You could have predicted it would come from John O’Dowd, couldn’t you? Besides being Education Minister, he’s one of the most energetic and articulate MLAs up in Stormont, so when he announced the other day that education departments on both sides of the border are looking at ways of sending children who live on one side of the border to school on the other, it wasn’t a total surprise.
I’m sure those who opt for cross-border education will do it for all sorts of reasons. Prominent among them will be proximity. When I grew up outside Omagh, we belonged to the parish of Cappagh. But because of where we were positioned, we always went to Mass in Drumragh parish church. It was a no-brainer: one mile versus four miles. Similarly on a summer Sunday, the people of Omagh piled onto the excursion train and headed cross-border for Bundoran. Just as the people of Derry, situated beside the border, take holidays, socialize in Donegal, frequently live on one side and work on the other. They know it makes sense.
So if economies can be made – like St Mary’s School in Belleek, which was facing closure but may now become viable again – then of course it should happen. As O’Dowd pointed out, there are already cross-border arrangements in place for third-level education and for health, so why not schools?
In fact, why stop there? Tackle the broader question and ask “Why have a different curriculum in each jurisdiction?” As someone who’s taught on both sides of the border, I found the youngsters pretty much the same – nothing about them suggested they were in need of a different educational diet. Is there some educational reason we haven’t heard about that makes it necessary for the children in Newry to follow a different programme from those in Dundalk? If there is I haven’t heard it.
Of course there are strengths and weaknesses in the programmes offered on both sides at present. North of the border, we have the socially-divisive system of grammar and secondary schools, whereas that never really was an issue in the south. Likewise, there’s a general belief that literacy levels this side of the border are better than those in the south. Then again, the children in the south get a Transition Year in the middle of their secondary schooling, where they’re freed to pursue particular interests, look around and think about the world and themselves, before heading towards one type of job rather than another. We’ve nothing like that here in the north. (The south’s government, in its wisdom, is looking at slashing the Transition Year, not on educational but financial grounds).
Doesn’t common sense tell you we should take the best features of both curricula and blend them? This common curriculum could have important social spin-offs as well. I used to work with young graduates doing a year of training for teaching in schools. When we arranged for them to talk online with their southern counterparts, both sides were amazed at the differences between their courses. They were, you could say, educational strangers to each other. The more people have in common, the easier it is for them to talk together; the less they have, the more difficult discourse becomes.
So with the First Minister himself urging the benefits of a shared education system, maybe he’ll go further and push for a shared system that’d benefit all of the children on this island. Mind you, he’d first have to overcome the daft prejudices of those who’d rather hang onto a siege mentality than walk a mile down the road for the good of their children.
A word in your ear, John: time to strap on your tin hat.