A new web-based resource for teaching tolerance and challenging sectarianism is already making an impact at the pilot schools, reports Raymond Ross
Two primary schools in North Lanarkshire, one non-denominational, one Cathloic, have been building closer links and establishing friendships rather than prejudices through an anti-sectarian package which the First Minister, Jack McConnell, launched at one of the schools last month.
When Woodlands Primary in Cumbernauld was asked to help pilot the Scottish Executive package in September, Annette Carmichael, the headteacher, felt it should be done in collaboration with the local Catholic primary, St Margaret of Scotland.
This led to a P7 teacher from each school, working together and customising materials from the new national anti-sectarian web-based resource to use with 40 P7 pupils, whom they taught in two mixed groups of 10 from each school. The teaching took place over six weeks in both schools.
Already the collaboration has resulted in improved inter-school harmony and the development of long-term joint working.
"We have started with P7 but hope that this will filter down the school," says Ms Carmichael. "We certainly want to make our joint project working an annual thing, six weeks every year. That's our joint commitment at the moment," she says.
The independent evaluation report on the five secondary and six primary schools across Scotland who took part in the pilot says the benefits for the two Cumbernauld primaries were wide ranging.
Pupils experienced another learning environment, thus building bridges, dealing with misconceptions and overcoming fears; pupils were more open and relaxed in religious and moral education classes; pupils who had been shy and reticent with the other school socialised together at playtime in between sessions; anxieties about meeting pupils from other schools on transfer to S1 were alleviated; after breaks, pupils were more chatty together.
A joint Christmas party was held at St Margaret of Scotland Primary; a joint visit was made to Glasgow Cathedral and the Museum of Religious Art, with a shared picnic on Glasgow Green; and recently St Margaret of Scotland Primary pupils visited Woodlands Primary to see the pupils' end-of-term show.
So successful has the collaboration been that the chair of St Margaret of Scotland's school board, Paul Cameron, wrote to his equivalent at Woodlands Primary: "The fact that the intiative has brought our children together at P7 means that they can focus on the issues that can lead to intolerance at an age when they will be most susceptible to outside influences. It means that our children can meet one another and dispel any prejudices that may have started to manifest themselves.
"The board is under no illusions that this initiative will completely eradicate a poison that has infected our society, particuarly here in the west of Scotland for a long time. However, we must applaud the efforts that your school has made in addressing the issue face on.
"It is initiatives like this that will make a real difference for the future I I would like to thank you for including our school."
St Margaret of Scotland's headteacher, Anne-Marie Bready, says:
"Sectarianism is an issue that comes up time and again. Faith schools are constantly blamed. It's time we started to realise there are similarities as well as differences. It's time to celebrate the common ground all schools share as well as celebrating the differences.
"This project gives the pupils an opportunity to work and learn together, to explore beliefs and attitudes together, rather than to be talked down to."
The class teachers involved, Fiona Forsyth and Gabriella Seaver, focused on a co-operative learning approach to encourage the pupils to become independent learners. They began with ice-breaker games before exploring issues such as nicknames and stereotypes. A lot of issues were explored through role playing and drama games, with the help of the national project's drama worker, Zee Sulleyman.
The anti-sectarian resource is designed for P1 to S6. The website has everything you need, the teachers say, from the history of sectarianism to football rivalries, but much of it needs to be customised to your own class and, indeed, geographical area.
"It's not a radical departure from the principles of inclusion and respect which are already embedded in the two schools," says Ms Carmichael.
"If all the cluster schools associated with Greenfaulds High and Our Lady's High in Cumbernauld were to come on board and work in a similar partnership, that would be a way forward."
A mixed group of 12 pupils from both schools is unanimous in their enjoyment of the project, especially the drama work, the visits to their sister school and the new friends they have made. Many can now be seen walking home together after school.
One pupil says: "I learned it hurts people when you're sectarian. Before this I thought it was just a joke."
If, by some turn of fate, each pupil found themselves attending the other school full-time, would it bother them? No, they say, with not a single dissenting voice.
The Scottish Executive has given pound;50,000 to support the national roll-out of the project this year and a national conference is scheduled for June.