This year nearly 7,000 students were supposed to sit the history GCSE History exam in Northern Ireland, and if they'd been able to, they would have been examined on either the history of Northern Ireland 1920-49, or the history of Northern Ireland 1965-98.
f they attended a Roman Catholic school the strong likelihood (90%) is that they will have studied the later topic and if they attended a Protestant non-selective state school there's a 66% chance they would have studied the earlier topic.
Two question arise immediately. Why this disparity? And does it matter?
The answer to the first question is that the first period provides historical material favourable to Protestants and the second period to Catholics.
The narrative thrust of 1920-49 is the creation of the Northern Irish state and the role it played in defeating the Nazis in the Second World War while Eire remained neutral and shut its ports to British convoys. The standard textbook has a passing reference to discrimination against Catholics; 'few nationalists were involved in the running of the new state whilst jobs tended to stay within the divided communities'.
The narrative thrust of the later course 1968-98 is about the Roman Catholic minority fighting for its civil rights - indeed, the first section of the standard textbook lays that out very clearly, describing deliberate and institutionalised discrimination in housing, job and voting rights. It's a story in which the Catholic underdogs fight for equal treatment, and after a struggle achieves their goal.
One also might ask: why was the course divided like this in the first place - was it a constructive ambiguity or an accident? And why has nobody in the Northern Irish educational establishment pointed it out before? It's not as though the information was hard to find - we used a team of 'furloughed' Year 11 students from Lancaster Royal Grammar School and St Joseph's College, Stoke, to trawl through school websites to garner the information.
The answer to the second question, does it matter?, is a resounding yes. Everyone agrees that education is the road to conflict resolution, so yes, it does matter that at the most important history exam students don't have to engage with the 'other' narrative. It's only when that happens that they will appreciate why the 'other side' view the world differently.
The solution to this problem is relatively easy in comparison with other strategies to improve understanding. The syllabus should be rewritten to be the parallel histories of both "sides" and cover 1920-2007, with a couple of weeks of preparatory study leading into 1920. Each narrative should be faithfully recorded and then placed side by side for students to compare and contrast. Students should be challenged to come to their own view through critically evaluating evidence and formulating arguments us ing first-hand source evidence.
I would also call it the Catholic story and the Protestant story because that's what it was long before unionism and nationalism became the preferred names. My Northern Irish colleagues visibly wince when I say this because they are all excellent people who are committed to building a better society and I think they hate to hear an outsider reduce their history to a sectarian battle. My argument back is that while the main political parties divide on sectarian lines and education is run on sectarian lines, the conflict is still sectarian, and that's what the rest of the world calls it anyway.
I can understand why some people think there are drawbacks to this dual narrative approach, primarily because they think it will harden attitudes and increase polarisation, but in our experience the very opposite is true. We have taught the parallel histories of Israel and Palestine in both a very traditional Islamic school in the north west of England and a large Jewish school in London and then brought them together to debate contentious aspects of the history. The students were great, and they learned huge amounts from each other. They don't change their mind about where their sympathies and allegiances lie, but they do recognise that those holding the opposing point of view don't do so because they are bad people but because they have their own interpretation of history, as well as some valid arguments.
The alternative approach, which is a single "neutral" textbook, is also problematic as it never achieves impartiality, or it does so by taking all the interesting bits of history out.
As an example, the main textbook for the course really tiptoes around the sectarian nature of the conflict. The word Protestant isn't in even in the index! In fact, it even tiptoes around the disputed nature of Northern Ireland itself - the section is called "Changing Relations: Northern Ireland and its Neighbours". As so often, a formulation designed to placate both sides merely serves to offend them both; clearly nationalists don't view the Republic of Ireland as a "neighbour" and unionists don't view the United Kingdom as a "neighbour".
I'm interested in this for a couple of reasons. As a teacher, the history of Ireland and Northern Ireland is fascinating, compelling and rich for students, and I am ashamed of how little English people know about it.
When I taught at Lancaster Royal Grammar School we ran a trip to Dublin and Belfast and it was the two days they spent in Belfast which had the most formative effect on the students. We'd have sandwiches with the folk in the Orange Order lodge on Sandy Row, a quick pint in the Rangers Supporters bar and then the next morning meet with some ex-prisoners on both sides before popping into Roddy McCorley's on the Falls Road to chat with an ex-hunger striker and inspect the model of the Maze upstairs and listen to first-hand accounts of the breakout.
It left the students' heads spinning and was the formative reason many went on to study history at university. What struck them so forcefully was that they were getting history lessons everywhere they went, from the Orange Lodge to Roddy McCorley's, from ordinary people who so firmly believed their own historical narrative story that they in some cases had been prepared to commit terrible acts and face the consequences.
A powerful lesson in the uses and abuses of history.
Michael Davies is the founder of the educational charity Parallel Histories which seeks to change the way that the history of conflict is studied. His mother was a Roman Catholic from County Wexford and his father was a Welsh Baptist.