Shared Education: Has an overly literal sense of “campus” excluded willing participants?

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Garry McIlwaine is Principal at Ampertaine Primary School in County Lodonderry


Schools in Northern Ireland are being encouraged to think ahead and to envisage how our education system might evolve in a developing political, economic, social and financial climate. As a community as a whole, we are, it seems, being directly tasked with shaping the organisation and delivery of education to provide for togetherness of learners and involvement of all sectors. We are to deliver educational benefits through efficient use of resources, equality of opportunity, good relations, diversity and community thorough creation of campuses.(DENI:2016)

Whilst it will be up to all of us to challenge / develop / pursue Shared Education, it seems that lessons of huge potential from at least one previous and one ongoing initiative have been overlooked.

The Dissolving Boundaries (DB) project, led by Roger Austin and Marie Mallon had the simple aim of connecting schools from all over Ireland so that learning experiences could be facilitated through the use of ICT which would, in turn, enable collaboration, create learning groups, upskill teachers and children etc. etc. It would also “dissolve boundaries” to whatever extent individual partners might be able to accommodate, given their contexts. In our school, DB was a first “toe in the water” which eventually enabled us to make applications for Integrated Education and Promoting Integrated Education (PIE) grants.

In practical terms, the DB project provided the finance for in-service training, collaborative meetings (I had never before met with teachers from the South), some hardware, online materials and, vitally, the technical support we so badly needed. Awareness of “internet safety” issues were addressed in a real way in a safe environment.

Sadly, withdrawal of Department of Education funding brought one of our school’s most fruitful, inspiring and enabling projects to an abrupt end.

We have recently undertaken work within the “CyberSmarties” social media project for 6-12 year olds with total support from parents and rave reviews from our children who are now involved in forming appropriate “friendships” through social media, gaming and problem-solving in a very tightly controlled online area. We believe that our potential to fulfil our E-Safety aims are hugely enhanced through this online facility.

The magic of DB was that no matter (almost!) where you were in Ireland, you had the potential to team up with, engage and invest in other real learners. As a huge bonus, children by the thousand were able to meet face to face with their partners at least once per year. Friendships were cultivated and nurtured in an Irish / Northern Irish “Campus.”

Isn’t is sad that the current Shared Education scheme in place in Northern Ireland is missing a ‘campus’ trick? Shouldn’t the powers-that-be be encouraged to harness the power of technology so that more remote schools like ours can be supported through their work in virtual campuses? Wouldn’t we all like to harness the potential to enable our young folk to work, learn and live together in ‘campuses’ through projects like Dissolving Boundaries and CyberSmarties?

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