Our Shared History Demands Shared Schools
Throughout February, we’re getting people from all over Northern Ireland to contribute personal pieces in the run up to the election on March 2nd. 28 days in February for 28 different voices.
There are still a few spots left to fill so get in touch!
I have been a History teacher in Northern Ireland for the last twenty-one years.
As I grew up, the image of the ‘other’ loomed large in my mind though I had no idea who the ‘other’ was. I had a warped perception that they were intractably opposed to me. For some reason, they hated me. I didn’t know why. I just accepted it. Then I got involved with various inter-community projects like one at Corrymeela where I met the boys from Andersonstown. The major cultural chasm turned out to be how to translate ‘city boy’ into ‘culchie.’ This led to a trip to Germany with a gang of Unionists, Republicans and none of the above on the Spirit of Enniskillen Bursary Scheme.
My image of the ‘other’ was proven conclusively to be the product of a divided society, a society that had not been able to grapple with the consequences of division, given that the conflict was still ongoing. My 1980’s mindset was clearly and obviously the product of an educational system that kept students separated. I was very fortunate to be at Queen’s as everything in Northern Ireland changed. By the mid-1990’s, all my previously held ‘wrong headed’ notions were thankfully gone, as I think was the case for the majority of people in Northern Ireland. However, the educational structure is still largely the same in 2017.
Back in the day, it was automatically assumed that the History teacher should be responsible for covering the Education for Mutual Understanding and Cultural Heritage part of the syllabus. The logic seemed to dictate that History caused most of the problems so it was inevitably part of the History teacher’s designated role to fix Northern Ireland. That has been a key part of my role for the last twenty-one years and I am glad to report there has been some progress. EMU gave way to CRED (Community Relations, Equality and Diversity in NI), followed by PIRCH (Partnership, Inclusion, Reconciliation, Citizenship and History) which then gave way to SEP (Shared Education Program).
These projects all had a History strand, which meant anything from collaborating on a World War One project and looking at the importance of that conflict for both communities in Northern Ireland and across Ireland, to creating a resource that looked at Genocide and the importance of the Holocaust. The project we are currently involved in looks at the international Civil Rights movement and how it impacted Northern Ireland during the crucial 1960’s period. The key aim has always been to find ways of creating projects that allow students from all sectors to work together and collaborate on Historical themes.
I do not doubt that there have been massive strides taken to improve the delivery of History. Myths have been busted. Critical thinking has been enhanced. The resources that are on offer to deal with previously sensitive Historical issues in Northern Ireland in a hard-hitting way are incredibly well thought out, and are evaluated and immaculately produced by talented professionals. In my role as Chair of the History Teachers’ Association of Northern Ireland, I have highlighted the strengths of these new approaches.
Collaboration between schools in the delivery of A-Level subjects has been immensely significant in breaking down barriers. I currently teach Government and Politics to a range of A-Level students from all the schools in my locality. These are classes where students from across the perceived political divide get to know and trust each other, and eventually they feel there are no issues that they can’t discuss. Just recently, for a ‘Secret Santa’, one student gave an Irish passport application to a student who is inclined towards the Unionist side. It was received in good fun and everyone had a good laugh.
To be absolutely truthful, though it was accidental, it appears that teaching Government and Politics in Northern Ireland to classes that encompass the widest possible mix of political views and personal backgrounds is an extremely effective way to break down barriers. I love teaching these classes!
What always strikes me about all of the well-meaning projects and initiatives that have been launched in Northern Ireland in the last twenty years is that there remains an all too obvious, ‘elephant in the room’ regarding shared schools. Don’t get me wrong, teachers don’t have to worry that they are going to have an angry parent on the line for teaching the ‘wrong side’ of History anymore. Things have moved on, and some of the projects that I have been involved in have been insightful and have contributed to this success. However, if we are serious about truly wanting to transform our society, it is essential that we meaningfully embark on a process that allows children to be educated in shared schools. This necessary change should not be viewed as an assault on religious education or parental choice.
What really bothers me, as we approach yet another election brought on by Stormont’s tendency to implode, is that we are almost twenty years out from the Good Friday Agreement and important decisions are still not being taken, essential and transformative decisions that will have a massive impact on the future course of Northern Ireland. The future form and model of Education is massively important to this.
Education cannot be left to the Ministerial tenure of one side or the other. If the same politicians are returned in March, there is a serious possibility that they will fail to prioritize Educational change as a cross-party agenda. This cannot happen. We are at least ten years too late already.
There are multiple issues that affect the efficacy of the Educational system in Northern Ireland. Besides the divided system itself, these include underachievement, a lack of a real vocational track, and a selection system that fails to ensure opportunity for all after selection. The language of politics in Northern Ireland needs to change from blaming the budget constraints of the Block Grant for a failure to enact change, to enacting change because it is necessary and possible to imagine new forms and frameworks that are suited to the specific needs of Northern Ireland. It is also important that the Northern Ireland public consider voting for those who are willing to lead this process.
As a society, we should not be comfortable with the status quo. Given the recent scandals and fiascos that have enveloped our Stormont elite, it won’t be massively popular when I state clearly that I know that there are really talented and dedicated politicians in Northern Ireland. These very politicians know that there are a multitude of reasons for starting to look at education in Northern Ireland from a different angle and through different lenses. Primarily, it makes budgetary sense. Secondly, it is the right thing to do. Politicians in Northern Ireland need to stop basing their decisions on how their respective communities might react and start making the right decisions. They need to start leading and inspiring all communities through the actual decisions they make.
Everyone has an individual responsibility to hold politicians accountable for their failure to make decisions that matter. The next ten years hold massive challenges for Northern Ireland and it is in this period that these decisions need to be made. This is an opportunity for a new generation to take control of the political levers and react to these challenges with different approaches and new thinking. It should be viewed as an exciting prospect and opportunity for those who care about Northern Ireland to grasp.