The trouble with teaching ‘the Troubles’…

The final episode of Derry Girls (spoiler alert) covered the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement (GFA) with wit and plenty of pathos. After its broadcast, social media was full of older viewers reporting that they had quite forgotten the challenges that many people across the island of Ireland faced when deciding to support unpalatable aspects of the agreement, such as the release of prisoners. The younger adults were open about being entirely unaware of the context of this peace settlement which ended our bloody 30-year conflict. But many of these younger people had recently been through the education system. And surely everyone going through schooling in Northern Ireland recently will have been given opportunities to learn about and develop an understanding of the conflict, its contested roots, the many human tragedies that befell as a result of it, and the slow and painful movement toward something resembling ‘peace’? It seems not. In this conflict, more than 3600 people died, over half were civilians, and 30,000 were injured, often with life-changing outcomes. Scaled to the population of Great Britain, this is the equivalent of 126,000 dead and 1.8 million injured. And yet, many young people in schools here are denied the opportunity to have any significant engagement with this aspect of Northern Ireland’s history. After the recent death of David Trimble, one of the pivotal figures in the peace process, it became clear that many young people knew nothing about him, underlining the lack of knowledge of this key moment in our recent past. Is it desirable that many seem to have learnt the details of it for the first time through a comedy programme on Channel 4?

There is now considerable flexibility around what is taught in Northern Ireland schools. This is generally useful as it allows teachers to make professional judgements about what would interest and engage their young people. It allows them to tailor their lesson content, and to take opportunities presented by events – a topical issue in the area, a major news story – and to turn those into learning opportunities. Even those young people studying for external examinations may not cover exactly the same as their counterparts in the school up the road. While there will be core content at GCSE and at A Level which everyone is expected to study, there is some choice within each subject specification – or syllabus as they used to be called in old money – it is that specification which determines what content needs to be covered, and details those units which are core and those which are optional. However, flexibility of content also allows some teachers to avoid potentially controversial issues, especially those related to the Troubles which otherwise might be covered in History or Citizenship classes.

At the outset, it is important to recognize that from the 1980s onward, those responsible for developing the curriculum have tried to ensure that the conflict is addressed in some form in classrooms. Since 1982 the Department of Education has required all teachers to take responsibility for promoting better community relations in their subject areas. When a common Northern Ireland curriculum was introduced to all schools in 1991 the cross curricular themes of Education for Mutual Understanding and Cultural Heritage specifically addressed aspects of inter-communal conflict and the recognition of different cultural identities in NI. Further, the 11-14 History curriculum contained a core of contested topics in Irish history and advocated that they be tackled from multiple perspectives – no mean feat in a society which at that time was still at war.

If the 1991 version of the curriculum was tentative in its approach, then its revision for 11–14-year-olds (Key Stage 3) in 2007 went considerably further. Cross curricular themes were swept away in favour of a prescribed Local and Global Citizenship programme underpinned by principles of human rights and social justice. Citizenship classes were envisaged as a forum where Northern Ireland’s past divisions, and future possibilities, would be explored, something examined in a recent briefing paper from Ulster University’s UNESCO Centre. The revised History programme in NI specifically encouraged teachers to engage their students in exploring the links between the past and their sense of national identities and to examine how history in this society has been used and abused to further ulterior motives. More challenging, perhaps, teachers were asked to ensure that their young people “investigate the long and short term causes and consequences of the partition of Ireland and how it has influenced Northern Ireland today including key events and turning points”, thus, at least, opening up the opportunity to teach about the recent troubled past – but not exactly demanding that they should! For instance, it was for teachers to decide what the key events and turning points were and how recent these were. In any case, this could get a lot of emphasis in the classroom or be dealt with in little or no detail – there are no external examinations for 14-year-olds. Additionally, from the mid 1990s, for 14–16-year-olds in Key Stage 4 (GCSE), an optional module in History at GCSE covering the NI conflict period from 1965 to 1985 (now extended to 1998), was made available to schools.

So, the truth is that in NI there are openings in the curriculum which provide secondary schools with the opportunity to teach the recent, troubled past. Furthermore, successive projects since the 1970s, largely initiated by bucket loads of charitable and European money – now dried up – have also ensured that we have tried and tested classroom approaches to handle controversial issues with young people. If we have opportunities in the curriculum and teaching approaches at hand, then why has it not happened? Or, rather, why has the often excellent practice in individual classrooms not been mainstreamed across the system? While the Troubles may be touched upon in many classrooms, why does it not appear to be central to Citizenship or History classes in most schools?

We remain a fundamentally divided society. Social spaces in Northern Ireland are often carved into ‘no go areas’ segregating the two main communities. Similarities could also be drawn with the teaching of local contentious history in Northern Ireland, as many classrooms, in spite of curriculum policy, are ‘no go areas’, in effect, hostile environments for exploring such issues. This conscious decision-making on the part of many History teachers to omit the obvious in their teaching plans – that is, the history of the society in which they are teaching – begs the question: if the purpose of school History, particularly in a conflict-affected society, is not to help young people learn from the past to understand the present world in which they are living, then what is it for?

A myriad of well-rehearsed reasons have been cited as to why this particular section of the past remains off limits within many classrooms. William Faulkner wrote: ‘The past is never dead; it isn’t even past’. Although a quarter of a century has elapsed since the GFA brought a peace settlement to our part of the world, the ripples and repercussions of the political violence and division still have a living legacy in our society today. Just consider the grip of paramilitarism in many communities and what is now recognised as intergenerational trauma. Young people today may have grown up in ‘peace’, but they still experience separation, division and difference on a daily basis. This has significant implications for many History teachers who have a statutory responsibility to address long-term consequences of partition and its impact on NI today with 11–14-year-olds. And yet the continuing ‘impact’ of NI’s difficult and contested past on contemporary society is one of the reasons why many History teachers feel apprehensive about addressing these issues. Thus, in spite of ‘peace’ and the ‘safety of a comfortable distance’ from the past as some writers have called it, many teachers remain troubled with teaching the Troubles.

From a different perspective, there are some teachers of History who may argue that exploring the impact of the past on ‘today’ is not ‘History’, and that ‘live’ issues are a ‘no go area’. Some feel that this is an area of learning for Citizenship teachers to address, but not History teachers. Whilst there may be some reasonable debate about what History is, suggesting that Citizenship teachers need to deal with the Troubles may be an avoidance strategy by History teachers. And does it really matter in the grand scheme of things if there is a blurring of subject boundaries in the curriculum for 11–14-year-olds when the prize would be critically informed young people with a joined-up knowledge and understanding of how the present has been informed by the past?

There are often calls in NI to ‘draw a line under the past’, ‘we need to move on’ and ‘why rake all that up again?’ When asked why they do not teach recent local history, teachers often say that young people are not interested – and yet, report after report suggest the opposite. In fact, ignoring our contentious past could be considered dangerous to the future of our society. It is exactly the reason that conflict and division are still with us which leads many teachers to avoid it – this is still a live, difficult and raw topic.

Teaching conflict-related and controversial history is also challenging as it may be one of the few times when young people come into the classroom already knowing about (or believing/thinking they know) what they are being taught – as is often said, they are not blank slates. What young people hear in the classroom can often pose a strong challenge to their knowledge and identity base, stirring up emotions and potentially exposing ‘half-truths’. This is another reason why some History teachers find teaching local History difficult, particularly if the young people go home and share with their parents their ‘new’ learning. It is these uncertain and emotional situations which can, understandably, be difficult for teachers to navigate and a considerable test to their skills-set. It is not hard to see why, if these are some of the potential problems teachers may face, deciding instead to dedicate more curriculum time to ‘safer’ topics is appealing.

Many NI teachers have been brought up living with division and difference and, just like their students, they will have emotional attachments with the past and potentially strongly held views. In these instances, aspects of the past, either at a personal or political level may be uncomfortable and not easy to ‘go there’, and this may lead to some young people not having the opportunity to learn about their history. Schools which cover the GCSE module on the Troubles might point to it as evidence that they are introducing young people to the recent past but here, too, there are question marks. First, History is only an elective subject for 14–16-year-olds; young people can choose whether or not to study the subject at that level. And even if they do choose to study History, the module that covers the Troubles is optional and teachers may avoid it. Indeed, there is some anecdotal evidence to suggest that teachers in ‘Catholic’ schools are more inclined to teach that optional module, in comparison to ‘Protestant’ schools, an interesting observation but one which would need further research.

It can be argued that tackling the Troubles at 15 to 16 years of age is appropriate in coming to terms with its complexity, both cognitively and emotionally, but that is countered by the reality that achieving high grades in external examinations has come to dominate senior school classrooms at the expense of wider educational objectives. The Troubles module, like all of GCSE, is taught in a pressurised time-frame, and so the emphasis tends to be on learning the facts relating to the major constitutional and political events of the period such as Sunningdale, the Anglo-Irish Agreement and the Good Friday Accord. There is little space for young people to explore the social impact and cost of the violence as it affected everyday lives – arguably, exactly the material that would enlighten young people’s understanding of why the legacy of the conflict continues to impinge on life today. It is the case that many teachers are more comfortable measuring their performance against the tangible output of exam grades rather than entering into the ‘swamplands’ to challenge young people to clarify their social and political values.

Thus, while many reasons exist for some teachers avoiding recent local history – the outcome/consequence is the same: young people are potentially being denied the opportunity of being exposed to different perspectives, making them unable to challenge what they hear or think for themselves. To give ourselves a chance for a stable future in NI and to protect ‘peace’ and democracy , all young people – regardless of which school they attend – should be taught about NI’s difficult past – regardless of how difficult/uncomfortable it may be for teachers. Engaging with controversy and articulating ‘difference’ is a learning opportunity that all young people should experience. Hearing different viewpoints and interpretations, engaging with ‘the other’, learning to be able to make your point but be respectful of others expressing different views are all potentially transformative for young people and that, in turn, could be potentially transformative for society as a whole.

What needs to change is that those difficult areas of the curriculum which are currently optional at GCSE and can be glossed over quickly with younger pupils have to become compulsory parts of the taught experience of all young people in Northern Ireland. However, that does not tackle an even greater problem: equipping our teachers to address these issues with young people, indeed encouraging teachers to seek out ‘conflict’ and ‘difference of viewpoint’ when appropriate to highlight issues and to have them discussed. This should start in each of our four Initial Teacher Education institutions but should also be part of the Continued Professional Learning of existing teachers. Parents too have to understand the changes in approach that will be required, and they have to be clear about the advantages of their children hearing multiple viewpoints, and the purpose of introducing and discussing the conflict. The Troubles are full of contention: the role of the British State in the conflict, the ‘disappeared’, Diplock courts, paramilitarism, internment, collusion by the RUC and the Garda… but if these cannot be examined and understood in schools, there is little prospect of that happening in wider society. And, if not addressed and understood, the potential for continued division, mistrust and renewed conflict remains.

Teaching the contemporary history of NI also raises the possibility of working with contemporary sources. Oral history and storytelling projects have been central to a fuller understanding of the Troubles, as is apparent in ongoing and controversial plans to establish a state-led oral history archive collating some of this material. From the Dúchas Oral History Archive’s collection of interviews about experiences of the Troubles in West Belfast, to the Prison Memory Archive’s interviews with people who worked, visited and were imprisoned in Armagh Gaol and the Maze/Long Kesh, to the ‘Voices of ‘68’’ project on the start of the Troubles, oral histories offer a rich resource for teachers dealing with the history of the conflict. But the strengths of this material – its vividness, its immediacy, and its capacity to bring alive the consequences of the conflict – could also make it difficult to use in the classroom because of the issues raised above.

This does not mean that it can’t be useful in the classroom. It does mean, though, that a robust framework needs to be in place to ensure it is as useful as possible. Oral history can be a great tool in socially-engaged and critical classroom practice, and for innovative types of learning; in the context of the Troubles, it is particularly powerful as a way of thinking about the legacies and afterlives of the conflict as they continue to affect our present. With training, guidance and support, this is one of the resources that NI teachers could draw on to help students engage with the recent past and with competing interpretations and experiences of that past. The immediate reaction of many teachers now, as before, is likely to be ‘but we haven’t got time’. Rather than fighting the examination dynamic, let’s embrace its capacity to generate motivation in students. Why not re-vamp the GCSE Troubles module into a social history by investigating people’s lives during the conflict? Yes, include the experiences of families of combatants and victims but, crucially, also, the everyday lives of the majority, framed by the wider political events. All this could be examined through rigorous historical enquiry as a platform to draw in issues related to the uses and abuses of history, legacy and commemoration. Facility for the use, and even the collection of oral sources, and (critical) visits to national and community museums could be built in to the assessment framework.

Members of the UK Parliament were provided with an advanced screening of the final episode of Derry Girls, suggesting the importance of the content. Siobhán McSweeney, better known to most of us as Sister Michael in the series, recently commented on its impact on raising awareness of the Troubles and the peace process. “The timing could not be more apt”, she said. “The Good Friday Agreement was hard won and hard fought for… and now it is in danger of being attacked through ignorance… it all goes back to the fact that a sitcom is teaching the people [of Britain] about the history of Northern Ireland”. Teachers will use almost any resource if it helps to support learning but Derry Girls is a little bit too… how can we put it… ‘robust’ to be used in classrooms. The response to the final episode does emphasise, however, the need for young people to learn about the conflict in Northern Ireland, its roots and its impact. We know that teachers have to cover this in History classes for 11–14-year-olds, but the depth and the detail are not specified, and this topic could be given the lightest of light touches. At GCSE, teachers have long been free to select this topic for their pupils to study, but we also see that many elect not to – they may not recognise the value of doing so, they may feel they lack the skills or they may feel that their school would not support them if there was a complaint from a parent. Is this the time to make sure that school leaders are brought on board and that teachers get the support, training and time needed to prepare to teach this crucial part of the recent history of Northern Ireland? And that this becomes part of the core learning for all pupils? We cannot rely on sitcoms to do this for us. All young people deserve to get an opportunity to learn, discuss, think, and amicably disagree if necessary, but ultimately understand more about this important aspect of our shared past.

Dr Alan McCully is a Research Fellow at the UNESCO Centre in the School of Education, Ulster University.

Dr Clare McAuley is a Lecturer at the School of Education, Ulster University.

Dr Fearghus Roulston is Chancellor’s Fellow in the History of Activism at Strathclyde University.

Dr Stephen Roulston is a Research Fellow at the UNESCO Centre in the School of Education, Ulster University. You can follow him on twitter. 

All papers produced by the Transforming Education Project are available to view. View Documents Here…

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