Seanad debates

Wednesday, 24 March 2010

3:00 am

Photo of Cecilia KeaveneyCecilia Keaveney (Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Cathaoirleach for selecting this topic and congratulate the Minister, Deputy Ó Cuív, on his move to the Department of Social Protection. He did tremendous work in his previous portfolio and carved out a niche which will be extremely difficult to follow, but he will make an impact in his new Department.

I raise an issue which will be close to the Minister's heart, namely, the concept of republicanism in this new age and what it means for us to live in peace and harmony with each other on the island of Ireland. It might not look like the title I wrote down, but it is essentially from where I am coming. I wrote a report on teaching history in areas of recent conflict or in a post-conflict situation, which was unanimously adopted by 47 countries at the Council of Europe last June. A year on, I want to know what has happened regarding the report, nationally and internationally. Internationally, a meeting of the committee of ministers took place recently and I expect an international response to my work.

Conflict resolution and conflict prevention take place at a political level and evolve slowly, but it cannot take place only at a political level. It has to happen from the grassroots up. When people refer to things happening from the grassroots up, they often talk about community but I talk about schools. If children in schools are not exposed to learning about the other and getting to know the other in their community, in particular when they are at an interface in areas which are very divided, and talk about other communities as a student or teacher who goes back into the community, that is a reality which we must face.

One can ask why I am raising this issue in the Republic of Ireland. It is because we have not dealt with our past, the Civil War, the War of Independence and the reality that there are people on our island who have an allegiance to Britain. We have not dealt with the reality of getting to know such people and trying to work out how we can understand them, embrace their difference and move on to a peaceful co-existence on the island of Ireland. That is why my report is quite important. It is important we look beyond the conventional teaching of history, the single truth associated with the Soviet era one was told the way it happened, one learned it and regurgitated it in exams. We must arrive at a situation where history is looked at from every side.

We should know what is contained in the Irish News and the News Letter versions as well as the Belfast Telegraph and Derry Journal versions. We should also know that everybody working in the media is writing from their own perspectives and have natural affiliations they are trying to deal with. Why is it not just as important to have the history of teaching adapted and addressed in Ireland? We have to develop a critical mindset and if we develop the skills of critical analytical thinking, we shall create better employers and employees in the future. People will see that the media and the people around them have an agenda, but be able to understand this and therefore be much more knowledgeable on how to approach issues and deal with situations.

We need to have the materials for people to see different issues in various ways. One of the issues that cropped up right across the world was that of minority languages and how materials are presented for the minority segments of our communities. I am very keen to understand how much we have done to change our curriculum. I know the leaving certificate has been greatly adapted. In the North the situation has been addressed to a certain extent, but we need, in the context of North South Ministerial Councils and the opportunities that exist, to address all-Ireland issues, dealing and looking at our history in a new imaginative manner that embraces new technology, accepting that while there are things we do not like, there are things we did right and wrong as well.

A number of recommendations were made at the time. The statement that "The Assembly calls on all state signatories to the European Cultural Convention to" was followed by a list numbered 20.1 to 20.13. One was the concept of encouraging primary school children to keep a diary tracking their reactions to contemporary events for ten years, which could be examined and exchanged with other member states at the end of the project. There were a number of simple mechanisms such as examining what is happening now and using the information to see, initially from a child's perspective, and show how ten years later the young adult could see how his or her history had changed.

There was also Assembly recommendations 22.1, 22.2, 22.3 and 22.4 to the Committee of Ministers. I do not know whether the response tonight will fully embrace that. I am not sure whether the Department is fully aware of the angle I was going to take tonight. I ask, nonetheless, that the recommendations which were endorsed by the 47 countries should be very much embraced by Ireland since I was the rapporteur to that particular report and I should like to believe we will drive the development and adoption of those recommendations internationally.

Photo of Éamon Ó CuívÉamon Ó Cuív (Minister, Department of Social and Family Affairs; Galway West, Fianna Fail)
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): I am taking this Adjournment matter on behalf of my colleague, Deputy Mary Coughlan, Tánaiste and Minister for Education and Skills.

I welcome the opportunity to explain to this House the Department's position on this subject. I am aware that Council of Europe Recommendation 1880 on history teaching in conflict and post conflict areas articulates the need for it to contribute to greater understanding, tolerance and trust in society. I am also aware of Senator Keaveney's interest in this question. In fact the question was discussed briefly at a meeting of the Joint Committee on the Implementation of the Good Friday Agreement with the Ministers for Education, North and South on 4 February this year, dealing with North South co-operation in education. Council of Europe Recommendation 1880 makes a series of recommendations on how to teach history from a multi-perspective viewpoint, increasing access within schools to primary sources, developing an appreciation of the "other", promoting mutual understanding and investing in teacher training. The recommendations will be referred to the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment and will inform its ongoing review of curricula and programmes in schools.

It must be acknowledged that the teaching of history has changed dramatically in our schools. The history programmes at primary, junior cycle and leaving certificate now place a key focus on the skills of working as a historian, using evidence from a variety of sources, appreciating cause and effect and developing empathy. An important emphasis is placed on appreciating a range of perspectives and realising that evidence can be interpreted in a number of different ways.

Students learn how to locate and select historical information from a variety of primary and secondary sources, and examine it critically, detecting gaps, inconsistencies and bias, again appreciating that evidence may be open to more than one interpretation. This is reinforced in the leaving certificate, where history is assessed based on a written terminal examination and a report on a research study.

The research study allows students to select a topic of historical significance, locate and select primary and secondary sources, evaluate their relevance and prepare an extended essay setting out their planning and approach to the study, and their findings and conclusions. A documents-based study forms part of the written examination.

The History Teachers' Association of Ireland is actively involved in keeping Irish teachers in contact with new developments in historical research, and with international thinking in this area through affiliation with Euroclio and other international bodies. The association has also been active in promoting study visits to Northern Ireland. The Scoilnet website provides over 1,000 links to primary and secondary sources for history, tied in to topics in the curriculum. This includes looking at history through the RTE archives, discovering women in history and links to libraries and archives throughout Ireland. There is also a guide for teachers in using the Internet as a teaching tool, and exploring the Internet using authoritative sites for history. The digital archives of The Irish Times, running from 1859 to date are also made available free to schools.

Our history curriculum has moved away considerably from the regurgitation of facts and events to one where the focus is on using evidence, detecting bias, critical reflection and evaluation, and is, I believe, in keeping with best international practice. I know the NCCA will continue to monitor developments in this important area.

Senator Keaveney also asks what efforts will be made to have this report discussed at a North South Ministerial Council meeting. I take this opportunity to explain that the Department formally engages with the Department of Education in Northern Ireland at ministerial level on co-operation issues under the auspices of the North South Ministerial Council in four main areas: special education needs, educational underachievement, teacher mobility and school and youth exchanges.

This is due to the provisions of the Belfast and St. Andrew's Agreements which designate the specific sectoral areas for North-South co-operation. At meetings of the North South Ministerial Council in educational sector format, there is an opportunity in the context of opening remarks by Ministers for a general discussion about other issues in the sphere of education that may be of mutual interest, North and South. The Minister would be happy to raise this issue in this way at a future meeting of the Council. In that context, I expect the issue would also be of interest to the Northern Ireland education Minister.

I thank the Senator for raising this matter.

Photo of Cecilia KeaveneyCecilia Keaveney (Fianna Fail)
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Under school and youth exchanges this is a relevant issue that could be brought under one of the main four pillars because the main focus of this is that we can work together to solve each other's misunderstandings. Therefore, I believe this report is core to one of those four pillars.