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Research Reveals History Teaching in Northern Ireland is Often Balanced to the Point of Blandness

Northern Ireland's history curriculum is often praised as a model of good practice amongst societies in, or recently emerging from, conflict. However, new research from the University of Warwick reveals that in a country where different versions of what happened in the past can be used as political weapons, today history teaching in some schools can be described as bland.

The new study highlights how challenging teaching history in a divided society is. Some schools have recoiled from tackling controversial issues head on and making explicit connections between the past and the present. History teaching is more ‘balanced’ than it used to be, but teachers do not always actively encourage their pupils to consider conflicting interpretations and standpoints. Instead, they sometimes feel more comfortable making students aware of different opinions without asking them to probe too deeply.

History teaching can be used to address issues of social conflict, and the National Curriculum is designed to promote greater tolerance and understanding. But the analysis reveals that there is great variety in the way history teachers perceive their role. The factors that affect these perceptions include the geographical location of the schools and their type. Not surprisingly, teachers working in ‘hot-spots’ of violence, such as Belfast, are less inclined to deal with more recent events in Northern Irish history and to encourage their pupils to consider conflicting interpretations head on.

Perhaps more worrying are indications that teachers working in high schools (non-selective), 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.

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.

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. At its best, history teaching actively encourages pupils to consider conflicting viewpoints, to challenge popular misconceptions (including the ‘versions’ of history encountered outside the classroom) and to make explicit and powerful connections between Ireland’s past and the present situation”.

"The research shows that some teachers do an outstandingly good job in making history incredibly relevant to the needs of young people living in Northern Ireland today who struggle to understand and reconcile the troubles that surround them. However, it is also clear that many opportunities are missed. The attraction of ‘playing safe’ in the classroom must be a powerful one when schools act as ‘safe havens’ for pupils living in particularly troubled areas. The structural realities of schools – continued segregation and selection – do little to help. 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.