Sectarian divide still holds back Northern Ireland’s schools

Peace education is embedded in the NI curriculum. The primary and post-primary syllabuses have statutory elements that help students think about their society’s clashing communal ideologies in a constructive, non-confrontational context.

By Jem Newton

More than 40 peace walls still bisect districts of Belfast, Derry and Portadown, some erected during the Troubles to keep warring Catholic and Protestant communities apart, others during the early days of the ceasefire in the late 1990s to discourage further flare-ups of sectarian violence.

The barriers, up to 8 metres high, reduce such opportunities for casual aggression, but equally opportunities for dialogue, not to mention everyday contacts between individuals.

“[The peace walls] have added to a feeling that the two communities don’t need to talk to each other,” said a community worker from north Belfast in the early days of the ceasefire. “You have to remember that the [pro-British] DUP doesn’t talk to [Republican] Sinn Fein and that mentality filters down to their own people.”

Despite fine words in the 1998 Good Friday accords encouraging the creation of schools integrating the two communities, more than 20 years on from the ceasefire agreement that brought a fragile peace to Northern Ireland (NI), at least 90% of children still attend schools segregated on religious lines, according to recent official data.

Broadly speaking, children of Protestant families attend state-run ‘controlled’ schools while children of Catholic families go to ‘maintained’ schools, also supported by public funding.

Yet at the same time, over 70% of NI parents said in a recent poll they would like to send their children to so-called integrated schools – which have a roughly equal intake from both communities.

There is even a private members’ bill – “promoting integrated education” – being debated in Stormont, the region’s devolved parliament. Its progress, however, has been held up by amendments tabled by the main parties in the power-sharing executive and its fate is uncertain, especially as elections are due in the region this spring.

“There’s a risk that the bill could be amended so much that it’s not worth taking forward,” comments Paul Caskey, head of campaign of the Integrated Education Fund, which helps finance school startups thanks to donations from philanthropic bodies. “Politicians say they have nothing against integrated education, but they don’t take any action.”

When both controlled and Catholic-maintained school sectors are shrinking, integrated education may be perceived as a threat by some in both faith communities.

“The main political parties know that schooling goes to the very heart of Northern Ireland society,” says Caskey. “Education reform is yet another issue that the main political parties find it too difficult to deal with.”

The power-sharing executive, led by the Democratic Unionists (DUP) and Sinn Fein, has a poor track record of implementing decisions on a range of controversial subjects, above all the so-called legacy issues seeking legal justice for the killings and other crimes committed by all sides during the Troubles.

Demographically, integrated education is not an exact fit for Northern Ireland. There are large areas in the west and along the northeast coast that are overwhelmingly populated by Catholics and Protestants respectively, and where classroom integration on an equal basis is not practical. This and other factors such as undersubscribed schools have led in the past 15 years to a slowdown in the creation of integrated schools – either newbuild or the transformation of existing schools by popular parental demand. During the past two years, the COVID pandemic has not helped either.

This trend, and a drive to use educational resources more efficiently – the region’s school system is seen as the most wasteful of the four UK region because of the longstanding respect for parallel arrangements for Protestant and Catholic schools – have led in the last decade or so to the increased popularity of shared education partnerships allowing teachers and pupils to share facilities, resources and expertise across the sectarian divide.

One of the reasons shared education has been successful is that it doesn’t threaten the identity and ethos of sectoral schools.

“One of the reasons shared education has been successful is that it doesn’t threaten the identity and ethos of sectoral schools,” says Dr Rebecca Loader of Queen’s University’s Centre for Shared Education in Belfast. “Without it a lot of joint initiatives would not have happened.”

Peace education is embedded in the NI curriculum. The primary and post-primary syllabuses have statutory elements that help students think about their society’s clashing communal ideologies in a constructive, non-confrontational context.

“At Key Stage 3 [11-14 years], one of the only statutory periods of history that students have to study is: ‘Short and long-term consequences of the partition in Ireland’,” says Sean Pettis of the NI Council for Integrated Education. This covers most of the issues relating to the years of conflict and the events leading up to the present fragile peace.

Yet only a minority of students continue history beyond stage 3. “The challenge is how to get 14-year-olds concluding their history education to have a really good understanding of their own society,” he points out.

But so-called citizenship classes are the main area of learning that help students form their worldviews. Children are taught from the age of six to develop respect for others and explore community similarities and differences, in a curriculum module called Personal Development and Mutual Understanding.

At post-primary level, the focus on personal values is addressed in the Local and Global Citizenship module, where students are asked to identify the challenges and opportunities that diversity and inclusion present.

But as one might expect, citizenship classes vary in quality. “In the late 1990s, there were hopes that citizenship education would emerge as a subject like maths or English. But there has been a lack of investment in its professional identity and development,” says Pettis.

As a result, there can be up to a score of teachers taking citizenship classes in some post-primary schools.  “A lot of the work supporting citizenship teaching has fallen to NGOs,” he adds.

But Caskey believes change is now inevitable: “Many people are no longer happy with the traditional labels; the community is changing a lot faster than politicians. I believe there’s been a seismic shift in people’s attitudes to community divisions in the past 3-4 years. There’s a real momentum now and [this year’s] elections will be interesting.”

The NI executive hopes to remove all its peace walls by 2023. Whether that happens on time may depend on what kind of government emerges from next May’s elections.

close
Join the Campaign & help us #SpreadPeaceEd!
Please send me emails:

Join the discussion...

Scroll to Top