schooling initiates children into the conflict by emphasising and validating group differences and hostilities, and encouraging mutual ignorance and, perhaps more importantly. mutual suspicion (Murray, 1983; 1985a; 1985b). The simplest way to assess this view would be to compare children from segregated and integrated schools: unfortunately, until recently there were relatively few children in the latter category.
There have been numerous calls for integrated education (see for example, Fraser, 1974; Heskin, 1980; Spence, 1987). Such calls are often based on some variant of the 'contact hypothesis', that is the idea that contact between members of opposing groups can, under certain conditions, ameliorate the conflict (Hewstone and Brown, 1986; Trew, 1986; 1989). Perhaps one of the most significant educational developments of the 1980s has been the growth of an 'integrated sector' in Northern Ireland: currently there are two planned integrated post-primary schools and eight such primary schools, a rate of development that has surprised some of those favourably disposed towards integration (Darby and Dunn. 1987). Also, educational reform proposals published by the DENI in 1988 included specific proposals for developments in this area, including making it a statutory duty to encourage initiatives in integrated schooling (DENI 1988a; 1988b).
Alternative strategies for encouraging community relations
Despite this, it is clear that if education is to make some contribution to better community relations then the available options range wider than between a segregated status quo and integration (Dunn, in submission; Dunn and Morgan, 1988). Indeed, setting the discussion in such stark terms may be counter-productive in that some may perceive integration as covert assimilation and a threat to identity.
In practice three strategies have been advanced (see Dunn, 1986b, for a more detailed discussion of these). The first involves action within schools, usually aimed at curricular initiatives. Examples of such initiatives include the Schools Curriculum Project, developed in the Queen's University of Belfast in 1973, and the Schools Cultural Studies Project, developed in the New University of Ulster in 1974 (see Skilbeck, 1973; Malone, 1973; O'Connor, 1980). More recently the Northern Ireland Council for Educational Development produced guidelines for Education for Mutual Understanding (EMU) which deals with, among other things, community relations issues. EMU and Cultural Heritage are to be introduced into schools as cross-curricular themes.
The second strategy works also within the already existing schools system but attempts to promote inter-school links with a view to promoting reconciliatory attitudes. Over the years such attempts have often had an ad hoc character, relying on the involvement of a small number of motivated teachers for their success. Also, such links often do not appear to directly address community relations issues. There appears to be little published information on evaluations of such practices, or indeed, the extent to which they are attempted. Currently, a study based in the Centre for the Study of Conflict is attempting to develop a model for inter-school links which, it is hoped, will acquire a greater degree of permanence by becoming institutionalised in school life (Dunn and Smith, 1989). This project, involving primary and post-primary schools in a small market town in the west of the province, is being supported by the Western Education and Library Board.
The third strategy involves the development of integrated schools and, as indicated above, this strategy has led to the development of what can almost be described as an 'integrated sector'. It is significant, however, that all the planned integrated schools are new schools, rather than old schools changing their status. In a period of falling school enrolments, with primary and secondary schools closing down, it is much harder to open new schools without causing resentment. However, the alternative, of changing a religiously homogeneous school into a religiously heterogeneous one, has yet to produce a single integrated school, despite a legislative basis for such a change. Despite this, the DENIs educational reform proposals promoted this alternative with the promise of support for any school wishing to adopt maintained integrated status.
All three strategies are fraught with difficulties. Attempts within the existing school system require the willing co-operation of teachers and principals, yet many are understandably wary of bringing controversial issues into the classroom (McKernan, 1982). Nevertheless, current DENI curriculum initiatives, involving EMU and Cultural Heritage, will attempt to make dealing with such issues a necessary part of the curriculum. Also, there is a problem in evaluating any of the above strategies: it is by no means clear what are the best methods of promoting community relations in the short or longer terms (see for example, Trew, 1986; 1989). In addition, the educational system does not exist in isolation from the rest of Northern Ireland society. While the adult community continues to be characterised by political polarisation and division, it may be unfair to foist the solving of the problem onto the shoulders of the children (Cairns, 1987).
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