A lack of teaching about the NI conflict in schools is leaving "partisan narratives unchallenged and wider society unchanged" – at the cost of some social and educational dimensions of education, a new report has said.
It’s according to a paper from the Ulster University (UU) School of Education on citizenship education, which said a failure to teach children about the Troubles and political conflict "leaves the deep-rooted causes of conflict and division untouched" and is leaving such education in a “poor” state.
Politicians have been urged to look again at how schools equip children with the skills to live in a diverse society after the research found little progress has been made in the 15 years since the introduction of such education. It’s despite £25m being spent between 2002 and 2007 introducing the subject and training teachers to deliver it.
The concept was introduced in 2007 in the wake of the Belfast Agreement to prepare pupils for life after the Troubles, but developing understanding amongst teenagers has been slow according to academic experts.
“The hope was that the introduction of Citizenship education would help to foster a more peaceful, tolerant and socially cohesive society in Northern Ireland after the dark years of ‘the Troubles’,” said Dr Clare McAuley, Lecturer in Education at the university.
“However, 15 years after Citizenship education became a statutory curriculum requirement, it remains a subject about which little is known, there is limited shared understanding or commitment to its purpose, teachers generally favour teaching the ‘global’ aspects over the potentially more contentious ‘local’ dimensions.
“In a recent survey of 16 year olds in Northern Ireland, 24% reported they had not any ‘classes or assemblies, nor completed any projects or had class discussions’ on the ‘NI conflict’,” she said.
“It would seem, therefore, that Citizenship education is in a poor state of health and, as division between the two main communities continues to permeate everyday life in Northern Ireland, this deficit in school learning related to the ‘NI conflict’ leaves potentially partisan narratives unchallenged and wider society unchanged. It has been said that ‘in education not everything that counts can be counted and not everything that can be counted counts’.
“Surely, it is young people who count and it is they who deserve a rounded and relevant education in local and global citizenship. In the post-Brexit era, and at a time when a referendum on the constitutional status of Northern Ireland may be looming, the future direction of our society will rest in the hands of young people as the next generation of the electorate. In that context, education in Citizenship cannot be left to chance or be seen as an ‘add on’.
“Young people need, deserve and are entitled to be properly prepared to participate as active informed citizens, equipped with the skills to engage with the challenges and opportunities which lie ahead in a diverse society.”
The report said that many teachers avoided teaching potentially contentious issues, with concerns about how pupils and their parents may react.
“The natural default position for many teachers in the citizenship classroom is to avoid controversy and ‘keep the peace’,” it said.
“One of the most significant challenges of teaching conflict-related issues at present is the view that the conflict is over and there is a need to move forward, rather than dwelling on the past,” the paper said.
“However, this positioning fails to recognise the reality of Northern Ireland as a divided society with legacies of the conflict continuing to impact on peoples’ lives today or it reflects a tacit acceptance that sectarianism and division are a normal part of everyday life.”
The report is also critical of what it viewed as an “assessment and examination culture” in schools.
“The reality of this testing and accountability culture in schools means teachers focus on what the ‘system’ values, that is, examination grades,” it said.