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Teaching Irish History: A reply to recent criticism

Alan McCully, a member of the History Teachers Association of Northern Ireland (HTANI) and formerly a Senior Lecturer in Education in the School of Education in Ulster University rebukes recent criticism of Northern Ireland’s GCSE history programme as “an eviscerated, inoffensive curriculum”.

Readers may have read a recent article in the Guardian entitled ‘Is the curriculum dividing Northern Ireland schools along Troubles lines?’ The piece originated from an English based organisation, Teaching Parallel Histories, run by a former history teacher, Michael Davies. The general implication, intended or not, was that history teachers in Northern Ireland have failed to confront the Troubles and their legacy, and that a new and radical approach to teaching Irish history is required.

It is fair to say that the history teaching community was not amused and demonstrated its displeasure in responses to the press and social media. Those that investigated the article further would have realised that the substance of its claims were based on a survey conducted by two 16 year-old students in an English school into only one aspect of the Northern Ireland History Curriculum, the uptake of the Irish History component of GCSE.

Over the years many in the history teaching community have agonised as how effective, and pro-active, they have been in challenging the uses and abuses of history in wider society. What specifically riled teachers was that those debates were not recognised, nor were the teaching expertise and research in the field that has developed over time. In essence, the journalism did a disservice to many risk-taking history teachers in Northern Ireland.

GCSE

First, let’s deal with the GCSE issue before moving on to the wider picture. Few teachers are entirely happy with the examination system as it stands and would acknowledge there is some substance in some of the points made by Davies. It might help to trace the history of the programme itself. In the mid-1990s a unit was proposed which covered the period in Northern Ireland from partition to 1985. Teachers were asked for feedback and considerable resistance emerged to dealing with the later period. The feeling amongst some was that the Troubles were too sensitive and too raw to teach at that time. Avoidance of sensitive and controversial issues is common in Northern Ireland and is not confined to history teachers.

The outcome was that the period was split into options, one covering the 1930s and the war years, 1935-49 and the other the Troubles period, 1965 to 1985 (the coverage of option two was extended from 1985 to 1998 a couple of years ago). Understandably, the former has been perceived as a “softer” option because it avoids dealing with the most recent violence.

Contrary to the view expressed in the articles, the imbalance between Catholic Maintained and Controlled (largely Protestant) schools taking the later unit is well known but they were correct to point out that over time many more schools from a Protestant background have transferred to the later period as the political situation has evolved. That a disproportionate number of non-selective schools continue to opt for the World War II unit reflects, at least to some extent, teacher reluctance, sometimes in loyalist areas, to address history perceived as difficult. Thus, many pupils who might benefit from the challenge of this are denied their entitlement. Indeed, had CCEA been more transparent, healthy public debate on this might have surfaced a long time ago.

However, there are wider concerns with the GCSE programme that we in the History Teachers Association (HTANI) think are equally important. For a start not all young people opt for history at GCSE at all. For Davies to describe the existing course as “an eviscerated, inoffensive curriculum” underestimates the challenges teachers have faced in introducing aspects of the Troubles into their classrooms, in many instances even before the ceasefires had taken affect. However, inevitably consequences result from placing such sensitive history within an external examination programme. This means that those who do follow it are constrained by the external demands of time and result pressures, thus cutting down on crucial opportunities for discussion on the human and emotional impact of violence on individuals and communities.

Avoidance of sensitive and controversial issues is common in Northern Ireland and is not confined to history teachers.

Actually, the GCSE Irish History module represents only around 10 weeks during pupils’ five years of compulsory secondary schooling. Other, more flexible opportunities exist to encounter controversial aspects of Ireland’s past, particularly in the Key Stage 3 curriculum (ages 11 to 14). While not pretending that it is followed in all instances, it is a radical curriculum for younger pupils which offers teachers the chance to examine controversial history in detail and make connections between Ireland’s past and the present. Notably pupils should:

  • explore how history has affected their personal identity, culture and lifestyle;
  • investigate how history has been selectively interpreted to create stereotypical perceptions and to justify views and actions; and
  • investigate the long- and short-term consequences of the partition of Ireland and how it has influenced Northern Ireland today, including key events and turning points.

Many examples of high-quality practice follow these principles. Frankly, they present to young people a much more complex and nuanced picture than the blunt and dated “two perspectives”, Catholic versus Protestant approach, advocated by Davies. Research demonstrates that the use of religious labels has caused pupils confusion in that religion represents only one aspect of contested political identities in Northern Ireland. It also suggests that over the last 40 years by taking a binary approach we have often managed to convince pupils that Northern Ireland is a conflict between two monolithic blocks which is, therefore, unresolvable. Thankfully, we now recognise a continuum of views: that not infrequently in the past and in the present, individuals think and behave differently from their peers and that stances can change over time.

Alongside innovative risk-takers who relish engaging young people with our difficult past there continue to be teachers who are more reticent and guarded, often because they doubt their own capacity to remain objective and in control. Rather than chastise them for failings only too common in the rest of us, to move forward we need to involve teachers in robust debate as to the aims and focus of history teaching in a society emerging from conflict.

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