When Patricia McGann decided to divide her class at St Mary's, a girls' high school in Lurgan, County Antrim, into Catholics, Orangemen, mediators and judges, she knew she was entering dangerous territory. But she also believed that it had to be done.
When you're Catholic and living within marching distance of Portadown, you tend to have set ideas about Protestants, largely informed by the Orangemen's annual Drumcree Parade down the Catholic Garvachy Road.
The Catholic community sees the march as a provocation and the Protestants view it as a tradition to be upheld. It was time, Ms McGann thought, that those ideas were aired, analysed and debated sensitively and intelligently.
Ms McGann is citizenship co-ordinator at St Mary's. She is also one of 22 teachers involved in Education for Reconciliation, an Irish cross-border programme that trains teachers to use collaborative work in dealing with the preconceptions that surround the lives of their key stage 3 and 4 pupils. Citizenship education is the vehicle for this, but the project has been designed to empower teachers to raise emotionally charged issues when appropriate. Teachers are also able to counter sectarian attitudes with facts, analysis and empathy.
Ms McGann chose to debate the conflict over the Garvachy Road because of its relevance to her pupils, most of whom have never had any social contact with Protestants. She developed a scheme of work for her Year 8 girls which involved dividing them into small groups to play the roles of Protestant marchers, Catholic residents of Garvachy Road, mediators who presented both sides, or judges, whose job it was to resolve the conflict.
"Tackling this issue in school is new for our children, except in history lessons, where it is presented differently," Ms McGann says. "They've never had the freedom or opportunity to sit down and discuss the sectarian divide before and at the beginning I wondered whether it would work. Some of them come from backgrounds with strong feelings, but I was impressed with how well they took on these roles and how they've learned to listen to other people's point of view.
Maria Henderson, who was in the group playing the mediators, says: "It was difficult to listen to the Protestant group and to treat both sides evenly." "But," adds Sinead Headley, "we learned about the Drumcree marchers and that was important because we didn't know much about them before."
One of the "judges", Martina McCarton, comments: "Because we're Catholics, we used to think the Orangemen shouldn't march, but now I see that the march is part of a tradition and that there is a way of being fair to both sides." In a bid to be even-handed, the judges ruled that the march could take place if it was done early in the morning, so as not to bother the residents.
While the project teachers in Northern Ireland have focused on sectarianism, teachers in the Republic have largely taken on the issue of cultural diversity. The South's economic boom has meant that in less than a decade the once culturally homogenous country has become home to people from 150 nations. "If we don't address these issues now, we'll have serious problems a few years down the line," says Stephen McCarthy, who co-ordinates the European Union-funded Education for Reconciliation project.
Sean Quigley is one of the teachers involved in the project in the Republic. His school, Colaiste Ris, is almost totally Catholic and situated in Dundalk, a border town with a reputation as a Republican stronghold. As co-ordinator for civic, social and political education (Ireland's equivalent of citizenship), he has collaborated with Derek McCullough, a citizenship co-ordinator in the North at Ballymena Academy in County Antrim. Last year the pair developed a programme based on common themes that would be relevant to both curriculums. Their schools were twinned as part of the process.
Some activities brought the two schools together. As part of their exploration of symbols and icons of identity, Mr Quigley and his class met Mr McCullough and his group in Belfast for a visit to the Ulster Museum and then on to Stormont. It was a day to remember. "We met Ian Paisley Junior and Senior," Mr Quigley says, "and I watched the blood drain out of my pupils' faces." Seven months later, the groups travelled together to Dublin to visit the "Irish White House", Aras an Uachtarain, as well as the jail where prisoners were held during the 1916 uprising. At the end of the trip, Mr Quigley overheard the northern children concluding that their southern counterparts were "just like us".
The visits were illuminating and fun, but were not about filling buses.
"The cross-border visits wouldn't have happened without curriculum-based work," Mr Quigley says. "We did lessons exploring the meanings conveyed in icons like school crests and the national flags of Ireland and Britain."
They also analysed Irish heroes such as Michael Collins and Eamonn DeValera and the Protestant figureheads William of Orange and Ian Paisley. "We investigated the differences of interpretation and looked at how the differences rather than the similarities are dwelt upon."
Once they ventured into the subject of political icons, prejudices rose to the surface. Mr Quigley recalls: "One parent came back at me and said 'How many Catholics have been killed at the hands of the Prods? What ideas are you trying to fill my child's head with?' But my role as a teacher is to get children to think and I'd regard the programme as a success if children's thinking was a bit more sophisticated and less guided by knee-jerk reactions at the end of it."
For Derek McCullough, one of the strengths of the partnership was working with Sean Quigley on themes that were relevant to both sets of pupils:
"They were willing to explore the similarities and differences within their own and each others' contexts and showed that they could empathise with each other."
The project, now in its second phase, runs until 2005, after which it is hoped that, in Stephen McCarthy's words: "We will be leaving something that the education systems will take up."
That the need is there is without question. As Sean Quigley puts it: "This is about getting students to see that just because there are differences, it doesn't mean that it's bad. Today, after 30 years of bombing and shooting, we're seeing children less able than ever to deal with difference and conflict in non-violent ways. This kind of work is essential."
Stephen McCarthy of Education for Reconciliation can be contacted on email@example.com
TIPS FOR DEALING WITH SENSITIVE ISSUES
* An atmosphere of trust and safety in the class should be built before launching into controversial subjects. Teachers should be sensitive about their students' backgrounds and take things gradually.
* A democratic model should be set up, where everyone feels free to speak, subject to a code of behaviour set up and understood by everyone.
* Don't delve into these areas unless you have an exit strategy.
* It is crucial that the whole school is committed to the programme.
* For cross-community contact, ensure that activities are grounded in the curriculum and that the work has a clear structure. Draw the similarities and differences out as you go along: don't focus on them immediately.
* It's important for students to be able to talk about their views throughout the project and to understand the expected learning outcomes .
* Teachers should evaluate the effectiveness of this work by asking students to reflect on their changes in attitude and ideas.