CAIN: Issues - Education. Values in Education in Northern Ireland by Alan Smith and Alison Montgomery, 1997 (Chapter 6)

CAIN Web Service

Values in Education in Northern Ireland,
by Alan Smith and Alison Montgomery

[Key_Events] Key_Issues] [Conflict_Background]

Text: Alan Smith and Alison Montgomery ... Page Compiled: Fionnuala McKenna
Material is added to this site on a regular basis - information on this page may change

Chapter Six

Values and the Hidden Curriculum

The hidden curriculum is generally perceived to be a rather nebulous concept. Meighan (1981) defines it as "all the other things that are learnt during schooling in addition to the official curriculum" (p.52). Bottery (1990) suggests that it has a range of applications, and describes it in a variety of ways. He suggests the hidden curriculum may be covert as; the manipulative curriculum, which is used to "manipulate the unwary"; or the informal curriculum, as that which "goes on in schools...and is seen as the manner in which the formal curriculum is conducted;" or it may also be unintended as the forgotten curriculum which consists of activities and policies which are "practiced in an unthinking way"; and the unrecognised curriculum as "activities whose effect...was never recognised in the first place" (p.97). For the purposes of this research teachers were not provided with these explicit definitions, but their responses often referred to various aspects of school life which involved "hidden agendas", covert actions" and "unspoken arrangements and policies".

Questions relating to school ethos or climate were presented to teachers as a means of focusing discussions about values underpinning the hidden curriculum. The term 'ethos' was widely recognised and used by many teachers. Some recognised it as an "in word" or "buzz word", and this was reflected in the many references which were made to its inclusion in school policies. An effective working definition of ethos is provided by the SCCC (as part of a conference on School Climate and Ethos), is the "outward expression of the norms, beliefs and values reflecting consensus and conflict" in schools (SCCC 1994:1).

Teachers were asked to comment on the many factors which influenced and affected ethos, and as might be expected discussions covered a very wide range of issues and activities. These included the organisation and delivery of the curriculum, timetabling, management styles, decision-making processes, opportunities for staff development, discipline and classroom management. (Some of these areas have already been addressed through the formal and informal curriculae). It emerged quite strongly from interviews, that at the heart of any school ethos lies a complex web of inter-personal relationships between teachers, pupils and parents.

This chapter will briefly outline the main observations made by teachers. To begin, the first section examines general perceptions and definitions of ethos. Following this is a review of various structures and policies instituted by schools, and the 'hidden' values which were seen to underpin these. Teachers' perceptions of the tri-partite relationship between teachers, pupils and parents is then explored, followed by a brief study of the school's relationship with the wider community.

Defining 'Ethos'

Teachers agreed that ethos is a relatively difficult concept to describe or define accurately. There was a strong feeling that each school would evolve its own unique definition, appropriate to its own particular circumstances. Some individuals referred to ethos as "the development of community" or a "community feeling". Others talked about "whole school loyalty", "the identity and pursuit of common goals," "morale" and "positive relationships." The concept of community and a sense of belonging were common themes in many responses. Teachers identified positive effects on pupils (and themselves) of feeling part of a school community. It was made evident by teachers that truly "belonging", meant participating fully in the school community, and being accepted, respected and valued by the other members. One teacher described ethos as "the sum of all the parts, " but emphasised how this was more that just a collection of individuals; that the nature of interaction and relationships existing between the parts culminated in the formation of "an underlying culture." Some teachers gave a general description of the ethos in their schools through a variety of comments,

Ours is fairly much academic and ambition-oriented

The school has cultivated a caring and accepting atmosphere

Ours is positive, industrious and friendly

I would say there's a big emphasis on achievement and competition

Focusing staff and pupils, and looking beyond the academic side to consider recreation, values and general knowledge.

It was notable that head teachers and senior management gave the most positive responses whilst many teachers concentrated on more negative aspects of ethos.

Many teachers also made references to a "Christian ethos," and in maintained schools, teachers spoke of a "Catholic ethos". The latter was formally defined as " atmosphere enlivened by the Gospel values of freedom and charity" (Gravissimum Educationis 198:8). Head teachers referred to school ethos being "Christ-centred" and "created by making explicit in school what is implicit in the Gospel." In practical terms, this was articulated through policies of equality and respect for all pupils, irrespective of their abilities, the pursuit of excellence and the achievement of potential for each pupil. There was also a strong emphasis on pastoral care and the spiritual growth of all pupils. However, it became easier to discern the values underlying school ethos when teachers described the structural arrangements and relationships within their own schools.

For the majority of respondents, ethos became more tangible and "concrete" when they began to consider various aspects of school life. Schools' and teachers' values were therefore more easily discerned as they engaged in a review of different structures and relationships existing in schools.

The Organisation of Learning

A number of structural arrangements for the organisation of learning were identified as reflecting values underpinning school life. Some of these have alreadey been mentioned in the earlier chapters on the formal curriculum and informal curriculum.

Emphases within the Curriculum

Teachers frequently commented on the particular emphases which their school placed on different aspects of the curriculum. Most concluded that Science and Technology subjects receive greater attention, and are promoted as more "valuable subjects." Teachers felt that this was fairly obvious to pupils, not least, because of the amount of time allocated to these subjects in the timetable. In the Northern Ireland Curriculum Cohort Study, the appropriacy and relevance of subjects as perceived by pupils was seen to be influenced "by the values inherent in the school timetable" and as one teacher commented this included the amount of time given to a subject (Harland 1996:180).

Several teachers commented that the compartmentalised structure of the curriculum gave pupils the impression of a "disjointed and segmented learning process." It was argued that this might encourage pupils to become selective by only engaging with parts of the curriculum which were perceived to be valuable and ignoring the remainder. Some teachers felt that subject disciplines should be promoted "only as a vehicle for learning" and that they should not "blind pupils to the greater picture" of a broad and rich learning experience.

Transfer Procedure

An aspect of the education system in Northern Ireland which was raised in conversations with conspicuous regularity, was the Transfer Procedure (commonly referred to as the "Eleven Plus."). Primary teachers (and some post-primary teachers), were most animated in their discourse, detailing various school procedures and narrating anecdotal experiences of the selection process. The approach adopted to this examination was perceived by teachers as a "good indicator of the education system's values" or a "tell-tale sign of a school's values."

The majority of teachers mentioned some change in the curriculum which was delivered to pupils in P5 and P6 attributed to the transfer of tests,

Youfind the creative and expressive subjects dropping out.

Well, there isn't much time for Geography - you're too busy getting their Science up to scratch" and "...some areas disappear altogether.

Teachers stressed the pressure placed upon teachers and pupils in the year approaching the "Eleven plus" and the accompanying shift in the content and teaching strategies in many schools. Several respondents referred to primary schools where "streaming" occurred as early as P3;
Streaming is not done formally, but teachers know at that stage who to concentrate on and who really hasn't a chance.
When this phenomenon was was queried with other teachers, they demonstrated little surprise, usually going on to recount other similar situations.

Teachers also spoke of the pressure on pupils to perform well and to gain a grammar school place. They referred to the extra work, special tuition and Saturday morning classes offered by schools, and often demanded by parents, along with the beta-blockers, and promises of rewards from parents,

It's not unusual for the parents to make promises of holidays on the continent, or some big present if they pass

Oh, a reward is standard procedure you know, a bike at "Eleven plus" and a car at 'A' level.

Teachers frequently spoke with considerable concern, of the pressures experienced by children, commenting that in some cases children were "just put through too much" and that parents often "resort to bribery when they realise their expectations are too high."

Respondents also spoke of the pressure exerted by head teachers and parents on the P6 and P7 teachers "to get as many through as possible" with high grades. A number of teachers commented that their head teachers had approached them and indicated that he "expected the same excellent results as last year". This expectation, according to teachers was proffered without any consideration of the present P7's abilities , "I'm expected to perform miracles up here."

Many of the teachers interviewed acknowledged an unreasonable amount of pressure,"hype" and panic surrounding the Transfer Procedure, and commented that they were strongly opposed to the intensive preparation undertaken in many schools and even to the procedure itself. However they also expressed a sense of being "trapped" and caught up in the system, and commented that there was little they could do, except provide as much support as possible for their pupils. One teacher in an integrated primary admitted that the atmosphere and ethos of the integrated situation "went by the way a bit" when it came to the Transfer Procedure. In primary schools (mostly in rural areas) where most children had opted out of the transfer procedure, Board advisors referred to the "striking contrast" in the curriculum followed, and the climate pervading the upper school.

Many secondary teachers were critical of the effects of the Transfer Procedure, commenting that they had to cope with the short-term and long-term effects of failure on children and "to try to undo the damage". Others accused the transfer system of "setting children up to lose", suggesting that prior to the tests, most teachers could judge quite accurately how well different pupils would perform and "identify those likely to fail".

Primary school teachers also pointed out that as well as making the potentially traumatic transition from primary to post-primary school, pupils discovered that only negligible references are made to their primary studies or experiences. One teacher commented that "there is little sense of continuity, and it's just like starting from scratch". Another said "it seems that when you start the "big school", you should forget all about primary - it's for babies." This seemed to suggest, that once children reached grammar or secondary school, what had gone before in primary school was to a large extent forgotten, and not perceived as "valuable", at least not in any explicit manner.

"Streaming" Pupils

The practice of "streaming" pupils according to their abilities was discussed with many post-primary teachers. They broached a range of issues relating to teachers' attitudes to lower stream pupils, and the covertly restricted access for them to some aspects of the curriculum. While teachers were reluctant to criticise their colleagues, they did indicate that it was not unusual for lower ability pupils to be seated at the back of the classroom, for teachers to "skip over more difficult bits", and "not to chase up" their homework. The "cabbage classes" as one teacher said they were known in some schools "slip to the bottom of the heap and pupils find they are all but ignored."

Since behavioural problems were frequently associated with lower ability pupils, several teachers said that these children are often ostracised by the system. The system, as one teacher argued contains a well-defined, but covert set of values where pupils are expected

"to be well-behaved all of the time, to speak only when spoken to in class, fit every attainment target, and to originate from a good middle-class background with parents who only come to school on open nights."
Teachers who had worked with pupils with learning and behaviour difficulties were sometimes encouraged by senior management with comments such as;
"as long as they're not harming the furniture or themselves, you're doing a good job."
It was suggested by a few teachers that the removal of pupils from the form class to a "remedial class" was considered to be legitimate even when the problem was one of behavioural rather than learning. It was also suggested that pastoral care policies did not always provide a framework for responding to learning difficulties and it was acceptable for teachers to strongly impose their own expectations and values on pupils.

The School as "a Business"

Teachers highlighted the strength of the image of the "school as a business". Respondents referred to the "depersonalising" effect of concepts drawn from the business world, concepts concerned with marketability, accountability, the management of budgets, and input and output judged by GCSE, 'A' level results and the percentage of university entrants.

References were also made to the hierarchical system in schools and to the prominence of a vertical structure. Teachers commented how "everything moves up" in the school system, pupils progress "up through the school," and teachers move up the salary scale, or promotion ladder. Teachers also spoke of teaching strategies which are based on "top down" approach, pitching lessons initially at more able pupils, and considering those on the lower rungs of the ability ladder afterwards. In this type of structure, there is less opportunity for adopting a horizontal perspective of the Curriculum or promoting development across the Curriculum. Teachers felt that this made it much more difficult to gauge pupils' experiences of the Curriculum or to "keep a check on what is going in" at any one time. The value of a holistic learning experience for a pupil at any one stage in their school career was therefore, according to teachers something of "an unknown quantity."

The Teacher-Pupil Relationship

The nature of the exchange between teachers and pupils was perceived to be one of the main interactions through which values are defined and communicated.

Respondents were asked to consider the principles and attitudes which they adopted in the process of teaching and learning. Many teachers asserted that there are clear lines of demarcation between the two processes with the implication of a one-way process where teachers teach and pupils learn. A few teachers did feel that the processes were actually one and that teachers and pupils were "on the same road", however this was a minority view. One teacher commented,

You've got to let them know that you're in charge. I don't think you can drop that for a second. Therefore when I teach, I'm in control. If I say I'm a learner, who's in control then?

Defining the 'good' teacher

Most teachers recognised the notion of the 'good' teacher but found this difficult to define with any accuracy. Teachers commented that the production of good exam results was one important indicator, though it was still difficult to ascertain exactly how well pupils had been taught. Several teachers pointed out that a 'good' teacher might well have been "teaching practically the same syllabus the same way for the last 19 or 20 years" with no variation in technique, resources or classroom management. They also talked referred to the inspirational teacher, "who has something startling and memorable to say, and...could illuminate aspect of life" (Lynch 1995:72). Several teachers felt that the pressures imposed by the curriculum and by senior staff in schools had eradicated "the light and spark that makes some teachers different". Teachers were unanimous in their agreement that it is not possible to teach without "giving something of themselves", although it was somewhat difficult to discern what exactly this meant in practice.

Primary teachers, in particular spoke of the value of delegating minor responsibilities to pupils in their class. A class monitor or helper system was perceived as an important means of involving pupils and sharing the responsibility for the tidiness and organisation of the classroom and for supporting the teacher by distributing books or running errands. Special school teachers drew attention to this role, commenting on the positive effects it had on children's self-confidence and sense of responsibilty. These teachers also adopted a much more explicit approach to the affirmation of pupils and spoke of encouraging collective praise from other class members. Pupils were made to 'feel good and feel valued" in their contributions, no matter how small. They were also made more aware of each others' strengths and areas of need and encouraged to develop a greater sense of empathy, understanding and community.

Several teachers commented that a 'good' teacher might be recognised by the ability to meet the needs of all pupils, especially those who were perceived as "less able." One aspect of teaching which cropped up frequently in interviews, was the teaching methods adopted in teaching lower ability pupils. Several respondents revealed that schools dissuaded the "low achiever" from choosing some options in the curriculum, if they felt it would interfere with the progress of the "more able pupils". One teacher also intimated that,

There are times when teachers can't be bothered with the hassle and extra work with a less able kid. They just get them to choose something else.
Teachers regularly complained about the dearth of suitable materials for their lower ability students. The Northern Ireland Curriculum Cohort study also highlighted this point, commenting that,
teachers often had to compile extra resources of their own and were unable to give less able pupils the extra attention they needed. (Harland et al, 1996:179)
Some teachers, mostly in the secondary context commented on the "crucial differences" that appropriate learning and teaching strategies could make to pupils' progress. They referred to the rewards of "child-centred learning" and "pupil-oriented learning", both of which focus on the individual needs and abilities of pupils. Such an approach, noted teachers, clearly communicated the value of the individual pupil and enhanced their self-esteem and self-confidence. Several respondents felt that teaching in secondary schools required more creativity and imagination on the part of the teacher, in order to facilitate greater access to the curriculum for lower ability pupils. A number of teachers did not perceive the learning processes inherent in the Northern Ireland Curriculum as entirely appropriate for all pupils and referred quite often to the didactic or "chalk and talk" approach prominent in many schools which, according to one teacher "clearly doesn't capture every pupil's imagination ".

One teacher discussing the relationship of teachers and pupils, pointed to what she thought might be a fundamental requirement for entering the teaching profession - a liking for children. She commented,

it's frightening you know, but there are a significant number of teachers who don't like children. I can't help but wonder what effects this has on their teaching, not to mention the children's learning.

Relationships between Teachers

Throughout the interviews, it became clear that teachers experienced very different relationships with their colleagues. This was dependent on the size of school, the nature of the departments within schools, whether it was a primary, special, integrated or post-primary school and also the culture of the staffroom.

As well as considering the opportunities for formal liaison, teachers also reflected on the nature of informal, everyday relationships in their schools. From the sample of teachers interviewed, primary school teachers seemed to experience much more contact with other members of staff on both a formal and social basis. Many spoke of "freely walking in and out of each others' rooms", "pooling resources" and socialising together outside school. Some post-primary teachers echoed these comments, however others intimated that they rarely left their rooms or that they could teach a whole day and have only limited superficial contact with a few teachers. Respondents frequently spoke of a "seige mentality", suggesting that teachers felt imprisoned and under threat from "just about everyone and everything". One teacher commented that often a teacher's first actions on moving into a new classroom was to cover up any windows or glass in the door in order to "make sure nobody can see what's going on".

The style of leadership adopted by the head teacher was perceived as having an influential effect on staff morale and the "collegiate atmosphere" in a school. Teachers referred to different "types" of head teacher and the effects they had on staff cohesion, staff communication and individual staff teaching. Several teachers described their principals as living in "ivory towers" or "splendid isolation," set apart from other staff members and "caught up in his own concerns ". Some principals were considered unapproachable and in these schools teachers explained that problems or concerns were either not voiced or other members of senior management were approached instead. The converse of this situation was described by another teacher,

Our head's door is always open. I don't remember ever being turned away. What I find so good is that she remembers what it was like to teach.
This point was reiterated by other teachers who concluded that once a head teacher became a manager he or she "becomes locked into a different agenda".

The practice of holding regular staff meetings was generally regarded as positive and beneficial, however teachers did feel that the benefit of meetings was conditional on the level of communication, the extent to which teachers had a voice and the degree to which principals and senior management would actively listen. Teachers commented on the importance of daily staff meetings for providing information on whole school issues, pupil absences and where appropriate, individual pupils' problems or situations. This encouraged the staff to work collectively in dealing with pupils and to share responsibility.

However teachers had mixed views in their assessment of whether meetings and formal discussions actually promoted a sense of community. Many admitted that often the most open and invaluable exchanges occurred when "teachers get together over a cup of coffee without any senior teachers ".

Several principals acknowledged that,

The staff room is for the teachers. I tend to avoid it at lunchtimes because the staff like to talk without my spectre looming over them.
Giving staff space to exchange views and opinions was perceived as an integral element of effective management, though teachers and principals were concerned that opportunities for dialogue were used effectively and constructively. According to a large number of respondents, too many times staffroom dialogues degenerated into a "series of moans and winges", "a diatribe of abuse directed at one pupil" or "general griping sessions ". A few teachers intimated that their school policies had addressed this situation and attempted to heighten teachers' awareness of the negative repercussions such discussions could have on staff morale.

Teachers were asked to comment on how staff interact with one other, for example how they greeted each other in the corridors. Teachers gave a variety of responses. In most cases, they addressed each other using their Christian names, but referred to senior management and the principal using their title and surname. In a minority of schools everyone was addressed using their surname. Some teachers, (in large post-primary schools) admitted that it was quite usual for teachers to ignore each other in the corridor and indeed quite unusual for the principal to address staff. A few teachers did observe, that despite the inclusion of an objective in their school policies (at the request of the Principal) for the promotion of polite and cordial exchange, the principal himself tended to either grunt or ignore staff and pupils when they met in the school.

The values communicated by senior management in the formulation of school policies and timetables, and the nature of relationships were readily identified by most teachers. From their responses, the attitudes and goals of senior management impacted to varying degrees on their perspectives of pupils and their teaching practice. One teacher reflected,

I used to hold sort of tutorials for my weaker pupils, but the VP told me I was wasting my time... and you know, you lose heart... I mean, what's it all about anyway?
Many teachers commented on differences between the culture of maintained and controlled schools, and grammar and secondary schools. The "traditional" perception of controlled schools was of a greater emphasis on industry, academic achievement and exams. Maintained schools were regarded as being more concerned with pastoral care, ethos and changing the "state of things". Several respondents suggested however that a number of maintained grammar schools were shifting their ethos, adopting the culture of industry associated with grammar schools. The perceived contrast between grammar and secondary school culture was not entirely different to the controlled/maintained distinction, though there was a perception that considerably more energy and imagination was involved in building pupils' confidence and promoting a sense of worth and value in secondary schools. In general teachers expressed a need for,
more time to reflect on school values and priorities and working through the implications of these in practice.

The Parent - Teacher Relationship

It seemed clear that primary school teachers had much more contact with parents and in some schools, parents actually helped as classroom assistants with lower primary classes. This arrangement worked well where parents undertook a complementary role, providing teachers with support and affording them opportunities to provide more one-to-one teaching. Only a few teachers had encountered problems with "over enthusiastic" or "particularly domineering mothers ". This co-operative strategy also gave teachers an opportunity to gain some insight into their pupils' home backgrounds.

According to teachers, such experience in the classroom brought parents "more up to date" with what was going on in school, and for some, removed the "fear" of the teacher and the education system. Teachers remarked that as pupils progressed to the post-primary stage many parents became increasingly reluctant to visit schools or to contact teachers regarding their children's work or progress. This was attributed in some cases to the fact that parents could not identify with just one teacher and in others to parents themselves having had negative experiences of second-level education.

The concept of an "open door" culture appeared to be an important one for parents. Teachers alluded to the school's relationship with parents on many occasions, commenting on the school policy regarding parental access. Some schools, notably smaller schools and primary schools, appeared to welcome parents at almost any time. Others opted for an appointment procedure. Some teachers were suspicious of parents and some described a minority of parents as disruptive ", "interfering" and "mischievous ". Teachers also expressed disappointment, concern and at times anger over what they perceived in some instances as inadequate parenting or a lack of parental concern. Several agreed that school was a "safe haven" for many children, and provided perhaps a rare element of stability and security in their lives. They admitted that the habit of labelling children according to their home background exists in many schools. Despite some concerns over parental care, they agreed that the majority of parents, regardless of their backgrounds, demonstrated a natural concern for their children's educational progress.

Ambiguity and uncertainty about the teacher's role was widely recognised as not only challenging to the individual teacher's position, but also to the whole nature of the school as an autonomous institution. Teachers mentioned on many occasions the expectations of parents and the wider society for them to adopt something of a quasi-parental role. Teachers questioned how far they could adopt this role. In particular, they were concerned as to what extent they could be regarded as "maintainers of law", "social skills tutors" and "moral arbiters." The majority of teachers readily accepted some responsibility for the social development of their pupils. Indeed many identified this as an inherent requirement of their teaching role. However, quite a number were more reluctant to identify their task in moral terms. Responsibility for teaching rules and regulations or a prescribed moral code was considered by most teachers to be "beyond the call of duty" and "not an entirely appropriate task". Teachers often felt this was essentially a parental duty and something which they were not confident with or qualified to undertake.

The practice of devolving responsibility to teachers for pupils' moral, disciplinary and social upbringing was further complicated by the accompanying pressures of accountability. Teachers commented on the publication of league tables, the introduction of parental choice and a perceived strengthening of parents' role in governing bodies. This, they felt, allowed parents a deeper insight into schools and could lead in some respondents' minds at least, to "potentially dangerous interference" and "damaging repercussions". Many respondents, speaking as parents themselves, acknowledged the importance of all parents being informed about their children's progress and development, as well as the teaching methods and resources employed by teachers. They also acknowledged the need for parents to have a voice. Alongside this however, were feelings of irritation and anger, and a sense that teachers' "professional expertise" was being questioned and increasingly challenged.

The relationship between parent and teacher was commonly characterised as one which is chequered with misunderstanding, misconceptions and differences of opinion. Teachers frequently drew attention to the difficulties of a dichotomy between parents' desire to have a say in their children' s education and teachers' desires to cherish and protect their own expertise. The increasing difficulties in this relationship, according to many teachers, had their origins in the "changing nature of society" and a perceived shift in family and institutional values and attitudes. Many teachers did feel that they were cast in an "impossible role" which expected them to "fill in all the social, emotional and moral gaps" and be "all things to all pupils".

The Relationship between School and Community

The term 'community' is imprecise although it was common in this study for respondents to use it to refer to clergy, local parishes, parents of pupils, School Governors, Parent Teachers Associations (PTAs) and members of local residential and business communities. In a broader sense, community also referred to the rather more generic concept of 'society'. Throughout the interviews, teachers were asked to examine the nature of the relationship which exists between their school and the community and to reflect on the values which framed and underlined these relationships.

Many teachers created the impression of a very close and active relationship between their school and the community in which it was located. Schools had established varying degrees of contact with local people through invitations from the school to share in events, such as open nights, concerts and fund-raising activities. Many examples were also provided of how scientific, social, historical, geographical and environmental aspects of the local area around schools had been integrated into pupils' studies through the curriculum. Pupils had visited local dolmens and ruins, undertaken various studies of local traffic and businesses and met with local poets, storytellers and community figures. A few teachers remarked that studies of the local environment also offered opportunities for the consideration of various moral, religious and ethical themes and EMU was mentioned on many occasions as a vehicle for promoting a greater awareness of community, both locally and further afield. Focusing attention on the local community was also recognised as a way of valuing pupils' own experiences as part of their educational development.

Several teachers spoke of an "inextricable link" with the community through religious, political and social networks. Many teachers in maintained schools were very conscious of the place of the school within the parish community, where individuals are linked not only by church membership, but also by common religious, political and social ideas and beliefs. Teachers in rural and urban maintained schools referred to the integral role of the parish priest and church and youth club leaders in shaping values within their schools. A few teachers intimated how the political interests and allegiances of the local community were a strong influence on the daily lessons and activities undertaken in school. They commented on the importance of a consolidated staff approach in dealing with political and sectarian issues and their impact on school life. The conflict in Northern Ireland has evidently made an impact upon many schools, though only a small number of teachers made explicit reference to it. Their schools tended to be located in "politically sensitive" areas. Some had taken a decision to ignore local politics or at least to debar them from the school community and others commented that the ceasefires which existed whilst this research was undertaken had, "served to dispel some of the difficulties which teachers have previously had to cope with".

Teachers acknowledged that violence and sectarian divisions in communities of which their schools were a part, posed serious problems at times. They emphasised the value of supportive and cohesive staff relationships, and a public declaration that "No politics are permitted past the school gate ".

Teachers in some schools talked about the regular contact they have with social, community and care workers. In areas of high unemployment and social deprivation, teachers indicated that they received support from a range of local people. One primary school teacher illustrated this point by describing an arrangement she had with a local leisure centre. Several of her pupils were notable, for a variety of reasons, to obtain swimming costumes for their weekly PE lesson. Recognising this, the leisure centre staff had provided the children with swimming costumes (and indeed, some other items of clothing) from the long-term lost property box. She concluded,

It's this sort of thoughtfulness and co-operation that reminds you that the school is part of a bigger, caring community.
Special school teachers concluded that close relationships with the local community were not just a valuable asset, but an essential and intrinsic aspect of their pedagogy. Teachers commented that they communicated with a large number personnel and availed of a broad range of services. This list included music, art and drama therapists, dance companies, musicians, clergy, further education colleges, local employers and various charitable bodies.

The transition for pupils, from school to employment, was an issue raised by a large number of teachers. They drew attention to the principles of industry and the emphasis placed on these by teachers in their classrooms. Respondents referred to the "age-old carrot dangled before pupils" promising that "if they work hard, they will do well ". One teacher suggested that this carrot was "beginning to rot" and another asserted that, "teachers have been preaching this for years, but in today's society, it just doesn't hold water anymore".

Preparation for employment (or strategies for dealing with unemployment) were felt to be inadequate and even non-existent in some schools. Teachers thought that there was insufficient contact between schools and employers and that pupils did not learn enough about the "culture of work".

As well as the positive aspects of community relationships, teachers also spoke of the pressures they experienced from the wider society. Issues relating to accountability arose and teachers were unanimous in their outrage at what they described as "society's readiness to blame teachers for all social and moral ills ". However, teachers also expressed concern about what they described as their "diminishing role as educators" and the increasing expectations for them to accept greater responsibility for more aspects of pupils' development, and to assume an in loco parentis role.


A study of the hidden curriculum with respondents uncovered a rich assortment of experiences, relationships and situations underpinned or strongly influenced by a diversity of values, beliefs and attitudes. Many teachers had adopted the term "ethos" to describe or represent what they knowingly or otherwise recognised as the hidden curriculum in their schools. The values and principles which teachers (usually senior management) identified in their policies as "pervading school life" were frequently recognised as the "school ethos". Comments about the triangular relationship between teachers, pupils and parents provided a valuable insight into the type of implicit value-laden messages transmitted within the school, and between the school, home and community. What emerged forcibly from these messages was a profound concern over the changing role of teachers and the ever-increasing demands which they felt were being placed upon them. This was coupled with a recognition of the significance of community and the need to cultivate a sense of collegiality within the school while also developing close and sustained links with a wide range of institutions in the local and wider communities.

Return to Publication Contents

CAIN contains information and source material on the conflict and politics in Northern Ireland.
CAIN is based within Ulster University.

go to the top of this page go to the top of this page
Last modified :