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Speak your Piece was established at the University of Ulster in 1995 on the premise that educators in Northern Ireland have a positive contribution to make in helping young people engage with controversial social, cultural, religious and political issues.


In 1992 the cross-curricular themes of Education for Mutual Understanding (EMU) and Cultural Heritage were made a statutory requirement of the Northern Ireland Curriculum (DENI, 1992). Research carried out by Smith and Robinson (1996) on the implementation of EMU in its initial statutory years indicated a number of strengths and several weaknesses. On the credit side government support for EMU had "helped change the discourse in Northern Ireland by introducing a language which allows people to express their support for cultural pluralism and political dialogue rather than sectarianism and political violence." (Ibid., p.82). However, EMU was often regarded by teachers as ill-defined and difficult to express in their practical teaching approaches. A lack of expertise in the area often led schools to adopt a minimalist approach, stopping short of engaging with more contentious issues. The report recommended that EMU and Cultural Heritage be given a stronger definition by underpinning it with the concepts of human rights, civic responsibility, justice and democracy. It concluded:

The challenge now is whether such initiatives can help young people move beyond the polite exchange so that they engage with each other in meaningful discussion of controversial social, cultural, religious and political issues. (Ibid., p. 82)

In partnership with Channel 4, and in consultation with the Council for Curriculum, Examinations and Assessment (CCEA) the University of Ulster School of Education received European Union funding to promote the teaching of controversial issues. Channel 4 agreed to invest substantial resources in a schools TV series, Off the Walls. the role of the university - based project, Speak your Piece, was to ensure that the full potential of the programmes was realised in practice. The Youth Council of Northern Ireland entered the partnership by supporting the appointment of a project worker focusing on the work in the non-formal youth sector.

Off the Walls

The production of the Off the Walls series brought educationalists and production teams together in an innovative partnership. The five programmes that emerged were well received in media circles (Holland, 1996; Gilby, 1996). Introduced from Jerusalem, they contain an innovative mix of comparative comment with the Middle Eastern situation, ongoing drama extracts, and a studio debate amongst young people around five themes deemed central to the Northern Ireland conflict: Identity, Culture, Religion, Politics and Future Choices.

Speak your Piece

Speak your Piece identified objectives in five main areas:

1. development work with teachers
2. production of support materials
3. an interactive technology dimension
4. dissemination
5. research and evaluation

1.    Development work centred around establishing a project rationale, and developing innovative approaches to handling controversial issues.

 2.   Support material With a major video resource available Speak your Piece did not wish to become a slave to the production of print materials. It was vital that the objectives of Speak your Piece took into account the constraints on practitioners, particularly those relating to time and space within the curriculum. The project opted for a publication of thirty two pages Exploring Controversial Issues: a Guide for Teachers, Youth and Community Workers , which emphasised the project's rationale and exemplified this with a range of activities built around each of the TV themes.

 3.    I nteractive technologies in the form of computer conferencing have been used by Dr. Roger Austin (1995) to engage A level students in debate on controversial issues in history. Speak your Piece practitioners wished to explore the potential of computer conferencing for engaging young people in debate on controversial contemporary issues. The project initiated a conference on BT CampusWorld Students from several centres contributed to a structured debate around key questions arising from the TV programmes. In addition to sharing views with contemporaries participants had their ideas challenged and clarified by Dr. Duncan Morrow of the Politics Department at the University of Ulster. Technical difficulties and inflexibility of school time-tables not withstanding the concept of computer conferencing has considerable potential in community relations work.

 4.   Dissemination is a key strand in Speak your Piece's thinking, to ensure that its approaches enter the mainstream of educational practice. Given that it arose from inadequacies within the interpretation of existing provision it was important to build partnerships with curriculum and training providers. In-service sessions were run in conjunction with each of the five Education and Library Boards (ELBs) as well as a range of non-statutory agencies. Within the university setting the project contributes to initial teacher education and has established an MSc programme in Education and Contemporary Society. Running programmes for teachers and youth and community workers together has proved a significant innovation in in-service provision.

 5.    Research and evaluation work has been ongoing throughout the project's development. Detailed assessments of its work will be published during 1999. it is envisaged that the experience of the project will inform thinking relating to the citizenship theme emerging as part of the 2001 curriculum review (QCA, 1998a, 1998b).

Developing a rationale

The development strand of the project was carried by two pilot groups; one of twenty teachers and the other twenty youth workers. At the outset practitioners defined key principles and took cognizance of the dynamics and processes at work in debating and exploring controversial issues. Three key principles were agreed. The project should be about:

Observation of discussion on controversial issues suggests that often it is not the issue itself which creates conflict, but the dynamics around it. Being aware of these dynamics, and having the knowledge and skills to deal with them, help the practitioner to create a trusting atmosphere which is both forthright and rational. Alan Smith, Director of Speak your Piece, has identified those factors which both can both facilitate, or impede, creative discourse (Figure 1):

Fig.1 Features of Discussion

Communication and social skills:
In dealing with sensitive cultural and political issues (particularly in cross-community and cross-border settings), people are brought together who have both a range of communication and social skills, and varying levels of knowledge and experience of the issues. These differences may foster a perception of inequality which inhibits the development of trust. Facilitators have a responsibility to anticipate possible areas of weakness and prepare groups or individuals accordingly prior to contact. Offering participants forms of expression more appropriate to the group perceived at a disadvantage, such as the use of creative arts-based activities can be particularly beneficial in this regard.

Emotions, feelings:
Practitioners need to be aware of the emotions and feelings surrounding controversial issues. Practitioners must work through issues with their peers to be better prepared to understand how the work will be experienced by young people. Emotional reactions are inevitable. It is important that facilitators neither provoke nor repress emotions but find ways of absorbing them creatively without destroying rational debate.

Decision making, democracy: 
The work seeks to foster a more pluralist and democratic society. These values should reflect in practice. Young people are unlikely to develop a commitment to democratic principles unless they experience democratic practice. Those who participate should feel that they have a voice, they are listened to, and that they have both rights and responsibilities. Relationships. The work challenges practitioners to think about the relationship they have with their group, and how that relationship enables or hinders discussion. For example the authority role of the teacher cannot be dismissed but has the potential to distort the dynamics of interaction on sensitive issues. Practitioners must compensate accordingly. Other influences on relationships such as gender, wealth and age must also be taken into account.

Personal biography has shaped the people we are, and the values we hold. Those who feel they have benefitted from community relations activities have identified personal disclosure, both on the part of facilitators and young people, as a powerful factor in stimulating reflection and in considering other perspectives.

In support of the three principles Speak your Piece evolved the following guidelines, a process, for practitioners working with young people:

The rationale and process outlined above underpin the the activities outlined in the Speak your piece; Exploring Controversial issues material which follows.


R. Austin (1995) Computer Conferencing in History, Occasional Paper 11, London, The Historical Society.

Council for the Curriculum, Examination and Assessment (1997) Mutual Understanding and Cultural Heritage: Cross-curricular Guidance Materials, Belfast, CCEA.

K. Fearon,  P. Donnelly,  T. Gallagher,  F. Comisky and B. Lomas (1997) Politics: the next generation, Belfast, Democratic Dialogue.

L. Gilby (1996) Sunday Life, 19 May.

M. Holland (1996) Irish Times, 16 May.

QCA (1998 a) Education for citizenship and the teaching of democracy in schools : Pt1 Advisory group initial report .

QCA (1998 b) Education for citizenship and the teaching of democracy in schools : Final report of the Advisory Group on Citizenship

A. Smith and A. Robinson (1996) Education for Mutual Understanding: The Initial Statutory Years, UU, Coleraine.