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Mutual understanding urged for Ulster

New life must be breathed into education for mutual understanding (EMU) in Northern Ireland schools, says a new report from the University of Ulster's Centre for the Study of Conflict.

Alan Smith and Alan Robinson say there are overriding concerns about the extent to which EMU and cultural heritage, compulsory cross-curricular themes for the past four years, are taught. It has become clear that the aims of EMU - to improve relations between people of differing cultural traditions - need a comprehensive framework which includes the commitment of teachers on whole-school issues.

This framework "is by no means widespread and it remains to be seen to what extent schools are willing to move beyond minimalist, statutory interpretations of EMU in practice".

Teachers believe EMU is "too abstract and loose" and would welcome more guidance; few have had training and many feel considerable anxiety about their ability to deal with the strong emotions the theme can arouse among pupils.

"Teachers face the challenge of how to address divisive issues constructively and with sensitivity, so that the emotional as well as the cognitive basis for conflict is acknowledged.

"For example, it is not just interpretations of Irish history which can be disputed. Deciding whether to challenge a pupil who has made a sectarian comment may be just as controversial and potentially more explosive if handled badly."

Yet, there is no coherent or agreed plan to provide training or professional development for teachers, governors or ancillary staff. In addition, the Government's insistence on more teaching practice in initial training has led to reduced coverage of the subject in Postgraduate Certificate in Education courses.

The authors also reveal that few links exist between Protestant and Catholic schools. In 1994-95, less than half of Northern Ireland's schools took part in the Department of Education's cross-community contact scheme.

Fewer than one in five primary pupils and one in 10 secondary pupils was involved in the programme, according to the department's Community Relations Branch - just over 40,000 pupils out of around 350,000 in the province.

Smith and Robinson call for renewed commitment to EMU and for promoting it within schools by raising awareness of its aims and providing a more explicit agenda.

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