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Don't mention The Troubles

Why don't Ulster schools tackle pupils' ignorance about those on the other side of the religious divide? Warwick Mansell reports.

Schools and teachers in Northern Ireland are failing pupils by denying them the chance to discuss The Troubles in lessons, a leading researcher has warned.

Seamus Hegarty, director of the National Foundation for Educational Research, said he was deeply disturbed at pupils' reactions to a major study seeking their views on sectarianism.

The youngsters said the project gave them much greater understanding of the other side of the religious and political divide - prompting Dr Hegarty to question why schools had not already tried to inform them about each other's backgrounds.

The National Children's Bureau research asked 194 sixth-formers from Protestant, Roman Catholic and integrated schools to discuss issues including their own national and religious identities.

They were asked their views on the influence of paramilitaries, politicians, cultural symbols such as sectarian murals and improving cross-community relations.

The clearest finding was their enthusiasm for integrated (non-sectarian) schools: half the pupils at Protestant schools, and 40 per cent at Catholic schools said they would rather go to an integrated school. The researchers also found that many pupils at Protestant and Catholic schools knew little about the religion and history of the "other side".

Many youngsters said that being involved in the focus groups had helped them to better understand those from other backgrounds.

Dr Hegarty, speaking at a Nuffield Foundation seminar to discuss the research, said: "What in God's name are teachers doing that they have not raised these issues with youngsters?

"On conventional measures (exam results), Northern Ireland schools do very well. But when you look beyond the conventional measures, if they are producing youngsters who very rarely discuss these questions, they have a lot of soul-searching to do.

"Until this sort of thing is introduced into subjects such as English, which is a very good vehicle for such discussions, or in history, how can teachers in these subjects justify their existence?"

One major problem may be the segregated training system: Catholic and Protestant teachers who have had little opportunity to mix may find it hard to speak authoritatively about each other's cultures.

Catrin Roberts, assistant director of the Nuffield Foundation, said:

"Teacher education in Northern Ireland is completely segregated, so teachers are not in a position to... discuss these terribly sensitive issues."

Elza Margrain, Northern Ireland regional organiser for the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers, said: "Dealing with issues of conflict such as this is an extremely sensitive area for teachers.

"It may be that teachers feel they do not have the time, the resources or the experience to deal with such tricky issues."


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