The divided worlds and parallel universes of Irish education

As a former education journalist, I should write about education more often. However as a passionate advocate of greater North-South cooperation in Ireland, I find the lack of progress in bringing together children and teachers across the border in the vital field of education deeply dispiriting.

In a report to the two Departments of Education six years ago I wrote about the estimated 18,000 children every year who were involved in cross-border educational exchanges (most of them funded by the EU) at the height of the peace process in the early years of this century. I went on: “This must be the largest cross-border movement of young people for the purposes of education and mutual understanding anywhere in the world in recent memory. This movement affects not only the students themselves, but their teachers, their families and their communities. There is a great opportunity here for consolidating the present peace and future reconciliation of Ireland by continuing to work with the more open minds of children and young people. This must not be lost by lack of foresight on the part of the leaders and planners of the island’s educational systems. If the gains of the extraordinary explosion in North-South educational cooperation of the past 10-15 years are allowed to peter out, what will the people of Ireland say in 10 or 20 or 50 years?”

A decade further on all I can say is that my worst fears have been borne out. There has been zero leadership by our policy implementers. North-South educational exchanges are now down to a miserable trickle. We have almost returned to the pre-Troubles situation described by one of Ireland’s most distinguished educationalists, Professor John Coolahan, who has said that when he was a young trainee teacher in the Republic in the 1960s ” as far as education in Northern Ireland was concerned it could have been Timbucktu… it was just out of one’s consciousness.” There are one or two shining exceptions to this turning our backs on each other once again: notably the SCoTENS all-island network of teacher educators.

For if the two Irish jurisdiction have one thing in common, it is that education is traditionally given huge value by parents, teachers and society in general. Teaching as a profession is prized in a way that is probably unmatched in any European country outside Finland and Scotland. The training of teachers is high-quality, although it now takes more time, is more research-based and is therefore higher in the South. The internationally renowned Finnish expert on teacher education, Professor Pasi Sahlberg, has gone so far as to say that entrants to the profession in the Republic of Ireland are the best in the world.

There are also some obvious problems that are shared. The funding of universities, and the inevitable move to a student loan system – apparently successful in England but so far resisted in both parts of Ireland – is a common and major headache, as it is for all developed countries. In the Republic a billion euro will be required to bring our universities up to international standard and cope with a 30% increase in student numbers by 2030.

However at school level the most urgent priorities are strikingly different. In the Republic they include the issue of high birth rates leading to overcrowded schools; the churches’ (and particularly the Catholic Church’s) reluctance to give up their 94% control of the management of schools in the face of a rapidly diversifying and secularising population; and finding innovative ways to assess young people aged 12-16 in the creative and critical thinking necessary for the modern world in the face of opposition by unions wedded to the old exam-oriented system.

In a growing economy, the hope is that the first of these will be solved by building more schools, and the third by the unions eventually seeing sense and getting some of the pay rises they have foregone during the years of recession. The second is a particular conundrum. Two reforming Labour ministers in the last government, Ruairi Quinn and Jan O’Sullivan, tried to begin to solve it by persuading Catholic school patrons and management boards in areas where there were a large number of schools to ‘divest’ one to another patronage body like the multi-denominational Educate Together (which faces huge demand for places in its schools). But in the absence of any real direction from the Catholic Church in particular (i.e. the patron, usually the local Catholic bishop), this process has stalled (or maybe never even started properly – only eight schools have been ‘divested’ to date). The underlying problem is that the churches own the schools and that ownership is protected by the Constitution. It seems that the churches will only be moved by the people voting in a referendum on this thorny issue, which is not going to happen any time soon. Meanwhile school access for children from non-believing families is becoming a political issue, especially in urban areas.

This remains a central educational fault-line in both jurisdictions: the continued division of children’s schooling according to the accident of the religion they were born into. As Ireland becomes more diverse (with large numbers of immigrants), the nonsense of this is becoming apparent to a growing number of unhappy and increasingly vocal parents. The multi-denominational sectors – the integrated schools movement in the North, Educate Together in the South – may be dynamic but they remain very small: 62 schools (including 18 secondary schools) out of around a thousand in Northern Ireland; 81 (including four secondary schools) out of 4,000 in the Republic. Educate Together has ambitious plans to grow this to 300 schools by 2020. The expansion of integrated education in the North, by contrast, seems to have plateaued in recent years.

The chair of Educate Together, Diarmaid Mac Aonghusa (himself the son of a Northern Protestant mother), sets out the problem simply and cogently: “We have to stop separating citizens at four years of age in both parts of Ireland. This is not a faith issue; it’s a tribal issue. The North won’t be fixed overnight, but people are far less likely to fight each other in the future if they grow up friends as children.”

The North’s school system remains deeply and multiply divided by religious denomination, class and gender. The main current problem here is that, unlike in the Republic, many second-level schools have been badly hit by falling pupil numbers. This has particularly affected the lower-performing secondary schools, which have seen many of their stronger prospective pupils poached by the selective grammar schools. The situation is graver in the mainly Protestant schools, which range from extraordinarily high achieving grammars (although recent school-leaving exam results have shown their Catholic equivalents to be pulling ahead) to rock bottom ‘failing’ secondaries. A 2013 report¹ found that disadvantaged Protestant boys at NI secondary schools were among the lowest achievers in school-leaving exams anywhere in the UK.

A second issue is teacher education. Far too many teachers are being trained for the number of places in Northern Ireland schools. Successive reports have pointed to the nonsense of four teacher training providers – two universities and two colleges of education – in such a small province. Common sense would dictate that the two denominational colleges of education – Stranmillis and St Mary’s – should merge with Queen’s University while keeping a modicum of autonomy. But the Catholic Church – followed by Sinn Fein and the SDLP – is fiercely determined to keep control over their own teachers. As in too many areas of Northern society, sectarian vested interests trump good policy-making.

There is one educational ‘good news’ story from the North. Shared education, which sees schools on both sides of the divide sharing classrooms, sports and other facilities, is on the increase. All the political parties support this concept to a significant extent. There are now 70 schools (primary and secondary) in cross-community partnerships, with over 240 more preparing to become involved. This means that in the very near future almost a third of all schools in Northern Ireland will be actively sharing teaching and other activities with schools across the divide. It’s not integrated education – which must remain the ideal, however unlikely to be realised – but it’s a big practical step in the right direction.

¹ Paul Nolan, Northern Ireland Peace Monitoring Report – Number Two. Northern Ireland Community Relations Council and Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust.





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