My Granda took me with him when he went to vote in the referendum on the Good Friday Agreement. Our local polling station is in Saintfield Academy and I remember clearly the buzz of excitement and sense of hope that seemed to fill that classroom. I was only eleven years old at the time, having just sat my transfer test the previous October, and it seemed to me that Northern Ireland, like myself, was about to start an exciting new chapter.
Twenty years hence, I find myself back in a classroom - this time as a PGCE student and trainee teacher. As a teacher of politics, history and citizenship I now find myself in the odd situation of teaching courses that cover the Good Friday Agreement and others that extend all the way to 9/11 and beyond. It seems strange that events which occurred during my own lifetime should now be taught in schools to students born as late as 2006/07 – and it certainly reminds me of my age!
Yet in setting out to teach undeniably ‘controversial’ subjects I am very conscious of the failings of my own education. I studied history and politics to A-level and yet we never once studied the history of Northern Ireland between partition and 1998 – and the Good Friday Agreement was only learned about in the context of studying Northern Ireland’s political institutions. A gap in my own knowledge was left to fester and no educator ever sought to explain to us just how and why Northern Ireland came to need an agreement in 1998.
This was compounded by the utter failure of citizenship education prior to 2007. I for one can’t remember any serious attempts by my school to speak to us about the divisions within our society. Sectarian behaviour where it emerged would be dealt with, but the causes and consequences of such sentiments were never discussed and certainly not addressed. Sadly, this was not an uncommon experience – one survey in 2000 suggested that fewer than one in three pupils had an opportunity to discuss these sorts of issues at school.
Yet the Good Friday Agreement had provided new impetus for a change in educational approaches to teaching both history and citizenship. In 2007 a new curriculum was launched with the newly created Local and Global Citizenship (LGC) trumpeted as the new means by which schools could play their part in reconciliation and peacebuilding. Core citizenship themes were even woven into other subjects such as RE, English, Geography and Drama to encourage cross-curricular coordination.
This revised curriculum is still in use today and should, I suppose, be welcomed as a step in the right direction. Some schools have embraced the subject to the extent where LCG, folded into a group of subjects known as Learning for Life and Work (LLW), can now be studied at GCSE. A wide range of concepts from diversity through to human rights are now explored right up until the age of 16 whether students take the GCSE or not. Some schools have even sought to use LLW as a vehicle for shared education where students from different backgrounds will follow a coordinated curriculum that includes shared classrooms and joint trips.
Yet on the whole, it seems that LCG is struggling to make headway. In retrospect it was a mistake to place it alongside Employability and Personal Development and to give busy teachers, many of whom have little or no training in any of these subjects, the responsibility to teach all three. As a consequence these teachers do what many teachers both in Northern Ireland, and in other divided societies across the world, have always done – they avoid talking about controversial issues.
The real issue here is that for all these great concepts – included in a curriculum that barely covers two sides of A4 – none are linked to specific aspects of Northern Irish history or politics. This allows teachers to veer towards global citizenship to avoid controversial local issues and return to local citizenship when it comes to discussing issues such as democratic engagement. The lack of detail also encourages teachers to teach the four key concepts separately – perhaps even across different years – thus divorcing the concept of equality from the concept of human rights for example.
Where citizenship themes are supposed to be taught across the curriculum there is generally a lack of coordination between departments and students often fail to see any connection at all. History, a subject where this connection should be absolutely crystal clear is a case in point. Even with recent changes to the CCEA History GCSE specification it is still possible for schools to avoid the period between WWII and 1998. In fact the only event in history that must be taught at KS3 – after which it is no longer compulsory – is the partition of Ireland.
In all of this, as we celebrate the twentieth anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement, we should all take a moment to pause and consider how we are teaching our young people about this event and the years that proceeded it. Whilst it is undeniable that young people will always soak up what they hear at home and in the community – and that places a very real responsibility on each of us as individuals – this is also a moment to ask if our education system is really helping our young people to comprehend what the Good Friday Agreement was all about.
James worked in politics in Scotland for five years and is a contributor to Northern Slant. He is currently back in Northern Ireland training to become a teacher.