Time is now to restore funding to a cross-border education body
LATE last year, the head of the civil service turned down an appeal to restore funding to a cross-border education body. With the assembly back after a three years hiatus, Dr Noel Purdy and Dr Maria Campbell argue the time is right to re-affirm commitment to the north-south education network.
THE significant political progress made in the last week, notably the publication on Thursday evening of the New Decade, New Approach by Secretary of State Julian Smith and Tánaiste Simon Coveney and the long awaited restoration of Northern Ireland's assembly, highlights the importance of and the immense benefits to be gained from meaningful north-south collaboration.
This long-awaited outcome and the resulting overwhelming spirit of optimism for the future stand however in sharp contrast to the continued refusal of the northern Department of Education and Department for the Economy to restore funding to one of the most successful cross-border initiatives set up following the 1998 Belfast Agreement.
This means that the Standing Conference on Teacher Education North and South (SCoTENS), which until 2017 received matched funding from both governments in Ireland, is currently supported solely by the Department of Education and Skills in Dublin. By contrast, in the north, senior officials at the Department of Education have refused to meet members of the cross-border steering committee even to discuss the issue.
SCoTENS is a network of 24 colleges of education, university education departments, teaching councils, curriculum councils, education trade unions and education centres in Ireland with a responsibility for and interest in teacher education.
After a successful initial meeting in Belfast in 2000, SCoTENS was formally established in 2003 to create a unique safe space for teacher educators - north and south - to come together and discuss issues of common interest, and explore ways of cooperating closely together. A part of the broader peace dynamic that was gathering momentum at the time following the historic signing of the agreement in 1998, it has always been rooted in the deepest commitment to quality teaching and learning for all. We believe that SCoTENS is the only network of its kind operating across a contested border in the world.
Since it was founded in 2003 SCoTENS has organised an annual cross-border conference for educators and teacher educators which attracts internationally renowned speakers on contemporary themes such as inclusion, social justice and leadership; an annual seed funding programme which to date has funded 120 research projects led by north-south partnerships focusing on priority issues such as special educational needs, assessment and technology; and, an annual north-south student teacher exchange which has allowed 250 student teachers to experience teaching placement in the neighbouring jurisdiction - helping to dispel myths and stereotypes and build mutual respect.
Evaluations of the work of SCoTENS in 2011 and 2018 have highlighted the "incredible achievement" of the network despite only modest annual funding: £25,000 from the Department of Education and Skills and £12,500 from each of the two northern departments.
In 2017 in the absence of ministers, the decision by northern civil servants to withdraw northern funding, means that the peace-building activities of SCoTENS have had to be seriously curtailed, at the very time when border tensions have heightened considerably.
And so, as Brexit looms at the end of this month, and with the welcome restoration of the assembly, we would call upon Peter Weir and Diane Dodds, the newly appointed ministers of education and economy, respectively, to act swiftly and decisively to restore funding to this uniquely successful and impactful north-south network, and thus to re-affirm the commitment of the northern government to effective cross-border collaboration.
Peace-building requires energy and commitment from all sides. Now, more than ever, is the moment for the northern departments to step up.
:: Dr Noel Purdy from Stranmillis University College and Dr Maria Campbell from St Angela's College, Sligo are co-chairs of SCoTENS. For further information visit http://scotens.org/.