Innovative Practice - Learning together

Sharing expertise across Catholic and Protestant communities to widen pupils' cultural horizons

Nicola Sheppey

The background

Shimna Integrated College opened in Northern Ireland in 1994, on the first day of the IRA ceasefire. It was a fitting start for a school that was created to bring Catholic and Protestant pupils together.

However, teachers noticed that the local primary schools in County Down remained segregated. They wondered whether a project could be launched that would get primary schools working together, and allow Shimna to share some of its specialist work in languages.

The project

In the autumn term of 2010, Laura O'Hare, a languages teacher at the college, initiated a project called Sharing Languages, Sharing Cultures that would get Protestant and Catholic pupils at 13 different primary schools to work together.

Once a week she picks up Catholic pupils from one primary school and takes them to a Protestant school for a languages lesson, and vice versa the following week. The pupils learn languages such as German and Spanish together, and become aware of foreign cultures while learning about each other's, simply by talking and working together.

A basic technique in language learning is letting pupils talk about themselves in that particular language. They can learn about each other's lives and interests, from what sports they play to when they go to a church or chapel. Children are paired with a peer from a different school and awarded "pupil of the day" if they work well together - an incentive to get to know their partner.

The pupils also have the occasional art morning together, where they work alongside each other to create patches that feature on murals. The finished murals from the spring term were revealed at a presentation to celebrate the achievements of the project.

Children are also invited to attend language immersion days at a local YMCA centre.

Tips from the scheme

- Teachers make an effort to transport and accommodate students from other schools for an hour or so a week. This allows pupils to make friends and cross paths with cultures they might not encounter at their school.

- The art classes allow children to work towards a larger project, a mural, which is presented and celebrated at the end of term. This gives the children a goal and sense of purpose in class.

Evidence that it works?

The project won the Outstanding Community Project Award at this year's TES Schools Awards, where the judges described it as "humbling and inspirational".

The pupils have praised the project and remarked that it allowed them to make new friends and feel more comfortable when visiting foreign countries. Teachers report they have benefited from having new students in their environment.

The project

Approach: Catholic and Protestant pupils learn languages together

Started: 2010

Leader: Laura O'Hare, project co-ordinator and language teacher at the college

The school

Name: Shimna Integrated College

Location: Newcastle, County Down, Northern Ireland

Number of pupils: 540

Age range: 11-18

Intake: The college consists of roughly 40 per cent Catholic students, 40 per cent Protestant, and 20 per cent of other faiths or no religion. Specialises in modern languages and the international dimension.

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Nicola Sheppey

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