A troubled profession

29th December 2000 at 00:00
How do you explain the history of a conflict in which your students are still deeply involved? Anne McHardy finds out from an author who has spent almost three decades teaching Northern Ireland's teenagers about their province's past.

Teaching history and politics in the secondary schools of Northern Ireland is like walking in a minefield. "You'd find parents at the school very fast if you said the wrong thing," says teacher turned author David McVea. His latest book, Making Sense of the Troubles, co written with journalist David McKittrick, is published this month.

The GCSE syllabus demands teachers cover the Troubles. But McVea wonders how schools manage it. "I would love to be a fly on the wall in state schools and Catholic schools," he says.

"In my early days in teaching, if you taught in a state school you were teaching Irish history as an appendage to British history. But the Catholic schools came at it from a different angle."

McVea was a history and politics teacher in a state - and therefore Protestant - school, Grosvenor grammar in east Belfast, for 28 years. Finding a way to present the violence of the past 30 years in a fair and objective manner has been the stuff of his marriage and his career.

He and McKittrick, now the Independent's Ireland correspondent, were involved at first hand in the arguments that have formed the basis of the book.

Much of the debate, while McVea was teaching, was filtered through his journalist wife, Fionnuala O Connor, who began her career sharing the Irish Times's Belfast office with the young McKittrick. McVea says the debate about how to teach the history of sectarianism in a society still deeply divided "formed a network of ideas passed around every day of our married lives".

Within the McVeaO Connor household, the subject was given added urgency by their desire for integrated schools for their daughters, now 22 and 17. Being in a mixed marriage, the couple, who met at Queen's University, and left just before the civil rights movement began in 1968, considered they had no option but to get involved with other parents in the founding of an integrated school. Their labours eventually bore fruit with the founding of Northern Ireland's first such primary, Forge Integrated, in 1985.

McVea took early retirement from teaching four years ago. Since then, he and McKittrick, both Belfast-born Protestants married to Catholics, have carried on thrashing out the issues, with chapters of the book batted to and fro by email.

McVea had already helped with the research and writing of a book McKittrick published with two other Northern Ireland reporters last year, Lost Lives. It was from that huge work, cataloguing every death resultng from the Troubles, that the latest book emerged.

Publisher Blackstaff asked the two men to produce a readable, fair account that might even, they suggested, become a received textbook. But McVea, with a sharper sense of the financial and curriculum constraints facing schools, considered that unrealistic for a 200-page hardback of unbroken text retailing at pound;20.

"Most history is taught from photocopied pamphlets full of wee cartoons," he says. "Texts have to suit all abilities. They are more like Beano or Dandy."

But he did hope for "some trickle-down". He says: "We have produced good material, and teachers are going to absorb some of that. I can see that they will photocopy pages. Our 1960s chapter, for instance, is useful and concise."

Good A-level students, too, might use it. And the trickle-down has begun. The University of Ulster, which has a prolific peace studies department, has lifted the chapter on the start of the Troubles on to its website. The site gets 30,000 hits a month, many from academics elsewhere using Northern Ireland as a case study in conflict.

McVea, whose sense of humour is as sharp as his history is careful, can despair. He sometimes wonders if teachers agonise over the issues in the same way he has done. "People plough on and worry about day-to-day problems," he says. But he acknowledges that teachers' room for manoeuvre is limited, "with the national curriculum specifying down to the last detail".

History, he says, has in any case lost out as the national curriculum and a concern with vocational education have taken effect. "People have dropped out of history. The numbers taking GCSE history have fallen.

"In a society like England's, giving up history at 13 is regrettable but not serious. But in Northern Ireland - where most leave without tackling 20th-century history - it matters."

Within his old history department, he says, "we did not have stimulating discussion every day", but there was always some debate going on inside and outside of school and across the sectarian divide.

Changes to the syllabus were organised by the examination board panel, which recruited teachers - McVea included - to meetings and referred drafts to them. The result is, he believes, good but history remains so politically sensitive that schools are happy to avoid it, with Unionist politicians in particular watching to make sure their heritage is protected.

But McVea is certain, as the book's preface puts it, that "as the belief grows that the worst is past, we feel there is a need now for a reviewI so that the mistakes of the past can be examined and learnt from".

'Making Sense of the Troubles' is published by the Blackstaff Press pound;20

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