Efforts to combat prejudice through the Northern Ireland curriculum seem to be having little effect. Worrying evidence from three academics suggests that both Protestant and Catholic sixth-formers have little sympathy for the values or concerns of the other tradition.
The issue arose in a study of attitudes to higher education by Tony Gallagher and Bob Cormack from Queen's University and Bob Osborne from the University of Ulster.
One topic debated hotly in 27 groups of sixth-formers and eight groups of parents was the different ways in which Queen's University, one of the province's two universities, was perceived. Some Catholic pupils and parents raised concerns about employment practices at Queen's, following a series of recent claims of job discrimination against Catholics, some of which have been upheld by industrial tribunals.
In contrast, most Protestant pupils and many parents believed Queen's had an Irish nationalist image, citing the university's recent decision to stop playing "God Save the Queen" at graduation ceremonies and the introduction of signs in both English and Irish. Although the cross-curricular theme of education for mutual understanding (EMU) was introduced by the 1989 Education Reform Order and became compulsory three years later, the academics found EMU has had little influence on the 230 young people taking part in the discussions.
The debate on the national anthem and bilingual signs at Queen's showed that both Catholics and Protestants had difficulty seeing the other group's viewpoint.
"The manner in which these issues were discussed appeared to suggest that some of the aims of EMU had had limited impact," they said in a report for the Central Community Relations Unit and the Department of Education.
Catholic groups saw the bilingual signs as a good idea and welcomed the decision to stop playing the British national anthem. The opposite was the case in almost all the Protestant groups.
"The extent of difference between these perceptions we found to be, at times, startling. That there appeared to be so little evidence of tolerance, seeing other points of view or considering any potential value to cultural pluralism was a disappointment," says the report.
"This was particularly so because the sixth-formers who participated in this study were among the brightest and most advanced cohort. . . most of whom were likely to take places in higher education. It suggests also that work still needs to be done in the areas of education for mutual understanding and cultural heritage."
The report, Attitudes to Higher Education, is available free from Dr Tony Gallagher, Queen's University, University Road, Belfast, BT7 1NM