Would Bobby Sands have agreed with cross-border teacher training?

A republican acquaintance of mine once said that Bobby Sands didn’t die for cross-border teacher training. I’m very sorry that Bobby Sands had to die at all. I don’t believe his cause, the IRA’s armed struggle (or terrorist campaign, depending on your point of view) to unite Northern Ireland with the rest of the island, was worth one death, let alone the more than the three and a half thousand it led to between 1968 and 1998.

Cross-border teacher training is precisely the kind of thing that John Hume – whatever about Bobby Sands – might have chosen as a symbol of the kind of noble Irish cause that one could devote one’s life to. I believe passionately that cross-border education in general, and the work of SCoTENS (the Standing Conference on Teacher Education North and South) in particular, can become one of the building blocks for the slow, difficult work of constructing peace and reconciliation on this island that is our common home.

One of the striking features of this island’s history is its people’s traditionally high regard for education. According to the 1824 Census, this then very impoverished country supported no fewer than 9,300 hedge schools. The national school system, introduced in 1831, was a stunning success – by 1870 there were 7,000 schools catering for a million pupils, again long before compulsory attendance. And it was very much an all-island system: one of my favourite 19th century writers is the polymathic PW Joyce who, along with his work on the Irish language, music, antiquities and place names, published A Child’s History of Ireland (used widely in schools in the early years of the last century) and came from Meath to organise schools in Antrim.

Stressing the virtues of moderation, the avoidance of exaggeration and bitterness, and the importance of “giving credit where credit is due”, Joyce hoped his children’s history book would “help to foster mutual feelings of respect and toleration among Irish people of different parties, and teach them to love and admire what is good and noble in their history, no matter where found.”

Then we had partition, and the two parts of Ireland turned their backs on each other. As the co-founder of SCoTENS, Professor John Coolahan, told a conference in 2001: “I trained as a teacher twice in the 1960s in the South and as far as education in Northern Ireland was concerned it could have been Timbucktu. There was no reference to it, no mention of it, it was just out of one’s consciousness.”

We are now in a more benign period. For the past 15 years since the 1998 Belfast/Good Friday Agreement, we have experienced relative peace and no little hope in Northern Ireland. Particularly in the first 10 of those years hundreds of cross-community and cross-border educational programmes were generously supported by funding from the European Union. In the new Europe, born out of the horrors of the Second World War, education was seen as fundamental in helping to overcome barriers between nations and peoples and to foster and cultivate a sense of shared heritage.

A report in 2005 from the now defunct North/South Exchange Consortium detailed the extraordinary range of cross-border educational initiatives. It listed 123 programmes and projects funded either directly or through government agencies, usually with EU Peace Programme money; another 11 major projects with over 700 participating youth organisations, youth groups and schools; and 106 other projects. The report estimated that, in total, more than 1,800 organisations, comprising over 3,000 schools and youth groups, and more than 55,000 young people, had participated in funded North-South school and youth projects in the period 2000-2004 alone. Most of these projects have since been wound up as EU funding has expired, although a few of the most successful are still going. Among these are the Dissolving Boundaries ICT programme for schools, the European Studies Programme for post-primary schools and SCoTENS.

Sceptics may ask: What was the real value of all this cross-border educational co-operation? Is all the talk about mutual understanding and reconciliation through education just pious middle-class wishful thinking? Is it grounded in robust educational values? Does it lead to any improvements in educational practice and mutual understanding on this island?

I believe strongly that it does all these things. It does not take a genius to see that education, acting as it does on the more open minds of young people, can greatly increase the mutual contact, knowledge, understanding and respect which have been absent from relationships on this island for so long.

In the area of educational practice, there are clear and tangible benefits. Anyone who has watched the interaction of young people through scores of cross-border projects, as I have, can see their frame of reference widening and their cultural experience deepening. I have a vivid memory from nearly 20 years ago of watching a group of 16 year old Protestant students from Ballymena and their Catholic peers from County Wicklow wrestling with the issue of real, live, multi-coloured multi-culturalism – until then utterly alien to both groups’ experience – when presented with the challenges it posed for a group of young Indian, Pakistani and English students from Birmingham.

Active learning methodologies are alive and well in many of these projects, allowing teachers and students to break out of the rigid straitjackets imposed by statutory curricula and old-fashioned ‘talk and chalk’ teaching methods. I have seen teachers, in particular, genuinely energised by the possibilities of such new teaching and learning in projects like the City of Dublin VEC-run Education for Reconciliation project for second level schools.

The purposeful utilisation and integration of ICT in schools is national policy North and South. Projects like Dissolving Boundaries are leading the way in this vital area. But Dissolving Boundaries also teaches mutual understanding and reconciliation: two years ago it was selected by the UK National Foundation for Educational Research as the only Northern Irish case study in a piece of international research aimed at tackling the risk of violent extremism among young people.

Another clear consequence is the fostering of a sense of confidence and a stronger sense of identity. This goes with a reaching out to the other person by realising that there is a lot more to him or her than the received stereotype. I remember the account of a student from Leitrim doing teaching practice in Belfast as part of a SCoTENS-sponsored North/South student teacher exchange project, who in three short weeks totally undermined the anti-Catholic prejudices of both his fellow-teachers and his pupils in a primary school in an overwhelmingly Protestant area of East Belfast by his superb leadership of a project on the Titanic.

The impact in terms of mutual understanding over the longer-term is, of course, more difficult to measure. Education is a very slow burner in terms of its societal effects. However John Furlong, Professor of Educational Studies at Oxford University, who evaluated SCoTENS in 2011, clearly felt the organisation had an important role to play. He said that SCoTENS was ‘an incredible achievement’ and without its leadership and organisation a whole range of all-island activities and networks – conferences, research programmes, student and teacher exchanges – simply would not have happened. It had contributed to the peace process by helping to normalise relationships between those vital cultural multipliers, teachers and those who trained them, within and between North and South.

Can you imagine what would have happened if SCoTENS’ successful model of North-South working together for mutual benefit had been replicated elsewhere in education on this island? If the teaching councils, the curriculum councils, the education trade unions, the parent organisations, the inspectorates, the Departments of Education themselves, had come together to work in a sustained and systemic fashion on issues of mutual concern? I believe there could have been a genuine explosion of mutual learning and creative thinking in Irish education, with potentially far-reaching consequences in transforming the attitudes and prospects of our young people. Two small examples: the South could have learned from the North’s internationally recognised success in the implementation of ICT in schools, and the North could have learned from the South about the value of an extra non-exam ‘transition year’ in helping schoolchildren grow into more mature and rounded young people.

Of course it didn’t happen. Maybe it was never going to happen given the timid leadership of the North-South cooperation process by Dublin’s politicians and civil servants and the largely indifferent, sometimes hostile and always ultra-cautious attitudes of their Northern counterparts. Maybe I am being over-optimistic, but I believe it could have led towards a real meeting of minds between education administrators, teachers and even parents in an area where everybody wants one thing – what is best for the children of Ireland. Because for me such a meeting of minds around something that is of clear mutual benefit to everybody is the real meaning of unity: the voluntary unity of people in a common cause, not the unenforceable unity of states with clashing identities.

So let me finish with a quote from my favourite republican, the United Irishman William Drennan. After giving up being a revolutionary, he became an educationalist. In 1814, giving the address at the opening of one of Ireland’s oldest secondary schools, the Royal Belfast Academical Institution, Drennan said that the school’s founders were “of nothing more desirous that the pupils of all religious denominations should communicate by frequent and friendly intercourse in the common business of education, by which means a new turn might be given to our national character and habits, and all the children of Ireland should know and love each other.”

It is salutary to have to admit that two centuries on Drennan’s words are still a challenge for those of us involved in the vital business of increasing mutual understanding between Irish people through education. In our darker moments we need to remind ourselves that this is what we are about: we are trying to give a new turn to our national character and habits, so that all the children of Ireland, so long divided by fear, suspicion and misunderstanding, can come to know each other better and love each other more. I hope the idealistic and courageous young man who was Bobby Sands would have agreed with that.

[This edited version of a speech given at the SCoTENS annual conference in Sligo on 10 October appears on Andy Pollak’s blog site: www.2irelands2gether.wordpress.com ]

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