Looking North for links

3rd March 1995 at 00:00
What are the implications for education of the joint UKIrish framework for the future government of Northern Ireland?.

The TES points to potential stumbling blocks in the quest for cross-border harmony and talks to schools in the north and South. Any film-maker wanting a set for a drama set in a 1950s British school need look no further than five miles from the border of the United Kingdom.

The corridors and classrooms of St Mary's College, Dundalk, reflect its founding 134 years ago by the Marist Fathers, a Catholic religious order. Indeed, to anyone used to progressive schools - walls adorned with work, grey-topped desks set in groups - the austere lines of benches and varnished desk tops appear monastic, if not archaic. However, what can be said about a school which has about 15 computers for 660 pupils, but every year sends a third of its leavers into a highly competitive university system?

Principal Cecil Hughes is envious of the funding of schools north of the border. But both he and his 37 staff are hopeful that the framework will encourage greater links with Ulster schools.

Since the terrorist ceasefire enabled the border security checks to be dropped, parents have been more willing to allow children to go on visits to the province. Leargas, a Dublin-based student exchange programme, plans to promote more social contact. "Sport is another important focus," says French teacher Daniel Deery. "If you just put people together and say, 'here's you', it won't work."

Bringing the two education systems closer could also be less of a problem than might be imagined. The biggest stumbling block to a free movement of teachers is the requirement for all Irish teachers in the Republic to speak the Irish language, which has long been regarded as central to the Irish identity. The political will to give up compulsory Irish in schools may be hard to achieve. But, says Gerry McArdle, another French teacher, "If as part of an overall agreement the compulsory Irish curriculum was to go, I think a majority of the Irish people would find that acceptable."

History will also be less of a problem to integrate, should the agreement come to that, St Mary's staff believe. While a stronger emphasis was placed on an Irish perspective in previous years, now there is a bigger element of comparative history.

Although they see more state schools as desirable and the churches' influence is waning - Mr Hughes is the first lay principal of St Mary's - no one at the school thinks it likely that the churches will allow secular education.

Higher and further education are the easiest areas to boost links, because of strong existing ties. Up to half of St Mary's pupils heading for university in any one year may go north. During the past eight years this has been partly because European rules allow fees to be paid for southern students in northern universities, but not in their own country. However, fees are slowly being phased out in the Republic. Geography presents a stronger motive. Belfast is only 90 minutes' drive from Dundalk. And FE colleges in Newry, about 15 miles across the border, already have a high proportion of southern students.

Although the framework document has not been scrutinised as closely here as in Ulster, Mr Hughes is optimistic that it will improve relations and, most importantly, cement the peace. "People don't realise how small this island is. It seems crazy that we all can't live together."

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