Shared Education — A Bright Future for Northern Ireland’s Education Sector
The ECPC praises the success of Northern Ireland’s PEACE IV Shared Education initiative in promoting the development of new friendships among children by fostering respect for diversity
by Michael F. McCarthy and N. Shemrah Fallon
This ECPC news report is the first in a new series “Taking the High Road: Peacebuilding through Early Childhood in Northern Ireland ”.
Northern Ireland, a country known for taking proactive measures to rise out of conflict, is seeing significant gains in advancing social cohesion and community-building through the Shared Education initiative, funded by the European Union’s Peace IV Programme. In April of this year, Northern Ireland and the border counties of the Republic of Ireland celebrated Shared Education Week that marked the launch of the initiative’s evaluation findings that show gains in teacher professional development, student academics, community building, and social-emotional development. The success of the initiative is widely attributed to a range of stakeholders including three executive leaders from the Early Childhood Peace Consortium (ECPC), Paul Connolly, Siobhan Fitzpatrick, and Pauline Walmsley.
Although Northern Ireland ushered in a new era of reconciliation following the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, religious segregation continues within the country’s education sector (Schiaparelli et al., 2015). Consequently, more than 90 percent of children are enrolled in either a Catholic-affiliated or Protestant-affiliated school (Schiaparelli et al., 2015). Shared Education seeks to break this educational segregation by promoting the notion of sharing within the region by involving nearly 150,000 students and 1,400 teachers at the border of Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland in Shared Education. The purpose of the Shared Education initiative is to “create a culture of good relations amongst school children and equip them with the skills and attitudes needed to help build a more cohesive, peaceful and prosperous society”.
►Learn more about Shared Education.
ECPC members play an active role in the formation of Shared Education (2012–2021)
Carving a path forward
To better understand the value of this initiative to the current and future generations of families and children in the region, let’s go back in time to when it first all began.
In July 2012, Northern Ireland’s Education Minister, John O’Dowd, appointed the Ministerial Advisory Group on Advancing Shared Education, chaired by Professor Paul Connolly, who at the time served as Dean of Research for the Faculty of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences at Queen’s University Belfast. The role of the Advisory Group was to identify how to increase academic competencies while advancing shared education. The group was tasked with proposing recommendations that considered “evidence on the preferences of learners and parents in relation to shared education,” “evidence of the effectiveness and value for money of existing approaches, and of best practice, locally and internationally,” “any barriers to the advancement of shared education” and “how the advancement of shared education might address issues such as ethos and identity”.
This resulted in a 2013 report, Advancing Shared Education: Report of the Ministerial Advisory Group that was published by Paul Connolly along with other members involved in the Ministerial Advisory Group. The report explored educational policy, detailed the group’s methodology for analyzing existing research and evidence, and detailed their findings pertaining to stakeholder, parent, and student perceptions of shared education, the efficacy of shared education and school collaborations as well as other academic-related outcomes (Connolly et al., 2013). Further, the report outlined 20 recommendations, which, according to the advisory group:
“reflect a view of shared education as providing a central mechanism for improving the quality of educational provision, expanding the range of opportunities open to children and young people and for preparing them with the skills required to make a full and active contribution to building an inclusive society based upon respect for diversity and difference. As such, shared education is not viewed merely as an ‘add on’ to the mainstream business of education. Rather, it is seen as the key driver for creating and sustaining a world-class education system” (Connolly et al., 2013, p. xxv).
Dr. Siobhan Fitzpatrick, Chief Executive Officer (CEO) for the Early Years — the Organization for Young Children in Northern Ireland from 1989–2019, when asked to provide insight into the formation of Shared Education, commented,
“[Shared Education is] a new concept where schools from across the religious divide could begin to share curriculum and extracurricular activities but still hold onto their ethos and management structures.”
She emphasized the important role that ECPC members and member organizations have played in promoting Shared Education, and in advocating for a formal piece of legislation.
The Early Years mounts a significant lobby for ECD
According to Pauline Walmsley, Chief Executive Officer for Early Years — the organization for young children,
“Early Years mounted a significant lobby to ensure that the piece of legislation addressed [early childhood development] and the child’s commencement on the education journey and not just school.”
The Ministerial Advisory Group along with Early Years successfully advocated for Shared Education to be utilized from early childhood through the third level of primary school.
Dr. Fitzpatrick explained that because of the Advisory Group’s recommendations, “a new Shared Education Bill was introduced that required the Department of Education to promote Shared Education as well as all the other forms of educational types that [exist] in Northern Ireland.” She emphasized that the passed bill, which became known as the Shared Education Act 2016,
“[Shared Education] was seen as a major breakthrough and a new direction for an education system.”
The Shared Education Act (Northern Ireland) 2016
The Shared Education Act defines “shared education” as collaborative education with “those of different religious beliefs, including reasonable numbers of both Protestant and Roman Catholic children or young persons” and “those who are experiencing socio-economic deprivation and those who are not.” The Act outlines five objectives of shared education:
- deliver educational benefits to children and young persons,
- promote the efficient and effective use of resources,
- promote equality of opportunity,
- promote good relations, and
- promote respect for identity, diversity, community cohesion.
The Act further holds major education bodies of Northern Ireland accountable for considering shared education in the development and implementation of their ‘public services’.
Implementing Shared Education: A two-part delivery system
In 2018, the Special European Union Programmes Body (SEUPB) allocated nearly €30 million to the Shared Education project from the Peace IV Programme, a long-standing initiative created by the European Union to “support peace and reconciliation” in Northern Ireland and the Border Counties of Ireland. The two-part initiative is delivered to pre-schools, and primary and post-primary schools, and will run until 2022.
1. Sharing from the Start
Early Years — the organization for young children, in partnership with the National Childhood Network and the Fermanagh Trust, leads the Sharing from the Start project in pre-schools. Funded from September 2017 to June 2022, the project aims to engage nearly 10,000 pre-school children in shared education activities, train the pre-school workforce, and actively engage parents in shared education workshops and activities. The program’s goal is to ultimately “use the provision of direct, sustained, curriculum-based contact between children and teachers from different backgrounds to promote good relations and enhance children’s skills and attitudes to contribute to a cohesive society”.
►Learn more about Sharing from the Start.
►Read the Sharing from the Start Newsletter.
Early Years leads the early childhood component of the Shared Education initiative. Pauline Walmsley noted that Early Years employed their celebrated “Media Initiative Respecting Difference Programme (MIFC) as one of the main vehicles for supporting Shared Early Education.” She further explained that “Not only did this encourage sharing between preschool teachers but also strongly engaged parent and the wider community as advocates for shared education.”
2. Collaboration and Sharing in Education (CASE)
The second program funded to implement Shared Education initiatives is the Collaboration and Sharing in Education (CASE) project. CASE is implemented by the Education Authority, an organization sponsored by Northern Ireland’s Department of Education, in partnership with Léargas, an NGO that manages education programs. The project currently targets 135,000 students, 2,000 teachers, and nearly 300 primary and post-primary schools across Northern Ireland and the six Border Counties of Ireland until March 2022. The CASE project website explains that “through working in partnership, the participating schools will promote community cohesion, enhance educational outcomes for all pupils and provide shared professional development” with the ultimate goal of “build[ing] a culture of good relations amongst children and young people in a school-based setting.”
►Learn more about CASE Shared Education.
►See press release: €29 Million Shared Education Project Launched (23 May 2018).
PEACE IV Shared Education Week 2021 — Launch of evaluation findings
The impact evaluation findings, launched from 12–16 April, were shared via social media activity, orchestrated by the National Children’s Bureau that spotlighted program evaluation reports, summary video animations, case study reports, and video commentaries from Project Partners around the positive impact that the Shared Education program has had on participants, including children, youth, education providers, and parents and caregivers.
The impact evaluation of the PEACE IV Shared Education initiative found that these projects “equip[ped] education providers and children with the skills and attitudes needed to promote a culture of tolerance and mutual understanding, achieved through regular, sustained contact and learning with those from different community backgrounds and between pre-schools/schools and the wider community.”
The evaluation also found that children received several educational benefits, such as improving their confidence, communication skills, and social skills. Additionally, the program promoted social cohesiveness within classrooms and fostered social development, where children established and maintained friendships throughout the program.
ECPC Chair acknowledges the importance of Shared Education
To celebrate the success of the Shared Education project, Claire Dorris, Policy and Research Analyst from the United Kingdom’s National Children’s Bureau, invited ECPC Chair Dr. Rima Salah to speak in support of the week-long online event.
In a video statement, Dr. Salah praised the commitment of a wide range of stakeholders in promoting “education, social justice, and peace” throughout Northern Ireland. She further applauded the findings of the impact evaluation, asserting that “shared education and sharing from the start breakdown barriers of social and economic inequalities and is a path to a culture of peace and a path toward building cohesive societies.” Dr. Salah further noted that “the findings will not only advance shared education…across Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland but are a beacon of hope for communities, families, and children across the globe.”
Dr. Salah also addressed the adverse effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on children, stating that the pandemic has worsened current crises throughout the international community. She further explained that “the pandemic is not only severely affecting the children’s physical well-being, but their social-emotional development” ultimately “threatening their protection and safety and access to education, leading to a crisis of care and learning.”
Dr. Salah underscored the importance of investing in early childhood development. She emphasized that early childhood development strategies, programs, and services, such as, Sharing from the Start, “are more important than ever to mitigate the immediate and long-term impact of the COVID-19 crisis on children and their families” and to “build a strong foundation for resilience and cohesive societies.” Dr. Salah ended her video address by stressing that it is the international community’s “shared responsibility to invest in the future of every child” in order to foster “a more peaceful and just world.”
Facing a brighter future
Hope for lasting change for future generations
The success of the Peace IV Programme’s Shared Education initiative illustrates that there is a new dawn on the horizon in Northern Ireland and the Border Counties of Ireland. An education sector, which has been historically immersed in division, is breaking down barriers and fostering a more cohesive, inclusive, and tolerant community of children, educators, and families. The time ahead for Northern Ireland’s education sector holds the keys to the promise of a brighter and more peaceful future, enabling its children and youth to lead the way.
Don’t miss Part II, “Taking the High Road: Peacebuilding through Early Childhood in Northern Ireland ”. Follow us on Medium to stay informed!
Connolly, P., Purvis, D., & O’Grady, P. J. (2013). Advancing Shared Education: Report of the Ministerial Advisory Group. Department of Education (Northern Ireland).
Schiaparelli, K., MacKenzie, M., Krug, A., Newbold, A., & Wagner, J. (2015). Divided society, divided schools, divided lives: The role of education in creating social cohesion in Northern Ireland. Clocks and Clouds, 6(1).
About the ECPC
The Early Childhood Peace Consortium (ECPC) is a global movement of United Nations agencies, Non-Governmental Organizations, academia, practitioners, and the private sector focused on sharing scientific and practice-based evidence on how investment in early childhood development (ECD) can contribute to sustainable peace, social cohesion and social justice. We recognize that investing in ECD is a powerful and cost-effective strategy for reducing violence, poverty, and exclusion and for building peaceful societies.
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