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Citizenship education is intended to foster civic and political participation by encouraging students to critically reflect on and challenge established attitudes, values and behaviours (Niens, O’Connor, & Smith, 2013; Smith, 2003). Within post-conflict divided societies, the implementation of a citizenship curriculum is a unique and challenging endeavour. This blog post is based on the article, ‘Lessons learned from 10 years of citizenship education in Northern Ireland: A critical analysis of curriculum change’, published recently in the Curriculum Journal (O’Connor, Anderson Worden, Bates, & Gstrein, 2019). The article examines the evolution of citizenship education at a time of political and social change, and analyses reflections from 10 key stakeholders involved in its implementation and development. Its findings provide critical insights into both the inception and legacy of the citizenship curriculum, and the change factors necessary for an improved curriculum going forward.

The Good Friday agreement (1998) paved the way for a radically new approach to education in Northern Ireland. When local and global citizenship (LGC) was introduced to the statutory curriculum in 2007, it was a pioneering commitment to fostering bonds and bridges in a post-conflict divided society, notably in an education system in which approximately 93 per cent of students are segregated by religion, academic ability and social class. The addition of LGC to the curriculum aimed to prepare students for life in an increasingly diverse society. Aware that notions of identity and nationhood were profoundly problematic in societies emerging from conflict, the citizenship curriculum was designed to focus more on universal concepts of diversity, democracy, tolerance and non-discrimination (Niens, O’Connor, & Smith, 2013).

‘Aware that notions of identity and nationhood were profoundly problematic in societies emerging from conflict, the citizenship curriculum was designed to focus more on universal concepts of diversity, democracy, tolerance and non-discrimination.’

Initial aspirations for citizenship education have remained largely unfulfilled in Northern Ireland, which has affected its academic credibility among pupils and teachers. Stakeholder interviews revealed the complexities involved in education change in post-conflict societies and offered explanations of why initial enthusiasm abated in the decade that followed. Informed by Fullan’s model of change (2013), our study considered the contextual characteristics, embedded local influences and external factors underpinning the inception of LGC and how the shifting emphasis of these impacted its evolution and eventual position in schools.

Contextual characteristics refer mostly to the clear need that existed for LGC’s inclusion in the curriculum. Education addressing social, political and cultural issues was welcomed in this time of political change. Its implementation garnered support and interest from policymakers and educators, and received liberal mainstream funding. The assessment of LGC has been a contentious issue. Stakeholders were wary of applying mechanistic forms of assessment to citizenship education, but agreed that appropriate evaluation tools could help to reinforce its academic status within the wider curriculum. Additionally, LGC has not undergone the same rigor of statutory inspection as other subject areas. The shortfall in training for school principals in citizenship education was a noted oversight, and it was agreed that both principal and teacher training would have to be revitalised in any reformulation of the curriculum. External factors referred to the role of government in influencing its inception. Initial optimism for this educational change and the lack of restrictive interference from politicians in shaping the curriculum were acknowledged. However, the repurcussions of an absent government – collectively over more than half of the lifespan of the new curriculum – have undoubtedly had negative consequences, with major decisions on, and priorities for, education incomplete or only partially fulfilled. Growing frustration with politicians could, however, reinforce the need for citizenship education and reinvigorate a degree of political buy-in for the subject area.

There is no doubt that citizenship education has an important place within the curriculum, particularly in times of political upheaval. Following three years of a collapsed government in Northern Ireland and, arguably, at a time in which it is of utmost relevance, the diminished status of citizenship education in schools has created a significant gap in young people’s acquisition of political literacy. Reflection on the implementation of this curriculum, and on what these stakeholders suggest for future developments, lays a strong foundation to inform and shape citizenship curriculum in Northern Ireland.


This blog is based on the article ‘Lessons learned from 10 years of citizenship education in Northern Ireland: A critical analysis of curriculum change’ by Una O’Connor, Elizabeth Anderson Worden, Jessica Bates and Vanessa Gstrein, published in the Curriculum Journal.


References

Fullan, M. (2013). Educational change: Implementation and continuation. In C. Wise, P. Bradshaw, & M. Cartwright (Eds.), Leading professional practice in education (pp. 111–113). London: SAGE Publications.

Niens, U., O’Connor, U., & Smith, A. (2013). Citizenship education in divided societies: Teachers’ perspectives in Northern Ireland. Citizenship Studies, 17(1), 128–141.

O’Connor, U., Anderson Worden, E., Bates, J., & Gstrein, V. (2019). Lessons learned from 10 years of citizenship education in Northern Ireland: A critical analysis of curriculum change. Curriculum Journal. Advance online publication. https://doi.org/10.1002/curj.2

Smith, A. (2003). Citizenship education in Northern Ireland: Beyond national identity? Cambridge Journal of Education, 33(1), 15–32. https://doi.org/10.1080/0305764032000064631