Shared Education - inclusive and practical
Shared Education is being touted as a solution to some of the myriad issues within Northern Ireland’s segregated education system.
Easing social problems, improving provision by reducing inefficiencies, maintaining choice for parents and pupils, and so on – this is asking a lot.
Moreover, there are questions about what Shared Education actually entails. What is it? How does it work?
There is no simple answer. It is more accurate to say there are ways and means to pursue sharing in education and this leaves us – politicians, educationalists, the public – with decisions to make about what exactly we want to do.
Scope recently spoke with Professor Joanne Hughes, Director of QUB’s Centre for Shared Education, about their view of best practice in sharing and how they think NI should expand these ideas within the education system.
Prof. Hughes said the centre sees itself “as a critical advocate” for sharing, and that its work currently involves three strands: research; programmes; and training and education.
“We are positive [about Shared Education] insofar as many of us in the centre have done research around the value of cross-group contact in situations of religious or ethnic division. There is an international body of evidence that sustained contact over time allows people to make friends and take perspective, and understand the wider perspective of other people, it promotes a more positive social attitude.”
Purely educational benefits
The potential social benefits of Shared Education are clear. However, this is not the only positive.
One of the chief problems with our segregated system, as it stands, are the inefficiencies seemingly inherent with running a number of parallel sectors. These inefficiencies ultimately use resources that could otherwise be used on the frontline, meaning that schools might, for example, offer fewer subjects than they would like to.
However, sharing offers solutions to some of these inefficiencies while allowing the different sectors to remain in place.
“There is a strong rationale for Shared Education that is not just about reconciliation. I think in many ways that’s why it has been attractive to schools – because it offers educational opportunities for children.
“If we look at how some schools engaged with reconciliation in the past, teachers didn’t particularly want to engage with it. But if Shared Education is saying that there are educational opportunities here, and that we can offer a bigger range of subjects, then there is more buy in.
“Also, in Primary School small schools can benefit from the resources of bigger schools, and that’s one reason why teachers and schools and, to a small extent, parents have bought into it.
“Shared Education allows the extension of the curriculum, providing choice for pupils by schools collaborating on a range of fronts meaning they can offer a wider range of subjects.”
One of the most common and voluble complaints about shared education is not about what it is, but what it is not. Campaigners for integrated education accuse it of being a dilution of the basic principle of non-segregation.
Prof. Hughes has a different view, which goes back to the birth of sharing in Northern Ireland:
“A number of educationalists came together in 2006/07 and the thinking at the time was that Integrated Education had been around since the early 1980s and was seen to be effective, certainly the research evidence is there to support that. However, it remains a niche sector, accounting for about 6% of the total.
“So we asked what more could be done with our education system - which remains largely separated. Within that context there were a number of one-off, short-term initiatives that were not very effective, albeit they were symbolically important. We asked if we could find a way to offer children more opportunities to get to know each other through the curriculum.
“I don’t think necessarily that the lack of growth for the integrated sector is just down to political intransigence.
“I think we have to accept, given the history of conflict here and the importance of the schools system – perhaps particularly to the Catholic community – and the fact that education was seen as a route out of poverty for many people, they hold on very tight to that schools system and also people want faith based system for their children.
“I don’t think it’s as simple as saying that if there was cross-party support for integrated education that it would be vastly more popular.
“Yes, it’s not always straightforward, but the fact there are children in different uniforms in some classrooms, from what we know about contact theory, that’s important because it’s important to recognise difference in shared settings and uniforms are a way of setting that out in an obvious way.
“Contact won’t work if we only focus on what we have in common because then those differences are, on some level, underneath the surface and unless children are able to examine and explore difference the experience will also be limited.”
Fundamentally, she says, Shared Education is not oppositional to Integrated Education – the two can work together, while sharing also preserves other choices that parents might want to make, such as education within a religious ethos or setting.
Problems and solutions
There are further complications, of course – but it should be remembered that one of the main reasons Shared Education has been developed in Northern Ireland is because we have stubborn social divides that we are trying to tackle.
“We have found some difficulties. It’s not always easy where there are ongoing community tensions. So, for example, in an area with high sectarian tensions – such as interfaces – it can be very difficult and in some cases, where schools are in walking distance from one another, children still have to be taxied between them because walking is potentially dangerous.
“It can sometimes be more effective in communities where it is easier to extend friendships within schools to outside the school setting. For example, more rural towns with a shared town centre, these contacts have a stronger ripple effect.”
Another major issue for Shared Education is something that will take time to fix, but which is being addressed: lack of teacher training.
Until the commitments to sharing were ramped up, there was little or no provision to prepare teachers for sharing – be that the extra pastoral concerns involved, or even the extra administration.
“This model emerged in Northern Ireland. It is fairly common-sense based and straightforward and it’s having quite an impact globally. There are Shared Education schemes in Israel, Macedonia and we are doing to be working with Bosnia/Herzegovina and Croatia, and also working with Cyprus, exploring the possibilities there. So, beginning from this wee island and growing to the wider global education community, this work is having an impact. That’s a good thing.”
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