Sharing education

The Shared Education experience in Northern Ireland and the resulting culture of collaboration have transferrable lessons for other deeply divided societies. Professor of Education and Faculty Dean of Research at Queen’s University Belfast, Tony Gallagher, writes.

“That’s fine, but they can only work together because religion clearly isn’t that important to these schools.”

“You think? Go and ask the Principal whether religion is important to her and her school.”

[He leaves and returns a few minutes later.]

“Okay, so religion is obviously very important here… I need to think about this further.”

That brief exchange took place with the principal of an Orthodox Jewish school who was visiting a Shared Education partnership in Northern Ireland. The Partnership involved three schools, two Catholic and one Protestant. The visiting Principal was one of a delegation of Jewish and Palestinian school principals who were exploring ways they might work together for the common good and were visiting Northern Ireland to see what they might learn from our experience.

Shared Education has its origins in discussions aimed at finding ways schools in Northern Ireland might help to underpin the Peace Process in the early 2000s. There were many shards of activity to draw on: schools in Limavady and Ballycastle had pioneered cooperation for many years; the Burns Report (2000) had proposed a model of cooperation through ‘collegiates’; there was some funding available to support opportunities for schools to cooperate with integrated schools; there was emerging evidence on the limited systemic impact of community relations measures through education; and the growth of the integrated sector appeared to have stalled.

Atlantic Philanthropies and the International Fund for Ireland led the way by investing significant funding in a pilot project with Queen’s University to run 12 partnerships involving 65 schools to explore ways of developing effective models of collaboration. So successful was the initial work that additional funds were invested to expand the number of schools in the Queen’s initiative, and additional work was supported by the Fermanagh Trust and the North Eastern Education and Library Board. Somewhat later, OFMDFM supported further work on school partnership by Queen’s through the Contested Spaces initiative. Longitudinal research studies were put in place by the Centre for Shared Education at Queen’s to chart the impact of this work, while other research by academics at Queen’s and Ulster University explored the outworking of collaboration between schools in delivering shared classes for pupils and collaborative planning by teachers.

Shared Education rapidly emerged as an effective mechanism to help young people engage across the sectarian divide. It also enhanced educational opportunity by giving pupils and teachers access to a wider range of expertise and facilities. And teachers took advantage of the opportunity to share experience and resources through establishing professional learning communities that encouraged mutual learning and school improvement.

An unusual feature of this research and development work was the close engagement between researchers, policy-makers and politicians. An Advisory Group (2013), established by John O’Dowd as Minister of Education, concluded that there was a “strong body of evidence that demonstrates the benefits of schools collaborating across sectors in a sustained and meaningful way”.

When the Education Authority was established in 2014, it was given the duty to ‘encourage, facilitate and promote shared education’. The Shared Education Act (2016) extended this duty to the Department of Education. By this point the pioneering work of Queen’s, the Fermanagh Trust and the North Eastern Education and Library Board had been taken over by the Education Authority through the Shared Education Signature Programme (SESP). Later still, a significant tranche of the EU Peace IV Funds was targeted to support Shared Education. Thus, from small beginnings in the early 2000s, now over half the schools in Northern Ireland are involved in Shared Education partnerships. And the next step, focused on school improvement, is already being rolled out through the Network for Shared School Improvement (NSSI).

“The model of school partnership developed in Northern Ireland has resonated in other deeply divided societies where people see collaboration as a mechanism they can adapt to good effect in their own societies.”

The extent to which a culture of cooperation, collaboration and partnership amongst schools has developed is truly remarkable. So too is the commitment by the Department of Education and Education Authority to encourage teacher autonomy in driving forward this initiative. Equally remarkable is the way perceptions have changed: separate school uniforms used to mark out the divisions in our society, but to visit a school partnership and see pupils with two, three or more school uniforms working together in class, walking together in school corridors, or playing together in the yard has become a remarkable illustration of their capacity to deal with difference respectfully, creatively and constructively. Our politicians could do well to take note.

Others have. The model of school partnership developed in Northern Ireland has resonated in other deeply divided societies where people see collaboration as a mechanism they can adapt to good effect in their own societies. In Queen’s, we have been working with educators and policymakers in Israel for over seven years to help them develop models of school partnership between Jewish and Palestinian schools. Hundreds of schools are now involved in this work, including an initiative in Jerusalem in which school Principals from every part of that fractured city are exploring ways they can work together.

Over the same period, we have been working with Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles to support their efforts to develop a model of partnership between public and charter schools in one of the most diverse cities in the world. The Los Angeles Unified School District is also involved, and through the support of the US Embassy in London we were able to run a teacher exchange between Northern Ireland and LA, an initiative we would hope to continue.

The Centre for Shared Education in Queen’s has recently completed research into school partnership activities in Macedonia and is working with educators in Bosnia and Croatia to explore similar initiatives. Recently, we took teachers from Northern Ireland to Lebanon to work with teachers there on partnership activity, with a reciprocal visit planned for 2019.

For those of us who have been lucky enough to engage with this work the commitment and example of our teachers is truly awe-inspiring. Their commitment to a shared and better future for the children under their care is a source of hope, and the learning they have provided for teachers in other deeply divided societies is a form of global recognition for which we should all feel proud.

Politics in Northern Ireland is in an awful mess and a shocking culture of venality in some aspects of public life is being revealed through the RHI enquiry. And all the while teachers in our schools have been quietly and effectively modelling a better way of living, from which we all could and should learn. Long may they continue.

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