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Text: Alan Smith and Alan Robinson ... Page Design: John Hughes

Education For Mutual Understanding- Perceptions and Policy frontispiece

Education For Mutual Understanding - Perceptions and Policy

by Alan Smith and Alan Robinson
Published by the University of Ulster, Coleraine 1992
ISBN 1 87120 638 3
Paperback 95 pp £3.00

Out of Print

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.

Education For Mutual Understanding
Perceptions and Policy

by Alan Smith and Alan Robinson

Centre for the Study of Conflict
University of Ulster





Chapter 1:

The emergence of EMU

Chapter 2:

Perceptions of EMU within the education system: organisational domains

Chapter 3:

Perceptions of EMU within the education system: post-primary Schools

Chapter 4:

Comparing perceptions between organisational and school domains

Chapter 5:

Teachers and Training

Chapter 6:

Evaluation and EMU

Chapter 7:

Summary of findings

Chapter 8:





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.

Seamus Dunn
Director, Centre for the Study of Conflict
May 1992.

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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:

  1. government support for the creation of 'integrated schools' which are attended by both Catholic and Protestant children;

  2. the introduction of funding mechanisms designed to bring about a more equitable distribution of resources within the education system and which may contribute to a decrease in the differential between Catholic and Protestant pupils in terms of academic achievement (Standing Advisory Commission on Human Rights, 1991);

  3. the introduction to the formal school curriculum of two educational themes, known as Education for Mutual Understanding (EMU) and Cultural Heritage, which may contribute to the improvement of relations between the two communities;

  4. continued funding and support from the Department of Education for activities involving contact between Catholic and Protestant children;

  5. funding and support from the Department of Education for the activities of voluntary organisations involved in reconciliation work with young people.

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.

Project methodology

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:

  1. A clearer conceptual framework for EMU - the need for greater clarity concerning the diverse concepts which are associated with EMU for example, clearer understanding of the emphasis which may be placed on community relations issues, or the relationship between the cross-curricular theme and activities involving cross-community contact.

  2. Better co-ordination - the need to improve co-ordination between the various agencies with a responsibility or concern for the implementation of EMU.

  3. Better training - the need to give more priority to training and in-service education for teachers in support of EMU.

  4. Support for evaluation - the need to support schools as they find ways to evaluate the impact of including EMU in the curriculum.

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Chapter seven: Summary of findings

Advisory and support domains

  • Within advisory and support agencies there are multiple interpretations of EMU

  • Individuals are likely to carry an interpretation of EMU which is related to their own interests or biography

  • Most respondents working within statutory agencies found interpretations which associate EMU with ecumenism unhelpful

  • There is little co-ordination between agencies concerning EMU

Education and Library Boards

  • There are constraints on the extent to which Education and Library Boards will be able to support EMU, particularly in terms of providing adequate substitute cover for training

  • Those working within Boards experience little time or opportunity for strategic planning

  • The only publicly available statements of policy from Boards are brief statements which relate to the situation when EMU was not statutory

  • There is very little documentation on EMU available from Boards to inform schools and parents of how it will be supported

Cross Community Contact Scheme

  • School participation in the Scheme has grown steadily since it was introduced in 1987

  • During the 1990-91 school year over a quarter of all primary schools and over a half of all post-primary schools received funding from the Scheme

  • The impact of the Scheme on schools may have increased the perception that EMU is only about contact

  • A number of issues regarding the Scheme were raised by respondents including:

    • what level of support to schools the Scheme will be able to sustain in the long term

    • whether central administration of the Scheme is appropriate in the long term

  • Many respondents felt that Community Relations Branch should consider how it might support aspects of EMU which do not necessarily involve cross-community contact

Voluntary agencies

  • Movement of EMU on to the curriculum means that voluntary agencies are concerned that their particular contribution may become marginalised

  • Some voluntary agencies have found it more difficult to provide training opportunities for teachers as a result of education reform

  • The funding of voluntary agencies on a short-term basis makes long-term planning and staffing difficult

  • Voluntary agencies are concerned to evaluate their own work but need support to do this

Post-primary schools

  • Although schools recognise the wider dimensions of EMU the term is generally perceived as a shorthand code for community relations work

  • Nearly two-thirds of post-primary schools surveyed have yet to develop a formal policy on EMU

  • In the short term schools may develop EMU mainly by creating more cross community contact with other schools

  • Most respondents were concerned that contact should be meaningful' and not undertaken simply because of financial inducement or for publicity

  • The schools surveyed also saw potential for developing EMU by considering how the school ethos reflects values associated with the theme. Respondents thought this would be more achievable than securing the involvement of every area of the curriculum

  • Over three quarters of the post-primary schools surveyed have appointed co-ordinators for EMU although there is some uncertainty as to what their role should be

  • EMU has already become closely identified with particular subjects - History, English, Religious Education, Geography, Music and Art. These subjects are the best represented by teachers who are active in EMU, have attended courses or have been appointed as coordinators

  • Members of Physical Education departments are the most involved in cross-community contact activities although relatively few have been appointed as co-ordinators or have attended courses

  • Most schools saw EMU being developed successfully by individuals within the school, supported at a second level by a small group of committed teachers

  • Respondents did not think it very likely that all teachers will become active in developing EMU


  • Prior to education reform the bulk of pump-priming resources associated with EMU went into providing substitute teacher cover for cross-community contact rather than training for teachers

  • One consequence of education reform is that less training specific to EMU may be available for teachers in the short term

  • Teachers who have been appointed as EMU co-ordinators by schools need some immediate support to decide how best to initiate school-based training and development within their own school

  • Teachers are not confident that they have the necessary skills to handle the community relations aspects of EMU


  • Evaluation of the long-term impact of EMU is not regarded as a high priority within the formal education system

  • Teachers are more preoccupied with evaluation in terms of assessment procedures and how these will measure pupil progress in the main curriculum subjects

  • Individuals within the system are suspicious of monitoring' or 'measuring' changes in pupil attitudes in terms of community relations

  • Throughout the system there is no clear picture of what techniques would be appropriate to support evaluation

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Chapter eight: Recommendations

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:

  • Greater commitment from individuals within the EMU network to informal co-operation between agencies. No obvious catalyst to encourage this has emerged and this approach is more likely to result in a network of statutory agencies and a network of voluntary agencies.

  • More formal co-operation on a number of defined projects such as production of resources or training initiatives. The Department may have a catalytic role by funding clearly defined initiatives of this type and support from the Chief Executives of Education and Library Boards would be especially important.

  • Establish a more formal structure. Potential co-ordinating structures exist within the Youth Service (Youth Council) and broader community initiatives (Community Relations Council) and provide a focus for community relations work in these spheres. No equivalent structure exists in relation to community relations work through schools.

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:

  • Opportunities for planning and contact between teachers

    One of the main benefits of work between schools has been the contact it affords between teachers this seems not only to have benefit for the teachers but to lead to more coherent and enjoyable experiences for pupils involved in the joint project. This tallies with the view that teachers' perceptions of EMU are related to their own biographies and that commitment to 'good quality' work with pupils follows naturally where teachers have had an opportunity to explore their own attitudes to the issues involved.

  • Experiences of contact in a residential context

    Despite some scepticism about the value of some contact experiences teachers generally comment favourably on the value of residential work. Ways should be found to build upon this. One option is that every child in Northern Ireland should have an entitlement to voluntary participation in at least one cross-community residential experience per year. The level of funding this would require, and whether there is an infrastructure of residential centres to support it, would need to be explored.

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:

  • In the short term, fund the development of support materials for co-ordinators and teachers involved in school-based training on EMU. This could be developed with a commitment from the Chief Executives of Education and Library Boards, possibly with support from the Regional Training Unit and/or the Northern Ireland Curriculum Council.

  • In the longer term, look at ways of strengthening opportunities for training in EMU through preservice and in-service teacher education, including the role of award-bearing courses and voluntary agencies in providing some of this.

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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