Reflections On Northern Ireland Trip: A Case Study of Equity In Action

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Since 2005, the National Center for Community Schools has enjoyed a productive relationship with colleagues at Barnardo’s, a large and multi-faceted human service organization in the United Kingdom. At the suggestion of a major funder, Atlantic Philanthropies, leaders from the Northern Ireland division of Barnardo’s arranged to make a study visit to The Children’s Aid Society community schools in New York City during 2005, and they brought additional Northern Ireland partners during subsequent visits. These several study visits inspired and enabled Barnardo’s to take the lead in implementing a variety of full-service community school activities in Northern Ireland since that time.

In an effort to build on these successful implementation efforts, Barnardo’s leaders invited CAS NCCS Director Jane Quinn and NCCS Deputy Director Abe Fernandez to travel “across the pond” and provide policy briefings, public forums and practitioner consultations in late May. “Equity is at the heart of Barnardo’s work in service delivery in schools and in lobbying to promote a Community School Strategy,” says Julie Healy, Programme Manager, “The visit was planned to raise awareness among policy makers (in the fields of health and social development, not just education) of the potential the Community School approach offers, to encourage and facilitate cross-departmental dialogue about the Community School approach and also to enthuse and educate practitioners about the possibilities.”

Events conducted over a four-day period (May 28-31, 2012) included: policy briefings on full-service community schools for the Education Committee of the Northern Ireland Assembly and for the Northern Ireland Health Minister; a public forum for over 100 education and human service leaders; a consultation with the directors of Barnardo’s extensive school-based work; a study visit to a high school located in a low-income area of Belfast; a meeting with a leading education researcher at Queens University; and a reception and dinner with policy-makers, educators and government officials.

In a follow-up debriefing session, Quinn and Fernandez agreed that they had learned at least as much as they had taught during their visit to Northern Ireland. Most compelling was the complexity of the education system in Northern Ireland, a small country whose total population of 1.2 million matches exactly the size of the New York City public school system. The Northern Ireland education system, developed in response to deep, long-standing religious and political divisions, is organized around three major sectors: (1) “controlled schools” that serve a primarily Protestant student body; (2) “maintained” schools that serve primarily Catholic students; and (3) “integrated” schools that are innovating with intentional ways to educate Protestant and Catholic students together. In addition, a recent experiment in “shared education” is providing opportunities and incentives for controlled and maintained schools to try out a wide variety of initiatives and activities that allow students (and their families) from these two sectors to interact on a regular basis. Experiments include cross-training of teachers as well as faculty and student exchanges. The full-service community schools strategy is being implemented in all three of the major education sectors and is receiving special funding through the Northern Ireland Assembly and through private donors including Atlantic Philanthropies.

As in the United States, schools serving more affluent children in Northern Ireland already operate as community schools, with a strong core instructional program, expanded learning opportunities and access to needed support services (which are called “pastoral care” in Northern Ireland). The Barnardo’s efforts are focused on promoting equity and ensuring that children from low-income neighborhoods have access to these needed supports, services and opportunities. Barnardo’s is placing special emphasis on implementing evidence-based practices that focus on early intervention and primary prevention.

Julie Healy believes the visit by Children’s Aid NCCS achieved all of Barnardo’s aims and has genuinely helped move forward on their desired outcome of expanding the Community Schools strategy in Northern Ireland and advancing Barnardo’s social justice mission.