Ethnic minority pupils in divided societies: A critical review of theory and evidence as well as suggestions for future direction

J Reilly, U Niens

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Northern Ireland (NI) has experienced a resurgence in civil unrest with a new generation participating in sectarian rioting despite decades of educational interventions aimed at promoting a more tolerant society. During the political conflict, Northern Ireland was an overwhelmingly homogenous, if divided society. However, after decades of political conflict the Belfast Agreement of 1998 was followed by an increase in immigration, and NI society embarked on the project of engaging with peace while simultaneously grappling with relationships between more than two communities. Recent census statistics indicate that the ethnic minority population has doubled since 2001, to around 1.8% (NISRA 2012). Unsurprisingly in light of the theoretical relationships between racism and sectarianism and increased ethnic minority numbers, racism has been recognised as an issue in NI with some dubbing it the ‘race hate capital of Europe’ (Knox, 2011). In contrast to some of the Balkan states, Northern Ireland did not radically restructure the education system as a result of the peace agreement, and education remains largely segregated by religion (with Catholic maintained and Protestant controlled primary and post-primary schools), as well as by ability (with secondary and grammar post primary schools) and sometimes gender as well; only a small number of pupils (6.5%, Nolan, 2012) are educated in integrated schools catering for both communities. Instead, a common curriculum and a variety of voluntary cross-community interventions were preferred to promote a more peaceful society, such as Education for Mutual Understanding and Cultural Heritage (Smith & Robinson, 1996), Local and Global Citizenship (LGC) which aimed to underpin the entire curriculum, (Niens & Chastenay, 2008) and a DfID funded Global Dimension (NI) project similarly aimed to infuse all subject areas (Niens & Reilly, 2010). Development of critical literacy and dealing with diversity are part of most such initiatives although the latter has been interpreted variously by schools, which often address it indirectly to avoid causing controversy (Smith, 2003). Many of these initiatives have sound theoretical underpinnings; cross –community contact programmes derive from Allport’s (1954) contact hypothesis which has generated research confirming that increased contact between the two communities can reduce anxiety and thus potentially reduce sectarian attitudes (Pettigrew & Tropp, 2006). Social Identity Theory (Tajfel and Turner, 1979) is implicit in programmes such as LGC which encourage pupils to consider and identify with a range of communities, to take different perspectives and to consider issues of equality and rights (Niens et al 2012). Most research exploring the impact of such initiatives has focused on the religious divide and sectarian attitudes and despite increasing acknowledgement of the importance of teaching and learning about racism in NI (CCEA 2006), there is no guidance of how they interlink and concerns raised that either topic may be used to avoid the one considered most controversial in the particular school context. This paper will explore the theoretical potential of a range of educational initiatives for a peaceful society and refers to relevant empirical findings by illuminating the role of children from ethnic minority backgrounds in divided societies.Method.Initiatives with a global element in particular have the potential to be inclusive of ethnic minority students but evidence from a number of evaluations questions the extent to which teachers feel equipped to deal with racism and sectarianism. There is evidence that schools address these issues in ways consistent with their own ethos, and that this varies systematically, so that pupils from Protestant and Catholic sectors may be developing different perspectives and attitudes to local and global diversity (Niens & Reilly, 2012). Additionally, there is scant attention paid to the experiences of ethnic minority pupils in subjects such as LGC, primarily aimed at improving relations between the two majority communities rather than enabling all pupils to understand their own identities and historical contexts, the local identity and political environment, or to address local issues of racism. A critical review and synthesis of relevant theoretical and empirical literature will be undertaken with a focus on both sectarianism and racism in divided societies as well as the relationships between them, educational initiatives to address them and how ethnic minority pupils are included or not.Expected Outcomes. It is argued that theoretical frameworks underpinning peace education initiatives in contexts such as NI should be extended to take account not only of historical divisions between main conflicting parties but to enable full inclusion of other minority group members. Many teachers are currently struggling with either increased and unfamiliar diversity in the classroom or are trying to teach about such diversity in its absence. Initial teacher education and in-service training are necessary for all teachers to address both issues. In addition evidence suggesting that the common curriculum may be delivered differently in different school sectors suggests that in the absence of a fully integrated system (which has recently received some political attention but which seems unlikely to receive cross community support in the current context of unrest) there should be more guidance on how teachers address diversity issues, with recommended topics, materials and pedagogical approaches which could be adapted to local contexts but which would nevertheless ensure more common foundations for learning. Finally, the full inclusion of children from all communities should be promoted to enable all pupils to avail of opportunities to learn about identity, politics and diversity in ways which promote a more peaceful society.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationUnknown Host Publication
Number of pages1
Publication statusPublished (in print/issue) - Sept 2013
EventEuropean Conference on Educational Research - Istanbul
Duration: 1 Sept 2013 → …


ConferenceEuropean Conference on Educational Research
Period1/09/13 → …

Bibliographical note

Reference text: References

Council for the Curriculum Examinations and Assessment (CEA) (2006) Local and Global Citizenship at Key Stage 3, Preliminary Evaluation Findings. Ulster: University of Ulster. Niens, U. & Chastenay, M.H. (2008). Educating for peace? Citizenship education in Quebec and Northern Ireland. Comparative Education Review, 52(4), 519-540 Niens, O’Connor & Smith (2012) Citizenship education in divided societies: teachers' perspectives in Northern Ireland. Citizenship Studies. DOI:10.1080/13621025.2012.716214 Niens, U. & Reilly, J. (2010) Global Dimension in the Northern Ireland Curriculum: School approaches, teaching and learning. Belfast: QUB/UU Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency (NISRA) (2012) Statistics Bulletin, Census 2011: Key Statistics for Northern Ireland. Belfast: NISRA. [accessed 21 January 2013] Nolan, P. (2012) Northern Ireland Peace Monitoring Report: Number 1. Belfast: Community Relations Council. Pettigrew, T.F. & Tropp, L.R. (2006) A meta-analytic test of intergroup contact theory. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 90(5), 751-783. Smith, A (2003) Citizenship Education in Northern Ireland: beyond national identity? Cambridge Journal of Education, 33(1),15-31 Smith, Alan and Robinson, Alan (1996) Education for Mutual Understanding: The Initial Statutory Years. Department of Education for Northern Ireland. Centre for the Study of Conflict, University of Ulster. Tajfel, H., & Turner, J. C. (1979). An integrative theory of intergroup conflict in W. G. Austin & S. Worchel (Eds.), The social psychology of intergroup relations (pp. 33–47). Monterey, CA: Brooks/Cole


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