Schools in Northern Ireland are starting the new academic year in the wake of an old and tragic story. While the Good Friday Agreement has given people from both communities unprecedented hopes for peace, the blast from Omagh still resounds in their hearts and minds.
The irony is that while it is in the schools where the hopeful foundations for peace and understanding are being laid, the very structure of the education system, where almost all children attend segregated Protestant or Catholic schools, reinforces the divide.
The 1989 education reform Order for Northern Ireland addressed this problem by introducing the two compulsory cross-curricular themes of Education for Mutual Understanding (EMU) and Cultural Heritage. They are designed, among other things, to enable pupils "to appreciate the interdependence of people within society...and to appreciate how conflict may be handled in non-violent ways".
While many schools are working hard to implement these initiatives and to bring children from the two communities together in contact schemes, research shows that there is much room for improvement.
Ruth Leitch of Queen's University Belfast studied eight primary and secondary schools identified as demonstrating good practice in terms of EMU, all of them located in troubled areas. What she found in interviews with principals, staff and pupils was that no school, teacher or pupil had been left unscathed by the sectarian strife, whether through the death of a pupil or family member or through arson attacks on the building itself.
When it came to perceptions of how EMU and Cultural Heritage were delivered, Ruth Leitch found that staff and pupils had very different views.
Teachers tended to see EMU and Cultural Heritage as a whole-school ethos as well as being curriculum-based. Pupils, on the other hand, focused almost solely on the cross-community projects, when Protestant and Catholic children were brought together.
Pupils believed that these projects were at best superficial and of no lasting benefit; at worst, they exposed them to victimisation outside school. As one pupil put it: "Whenever you are together like that, you are not concentrating on 'Oh, I'm sitting working with a Protestant.' You're working as a team. But once you get outside, the whole religion thing comes back again: it moves from the bottom of the list to the top."
What many pupils wanted from EMU was the opportunity to talk about the difficult issues affecting their lives, in the safe environment of school. "Hearing others changes your views," said one. This was not happening, despite teachers' support for the principles of EMU.
Strategies suggested in a paper by Alan McCully and Marian O'Doherty from the University of Ulster could help teachers orchestrate the sensitive discussions called for in Ms Leitch's study. The recommendations arise from research of the Speak Your Piece project, a varied package of support materials developed by the University of Ulster to complement Off the Walls, a Channel 4 schools TV series on identity, culture, religion, politics and future choices.
Mr McCully and Ms O'Doherty's research and evaluation of Speak Your Piece is relevant to all teachers dealing with controversial issues in a divided society. Among their conclusions: l the use of television, followed by active learning activities, is an effective way to engage young people in contentious issues; l this kind of work requires the commitment of teachers backed up with institutional support; l teachers and youth workers must be prepared to express their own opinions when appropriate; * teachers and youth workers should have space for the discussion of contemporary issues within the statutory curriculum; * in cross-community groups, differences should be addressed.
As Dr Tony Gallagher of Queen's graduate school of education said: "It's now up to education to move as far as the politicians have done in recent months. "
"The impact of political conflict on children's educational experience, " by Ruth Leitch. Tel: 01232 335941. "Teaching controversial issues in a divided society," by Alan McCully and Marian O'Doherty. Tel: 01232 328515. "Religious divisions in schools in Northern Ireland," by Tony Gallagher. Tel: 01232 335941.