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'Education for Mutual Understanding and Cultural Heritage' by Norman L Richardson

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Text: Norman L Richardson ... Page Compiled: Martin Melaugh

The following article has been contributed by the author Norman L Richardson. The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of the members of the CAIN Project. The CAIN Project would welcome other material which meets our guidelines for contributions.

This article is copyright © 1997 Norman L Richardson and is included on the CAIN site by permission of the author. You may not edit, adapt, or redistribute changed versions of this for other than your personal use without the express written permission of the author. Redistribution for commercial purposes is not permitted.

Education for Mutual Understanding and Cultural Heritage

by Norman L Richardson

Most Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland have been educated apart from each other and have had few opportunities to meet and to learn to trust each other. Some people have seen this as a significant obstacle to community peace and reconciliation in this part of Ireland.

Over the past few years, however, various educational projects have grown up to provide children and young people with new opportunities to build up relationships based on confidence and friendship.

Separate Schools

Knowing what school someone went to in Northern Ireland is an effective means of discovering whether someone is from a Protestant (unionist/British) background of a Catholic (nationalist/Irish) background. (Protestant and Catholic are often used in Northern Ireland as shorthand terms to describe people's cultural and community background, and they do not necessarily indicate a specific religious affiliation.) Catholic parents are strongly encouraged by the Catholic Church to send their children to Catholic Schools (the vast majority of which are now fully state funded), and almost all do. Protestant parents normally send their children to Controlled schools which are not "Protestant Schools" as such but in which the influences and ethos are fundamentally Protestant (in the broadest cultural sense). Although there has been a small number of local areas where shared schooling is taking place, the predominant reality has been that of two parallel separate school systems. Government figures indicate that 95% of children still attend the schools of "their own community".

In recent years a number of planned Integrated Schools - for Protestants and Catholics together - have grown up. The first of these was established in 1981, and at the time of writing (June 1997) there are 33 - eleven for Secondary-age pupils and the others for Primary-age children - with more due to open in the next few months. So far, however, these schools account for only around 2%-3% of the school population (about 7,000 children), although their influence is growing slowly.

Mutual Understanding

Building on the work of individual teachers and schools of voluntary (not-for-profit) organisations and of experimental curriculum projects over many years, the Department of Education for Northern Ireland (DENI) has since the early 1980's promoted in all kinds of schools the development of educational programmes to encourage better community relations. Since 1983 the umbrella title of Education for Mutual Understanding has bee adopted to cover these various activities. This work relates closely to programmes found in other countries, such as multicultural or intercultural education for citizenship and peace education.

In 1987 DENI introduced a voluntary inter-school Cross Contact Scheme which provides funds to support planned and long-term contact programmes between controlled and maintained schools. Presently between one-third and one-half of all schools in Northern Ireland are taking part in this scheme, although the numbers of pupils involved varies considerably from place to place.

Educational Themes

In the Government's Education Reform (Northern Ireland) Order of 1989, six mandatory educational (cross curricular) themes were introduced, including the two complementary themes of Education for Mutual Understanding (EMU) and Cultural Heritage (CH). These formally came into statute in September 1992.

EMU and CH have been defined as being fundamentally about "learning to live with differences in a spirit of acceptance, fairness and mutual respect" (Richardson, 1996). This definition is elaborated by four shared objectives which may be summarised as follows:

  1. Fostering Respect for Self and Others and Building Relationships.
    Pupils have opportunities to develop knowledge and understanding of themselves, and how to handle and react appropriately to a range of personal and social situations.
  2. Understanding and Dealing Creatively with Conflict.
    Pupils should have opportunities to develop knowledge and understanding of conflict in a variety of contexts and of how to respond to it positively and creatively
  3. Awareness of Interdependence
    Pupils should have opportunities to develop a knowledge, appreciation and understanding of interdependence, continuity and change in the social and cultural process as it relates to individuals, families, local communities and the wider world.
  4. Understanding Cultural Diversity
    Pupils should have opportunities to develop an informed awareness of the similarities and differences between the cultural traditions which influence people who live in Northern Ireland, and of the international and transnational influences on contemporary culture.

As compulsory themes in the Northern Ireland Curriculum, EMU and CH must be addressed by all teachers of all subjects throughout each stage of education although the content of certain subjects is clearly more relevant that that of others. EMU is also very significant as a whole school process in relation to ethos and pastoral dimensions of school life. Voluntary cross-community contact programmes between separate schools are encouraged as a valuable dimension of EMU, but they are not required by law. If they are to be effective, EMU and CH must relate to the broad curriculum within and between schools.

Some excellent work has been carried out in recent years in relation to EMU and CH, but those involved in this field recognise that what is required is a long term commitment and continuity if there is to be any hope of widespread benefit from the various programmes.

For further background information see "Who's Who in EMU and Cultural Heritage, published annually by the focus group.


Richardson, N.L. (1996): A Rational for Education for Mutual Understanding and Cultural Heritage (chapter of forthcoming book), Belfast, Queen's University School of Education.

CCEA (1997):Mutual Understanding and Cultural Heritage:Guidance Materials, Belfast, Northern Ireland Council for Curriculum, Examinations and Assessment.

Focus (1996);Who's Who in EMU and Cultural Heritage?, Belfast, Forum on Community Understanding and Schools.

This article was written by:

Norman L Richardson
Stranmillis College
Stranmillis Road
Belfast BT9 5DY
Northern Ireland


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