Ireland's history offers fascinating ways of approaching the issue of cultural diversity, says Jack O'Sullivan
A starving mother, dressed in tatty old clothes and carrying a baby, shuffles across the classroom. She explains that she needs to leave her baby behind and go into town to sell her possessions in order to buy food.
Her name is Hilary Claire - but she is not really starving, nor carrying a real baby: she is playing the role of the mother in Marita Conlon-McKenna's Under the Hawthorn Tree, a novel set during the Irish Potato Famine of the 1840s that the class is reading. She is also a senior lecturer in history and education at London Metropolitan University, helping to develop lessons on Victorian Ireland for Wilberforce primary in Westminster, London.
She finds that the Year 3 pupils who participate in her acting sessions readily understand and empathise with the theme of famine. She says: "The children will ask questions such as 'What will you do if you don't get enough food?' and 'Why don't you take the baby?' Children of this age want to know about relationships and how you manage in situations." The children's interest in the historical topic makes it easy to extend the idea with a world map showing areas affected by famine today, so that past and present are linked.
The series of five weekly lessons at Wilberforce is an experiment in teaching parts of the national curriculum through Irish culture. The initiative highlights the fact that Britain's 8 million citizens of Irish stock are the country's largest ethnic minority. But Hibernianism is also hip: its unique brand of politics, literature, music, dance and art, combined with Ireland's complex relationship with England, make it a fascinating cross-curricular theme. For children, it's all meant to be great craic.
Irish legends and storytelling are rich with magic. Fantasy tales by Irish authors can provide an exciting route into books, especially for primary-age boys who are not readers. Particularly popular is the first of the Giltspur trilogy, The Battle Below Giltspur, by Cormac MacRaois (Wolfhound Press).
As the seminal Parekh Report into the future of multi-ethnic Britain says:
"The position of the Irish in Britain as insider-outsiders is uniquely relevant to the nature of its multi-cultural society. For generations, Irish experience has been neglected owing to the myth of the homogeneity of white Britain, but it illuminates Britishness in much the same way that the experiences of black people illuminate whiteness."
If focusing on Irishness is an excellent way of approaching multiculturalism, as the Parekh Report implies, it can also go much further than that. Irish studies can cover history, literacy, music and citizenship education. Sophisticated, colourful teaching materials including CD-Roms, music and videos covering these areas are available from a programme called Ireland in Schools.
Its chair is Professor Patrick Buckland, former director of the Institute of Irish Studies at Liverpool University. He teaches Tudor history at key stages 1 and 2 by reference to one of his favourite subjects, the pirate Grace O'Malley (see opposite).
Materials from Ireland in Schools enable teachers to follow his example.
Year 1 children can be shown a picture of Grace with her mother, brother and father and describe events using speech bubbles. In Year 2, pupils can focus on expectations of male and female behaviour.
"Ireland became Elizabeth's Vietnam," Professor Buckland says. "You can study the Tudor period from Year 1 to A-level. It's a time when the battle for Ireland is still going on and it's not clear who will win.
"You can use the magnificent Grace O'Malley; there is a suite of music by Sean Davey; there are the English caricatures of Ireland by John Derrick; there is English poetry on Ireland by Spencer and also the bardic poets, who are superb in their chronicling of the confidence of Gaelic society and who then realise that all these foreigners have come, something terrible has happened and who lament Gaelic culture being eclipsed."
Are schools in Britain receptive to Professor Buckland's ideas? There has, he says, been a struggle at times persuading some that this initiative is not just for Catholic schools. For example, St Thomas More RC primary in Great Wyrely, Staffordshire pioneered teaching music in Years 3 and 4 through Irish songs and dance.
But schools with few children of Irish background are being won over.
Professor Buckland says: "In some of the shire schools where there is not much cultural mix in the intake,they have found Ireland an interesting way of addressing diversity initially. There have also been interesting outcomes in urban schools. At one Jewish secondary school, the students did not realise how many of them had Irish roots until they studied the Famine."