Shared Education in Northern Ireland: A Review of Literature

  • Foundational literature
    This literature represents a foundational framework within which to locate the origins of shared education in Northern Ireland. Gallagher (2004) provides a starting point locating and comparing the education system in Northern Ireland with other societies where there is ethnic or racial division. Set within this context, education is considered as vehicle for promoting a shared and more cohesive society. Gallagher (2005) argues that the largely separate education system operating in Northern Ireland perpetuates ethnic division in a society trying to emerge out of conflict. Similarly, Hughes (2010) argues that separate education system may promote both ethnic and cultural isolation amongst children. Gallagher (2004; 2005) outlines how over recent decades, a series of educational initiatives have sought to mitigate the impact of ethnic division and improve community relations; these have included: (i) inter-sectoral contact programmes, (such as: Education for Mutual Understanding [EMU], Cultural Heritage and the Cross Contact Scheme) (ii) curricular initiatives, (including the introduction of local and global citizenship as discrete subject and devising common history and religious curricula) and (iii) attempts to create an entirely new sector based on religiously integrated schools. However these initiatives have demonstrated limited impact. Gallagher, (2005) instead proposes that schools be supported to explore partnership activities. A number of studies from Queen’s University Belfast (Atkinson et al. 2007; Donnelly and Gallagher, 2008; O’Sullivan et al. 2008) and wider (Russell, 2009; Oxford Economics, 2010) were then undertaken in order to provide baseline data and ascertain the extent and context of inter-school collaboration. Atkinson, et al. (2007) provided a significant review of literature; Donnelly and Gallagher (2008) explored the existing context of collaboration between schools and concluded that the principle of collaboration was met with enthusiasm be schools. Alongside this research, Fishkin et al (2007) carried out a deliberative poll in an ethnically divided market-town in Northern Ireland. The poll focused on exploring parents perspectives on education; elements of this poll identified that parents were largely supportive of the idea of schools working co-operatively. This research helped build a case for shared education and more broadly, inter-sectoral collaboration between schools and has led to attracting significant funds from Atlantic Philanthropies and International fund for Ireland for the Sharing Education Programme.

  • Theoretical perspectives
    The concept of shared education is supported by a number theoretical perspectives. One such perspective, inter-group contact theory, explores the context and the quality of contact between pupils who engage in shared educational activities. This body literature (Hughes, 2010; Hughes et al. 2012; Hughes, 2012; Hughes 2012a; Hughes and Donnelly, 2012; Hughes and Donnelly, 2012a) indicates a number of important findings (i) separate schooling can be divisive whereby minimal and superficial contact between pupils can lead to physical and cultural isolation (ii) sharing offers a potentially more effective contact model than previous educational initiatives (iii) sharing offers significant community relations benefits and improved intergroup relations and (iv) pupils who engaged in shared education demonstrated reduced levels of anxiety; demonstrated positive action and more trust towards one another other.
    Another theoretical perspective that has been applied is activity theory (Daniels, H, Edwards, A, Engestrom, U and Gallagher, 2009; Gallagher & Carlisle, 2009) in order to identify effective collaborative practice. This research demonstrates: (i) for effective collaboration to take place personal relationships between key professionals is essential and by extension effective collaboration is vulnerable when there are changes in key personnel (ii) proximity between sites (schools) is important, distance between schools presented challenges (iii) logistical challenges of collaboration could be resolved by reimagining school timetables to allow for travel, extending the school day and using ICT (iv) effective collaborative practice often emerges when schools are able to innovate and demonstrate informal practice (v) buy in from staff and school leaders is essential, as is their expertise.

  • Evaluation and context
    There are a number of specific pieces of research carried out recently which evaluate or provide contextual data on sharing and collaboration between schools. An evaluation of the first cohort of the Sharing Education Programme (FGS McClure Watters, 2010) provides perspectives from pupils, teachers and school leaders. Knox (2010) provides a non-formal evaluation of 12 partnerships in SEP1, this report reflects the perspective of teachers and school leaders and focuses on four key areas, implementation, impact, sustainability and how shared learning and school collaboration can shape policy. Studies by Duffy and Gallagher (2012; 2012a) evaluate number of school based partnerships and identify effective practice and conditions which are most likely to lead to sustainable partnerships.

  • Programme Impact
     A number of papers and reports devote time to understanding the logistics and benefits of sharing and collaboration, (Hughes et al. 2010; Duffy and Gallagher, 2012; Duffy and Gallagher, 2012a; Gallagher et al. 2010; Donnelly and Gallagher, 2008; Knox, 2010; FSG McClure, 2010). Common themes emerge in this literature, namely how schools negotiate issues such as: timetabling; travel time between schools; ethos and resources or funding. As a counter-balance, this literature also highlights how schools innovate and develop solutions to logistical challenges. A number of benefits have already been cited particularly in the literature by Hughes (2010-2012), see also Donnelly and Gallagher, (2008) whereby sharing and collaboration has significant community relations benefits; improved intergroup relations between participants and as a consequence of regular and sustained contact, pupil anxieties of the other reduce. Much of this research outlines, as a consequence of schools collaborating, pupils benefit in terms of: enhanced curricular delivery and access to a broader range of subjects and resources. This literature base also highlights how teachers benefit from collaborative practice with other schools both in terms of professional development through shared practice but also personally where, like pupils, teachers involved in delivering shared learning have the opportunity to work with other teachers across sectors - teachers report valuing this opportunity. Schools also benefit in terms of developing stronger institutional relationships. As a consequence senior leaders and governors across sectors work more closely together and in some cases collaboration becomes a vehicle for school improvement.


  • Collaboration and improved educational outputs
    The wider literature base demonstrates clearly that collaboration between schools can play a significant role in terms of school improvement. Broadly, the idea of school improvement includes a number of indicators:

    • pupil performance (attainment, engagement, motivation and behaviour)
      teacher development (motivation, morale, practice enhanced skills relationships)
      economic improvements (sharing resources)

    For a selected review see (Muijs, et al. 2010; Chapman et al. 2011; Chapman et al. 2009; Hadfield and Jopling, 2012; Harris & Jones, 2010; Ainscow et al. 2006; Hadfield and Chapman, 2009) Research which focuses on the Northern Ireland context can equally demonstrate that sharing and collaboration can have positive impacts on educational outcomes. This literature can similarly be divided into the similar categories as outlined above: pupil performance (Borooah and Knox, 2012a; Borooah and Knox, 2012b; FGS McClure Watters, 2010; Gallagher et al, 2010); teacher development and perspectives of school leaders (Knox, 2010; Duffy and Gallagher, 2012a Duffy and Gallagher 2012b; FGS McClure Watters, 2010; Hughes et al 2010; Gallagher et al, 2010) and economic improvements (Borooah and Knox, 2012a Borooah and Knox, 2012b)