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'Education and the Peace Process in Northern Ireland' by Alan Smith
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Education and the Peace Process in Northern Ireland
(School of Education, University of Ulster, Northern Ireland)
Paper presented to the Annual Conference of the
American Education Research Association, Montreal, April 1999
The proximity of Britain to Ireland has meant
that much of the history of the two islands has been intertwined.
For many centuries Ireland was subject to English rule. A series
of events, including an uprising during Easter 1916, eventually
led to a treaty that established the Irish Free State in 1921.
This new state comprised 26 of the 32 counties in Ireland and
it eventually became the Republic of Ireland with its own constitution
and independent parliament in Dublin. When the Irish Free State
was established in 1921 a substantial Protestant population in
the six counties in the north of Ireland (mostly the descendants
of English and Scottish settlers from the 1600s onward) wished
to retain the union with Britain and a separate Northern Ireland
state was established which had its own parliament until 1972
when direct rule by the United Kingdom parliament was introduced.
The population of the Republic of Ireland
is approximately 3.5 million people most of whom are Catholic.
The present population of Northern Ireland is 1.5 million, the
majority of whom are of Protestant denominations, but estimates
based on the 1991 Census suggest that the Catholic population
has risen to over 40%. Voting at elections in Northern Ireland
corresponds closely to a pattern whereby most Catholics vote for
Nationalist parties (which aspire to a single, united Ireland)
and most Protestants vote for Unionist parties (which wish Northern
Ireland to remain part of the United Kingdom).
As the Civil Rights movement in the United
States unfolded during the 1960s, a civil rights campaign emerged
in Northern Ireland focused largely on grievances concerning social
injustices against Catholics in housing, employment and electoral
issues. Protest, counter-protest and State reaction gave rise
to civil disturbances and street rioting in the late 1960s. This
led to the deployment of the British Army in support of the local
police, the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC). Although the army
was initially welcomed in a peace-keeping role, relationships
between the security forces and the Catholic community quickly
deteriorated. Within this climate the Irish Republican Army (IRA)
was able to organise an armed campaign around its stated aim to
bring about the end of Northern Ireland state as a separate entity
and have a single Irish state which includes the six counties
in the north. The campaign of the IRA, and smaller nationalist
paramiliary groups such as the Irish National Liberation Army
(INLA), has lasted for over 30 years. It has been accompanied
by violence from Loyalist (extreme Unionist) paramilitary groups
such as the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF), the Ulster Freedom Fighters
(UFF) and the Red Hand Commandos, the Loyalist Volunteer Force
(LVF) and the Ulster Defence Association (UDA). Since 1969 more
than 3,600 people have been killed as part of 'the Troubles'.
in Northern Ireland.
There have always been competing arguments
about the underlying roots and nature of the conflict in Northern
Ireland. The different political aspirations of Nationalists and
Unionists are undoubtedly central to the conflict, but these map
closely on to the labels of Catholic and Protestant which are
often used to suggest that it is a religious dispute and this
has led some to concentrate on the contribution which the churches
might make toward a resolution of the conflict. Others have interpreted
the Catholic and Protestant labels as indicative of two groups
which differ in terms of culture and traditions and this emphasises
an ethnic interpretation. Social differentiation, areas of deprivation
and differentials in employment opportunity add an economic dimension
and there are many who believe that if solutions in these areas
could be found then conflict along the other fault lines would
be ameliorated. The conflict in Northern Ireland is therefore
a complex mixture of such interrelated issues.
The pattern of violence has changed at various
times, but the use of violence has been a consistent feature of
the conflict for almost thirty years. Whilst each death is felt
acutely within the society, the total number of deaths is relatively
low when compared to conflicts in many other parts of the world.
This has led some commentators to question why the level of violence
has not escalated in the same way that other conflicts have led
to bloodshed on a larger scale. One reason suggested by Darby
(1986) is that the conflict in Northern Ireland has various 'controls'
which operate to maintain a relatively low level of violence.
Such controls may include features such as campaigns 'waged by
proxity' where only a small number of individuals from the different
groups are actively involved in the violence. Another feature
of the conflict is the existence of a narrow middle ground, but
one which is enduring and active. Cross-community groups help
maintain this middle ground by maintaining contact and communication
between Catholics and Protestants especially at times of heightened
community tension. In Northern Ireland it is not unusual for the
bereaved to receive support and messages of sympathy from members
of the other community. Such contact in the wake of sectarian
murders and other atrocities may make it more difficult to 'dehumanise'
the other community and it is often the case that the relatives
of those who have been killed issue public statements stating
that they do not wish for retaliation or revenge on their behalf.
In this respect the activities of peace and reconciliation groups
may not have a direct impact which could claim to resolve the
conflict, but it is tenable that, along with many other controls
on the conflict, they have contributed to maintaining this narrow,
but vital middle ground in Northern Ireland. It is in this context
that the contribution that education can make to the improvement
of relationships between Catholics and Protestants in Northern
Ireland has also become a focus for action.
The education system in Northern Ireland
A distinctive characteristic of the education
system in Northern Ireland is segregation. The system is segregated
by religion in that most children attend predominantly Protestant
('controlled') schools or Catholic ('maintained') schools; by
ability (and some would argue social background) in that a selection
system operates at age 11 to decide which children attend grammar
schools (more than one third of children in second level education
attend grammar schools); and often by gender (particularly in
second level education where a quarter of the secondary schools
and almost half of all grammar schools are single sex).
The current education system in Northern Ireland
is relatively small. Statutory education involves approximately
0.3 million children within 970 primary, 166 secondary and 70
grammar schools. The system is administered by a central Department
of Education and five local authorities (known as Education and
Library Boards). There also exists a statutory Council for Catholic
Maintained Schools and government provides funds for the Northern
Ireland Council for Integrated Education (NICIE) to coordinate
the development of a small but growing number of integrated schools
(27 primary and 17 secondary in 1999). Integrated schools are
attended by roughly equal numbers of Catholic and Protestant children
and, in terms of pupil enrolments, represents less than 3% of
the school population. The education system also includes 8 Irish
language schools, some of which receive grant-aid from government,
and 10 independent Christian schools associated with the Free
Presbyterian Church which do not receive government funds.
Over the past twenty five years schools have
been drawn more and more into the spotlight in terms of how their
activities take account of the conflict within the wider society.
A number of initiatives have emerged, including legislation and
government policies, which ascribe a more prominent role for schools
in the improvement of relations between the two main religious
and cultural communities in Northern Ireland. In broad terms,
these represent interventions in both the process of education
(through curriculum reforms and increased contact between Catholic
and Protestant pupils) and the structure of education (through
consideration of equity issues between existing, segregated schools
and support for the creation of new, integrated schools).
The pioneer in developments in Northern Ireland
was a Belfast school principal (Malone, 1973) who persuaded the
then Northern Ireland Ministry of Education to fund a project
on education and community relations which was eventually based
in the Queen's University, Belfast. This was essentially a curriculum
development project, with some elements of joint school activities
and meetings. It had quite ambitious plans for the production
of curriculum support materials, but the funds for these were
not, in the end, made available. Shortly after Malone's project,
two parallel projects were established at the then New University
of Ulster, one of which became a social sciences curriculum project
(Skilbeck, 1973, 1976; Robinson, 1981), and the other concerned
religious education (Greer and McElhinney, 1984, 1985). These
were experimental, relatively small-scale, and the success or
otherwise of these projects is difficult to estimate. On the positive
side they began a process and established a context which made
future developments possible. On the negative side they did not
become widely used or succeed in filling a permanent niche in
the Northern Ireland school curriculum.
At the same time a large number of voluntary
groups began to develop a role for themselves in this process.
Many of these were able to supply resources of time, materials
and personnel, to establish a variety of inter-school relationships
between Catholic and Protestant schools. Others set up and ran
residential courses where the issues could be debated and strategies
developed. This trend has continued and a recent directory of
such voluntary bodies indicates that more than twenty organisations
are currently active in Northern Ireland in the field of community
relations and schools (FOCUS, 1993).
These developments, taken as a whole, represented
a patchwork of small, relatively isolated projects, geographically
dispersed, each making a contribution towards the evolution of
a more coherent and developed programme of work which included
contributions to the main-stream curriculum, extra-curricular
activities, conflict-resolution techniques, approaches to peace
education, and inter-group contact (Trew, 1986). There is little
doubt that this range of activities provided an enormous stimulus
in that it created a team of voluntary workers, teachers and academics
who had expertise, interest in and commitment to community relations
work through the schools. They provided a rationale and legitimacy
for future developments in this area. It is difficult to see how
later, more ambitious, projects could have come into existence
without the basis which these earlier attempts provided.
Contact between Catholic and Protestant schools
During the 1970s it became clear that little
was known about the two school systems - the state system of 'controlled'
(Protestant related) schools and the 'maintained' system of Catholic
schools. In 1976 a team of academics from the University of Ulster
was funded from a Ford Foundation research initiative to carry
out both a general survey within the Northern Ireland education
system and a local case study. This was published in 1977 as Schools
Apart? It attempted to understand the ways in which the two systems
were different and included an important ethnographic study of
differences between 'Catholic' and 'Protestant' schools (Murray,
1985). The findings suggested that the development of widespread
integrated education was unlikely in the foreseeable future, but
almost without exception, all interviewed expressed some anxiety
about the effects, or even just the possible effects, of complete
segregation. One possible way in which it seemed that these two
views could be reconciled was for there to be as much contact
as possible between pupils and teachers within the segregated
system. A second research study, Schools Together?, set out to
measure the amount of contact, of a sustained and important character,
that actually existed between Catholic and Protestant schools.
The results (Dunn, Darby and Mullan, 1984) suggested that very
little contact existed even though quite extravagant claims are
often made now about past levels of contact and cooperation between
the two sectors.
A third, research and development project
known as Inter School Links followed. It was experimental and
interventionist in that it set out to create linked programmes
between a set of schools in one town on a routine and sustained
basis. This project operated for four years between 1986 and 1990
and produced two reports. The first report (Dunn and Smith, 1989)
outlined a development process by which all schools the same town
evolved regular, structured links. In the primary schools, Catholic
and Protestant pupils were given opportunities to meet and work
together on curriculum themes as part of the normal school day.
Teachers in the post-primary schools worked together to create
a programme of study in Irish history and this provided opportunities
for joint field work and contact between pupils from the different
The second report (Smith and Dunn, 1990) extended
the project to schools in two other communities and evaluated
some aspects of the work. The evaluation produced some evidence
to suggest that the history programme had brought about a more
questioning attitude amongst pupils toward interpretations of
Irish history prevalent within their own cultural community. It
also recommended that contact between Catholic and Protestant
pupils appeared to be most successful when there was a strong
curriculum focus. The project demonstrated that it was possible
for such cross-community contact to become an accepted feature
of the school curriculum and the evaluation also highlighted an
extremely high level of support for such ventures amongst parents.
In 1987, midway through the project, the Department
of Education introduced a scheme which provided approximately
£0.4 million annually to encourage all schools in Northern
Ireland to become involved in inter school contact. Levels of
participation have increased annually and recent figures indicate
that almost a third of primary schools and over a half of post-primary
schools are now involved in some form of inter school contact
which brings Catholic and Protestant pupils together.
The development of Education for Mutual Understanding (EMU)
Although teachers and academics had been active
from the early seventies, government was more hesitant and cautious
about suggestions that schools should be involved with community
relations issues. Its first public commitment of any sort was
in the production in 1982 of a circular called The improvement
of Community Relations: the Contribution of Schools which stated
that "Every teacher, every school manager, Board member and
trustee, and every educational administrator within the system
has a responsibility for helping children learn to understand
and respect each other". This signalled the beginning of
formal government support. From its inception in 1983, the Northern
Ireland Council for Educational Development (NICED), a quasi-government
curriculum development body, became involved in the issues of
education and community relations, and established a committee
with a brief to develop ideas about what it decided to call Education
for Mutual Understanding (EMU). The NICED committee appointed
two field-officers, one for second-level and one for first level,
and eventually produced a guide to EMU for teachers (NICED, 1988)
which tried to introduce schools to the procedures and techniques
necessary for the promotion of EMU activities both within and
between schools. This was superseded by the Education Reform (NI)
Order, 1989 which specified that two 'cross-curricular themes'
related to the issue of community relations are included in the
Northern Ireland Curriculum. These are called Education for Mutual
Understanding (EMU) and Cultural Heritage.
The statutory requirement to include these
themes in the curriculum of all schools took effect from 1992
and the Northern Ireland Curriculum Council has produced guidance
material which supports the definition that, 'Education for Mutual
Understanding is about self-respect, and respect for others, and
the improvement of relationships between people of differing cultural
traditions' (NICC, 1990). The aims and objectives state that as
an integral part of their education the themes should enable pupils
'to learn to respect and value themselves and others; to appreciate
the interdependence of people within society; to know about and
understand what is shared as well as what is different about their
cultural traditions; and to appreciate how conflict may be handled
in non-violent ways' (NICC, 1990).
The Education Reform Order, 1989 also places
a statutory responsibility on school governors to report annually
to parents on steps taken to promote Education for Mutual Understanding.
There is no direct assessment of individual pupils as part of
EMU. Its aims and objectives form an integral part of programmes
of study in all subjects. However, it has become clear that many
schools also see the aims being communicated less formally by
the nature of relationships within the schools, and between the
school and the wider community. In this sense many schools claim
that the aims of EMU are already implicit in their whole-school
ethos. Whilst the themes are a mandatory feature of the curriculum,
cross-community contact with pupils other schools remains an optional
strategy which teachers are encouraged to use.
The period between the introduction of legislation
to include EMU in the curriculum and its impact on schools provided
an opportunity to consider the implications of EMU's transition
from a voluntary activity to a statutory requirement. Initial
research and evaluation confirmed that the inclusion of EMU in
the statutory curriculum was largely unanticipated with less than
a third of schools having a policy in place (Smith and Robinson,
1992). Further evaluation (Smith and Robinson, 1996) provided
the stronger critique that many schools were adopting a 'minimalist'
approach to EMU and this was attributed to a number of reasons
including the following:
- Resistances within the system based around
the perception that EMU had been imposed by government and suspicions
that a hidden political agenda is at work.
- The evaluation highlighted major difficulties
with the cross-curricular model of implementation whereby EMU
was supposed to permeate the curriculum. This had given rise to
problems about 'coherence' and 'progression' and confirmed the
picture reported elsewhere (Whitty, Rowe and Aggleton, 1994) that
the cross curricular themes were in danger of becoming too disparate
- The evaluation identified perceived gaps
in terms of the education of young people for contemporary society
in Northern Ireland (ibid, p.15) and recommended that a human
rights framework might provide a firmer basis for work in EMU.
- The evaluation highlighted frustration
within the system that EMU was not addressing important social,
cultural and political issues which have a bearing on community
relations in Northern Ireland. Teachers still expressed considerable
reservations about addressing issues such as violence and sectarianism.
- Teachers expressed reservations about
their confidence and capacity to undertake community relations
work which is sensitive and challenging. There was a major criticism
that government had introduced EMU to the statutory curriculum
without appropriate investment in the training and professional
development of teachers. The report recommended that a coherent
strategy for training and professional development be developed
at various levels within the system (ibid, pp. 87-88).
At a structural level the conflict has also
focused attention on relative advantage and disadvantage between
the Catholic and Protestant communities in Northern Ireland. One
aspect of this was a review of fair employment legislation by
the Standing Advisory Commission on Human Rights (SACHR, 1987)
which indicated that Catholics were twice as likely to be unemployed
as Protestants. In part this highlighted the ineffectiveness of
the earlier 1976 Fair Employment Act and became the impetus for
more rigorous fair employment legislation. Current legislation
now requires employers to monitor the religious composition of
their workforce and, where significant gaps exist, to adopt affirmative
action measures including recruitment procedures which are likely
to encourage applications for employment from members of the under-represented
The debate about the underlying explanations
for unemployment differentials between the two communities also
focused attention on the relationship between the labour market
and the education system. In this respect the segregated system
of schools once again came under closer scrutiny and Gallagher
at al (1993) suggest that this needs to be understood within the
historical framework whereby,
the importance of separate Catholic schools
was not only ideological or cultural, but, in a very real sense,
material. Apart from the Church itself, the Catholic school system
represented the only significant social institution of civil society
over which the catholic community, through the Church, exercised
a degree of control ... In this context separate Catholic schools
provided one of the few routes to social mobility in Northern
Ireland, albeit largely into certain professional occupations
involved in servicing the Catholic community.
In an effort to understand whether aspects
of the segregated system of schooling had contributed to higher
levels of unemployment amongst Catholics, the Standing Advisory
Commission on Human Rights (SACHR, 1989. 1990, 1991, 1992) commissioned
a number of research studies which investigated various explanations.
In particular it was noted that a higher proportion of Catholics
left school with low or no qualifications (Osborne, 1986; Cormack,
Gallagher, Osborne and Fisher, 1992) and that more Protestants
choose scientific subjects at school and university (Cormack and
Osborne, 1987). This led to research which identified underlying
differentials in funding between Catholic and Protestant schools
An unanticipated finding concerning recurrent
funding revealed consistently higher levels of per capita funding
in favour of Protestant pupils within primary, secondary and grammar
schools (Cormack, Gallagher and Osborne, 1991). Various explanations
were advanced to explain this including differences in school
size and different provision of specialist teaching space (Cormack,
Gallagher and Osborne, 1992), and implications that for historical
and perceptual reasons of Catholic schools were less disposed
to approach government for funding (Murray, 1992). The research
concluded that the overall impact of a number of factors such
as these had contributed to consistently lower levels of recurrent
funding for Catholic schools (Gallagher, Osborne and Cormack,
1993). The Education Reform (NI) Order, 1989 included provision
for the local management of schools (LMS) whereby each school
is allocated a recurrent budget which is determined by a formulae
largely dependent on pupil numbers. It is anticipated that one
consequence of this will be a more equitable distribution of funds
between all schools. Eventually, through monitoring, it should
become possible to judge whether this new system of financial
input has any significant impact on the educational outcomes from
the different schools which serve the Catholic and Protestant
A further equity issue concerns the capital
funding of Catholic schools. Historically the voluntary nature
of Catholic schools had meant that the school trustees were largely
responsible for the buildings and capital development of schools.
This changed over a period of time following the establishment
of Northern Ireland until, by the late sixties Catholic voluntary
maintained schools were receiving 85 per cent grant toward approved
capital costs. Change toward fuller funding was incremental and
involved a series of negotiations between the Catholic authorities
and government. In general, the quid pro quo for higher levels
of capital funding from government was a reduction in Church representation
on school management boards. By the late 1980s a number of arguments
contributed to a further change in the level of capital funding
for Catholic schools. The introduction of a statutory curriculum
meant that all schools are required by law to provide the same
educational opportunities to their pupils. For many schools this
meant upgrading or providing specialist teaching facilities and
it was questionable whether government could place part of the
financial burden for this on the Catholic community. It was accepted
that the differential in unemployment levels between Catholics
and Protestants was linked in part to school provision and the
political drive to tackle this problem made it less acceptable
to have differential capital funding between schools. The example
of 100 per cent capital funding for Catholic schools in Scotland
was cited and arrangements for 100 per cent funding of integrated
schools illustrated that it is possible for schools to retain
a distinctive ethos without any single interest group forming
a majority within each governing body. The outcome of these arguments
was that government, in consultation with the Catholic bishops,
introduced a mechanism by which Catholic schools could opt for
100 per cent capital funding (Osborne, 1993) and legislation to
make this possible was enacted in 1993.
Finally, the existence of grammar schools
and a selective education system in Northern Ireland has also
been the focus for research on equity in education. Early research
(Gallagher, 1988) had indicated higher overall attainment levels
amongst pupils leaving grammar schools and this had obvious implications
for employment and career opportunities. A later analysis (Cormack,
Gallagher and Osborne, 1992) indicated that fewer grammar school
places were available within the Catholic school sector even if
all grammar schools were enrolled to capacity. Government responded
by announcing plans to increase the number of grammar school places
available in Catholic grammar schools.
The research outlined above highlights how
important it is to investigate and monitor equity issues within
a divided society. These studies have concentrated on the relative
advantage and disadvantage between Catholics and Protestants,
the two major communal blocks in Northern Ireland. Over time it
will also be important that the concept of equity which eventually
evolves, is comprehensive so that it takes account of other minority
interests in education and recognises other sources of division
within the society.
The emergence of integrated education
In some ways the most dramatic development
in education in Northern Ireland over the past twenty years has
been the creation of integrated schools, that is schools which
are attended in roughly equal numbers by Protestants and Catholics.
In 1974 a group called All Children Together (ACT) was established,
composed of parents in favour of children being educated together.
This organisation opened up the arguments, promoted discussion
and debate and allowed various strategies for the generation of
change to be tested. The group lobbied successfully for legislation
which would allow state schools to become integrated (Education
(NI) Act, 1977), but this was only invoked on one occasion as
an attempt to prevent a school closure. Eventually, some parents
decided to establish a new school which would exemplify their
commitment to integrated education and the first planned, integrated
school, Lagan College, was established in Belfast in 1981. This
was followed by the opening of three further integrated schools
in Belfast in 1985 and a pattern was established whereby at least
one or two new integrated schools have been established in Northern
Ireland every year since. In 1999 there were 44 integrated schools
(27 primary and 17 post-primary) attended by approximately 12,000
pupils (just under per cent of the school population).
New integrated schools have all been initiated
by groups of parents working together to establish institutions
which are jointly managed and staffed on a cross-community basis.
The aim of the integrated schools is that they should be attended
by children from both Protestant and Catholic backgrounds, and
should be open to children from other religious backgrounds and
to children from backgrounds where there are no religious beliefs
at all (Wilson and Dunn, 1989). In practice the schools are Christian
in character and the founders, parents, teachers and managers
have developed workable procedures for the teaching of religion.
The Education Reform (NI) Order, 1989, included
a number of provisions for the encouragement of the development
of integrated schools, created a mechanism for funding and placed
a statutory responsibility on government to support integrated
The increasing number of integrated schools,
the fact that they had generated a central organising council,
the Northern Ireland Council for Integrated Education (NICIE)
and the new atmosphere of general government support, also led
the government to include mechanisms in legislation to transform
existing schools into integrated institutions, although this route
may be more problematic (Moffat, 1993).
The schools have attracted considerable research
interest. Studies have been completed on their impact on parental
choice of school (Cairns, 1989); the views of parents (Agnew,
McEwan, Salters and Salters, 1992); the role of parents and teachers
(Morgan, Dunn, Cairns and Fraser, 1992); friendship patterns (Irwin,
1991); and a number of postgraduate studies.
Despite the strides which have been made within
the past two decades, the movement for integrated education faces
difficult strategic issues concerning further development at secondary
level within the competitive climate of a selective education
system, and at a time of government financial constraint on capital
development. The introduction of a policy of 'open enrolment'
may also pose difficulties for the schools in terms of maintaining
pupil enrolments which draw from both cultural traditions in equal
proportions. In recent years there has been a significant shift
away from the creation of new integrated schools towards the 'transformation'
of existing schools to becoming more integrated. In practice this
has mainly involved existing 'Protestant' schools trying to make
the school more open and inclusive and the challenge of transforming
the culture and ethos in this way is only beginning. Policies
to support the transformation of schools are also likely to have
a differential impact on the Protestant community so long as the
Catholic authorities hold fast to the view that they have a moral
commitment to provide a Catholic education for Catholic children.
The outcome may be a sense of loss within the Protestant community
of its schools whilst the Catholic sector remains largely intact.
In the longer term such a dynamic may have a negative impact on
relations between these two communities.
Prospects for structural change
At a structural level the segregation within
the education system in Northern Ireland appears to be resistant
to change. Most children continue to be educated in predominantly
Catholic or Protestant schools and equity issues tend to be addressed
in terms of these two blocks. However, the past twenty years have
also brought new types of school which, despite their small numbers,
introduce a potential for change and raise questions about the
overall administration and control of education within the society.
The 1980s saw the emergence of new integrated
schools, founded by parents from both communities, now funded
by government and incorporated in legislation. There is also the
appearance of Irish language schools where all instruction is
through the medium of Irish. There are now seven of these at primary
level, and a secondary school has recently been established in
West Belfast. In addition there are ten Independent Christian
schools, mostly attached to the Free Presbyterian Church which
was founded by the Reverend Ian Paisley. The model for these schools
appears to be the Bible Christian schools in the southern states
of the USA. They are financially independent of the state and
are normally quite small, although they enrol children of all
ages from 5 to 18. The schools follow a curriculum which eschews
such things as the teaching of evolution and adheres to fundamentalist
interpretations of the Bible on moral and sexual issues.
So there are, currently, three new types of
school, all relatively small, but all healthy and growing, albeit
slowly. Apart from the integrated schools, very little research
has been carried out on other types of new school, and it is not
at all clear what social forces are at work to make them appear
now. Taken together they represent a relatively small, but significant
potential for fragmentation or diversification within the overall
school system. It may also be of significance that none of them
is secular and it is unclear whether such diversity in school
type is constrained by or a consequence of the current conflict.
The educational process, power relations and 'democracy'
There is little doubt that the 1970s and 1980s
have seen significant changes with regard to certain aspects of
the school curriculum and how the educational process is perceived
in Northern Ireland. The introduction of a common curriculum for
all schools has provided an opportunity to develop programmes
of study which take account of the two main cultural traditions
in Northern Ireland, particularly within sensitive subjects such
as history and religious education (Richardson, 1990), and many
schools now routinely provide their pupils with opportunities
to meet and work with pupils from another cultural tradition.
There has been considerable movement away
from the situation in the early days of the conflict when schools
regarded themselves as 'oases of peace', providing children with
an environment relatively protected from the violence, but also
insulated from the social issues around them. There is still debate
about the extent to which schools can play a reconstructionist
role in leading change, but changes have been accepted at a number
of levels and there is an expectation that teachers will increasingly
find themselves dealing with issues which are socially relevant,
related to the conflict and at times, controversial.
In this respect schools in Northern Ireland
have been part of a more global movement which looks to education
to take account of cultural diversity and conflict within societies.
In Britain this has been reflected in the debates surrounding
multicultural education, anti-racist education and demands from
ethnic minorities for separate schools (Lynch, 1986; Troyna, 1987;
Banks, 1988; Massey, 1991). In the Republic of Ireland it is anticipated
that controversial issues will be addressed by the introduction
of Civic, Social and Political Education as a compulsory component
of the school curriculum (National Council for Curriculum and
Assessment, 1993). Further afield, deeply divided societies such
as Israel have thrown up broadly similar educational strategies
as Northern Ireland including inter-group contact, curriculum
programmes and new forms of institutions. Lemish (1993) suggests
that some of these may merely represent morphological change at
a relatively superficial level which does little to challenge
the existing power relationships within the society. Other initiatives
may have the potential to bring about deeper, structural change,
but Lemish suggests that the extent to which this is possible
may be related to how deeply democratic principles operate within
In the United States McCarthy (1992) has examined
the ideological assumptions and desired outcomes of multicultural
education programmes designed to replace earlier, assimilationist
approaches. He concludes that cultural understanding programmes
fall short of their aspiration to generate more harmonious relationships
within society when they "abandon the crucial issues of structural
inequality and differential power relations in society" and
"end up placing an enormous responsibility on the shoulders
of the classroom teacher". The educational strategies which
have emerged in Northern Ireland over the past thirty years are
inter-related. Each places a different emphasis on how religious
and cultural diversity might be addressed by the education system,
but they all interact within the same social and political environment.
The classroom teacher will have difficulty nurturing tolerance
and respect of difference whilst basic inequalities within society
remain unaddressed. Similarly, when members of a particular group
feel that the state does not adequately take account of their
interests, they are likely to demand separate institutions to
protect their traditions and beliefs. Tension between social cohesion
and pluralism is therefore inevitable.
Developments post the Belfast Agreement
Ceasefires and cessations to violence were
announced by paramilitary groups for the first time in 1994. This
created the opportunity for a process of political negotiations
to take place leading to the Belfast Agreement in April 1998 which
provides the basis for sharing political power through the establishment
of a locally elected Assembly. In recent years, the Belfast Agreement
has been the most significant political development in terms of
a peaceful resolution of the conflict in Northern Ireland and
its implications within the society have been wide ranging.
The Agreement represents an attempt to establish
new democratic structures to replace the 'culture of violence'
which has existed in Northern Ireland over the past 30 years.
It seems clear that these structures will only be successful if
they contribute toward the development of a fair and just society,
based on a respect for human rights and sensitive to diversity.
One implication is that the need to promote values that support
pluralism, human rights and democracy has become a central concern
for all those seeking a 'sustainable peace' in Northern Ireland.
It is clear that the education service has a vital role in helping
young people to take their place as adults and citizens in a society
which aspires towards these values.
Partly in response to the new climate created
by the Agreement, the Department of Education have established
working groups to determine what the emphasis of future work should
be. Part of the critique is that initiatives such as Education
for Mutual Understanding have played an important role, for example,
by introducing a new vocabulary about 'respect' and 'tolerance'
and by breaking down cultural isolation through inter group contact
programmes. However, although EMU has been strong on intercultural
learning it has been weaker in terms of social justice issues
and in developing political literacy. A number of projects have
responded to this through the development of resources and methodologies
that engage young people with controversial issues related to
identity, culture, religion and politics (for example, the Speak
Your Piece project, 1996-99). For the immediate future it seems
likely that some of the lessons learned from these initiatives
will be taken forward through mainstream policies attempt to:
- introduce more explicit programmes for
citizenship and education for democracy as part of the formal
- encourage the development of a more multicultural
curriculum which takes into account a broader range of diversity
of religious and ethnic groups;
- provide better training and support for
teachers since educators need professional development that challenges
their own values in these areas;
- develop strategies which encourage more
school ownership of programmes and the values they promote;
- better attempts to understand the processes
by which all schools can become more inclusive, given the broader
political and social transition about to take place within the
Ultimately it may not be the individual strategies
which matter so much as the extent to which they enable all members
of society to experience new and just relationships.
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