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A Fine Line to Cross

New research from the University of Warwick reveals that, despite receiving praise for its objectivity in a country where different versions of what happened in the past can be used as political weapons, today history teaching in some schools across Northern Ireland may be overbalanced to the point of blandness.

The new study highlights how challenging teaching history in a divided society is. Schooling in Northern Ireland remains highly segregated and 95% of pupils attend either a maintained (Catholic) school or a controlled school (in practice, Protestant). In 2001 only 42 of all the state schools had more than a 10% mix of students, although integration is increasing. Creating a balanced view is most difficult in non-mixed schools, as segregation means that it is difficult to discuss differing perspectives.

Some schools tend to recoil from tackling controversial issues head on, or illustrating explicit connections between what pupils learn and the society in which they live. In their reluctance to stir divisiveness in the classroom, teachers do not always actively encourage their pupils to consider conflicting interpretations and standpoints, the process which drags the past into the present, and makes history valuable and exciting. Instead, educators sometimes feel more comfortable making students aware of different opinions without asking them to probe too deeply.

Perhaps more worrying are indications that teachers working in high (non-selective) schools, where about 70% of children are educated, are less likely to explore controversy and interpretation and tackle the more recent past than their counterparts in grammar schools. This is due to a feeling – not unanimously held, but clearly prevalent - that children in high school are not capable of understanding such issues, or at least, not of discussing them without descending into the kind of sectarian divisions they are studying.
Alison Kitson, from the Institute of Education at the University of Warwick, said: “History is in a unique position to help pupils understand the origins of the Northern Irish conflict and explore why it has become such an intractable issue. It can play a powerful role in tackling social division and promoting peace by encouraging pupils to understand how different interpretations of the past have come about and how these interpretations have played, and continue to play, such a key role in the conflict.”

Kitson is keen to stress that while "some teachers do an outstandingly good job in making history incredibly relevant to the needs of young people living in Northern Ireland today”, the opportunity to use discussion over the past to create reconciliation and understanding in the present is often missed, understandable in areas where the classroom can be a ‘safe haven’ for pupils living in particularly troubled areas. Not surprisingly, teachers working in ‘hot-spots’ of violence, such as Belfast, are the least likely to deal with more recent events in Northern Irish history and to encourage their pupils to consider conflicting interpretations head on. “The structural realities of schools – continued segregation and selection – do little to help”. In addition, pupils may be caught between different attitudes in school from those at home if they are challenged to discuss their nation’s history, creating friction between schools and local communities, parents and teachers, and between parents and their children.

Clearly, the challenge to disembody the next generation from the prejudices of todays is as problematic as it is necessary. “However, if history is to contribute to social reconciliation as intended in the curriculum, steps need to be taken to provide teachers with the kind of training and resources that will help them. Otherwise, far too many opportunities are missed.”

Further Information

For more information contact: Alison Kitson , Institute of Education, University of Warwick, Tel: 024 7652 2313, Mobile: 07766 180 961 or Jenny Murray , Communications Office, University of Warwick, Tel: 02476 574 255, Mobile: 07876 21 7740

"History Teaching and Reconciliation in Northern Ireland” is part of a project funded by the Carnegie Council of Ethics and International Affairs exploring history education around the world. The paper will be published in the US early next year.