Let’s talk about education @FeileBelfast

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Let’s talk about education @FeileBelfast
by Ludovica TORRESIN for Shared Future News
7 August 2018

At St Mary’s University College, the Integrated Education Fund with Féile an Phobail organised an event to increase awareness of how education constitutes one of the major elements of the peace-building process.

The chair of the event was Gerry McConville, Director of the Falls Community Council, an association founded to develop community and economic services in West Belfast. Being a conflict-resolution promoter, he is also a founder member of Belfast Conflict Resolution Consortium, member of the West Belfast Social Investment Fund, and chair of the West Belfast Partnership Board.

The first speaker was Baroness May Blood, Chair of the Integrated Education Fund, who has dedicated most of her life to community development and educational outcomes.

She firstly explained why education is important: she defined it “a passport to life” and the best gift that we can give to a child, because it enables him to be “the author of his own life”. Blood then addressed her first cross-community experience, when — even if they attended different schools and churches — the Protestant and the Catholic children on her neighbourhood met in the same playground. In this, she introduced the argument for integrated schooling, an initiative that allows children from any background, religion, and gender to study side-by-side on a daily basis. The consequence of this is that the kids “learn to celebrate other cultures, not to fear them” and this action, she asserted, will lead Northern Ireland towards a brighter future. Blood concluded by highlighting the importance of talking with students about the Troubles, in order to provide them with a rounded education, as well as the need to teach them how to look at the world in a more complete way and not only “through the eyes of being a Protestant, a Catholic, a Muslim or anything”.

The second speaker to take the floor was Robin Wilson, an adviser on intercultural integration to the Council of Europe and an independent researcher. He has drafted many cultural strategies that have been put into practice across Europe and he has recently been asked to create a model integration plan for the Council of Europe.

To better illustrate the harm of a separate education, he brought the example of Bosnia and Herzegovina, where Croats’ children school programme is completely different from the one of their Muslim Bosniak peers. To reinforce the point, he mentioned the Estonian public school system, where the children start attending school at age of seven and are not separated by academic division standards until they are sixteen. That means that the school has the duty to educate children from a wide range of origins. Today’s world, dominated by globalization and individualism, he said, demands our children to be flexible and tolerant of who is not like them.

Koulla Yiasouma, Commissioner for Children & Young People, addressed educational inequalities and the need to improve emotional and mental wellbeing in children.

She referred to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, which clearly states the rights of children and the fact that children are autonomous right holders (with the parents’ role of tutors). Article 29 of the UNCRC defines the purposes of education, including respecting for human rights and their own as well as others’ cultures.

Yiasouma outlined the relevance of education as a vehicle to promote inclusiveness and as a tool to overcome cultural and religious barriers — a system to develop children to become responsible citizens in a free society regardless of their gender, ability or background. To reach such a goal is necessary not to confine education to the classroom but to extend it to their life-experience, she argued.

Regarding a special function of education in Northern Ireland — with forty percent of our kids having experienced a trauma connected to the conflict — Yiasouma highlighted the need of having an agreed narrative of the history, in order to help the children understand their origins.

Maire Thompson, the final speaker, was the previous principal of Malone Integrated College and she was awarded UK Principal of the Year in 2017.

She talked about the context of her own school, which has 25 different languages spoken and students from 27 countries and from all Belfast neighbourhoods. She claimed that this causes the teachers to be students themselves, because they have to learn how to relate to people from a variety of cultures, along with different sexual orientations and different needs, and to abandon their own prejudices. The student, she said, at the end of their years at Malone Integrated College, turn out to be more progressive thinkers and more open minded, thanks to the many initiatives.

The common thread running through all of the speakers’ contributions was the positive evidence of developing a child’s personality and talents through continuous exposure with others, not only locally but also globally. It continues to be worthwhile to learn what works, at home and abroad, to enable education to play a constructive peacebuilding role in Northern Ireland.

Image source: Jill CASKEY

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