Professor Tony Gallagher: ‘Shared education produces positive community impacts’

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Professor Tony Gallagher

Professor Tony Gallagher tells writer Jane Hardy in the latest issue of VIEW that the future direction of the education system in Northern Ireland is up to what parents want

A leading academic at Queen’s University has traced the start of the shared education movement to the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.

Professor Tony Gallagher, director of research at the School of Social Sciences, Education and Social Work at QUB, said: “It arose from the beginnings of the peace process that presented Northern Ireland with an opportunity to look back at 25 years of education initiatives to see what their impact had been.”

Prof Gallagher listed the different strategies used to unite school students from Catholic and Protestant communities. These included work on the curriculum, producing common history textbooks and new subject programmes in religion and history; the development of integrated schools; contact programmes, bringing pupils together for joint projects, and the equal opportunity approach which led to equal funding for Catholic schools.

Yet the impact had been disappointing, he said. “Every one of those (approaches) achieved something but there was little evidence of any real systemic change.” In discussions between interested parties, the idea of school collaboration began to gain ground. “Just like in many divided societies, there was a debate for years about whether we should have separate schools, to privilege identity, or integrated schools, to privilege cohesion.”

Prof Gallagher added that collaborative education was a way of neatly side-stepping that argument, adding: “If you could create a situation where schools work collaboratively in local areas, students move between schools to take classes, teachers work together, you could create something like a type of integrated experience and do it in a way everybody would be comfortable with as they weren’t losing their basic foundations. “You would also provide crucial new opportunities for dialogue between both sides of the religious divide.”

On the Queen’s University website, Prof Gallager has noted that there was interest in the model of shared education from Macedonia, Malaysia and Israel, with a collaborative project in Israel already in receipt of some funding support.

Exponents of fully integrated education, though, regard the shared approach as integration lite, I pointed out.

Prof Gallagher replied: “Some people on the integrated side of the argument are hostile because they think we’re providing a fig leaf to faith schools.”

Prof Gallagher, who while complimentary about the parent-led integrated movement had a counter-argument. “Integration grew to a certain size, then stalled. I was involved in early discussions when a figure of 15 percent would have been a tipping point, with the whole system moving in that direction.”

Currently, integrated schools account for only seven percent of the Northern Ireland total. The reason why isn’t clear, although Prof Gallagher refers to a reliance on piggyback survey data, meaning questions on education were included in general market research.

He quoted examples of good practice in the sector in schools such as Limavady High and St Mary’s and Ballycastle High and Cross and Passion. But he admitted there have been problems. “There were some sectarian fights at a couple of schools but the principals of the schools made statements. There are challenges, you work with solutions. It’s a very can-do approach.”

Prof Gallagher said the future is up to parents. “We don’t know whether in 10 to 20 years’ time we’ll have integrated or collaborative schools.”

He added that he remains optimistic about the role of education in Northern Ireland’s future, noting that shared education produces “very positive community impacts”.

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