The "Wicked Problem" that remains unsolved
In complete contrast in Northern Ireland primary teacher training places are up to 15 times over-subscribed and the number of students applying for post-primary courses is up to seven times more than the number of places available.
This sounds like good news. And in many respects it is.
An extremely competitive application process means that teaching is still considered a high status profession and that the standard of teachers produced is also likely to be high.
Things are so desperate in England that huge bursaries are on offer for teacher training students. In 2020-21 £26,000 was offered to those with degrees in chemistry computing, languages, maths and biology or classics. These will be reduced after an increase in applications during the pandemic.
But the systemic issue remains – and even these huge incentives do not appear to be impacting on the glut of applications in Northern Ireland.
But look a little closer, as the latest Transforming Education report from the UNESCO Centre at the University of Ulster and the picture does not look so positive. This latest paper, the last in the series examines segregation in Initial Teacher training.
Every year we produce around 600 teachers - 140 more than are needed within the system. And that means that we are training talented young people either to be unemployed or else for export.
That’s not good for young people who have chosen to train here.
And it seems a little strange, to say the least, that whilst the Department for Education is responsible for calculating the number of student teachers to be recruited every year, it is the Department for the Economy which is responsible for footing the bill.
The oversupply of teachers and the fragmentation of training institutions (we have four) is financially unsustainable and in urgent need of reform. Policy-makers know this, but all attempts at change have foundered.
A research paper published earlier this year went as far as describing it as a “Wicked Problem”. Its authors Martin O’Hagan of St Mary’s and Patricia Eaton of Stranmillis were not implying that Satanic forces were at work but a problem“ that exists within deep-seated, macro-social, political and cultural issues” – which is a complicated way of saying that it stems from how Northern Ireland works and how it is governed. And ultimately that comes down to segregation.
The most fascinating part of the report is that which tells the history of teacher training in Northern Ireland which suggests that segregation in teaching teachers is every bit as intractable as teaching children.
National schools were introduced in the 1830s and in the years that followed teaching evolved into a profession with training provided by denominational colleges most of which were in and around Dublin. By the time of partition there was just one teaching college in the north – St Mary’s on the Falls Road, Belfast which taught women to teach in Catholic schools.
That meant that men, both Protestant and Catholic had to travel south, or to England or Scotland to qualify as teachers.
The new Northern Ireland state was in favour of integrated education and set up a teaching college for “men and women of all religions” in Belfast. This new education system was designed to be free of all church involvement which is why no clergy were invited onto the new Committee for the Training of Teachers.
Whilst integrated education in schools was scuppered by furious clergymen of all denominations, the government stuck to its plans for teacher training.
Financial support was given for St Mary’s but the government refused to fund a training college for Catholic men. The church hierarchy was incensed and refused to allow Catholic men to train alongside Protestants – insisting they should continue to train in the south of Ireland.
This was rejected by the then Education Minister Lord Londonderry on the not unreasonable grounds that the curriculum in the north was different. The bishops retaliated by forbidding Catholic schools from employing teachers who had trained at the new college, now based at Stranmillis.
A compromise was mooted whereby Catholic men could have their own accommodation block at the college, but this broke down when the bishops insisted on a separate sports ground and a wall between the Catholic hostel and that for non-Catholics.
Feelings were mutual. The report quotes the United Education Committee of the Protestant Churches warning in 1925 against “[throwing] the door open… for a bolshevist, or an atheist, or a Roman Catholic to become a teacher in a Protestant school.”
The Catholic authorities established St Joseph’s on Belfast’s Stewartstown Road in 1945 which merged with St Mary’s in 1985.
That, in potted form, is how we arrived at a sectarian system for training teachers.
Also in the 1980s came the first serious attempt at reform. The Chilver Report proposed a unified collegiate Centre for Teacher Training. It was shelved after coming under sustained attack from church interests.
The fact that we train too many teachers at too high a cost is well known. It just seems to be one of those problems where there is not enough political will to resolve.
Social separation between people of different religious backgrounds is not confined to St Mary’s and Stranmillis, according to the report. It quotes a number of former students who were the subject of a wider study pointing out some aspects of student life. This one stands out: “The Gaelic playing students go to ‘the27 Hatfield’, ‘the Fly’ – anywhere with a ‘the’ in front of it. They run about with Gaelic jerseys on. They show their identity and only mix with their own side. The Protestant side stay out of the Union… the boys may play rugby, but they socialise away from the area they go to ‘Ollies’ and that sort of thing – no ‘the’! There’s never a great mix – there is that separation.”
This report is the last contribution to the Transforming Education series which has been a rigorous and thought-provoking exercise which should provoke much debate. Resolving it will not be simple and will take time.
It is important that we remember just how complex and widespread community division is in Northern Ireland – education is just one part of it. What makes it so important, however, is that it is not just an aspect of it but a means by which it is perpetuated from one generation to the next.
This series has shown how it starts pre-school and continues into teacher training and thus many teachers can spend their entire education followed by an entire career within one community.
And so segregation in education goes on, and on, and on, and on. And on.
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