There is a little noticed annex on page 14 of the 1998 Belfast Agreement which states that a number of named areas “may” be included for “North-South co-operation and implementation.” The second of these, the only one in the education sector, is “teacher qualifications and exchanges”.
These few words have served to unleash an extraordinary upsurge of cross-border energy in the colleges of education and university education departments on this island. Those who take on the vital role of educating and training our future teachers are not a particularly high profile or glamorous profession. Their activities rarely make headlines in newspapers (except negatively on occasion). They have sometimes been accused of being set in their ways and lacking in dynamism. But in the area of practical North-South co-operation for mutual benefit I suggest that they are leading the way in showing how it should be done.
They started with a hugely successful conference in Belfast in 2000, attended by 27 institutions and agencies involved in the training of teachers. There were then the inevitable delays while funding was sought from the two governments. In spring 2003 the Standing Conference on Teacher Education North and South (SCoTENS1) was launched.
For the past four years, this cross-border network of teacher educators, administered by the Centre for Cross Border Studies, has overseen a real flowering of creativity on the whole island. Four international conferences have been held on subjects like teacher education for citizenship, partnerships between colleges and schools, and the future of teacher education in the context of dramatically changing demands on schooling. Even more impressive has been the range of North-South research projects seed-funded by SCoTENS. There have been no fewer than 21 of these since 2003, across a wide range of subjects including ICT, special educational needs, citizenship and social justice, inter-culturalism, art and science strategies, the teaching of geography, history and science, student teacher exchanges and early years education. One partnership project between the Southern Education and Library Board in Armagh and Trinity College Dublin – ‘Together towards Inclusion’ – will lead this September to every primary school on the island getting a ‘toolkit’ to help teachers work with non-English-speaking children.
Officials in the relevant government departments in Dublin and Belfast now see SCoTENS as having helped to re-energise a sector which in the past has often been seen as the ‘Cinderella’ of higher education in general and higher education research in particular. One very senior Irish government official has called it “a real model for how professional associations can organise on a North-South basis for mutual benefit.”
SCoTENS’ success is largely due to three factors: the inspirational leadership of people like John Coolahan, the former Professor of Education at NUI Maynooth and probably Ireland’s most distinguished educationalist, and Richard McMinn, head of Stranmillis College, Northern Ireland’s largest teacher training institution; an unexpected appetite for cross-border research and exchanges among those involved in teacher education on the island; and – if I can be excused for blowing my own trumpet – the crucial cog of good back-up by a body with a track record in cross-border administration, the Centre for Cross Border Studies.
1 The website scotens.org highlights resources on special education and citizenship which have been designed for teachers and teacher educators throughout the island of Ireland