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Teaching Awards 2003

Michael Duffy meets regional winners shortlisted for the national final.

This week:Isabel Russell, school and community involvement in Northern Ireland Isabel Russell teaches at St Gabriel's secondary school in Belfast, but the nomination for this award came from a partner school - and that's what makes it so special. Her school, in the heart of Ardoyne, is Roman Catholic; her partner school, in Mount Gilbert, is in Protestant Shankhill.

In Belfast, this is an almost unbridgeable divide. Thanks to Isabel, children (and their parents) have begun to close it.

The link is music. Thirteen years ago, when Isabel came to St Gabriel's ("inner-city boys, tough"), the subject was virtually non-existent, "but in Ireland, music is never far beneath the surface". Playing tin whistle and fiddle, guitar and bodhran appealed to the boys. A folk group started and, as the music developed, a choir. "Six years ago, we had an invitation from Mount Gilbert to sing with them for Channel 4's Christmas Message. It was a message for peace. That's where the idea of a cross-community choir started."

Rehearsals were fraught. "Windows were being smashed while we were singing.

Many a time I thought, 'Stuff this. I don't need to do it.' But after a while, you could see the changes. There was more friendliness. Kids began to stay at each other's houses. Their confidence was boosted. They walked with heads high. I had wonderful support the whole way through."

The cross-community choir linked with a school in Dublin and became an all-Ireland choir. It has won a Gulbenkian award, a Princess Diana award, the Irish International Peace Song Contest. It has sung for the presidents of Ireland and of the United States; and has made frequent broadcasts.

But what matters most to Isabel is the award St Gabriel's received from the Peaceful Schools International group in recognition of its "culture of peace". She is committed to Belfast's mutual understanding programmes, knowing that, especially in Northern Ireland, schools can make a difference. "Our music helps children to open out, to stretch out their hands and work together. It's real citizenship."

This award is "wonderful recognition of what we've done together; the best possible pay-off. A boost, too, to music in the school."

The national final of the Teaching Awards is on October 26 and will be broadcast on BBC1 in early November. Nominations for next year's awards open next month at www.teachingawards.com

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