Breaking down barriers in Belfast

8th March 2013 at 00:00
Northern Ireland schools project could unite communities in Israel

Shared education between Catholics and Protestants has played an important role in helping to break down the divide between the two communities in Northern Ireland, according to studies from two leading universities.

Academics from Queen's University Belfast and the University of Oxford found that bringing children together at school improved community cohesion and cut the likelihood of pupils' developing prejudiced attitudes.

The success of Queen's University's ongoing Sharing Education Programme has earned attention from governments and children's organisations across the world, which hope that its success can be replicated in other divided communities.

The United Nations Children's Fund (Unicef) invited the team from Queen's to transfer its model to Macedonia, where schools are divided along ethnic lines between Albanians and Macedonians. Despite the linguistic barrier between the two communities, the programme has successfully brought pupils together in subjects where language is not an issue, such as physical education, music, lab-based science lessons and the arts.

The team is also due to travel to Israel to take part in workshops and seminars on shared education and to explore shared education opportunities for Jewish and Arab communities.

The latest research from Northern Ireland shows that more than 10,000 pupils from 150 schools are taking part in the programme. Schools from across all sectors are encouraged to work together and share resources for the good of their pupils, including facilities, classrooms or even lessons. As well as trying to find new ways of sharing education, the project hopes to increase contact between pupils from different communities to help promote understanding and reconciliation.

In the first Queen's study, 577 secondary school pupils on the programme were matched with a group of non-participating pupils. The second analysed the cross-community contact experienced by 3,565 pupils in a mix of 51 Catholic, Protestant and integrated secondary schools. It tracked their experiences and their responses to the other community as they moved through school.

Both studies reported that the more opportunity for contact pupils had, the more they gained friends from the other community, which helped to foster positive attitudes.

The findings are likely to add to the growing desire for more cross-sector cooperation and collaboration in education in Northern Ireland.

Opinion polls consistently show huge support for integrated schools, which must contain a reasonable number of pupils from both Protestant and Catholic communities. The first integrated school was set up in 1981 and there are now 61 integrated primary and post-primary schools out of a total of 1,210. But 95 per cent of Northern Ireland's pupils are still educated in either Catholic- or Protestant-only schools.

Although the Northern Ireland Executive supports shared education, schools are not compelled to work together on a cross-sector basis. Joanne Hughes, lead researcher from the School of Education at Queen's, said: "The government has demonstrated its commitment but it hasn't delivered on that, as schools are not required to collaborate and there is no real incentive for them to do so.

"If the government was going to take that commitment to its logical conclusion, this would be the way of doing it."

Mark Langhammer, director of the ATL Northern Ireland teaching union, said that both shared and integrated education had their place. "With a rationalisation of the school estate, and more schools closing, there is likely to be a consolidation of the sectors," he said.

"For that reason, shared education, shared campuses and `jointly managed' church schools are likely to provide a range of routes to the same end.

"I think we need to get used to a diversity of different routes to the same end - that of children learning together, playing together, travelling together in the school bus and breaking bread with each other in the same dinner hall."

Shared education

Ninety-five per cent of Northern Ireland's pupils are still educated in Catholic- or Protestant-only schools. But the economic need for more shared education is urgent.

Northern Ireland's schools have an estimated 85,000 surplus places, and the huge cost of duplication of services has been estimated at pound;1 billion a year.

Original headline: The children breaking down barriers in Belfast

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