Anne Anderson has 30 years teaching experience and is presently Principal of New-Bridge Integrated College. The school brings together children, parents and teachers from both Roman Catholic and Protestant traditions. The School is well-known for its innovative practices in promoting peace education.
She was one of the speakers at the Face to Face conference - April 26-27, 2018 - https://www.pdcs-conference.sk/
Q: Why have you decided to open the controversial issues and talk with your pupils about history and religion? A: As an integrated school, we bring together Protestants, Catholics, and others. When we go back to our mission statement which is about educating children together. Everyday we felt we had a responsibility to not only deliver aspects of the curriculum, but we ought to develop our children into well-rounded citizens.
We have a text that our English Department studied in school which generated mixed attitudes from our parents, from our staff, from pupils as well, and it brought about a chance for us to go back and look at our school aims. And our school aims were very much about promoting peace and reconciliation and also to allow us to educate each other. So we felt it was a learning opportunity to go back and we founded a group, within the school, of staff that came from different backgrounds, also staff that came from different specialist areas because we felt, as educators, that we have a responsibility to develop our young people so that they can go out into the society and be involved in peace and reconciliation within Northern Ireland. We reached an agreement, as staff, that we want more than just to school the teachers’ qualifications, the teachers’ subject knowledge, so that you can come up with so many grades, that we were more than that, as an integrated school, because we were preparing our children as citizens.
Q: Was it difficult to get parent approval for this education approach? A: Children are coming in from Catholic schools, from Protestant schools, and we have some children that have had an integrated education from the age of 4. It’s quite a mix there. So, we are working with parents who initially, perhaps, have demonstrated that commitment to integration, because integration is about inclusion.
But there’s no doubt about it, we had to promote to parents that we are prepared to take risks that are prepared to deal with controversial issues as they come up and that we are not going to adopt an approach of “that’s not something we talk about”. Because we’re an integrated school, in fact, the opposite – we want to give our pupils the skills and the staff the skills to be able to listen to each other, to be able to have those different viewpoints, but to be in the same room together and to educate each other.
So, we try to keep our parents, in terms of communication, as involved as possible. So whatever methods we’re using in school, that would be communicated to our parents. Whatever fact files that we would produce on controversial issues – like we’ve had a lot of commemorations of big events in Northern Ireland and Irish history, which, again, can be controversial, can create a polarized view depending on what religion or identity you associate with. So the fact files on that, because we have adopted an approach of bringing things back to historical significance and suddenly it becomes maybe less controversial because you’re back to the facts.
Our reputation and how we promote our school is that we’re quite open about that we will deal with topics, and we put that on our website, and we email out… And we will get questions on “why are you dealing with that?”, but it’s a dialogue – that we’re dealing with this and that this is the way we’re dealing with it, and that we’re really sensitive about how we’re dealing with it – so yes, you can reach. You can also get local politicians who like to get involved. Sometimes, the biggest challenges come from individuals, like that.
Q: How do you deal with conflicts among pupils, especially when they are based on identity? A: Again, a lot comes back to language. we do a lot of work on emotional communication. It is important that children are able to express how they feel. I think that’s a learning curve for us – they need to express how they feel, but we feel this is the work we’re doing, giving them words and language they can use that are not disrespectful, [teaching them] that you can be in the same space but actually say “I don’t agree with what you’re saying because…, but I respect your opinion”.
So it’s that language we use when children come to us in first year – we have induction programmes when we bring children out for teambuilding days and we begin that process from the moment they enter the school. But yes, we still have conflict, I’m not saying we have a situation where everything is fine, but we feel there is a process that kicks in or a restorative work, for example in school, is a great structure for exploring conflict. Our restorative practice allows the two people who were involved in the conflict to talk about how they feel and how the conflict came about, and apart from that what do we need to do to make it right.
We continued to upscale children on that language because, when they leave school, they’re going to be in a work environment, a university environment, where there is conflict. So, we feel that’s transferrable, so the restorative practice, again, gives the children a language. Our parents are very aware when there is conflict. And conflict is not always about religion – in fact, that is probably only a small percentage of what we deal with – it’s just fallouts. Yes, we would have examples in the school – a very small number of examples – of, perhaps, where there has been conflict where sectarian comments have been made, because it’s, maybe, in reaction to something that’s going on in the news. Sometimes, our children will come up with something and, when you question them, they don’t know why they said that, or they’ve heard it somewhere, so that education begins again.
So, I think that’s our emphasis – that we use conflict as a learning opportunity, we try to revisit “why did you make that comment?” and keep that probing going on. You need a lot of energy to keep going like that, but we feel that the long-term benefits are there, because the children themselves are aware of the process of how they resolved. In some cases, they can resolve the conflict themselves.
We have a fabulous group in the school called the “Anti-Bullying Ambassadors”, because we believe very much in peer learning. And so, we have groups of children that form committees – we have a welcoming committee, an anti-bullying committee, as a lot of schools do. But it’s fascinating to see those children resolve friendship issues, particularly the anti-bullying ambassadors, because they have been through this process. So, this is transferrable to very minor examples of conflict, and these children can take that when they leave the school, do something and make a big difference.