Jude Collins

Friday, 6 April 2012

The school across the border's not the same

You could have predicted it would come from John O’Dowd, couldn’t you? Besides being Education Minister, he’s one of the most energetic and articulate MLAs up in Stormont, so when he announced the other day that education departments on both sides of the border are looking at ways of sending children who live on one side of the border to school on the other, it wasn’t a total surprise.

I’m sure those who opt for cross-border education will do it for all sorts of reasons. Prominent among them will be proximity. When I grew up outside Omagh, we belonged to the parish of Cappagh. But because of where we were positioned, we always went to Mass in Drumragh parish church. It was a no-brainer: one mile versus four miles. Similarly on a summer Sunday, the people of Omagh piled onto the excursion train and headed cross-border for Bundoran. Just as the people of Derry, situated beside the border, take holidays, socialize in Donegal, frequently live on one side and work on the other. They know it makes sense.

So if economies can be made – like St Mary’s School in Belleek, which was facing closure but may now become viable again – then of course it should happen. As O’Dowd pointed out, there are already cross-border arrangements in place for third-level education and for health, so why not schools?

In fact, why stop there? Tackle the broader question and ask “Why have a different curriculum in each jurisdiction?” As  someone who’s taught on both sides of the border, I found the youngsters pretty much the same – nothing about them suggested they were in need of a different educational diet. Is there some educational reason we haven’t heard about  that makes it necessary for the children Newry to follow a different programme from those in Dundalk?  If there is I haven’t heard it.

Of course there are strengths and weaknesses in the programmes offered on both sides at present. North of the border, we have the socially-divisive system of grammar and secondary schools, whereas that never really was an issue in the south. Likewise, there’s a general belief that literacy levels this side of the border are better than those in the south. Then again, the children in the south get a Transition Year in the middle of their secondary schooling, where they’re freed to  pursue particular interests, look around and think about the world and themselves, before heading towards one type of job rather than another. We’ve nothing like that  here in the north. (The south’s government, in its wisdom, is looking at slashing the Transition Year, not on educational but financial grounds).

Doesn’t common sense tell you we should take the best features of both curricula and blend them? This common curriculum could have important social spin-offs as well. I used to work with young graduates doing a year of training for teaching in schools. When we arranged for them to talk online with their southern counterparts, both sides were amazed at the differences between their courses. They were, you could say, educational strangers to each other. The more people have in common, the easier it is for them to talk together; the less they have, the more difficult discourse becomes.

So with the First Minister himself urging the benefits of a shared education system, maybe hell go further and push for a shared system that’d benefit all of the children on this island. Mind you, he’d first have to overcome the daft prejudices of those who’d rather hang onto a siege mentality than walk a mile down the road for the good of their children.  

A word in your ear, John: time to strap on your tin hat.


  1. Jude
    "The more people have in common, the easier it is for them to talk together; the less they have, the more difficult discourse becomes."
    Sounds like a good argument for integrated education. Glad you've seen the light mo chara.

    1. It could be, gio. Assuming integrated ed does give people more in common. And that there aren't other, better ways of doing same.

    2. Jude
      You seem happy to accept that cross border education (and I'm all for it by the way) gives people more in common, yet you have doubts about integrated education. I wonder why?

  2. Oh dear gio - I can see I'll either have to kill you or cut off your hands...Well, where do I begin? I think integrated ed is fine - good, in fact - for those parents who choose it. I don't, however, believe it is the best educational environment for people of faith, be that Catholic, Protestant or Hindu or whatever. Think back to when you were 12-18. Speaking for myself, I was a whirling mass of testosterone, easily confused and filled with emotion. To suggest that I'd have been capable at that stage in life of placing several different faiths side by side and selecting - which is implicit if not explicit in integrated education - would have been absurd. Like any immature thing, a young mind needs protection until it's strong enough to exercise a degree of independence.(I say a degree because I never cease to marvel at how uncritically people accept - today - whatever is PC/current/the spirit of the age. Beyond faith and religion, I think the notion of educating people side by side will lead to greater cohesion is a weak one. The boys (no girls alas - or maybe just as well) that I went to school with - some I liked, some I detested, just as some of the people who lived in our general area, some I liked, some I detested. Sitting in class with them really made little difference to my liking or not liking, getting along with or not getting along with. Besides all that, it's slightly daft to assume that if you don't go to school with someone, you'll kinda hate them. I've not been to school with Protestants, but I'd say Protestants are as likely to feature in my list of People I Admire as are Catholics. What about Chinese? Spanish? Americans? Africans? Just as you can't read all the books, you can't go to school with all the people, but it doesn't mean you're a bigot. Or make you one. Finally, I think O'Dowd's idea is a good one - makes sense, cross-border; but the change I'd like is not northern youngsters going to schools in south and vice versa - I'd like them to have a common curriculum - as nationalists/republicans and unionist/loyalists have here in the north. That would be indeed a huge area to have in common, and would probably do more to help the Irish people see what they have in common.
    I could go on, but life is short. I think there's much to be said for integrated ed, and I'm glad it exists as an option for people. But it's obvious that most people here don't choose it. A final tow points and I'm subject to correction, if there are verifiable figures: (i) Integrated ed has been around for some 30 years now. If it made a real difference to how nats/republicans and unionists see each other, wouldn't the integrated ed system be headlining those? I haven't seen them; (ii) How is it that those of us - myself for a start, and probably you as well - who didn't go to an integrated school managed to grow up and not become bigots? Just askin', like...

    1. Jude
      Thank you for the reply; I do appreciate it. Please don't hunt me down and chop my hands off.
      I think your concerns about integrated education come from a worry about diluting faith teaching, more than doubt about its effectiveness.
      Children are not people of faith, they are just little sponges.Well able to take in the differences between faiths, I think.
      Personally I don't think schools should have a role in promoting one belief over another to impressionable minds.
      Anyhow it's Easter so I won't pester you anymore.
      By the way, from your picture I can tell you are still a whirling mass of testosterone!!

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