Centre for the Study of Conflict
School of History, Philosophy and Politics,
Faculty of Humanities, University of Ulster
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Education For Mutual Understanding - Perceptions and Policy
by Alan Smith and Alan Robinson
Out of Print
Education For Mutual Understanding
by Alan Smith and Alan Robinson
Centre for the Study of Conflict
In 1990, the Centre for the Study of Conflict initiated a three-year research and evaluation project which concentrates on the introduction of a cross-curricular theme, Education for Mutual Understanding (EMU), to the school curriculum.
The project is structured in three overlapping stages. Stage one involved research into how those within the education system perceive EMU. These perceptions, and their implications for policy, are the subject of this report.
The next stages of the project are already underway. They involve working with teachers in a number of schools to see what approaches seem most fruitful in evaluating the impact of EMU. The outcomes will be the subject of a future report.
Legislation to include EMU in the curriculum was introduced in 1989, but the statutory requirement does not affect schools until September 1992. In the intervening period, those in the education system have begun to consider the implications of EMU's transition from a voluntary activity to a formal requirement.
The report is therefore timely and reflects changes in thinking during this important period of transition. Its findings provide a further contribution to the evolutionary debate about the nature and purpose of Education for Mutual Understanding and I welcome its publication.
Conflict in Ireland has a history which extends over centuries. The most recent manifestations of sectarian violence in Northern Ireland have been a feature of life in that society for over twenty years. Whilst underlying causes are the subject of considerable debate, the conflict itself has come to be typified as a conflict between two communities, most frequently described as Catholic or Nationalist and Protestant or Unionist. Such simplifications undoubtedly do great disservice to the majority of individuals who, despite their different religious practices or political aspirations, do not use violence as a means of resolving disputes. However the existence of separate institutions to serve these two communities has focused attention on the relationship between social policies and the dynamics of the conflict. This report is concerned with education as one such social policy area.
In Northern Ireland most children from the Catholic and Protestant communities are served by separate school systems. Recent legislation, the Education Reform (Northern Ireland) Order 1989, brought about change involving policies directed at both the structure and process of education.
Policies in education affecting relationships between the two communities include:
This report is about the policy to include Education for Mutual Understanding (EMU) as a mandatory part of the school curriculum for all pupils in Northern Ireland. It arises from a research project based at the Centre for the Study of Conflict in the University of Ulster at Coleraine.
The initial phase of this project has sought to understand how those within the education system perceive EMU and how it might be implemented. Two aspects of the research are reported here.
The first focused upon individuals who work within the support and advisory domains in the education system. Most have some responsibility for advising teachers how EMU might be developed in practice. Twenty such individuals were interviewed during the 1990-91 school year. A supplementary exercise was also carried out which asked these individuals to log their communications concerning EMU during one specified week. The exercise provided some initial evidence about the level and form of communication within the network of individuals involved with EMU.
The second aspect of the research focused upon post-primary schools since they will have a major responsibility for implementing EMU in practice. A postal survey of all post-primary schools in Northern Ireland was carried out in June 1991 and information was sought on a number of issues including what teachers perceive EMU to be about, what sort of activity is already taking place within the school, and how EMU might be implemented in the future. As a supplement to this questions were also asked of a parent governor in each school and these responses are summarised in Appendix A.
Findings from the studies provide the basis for a number of recommendations and it is hoped that these offer a starting point for fruitful discussion as Education for Mutual Understanding makes the important transition from a voluntary to a statutory feature of the curriculum in schools in Northern Ireland.
The recommendations are outlined in more detail in Chapter 8 but, in general terms, they refer to four main areas:
Advisory and support domains
Education and Library Boards
Cross Community Contact Scheme
The following recommendations are offered as starting points for discussion as Education for Mutual Understanding makes the important transition from a voluntary to a statutory feature of the curriculum in schools in Northern Ireland.
1. Clarify the conceptual framework of EMU
This research has indicated that there is a range of perceptions of EMU and that these are often the result of personal interpretation. Within the education system, there is a need to generate a shared understanding of what EMU represents as a Cross Curricular Theme. This can only emerge from discussion and debate between the many statutory and voluntary organisations concerned with EMU. In particular, it will be important to put the 'community relations' and 'cross-community contact' aspects of EMU into perspective alongside other dimensions. The Northern Ireland Curriculum Council may have a role in producing guidance material for schools based on the conceptual framework for EMU which emerges from such discussion.
2. Seek better co-ordination between agencies
Improved co-ordination between agencies on EMU-related issues would provide a focus for development and encourage consistency of approach. This could happen in three possible ways:
3. In the long term, consider devolving responsibility for funding
There is resentment within schools that EMU is 'imposed by government' and this perception is reinforced by central administration of funds for community relations aspects of the work. A greater sense of ownership might be encouraged by devolving responsibilities for funding to a broader base of representative interests within the education system.
4. Consider whether a body with specific responsibility to support the community relations work of schools should be funded or newly established
There will always be some tension between the more universal dimensions of EMU and specific activities to promote better community relations. If there are concerns that the community relations issues will become 'lost', avoided or neglected within the broader dimensions of EMU then one possibility is to create or fund a body with specific responsibility to provide a focus for community relations work within and between schools.
5. Review criteria applied by the Contact Scheme
Whatever decisions are made about administration and structure it would be worth considering a review of the criteria which apply to the Contact Scheme. There are a number of reasons for this. In particular there are schools which may wish to participate but have difficulties in fulfilling the criteria for contact for demographic or other reasons. Broader criteria could support such schools. It is also worth considering how the Scheme might support teachers developing novel approaches within schools and how good quality work can be developed in non-contact settings. The development of materials relevant to the local situation is another example.
It may not be possible to amend the criteria for the Contact Scheme, in which case the Community Relations Branch of the Department of Education might consider establishing an alternative scheme which can respond to such needs.
6. Support aspects of practice which seem to work well
Despite EMU being new to the formal NI Curriculum there is a considerable reservoir of practical experience within the system. It would seem sensible to build on this by augmenting support for aspects of practice which teachers have found to be important. Two aspects were identified by a number of respondents as part of this research:
7. Encourage innovative schemes
The formal education system is often accused of being conservative yet the infancy of EMU within the NI Curriculum suggests that innovative and imaginative ideas are possible. An example which was encountered as part of this research is the suggestion of a scheme to support teachers from controlled and maintained schools who wish to spend some time experiencing the environment in a different type of school. However, it appears to be more straightforward to arrange an exchange with a school in another country than to spend time in a different type of school in Northern Ireland. The idea may be contentious in some quarters but schools would benefit from the insight which a visiting teacher may give about the way the institution appears to someone from a different cultural tradition.
8. Give priority to training for teachers
EMU did not have the benefit of 'pump-priming' investment in training for teachers which other educational themes, such as Information Technology, Health Education and Economic Awareness, had prior to education reform. There are a number of practical possibilities which may help make up lost ground:
9. Initiate longitudinal evaluative studies
Although teachers may have a contribution to evaluating EMU's impact there is still room for observer-based studies. These could be anthropological-type studies of school experience of EMU over a long period. The value and practical problems of conducting 'social attitude' type studies involving the pupil population would be more contentious. Given the expectation that the impact of EMU is only likely to become apparent over a long period of time, some thought needs to be given to a long-term research and evaluation strategy.
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