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Sharing works: Reflections on shared education in Northern Ireland

Cross and Passion College in Ballycastle has a long-standing shared education partnership with Ballycastle High
Barbara Ward

SHARED Education, where schools retain their own identity and ethos but work with others across all sectors, is a brave and generous step forward in education provision in Northern Ireland.

It enriches and adds significant value to young people's educational experience. There are 589 schools engaged in such partnerships, almost 55 per cent of all schools, representing all sectors, types of schools and all phases. 59,000 pupils engaged in shared education classes in 2018, learning together, often in core curriculum subjects.

This did not happen overnight. For decades teachers and parents have sought to bridge the divide within in our society, enabling our children to develop tolerance and mutual understanding. It's important to acknowledge that commitment and the many earlier initiatives that preceded shared education. To understand why I'm passionate about shared education I need to share my own educational journey.

As a child I grew up in west Belfast. I attended St Comgall's PS at the bottom of Divis Street, moving on to St Dominic's on Falls Road at age 11 in September 1967. My first encounter with `the conflict' was as a nine year old when the Divis Street riots erupted outside the gates of St Comgall's. I have memories of crowds gathering and there being a really tense atmosphere.

Like many teenagers on all sides of the divide, from 1969 to 1975, I lived with chronic fear and anxiety in my journey to and from school. Tens of thousands of children endured the worst of the Troubles. Burning buses, barricades, bomb scares, drive by shootings, violence an ever-present backdrop to our daily lives. There were classmates who lost family to the violence, a pupil killed in a bombing, and always, the constant fear for ourselves and our families. I was one of a generation traumatised by violence.

Looking back, I've nothing but praise and admiration for the school leaders in those dark times. Schools were havens for young people – for many their only place of safety and normality. And there were remarkable teachers who challenged our thinking and tried to instil values of respect, tolerance and mutual understanding.

My professional journey in teaching started in Ballymena, took me to north Belfast, to Mid Ulster and eventually, to Ballycastle, as principal of Cross and Passion College.

There I had the privilege of leading a school with an already established commitment to sharing and collaboration. Our partnership with Ballycastle High School began as a local response to the need for wider curriculum choice for north Antrim young people, particularly at post 16. The peace agreement and power sharing at Stormont, as well as changes to the curriculum, created the space and fresh impetus for deepening and strengthening that partnership.

Building on the work of previous good relations programmes, the govenors of Cross and Passion and Ballycastle HS were delighted to join the Queen's University Sharing Education Programme, along with many other schools. The opportunity to contribute to the development of the shared education arrangements in Ballycastle, and to see the beginnings of the proposed shared campus, was one of the highlights of my career. It gave me enormous personal and professional fulfilment.

But Ballycastle wasn't alone on this journey. The development of shared education as we know it today, owes much to many pioneering school partnerships across the north. The development of the Northern Ireland curriculum played its part as did many groups in the community and voluntary sector.

Notable amongst these were Community Relations In Schools (CRIS), the work done by Fermanagh Trust, and that of Professor Tony Gallagher and his colleagues at Queen's. And we shouldn't forget the funders, Atlantic Philanthropies, the International Fund for Ireland, the Department of Education and the Executive Office, and now the EU Peace IV. All of this culminated in the Shared Education Act 2016, a significant outcome.

The challenge now is for school governors, leaders and all of the key stakeholders, in all sectors, to implement the act. We must be ambitious for shared education, for its potential to promote respect, equality, diversity and to improve academic outcomes. There is much to celebrate in Shared Education Week, but in many ways we are still only at the beginning of our journey. So, this week is also about listening to the voices of experience in determining what next for shared education.

:: Barbara Ward is the convenor of the Shared Education Learning Forum. She is a former principal of Cross and Passion College in Ballycastle. The college has a long- standing shared education partnership with Ballycastle High School.

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