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Scheme to bring peace backfires

Moves to promote religious tolerance in Ulster's schools can do more harm than good, say the pupils. Carmel McQuaid reports

SCHOOLS' attempts to combat sectarianism in Northern Ireland can lead to more pupils being victimised on religious grounds, a study has found.

Education for Mutual Understanding has been compulsory in Ulster since 1992. But the study, for the Save the Children charity, says pupils are dismissive of it.

Indeed, a number of schools said the "get-to-know-each-other" sessions meant pupils could then be identified out of school. One pupil said: "Once you go to those sorts of things, you are recognised in the town and called names. This has happened to me, I was called a Fenian."

Inside the Gates: Schools and the Troubles, by Ruth Leitch and Rosemary Kilpatrick, from Queen's University graduate school of education, investigated eight schools where pupils had linked up at least once with others of a different religion.

The children, aged eight to 18, pointed out the limitations of such contact. "Once you're doing it, you can talk and have a laugh. Once it's all over, they wouldn't say hello, wouldn't talk to you," said one.

Boys in thre of the schools dismissed the apparently friendly contact in curriculum or sporting initiatives as "simply cosmetic". While teachers imposed orderliness and ensured safe encounters at these events, the underlying friction was all too evident to the boys.

Comments included: "Without the discipline of the teachers I don't think we would get along." Another pupil said: "What the teachers don't see is the niggle under the surface. Playing football with the other school, there's lots of really dirty tackles. If the teacher wasn't there it would just end up one big fight."

Efforts to sustain trust between schools were often undermined by sectarian incidents such as the conflict at Drumcree. One school ripped up certificates awarded for co-operation and participation, following such an event.

Some pupils conceded that breaking down barriers presented a formidable challenge to schools, since ignorance and prejudice were reinforced by parents.

"The school can help you think about things you're not even allowed to say at home," said one pupil.

'Inside the Gates: Schools amp; the Troubles' is available from 15 Richmond Park, Belfast BT10 0HB, price pound;5.

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