April 30, 2007

Director writes Irish Times article on North-South educational co-operation


Andy Pollak, Director of the Centre for Cross Border Studies

[This article appeared in the Education Today section of The Irish Times on Tuesday 8 May, the day the power-sharing institutions were restored in Northern Ireland]

The extraordinary growth of North-South educational co-operation over the past 20 years is one of the untold success stories of the Northern Ireland peace process. However this is a classic grassroots movement: largely driven by individual idealism and funded by foreign sources, and almost entirely unaffected by government policy. If it is to continue and flourish as part of the new dispensation heralded by today’s return of power-sharing, the politicians will have to seriously consider its future role in building peace on the island.

The new links effectively began in the late 1980s with the European Studies Project, an ambitious initiative thought up by a Northern Ireland Department of Education inspector which brought together secondary students in both jurisdictions to study history, geography, environmental and contemporary European issues. 20 years on, its website still shows 153 secondary schools in Ireland, North and South, participating, along with schools from England and 21 other European countries.

However the real expansion came in the nineties, to the extent that the decade following the announcement of the IRA ceasefire in 1994 may well come to be seen in retrospect as the ‘golden age’ of North-South educational co-operation. It was fuelled by generous funding under the first round of the EU’s Peace Programme, which emphasised ‘bottom up’ cross-border and cross-community co-operation, and thus was tailor-made for enterprising school-based and youth groups.

A study of school and youth exchanges published in 2005 by the North South Exchange Consortium – made up of Léargas, the agency responsible for managing Ireland’s educational co-operation programmes, the British Council and the Youth Council for Northern Ireland – showed just how dramatic this increase had been. It found that during the previous five years, nearly 3,000 school and youth groups had been financially supported to do cross-border work, involving more than 55,000 young people (this rose to an estimated 90,000 if non-funded exchanges were included). Nearly two thirds came from the schools sector, with just over one third from the youth work sector. The study also came to the somewhat surprising conclusion that participation by Northern schools and youth groups from a Protestant background was broadly in line with their proportion of the population: there was clearly no ‘chill factor’ stopping young Northern Protestants crossing the border as part of these exchanges.

There is room in an article of this length only to touch on the myriad exchanges that have taken place. Even listing some of the names gives a flavour of their range and diversity: the Wider Horizons youth training project; Education for Reconciliation (secondary schools); Dissolving Boundaries (the largest ICT-based project); the Pride of our Place local studies project (primary schools); the Civic-Link citizenship education programme; the Immigration, Emigration, Racism and Sectarianism schools project; the North-South Student Teacher Exchange project; Citizenship and Science Exchange (secondary schools); Diversity and Early Years Education; the North South Education Forum (VECs and Northern Ireland Education and Library Boards); Cooperation Ireland Exchanges programme; Causeway programme(British-Irish youth exchanges); the Cross-Border Human Rights Education project; the Pushkin Prizes; the Let’s Talk project; the Right to Hope project; the Cross-Border Schools Science Conference; Future Youth Games;

the Cross-Border Youth Arts Network; the Cross-Border Schools Orchestra.

At third level the exchanges have been less impressive. Indeed, the number of students from the Republic going to Northern universities – who were then entitled under EU rules to study without paying fees and to receive grants – fell in the late 1990s by 50 per cent and has been falling ever since, partly because of the scrapping of fees in the South and their re-introduction in the UK. The flow in the other direction has been very small for most of the past 30 years.

The acknowledged authority on Irish higher education co-operation, Professor Bob Osborne, has also noted that the level of research collaboration hardly increased in the 1990s. Universities Ireland, founded in 2003 by the nine university presidents on the island, has struggled manfully with very small resources to try to improve both student flows and research collaboration. Next week sees the applications deadline for a generous scholarship scheme to increase the cross-border flow of postgraduate students which it is undertaking in partnership with IBEC and the Northern Ireland branch of the Confederation of British Industry*. Another hopeful sign was last month’s signing of a memorandum of understanding between Queen’s University Belfast, Trinity College Dublin and University College Dublin, promising greater research collaboration in everything from Irish studies to cancer research.

Perhaps surprisingly, the institutions which have taken most enthusiastically to North-South co-operation have been the teacher training colleges. In 2003, led by Professor John Coolahan, one of Ireland’s most distinguished educationalists, they set up the Standing Conference on Teacher Education North and South (SCoTENS). This new network, managed by the Centre for Cross Border Studies, has so far seed-funded 21 cross-border research projects, including one which will see the distribution of a ‘toolkit’ for teachers working in multicultural and multilingual classrooms to every primary school on the island next September.

However, outside a few flagship projects like the European Studies Project and Wider Horizons, the main problem facing all cross-border education projects is funding. Over the past decade, four-fifths of this has come from abroad, largely in the form of European and American money through the EU Peace Programme and the International Fund for Ireland. The first of these is proposing to cut the number of projects (in all sectors) it will fund in the next five years from over 6,000 to 250, while the latter will wind up by 2010.

This means that the €70 million spent on North-South educational co-operation in the five years up to 2005 is unlikely ever to be repeated, unless – and it is a very big unless – the governments in Dublin and Belfast step in and take over. Up to now there has been no policy at governmental level for cross-border co-operation in education. This is in stark contrast to the approach of the French and German governments from the 1950s onwards, when they put very large amounts of money into joint education and training programmes to help the coming generations overcome the deep mutual mistrust between their two peoples following the Second World War. It was an investment which has paid off handsomely, helping to lead to probably the closest relationship between any two major states in Europe. Now we need this island’s politicians and educational policy makers to work towards the same vision of a future of mutual learning and understanding for our young people.

* Further details from Patricia McAllister at Universities Ireland (p.mcallister@qub.ac.uk)


  1. A proper policy on North-South educational co-operation from the governments in Dublin and Belfast, preceded by a Green Paper to be circulated widely in both jurisdictions for discussion. This could usefully be the main item on the agenda at the first meeting between the three ministers in charge of education on the island: whoever takes over from Mary Hanafin in the Department of Education and Science, and Caitriona Ruane (Minister for Education) and Sir Reg Empey (Minister for Employment and Learning) in the Northern administration.
  2. The first concrete step to this end could be the transformation of the North South Education Consortium (see above) into a statutory and properly funded facilitating body for school and youth exchanges. This body would systematically oversee, evaluate and fund cross-border co-operation in education.
  3. A real commitment both by the governments and the higher education institutions to work together to raise the level of research and development on the island in order to turn it into the kind of ‘knowledge economy’ which will ensure its future prosperity (an essential ingredient for its future harmony). A first step would be for the Government to extend programmes like Science Foundation Ireland and the Programme of Research in Third Level Institutions to all universities and higher education institutions in the North.