Education Committee Inquiry Continues Apace

The Education Committee’s Inquiry into Shared and Integrated Education took a closer look at the Dissolving Boundaries programme and the Centre for Shared Education, Queen’s University Belfast as it continued evidence sessions on its Inquiry into Shared and Integrated Education.

On hand to give evidence on the Dissolving Boundaries programme were, Professor Roger Austin, University of Ulster; Antoin Moran, Principal, Ballyhacket Primary School, Castlerock; and Alison McConnell, teacher, Carrs Glen Primary School, Belfast.

The programme which was jointly funded by the Department of Education (Northern Ireland) and the Department of Education and Skills (Republic of Ireland) invited primary and post-primary schools to form partnerships and to develop a relationship based around a particular curriculum-related project. There were three objectives: to engage pupils in collaborative curricular projects; to promote mutual understanding through collaborative cross-border links; and to promote sustainable use of technology in schools. The programme ran from 2000 – 2014.

Professor Austin opened the session by noting that over 14 years and (supported by face to face meetings with teachers and pupils) the programme had linked 50,000 young people, 570 schools and 2,600 teachers through cross-border work in primary and post primary schools.

Giving a little more background on the history of the programme, Professor Austin explained that in the early stages, schools were nominated by Education and Library Board ICT advisors. A grant was available to schools to cover administration costs and a small grant was also provided to facilitate a face-to-face meeting for pupils during the year. Teachers who completed the agreed work programme were also given a small grant in the first year, which reduced for any subsequent years. The average cost per pupil participating in the programme was given as £75. On average schools stayed with the programme for 4 years. The University of Ulster employed two members of staff to oversee the programme and to provide training, monitoring of work and administering of grants to schools.

Although the programme was evaluated as successful by the Education and Training Inspectorate and the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER), funding for the programme ended in 2014.

In respect of the Committee’s inquiry into Shared and Integrated Education, Professor Austin argued that the use of ICT may enable more sharing between schools and serve to overcome the logistical, transportation and cost problems highlighted by many other respondents to the inquiry.

He further argued that the focus on ICT within the programme matches the focus on the same kind of cross-curricular skills for Key Stages 1,2 and 3. He noted that the programme supports community cohesion by promoting face-to -face or ICT-based contact between peers in school. You can read the Dissolving Boundaries submission here and/or watch the evidence session in full:

Next before the Committee were Professor Joanne Hughes, Director of the Centre for Shared Education, School of Education, QUB; Professor Tony Gallagher, Pro Vice Chancellor, Queen’s and member of the Centre for Shared Education, QUB; Dr Gavin Duffy, Research Associate, Centre for Shared Education, QUB; and Professor Miles Hewstone, Director, University of Oxford Centre for the Study of Intergroup Conflict.

Professor Hughes opened the briefing by providing a little background on the Centre for Shared Education at QUB. She stated that the underpinning vision was for an applied and interdisciplinary centre which is committed to research and the promotion of evidence-based practice in education.

The Centre contrasted Shared Education with Integrated Education arguing that the former elevates educational outcomes as opposed to reconciliation objectives, thus enhancing its appeal among divided communities. The Centre described Integrated Education as being an effective mechanism for relationship building but one which has only a limited appeal. The Centre also contrasted Shared Education with short-term, largely ineffective contact initiatives which are not curriculum-based and which do not offer opportunities for sustained contact. It was indicated that although educational objectives are foregrounded in Shared Education Programmes, the Centre provides support for teachers to tackle community relations issues.

The Centre contended that Shared Education brings different social or ethnic or religious groups into sustained contact with each other through inter-school collaboration thus lessening anxiety and promoting empathy and resulting in better relations. However they noted that the groups involved must have equal status, be in pursuit of common goals and that the interaction must be characterised by co-operation not competition. The Centre asserted that the common goal of educational improvement for schools involved in Shared Education must be superordinate to the community relations goal.

The Centre also indicated that where children attend schools with a relatively high level of mixing of the 2 communities (i.e. over 10%, so-called supermixed schools) - regardless of whether the school has an Integrated ethos or not but provided that there was a supportive climate for inter-community contact – anxiety about the other community is lower and attitudes are more positive.

The Centre contended that the barriers to sharing between schools – proximity, travel and timetabling – are overcome by the better Shared Education partnerships. 

The Centre argued that the lack of a co-ordinated policy or clear definition of Shared Education has created a policy vacuum which allows it to be labelled as light-touch and supportive of the status quo. It was noted that this also affects the depth of meaningful activity; and limits Shared Education’s potential to effect lasting systemic change. The Centre called for legislation which will provide a consensus around the definition of Shared Education. It was also contended that a wide-ranging review of DE policy including Area Planning and the Entitlement Framework was required in order to ensure that they support Shared Education in future and to establish the basis for the development of policy and strategy.

You can read the Centre for Shared Education submission here and/or watch the evidence session in full below:

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