The issue in Paris in March 2015 by the ministers for education of the EU member states of the “Declaration on promoting citizenship and the common values of freedom, tolerance and non-discrimination through education” has set a focus on citizenship education. Inclusive education, equal opportunities, non-discrimination and promoting civic competences have increased importance as priorities in the strategic framework on EU cooperation in education and training (ET 2020). In recent years citizenship education has been emerging more and more as necessary to empower people to actively participate in a democratic society with all the challenges that this involves in the modern world. This has been reflected in more recent changes in the school curriculum and in adult education in citizenship, formal and informal, as they play their part in fostering social cohesion in a diverse world. Emerging out of decades of conflict and almost twenty years after the Good Friday Agreement was signed, how does Northern Ireland answer this question? What part does adult education in citizenship play in a post conflict situation?
Realities of a diverse society
Since the early 1970s experience in Northern Ireland showed that education, both formal and informal, needed to address conflict in the region and the realities of life in a diverse society, including understanding of and strategies for dealing with its conflicts and divisions. This included initiatives in the formal school setting and responses in the informal education settings of youth, community and voluntary work with young people and adults. Early projects were often challenged for focussing too narrowly on the relational aspects of the conflict and not enough on the causes, (albeit that the materials developed at that time do not necessarily bear this out as, in many cases, issues such as human rights, equality, justice, sectarianism and violence were also tackled). In more recent times there has been a more concerted effort to mainstream a broad based approach to formal and informal education working through positive personal relationships to wider matters of prejudice and discrimination, cultural and religious diversity, conflict management and wider global issues. Adult education on conflict management programmes, even when the core focus is on building relationships, trust and connection will often also locate the intervention in the wider context of citizenship – rights, equality, justice, non-violence and interdependence. Making a connection between relational and rights based approaches to social cohesion and conflict management has been critical.
Context is Content
Although the context will vary greatly from conflict to conflict, a lot of the content and issues in formal and informal citizenship education with adults are similar. Where social inequalities or threat of violence leads to a loss of trust in established political systems, people adhere to arguments about the threat to security and access to (and payment for) public services that are often based on identity. Citizen education programmes work to offer a humanitarian approach that transcend this analysis and teach the skills to overcome prejudice, hatred and the associated responses. Many of the issues across Europe with implementation of adult education programmes focussing on citizenship are also familiar to those working in Northern Ireland, including inadequate investment in support and training for those involved in the work and the lack of a comprehensive sharing and up-scaling of methods and processes that are shown to have positive outcomes and impact.
Role of Adult Education
The formal curriculum in schools will continue to be a critical lever for ensuring safety, welfare, dignity and respect in relation to personal understanding, citizenship and cultural understanding. In these interventions it will be important to limit the dangers of neutralising and sanitising diversity or minimising difference if we are to avoid the risk of polite, superficial engagement with the issues and a failure to engender deeper trust and understanding. But beyond the formal curriculum, informal and adult education will also continue to play a vital part in developing the concept of citizenship. Non-governmental organisations, supported by agencies such as the NI Community Relations Council (www.nicrc.org.uk) have realised the value of this work for many years. Lessons on citizenship learnt in as a child in school need to be reinforced by informal and adult education to ensure that learning about citizenship is reinforced in all aspects of our lives. Adult education, youth and community programmes all play a vital role. It is the interconnectedness and reinforcement of positive messaging on citizenship that in the end makes it an authentic vehicle of social change in a post conflict society.
NI Community Relations Council
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Community Relations Council (CRC) is a Non Departmental Public Body of The Executive Office. The Community Relations Council was established in 1990 to lead and support change towards reconciliation, tolerance and mutual trust. The organisation works to identify and develop effective approaches to peace-building and reconciliation in partnership with local people and organisations, central and local government. It promotes the benefits of good relations policies and practice at regional, local, community and institutional levels; advocating for acknowledgment of our interdependence; challenging sectarianism, racism and all forms of violence motivated by hate.
The organisation believes the delivery of a peaceful, reconciled and interdependent society will be based on social partnership, the broader engagement of civil society and positive political leadership underpinned by priorities including fairness, equity, openness and diversity. It provides financial support on behalf of The Executive Office, development and policy guidance and opportunities to share best practice in peace building and good relations.
Before taking up a post in CRC Jacqueline was seconded to the UK Civil Service from 2000-2003 where she worked on the development of support services for those seeking asylum in Northern Ireland. In that capacity she also lead the project to establish operational services across eleven locations in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland in collaboration with the UK government, the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh and NI Assemblies, Local Authorities and voluntary groups.