Skip to main content

Studying Education in Northern Ireland- Sarah's Blog

Our Santander Summer School Scholar Sarah Sambrick from Millersville University of Pennsylvania shares the story of her first fortnight at the International Summer School on Education for Transformation...

Sarah Sambrick Blog Summer School 2018 Derry

Hello all! For those of you who don’t know this yet, I’ve chosen to take four weeks of my summer to study at Queen’s University at Belfast in Northern Ireland. I arrived last Sunday and spent a full 24 hours on my own wandering the beautiful botanic gardens, asking locals the best places to eat, and enjoying my first time in a new country. I am now two weeks into my trip and I have to say I’ve been incredibly impressed with the quality of the program, knowledge of each one of my professors, and the universal lessons that can be taught through Northern Ireland’s rich history. Oh, and the pubs. Can’t forget the pubs.

I’m going to do my best to provide you with some historical background knowledge as an introduction to my program. I would by no means consider myself a historian and frequently have trouble keeping my mind from wandering in history lectures. That being said, I’ve been pleasantly surprised at how interesting I have found ever lecture I’ve had about the history of Northern Ireland. There’s something to be said about the experience of fully immersing yourself in a different culture. I’ve been eager to absorb all the knowledge I can about this new, fascinating place, its people, and its culture. I was, of course, primarily interested in the aspects of my program that focused on the education system but quickly realized that some historical knowledge was necessary in order to begin to understand the complexities of education in Northern Ireland. One distinct difference between schools in the United States and the schools of Northern Ireland is the prevalence of state funded, religiously affiliated schools. Most schools here are either Protestant or Catholic with only a small fraction “integrated” schools. In 1920, Ireland was partitioned. This partition separated the country into the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, over which the United Kingdom remained in control. From 1920 until 1960, conflict between the Catholic and Protestant citizens created a deeply rooted divide. Under British rule, Irish Catholics were harshly discriminated against in many ways, including very unequal funding to Catholic schools. The divide has led to the formation of two major political parties: Nationalists and Unionists. On one side of the scale, Unionists support full union with the UK while on the other, Radical Nationalists seek total independence from the United Kingdom through revolution. The majority of those who identify as Irish Catholics tend to support Irish self government with some links to the UK. These obvious divides in society lent themselves to some very interesting discussions about the meaning of a “nation.” In one of our first lectures, we discussed what constitutes a nation, and how a group of people living in a geographically similar area but still exhibiting extremely different characteristics can all identify with one “national identity.” The history of conflict and oppression between Catholics and Protestants has led to a group of people who, while growing up in adjacent neighborhoods, fail to identify with one united national identity. The school system in Northern Ireland mirrors the divided nature of the society. These divisions have caused many barriers to the core purposes and benefits of education. In addition to division, Northern Irish schools have had the difficult task of educating children in a post conflict society as it recovers from the time period of violence known as the troubles that lasted from the late 1960s through the late 1990s.

So that was a lot of information. What does it all mean? What is the best way for teachers to inform children about the destructive past of their nation while the wounds and memories are still strong among those in the community? Is it even worth teaching about the conflict, or might the best path be to attempt to unite the future generation and dispel any sectarian tendencies?

Sarah Sambrick Blog 2018 Summer Schools Donegal

These are the types of questions that my professors and classmates have been tackling in our lectures. There are no clear answers, but it’s inspiring to be engaged in discussion with the people who are researching and implementing new strategies to move Northern Ireland’s education system in a positive direction. These lectures, paired with field trips to schools and some of Northern Ireland’s most historically rich sites are opening up my mind to so many questions regarding education and its purpose and the things that we can learn when we step outside our own sphere of influence.

I will be doing my best throughout the rest of my program to write more about my experiences and hopefully giving you all some new things to think about as well. Two weeks down, two to go. So much to see, so much to do, so much to learn. And of course, a few more Guinesses to drink.

Thanks for reading!