The latest appeal to restore Northern Ireland government funding to one of the most successful cross-border initiatives set up following the 1998 Belfast Agreement has been rejected by David Sterling, head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service. This follows the rejection of earlier appeals to the permanent secretaries of the Department of Education and Department for the Economy in Northern Ireland. This means that the cross-border Standing Conference on Teacher Education North and South (Scotens), which until 2017 received matched funding from both governments on the island of Ireland, is currently supported solely by the Department of Education and Skills in Dublin.
Scotens is a network of 24 colleges of education, university education departments, teaching councils, curriculum councils, education trade unions and education centres on the island of Ireland with a responsibility for and interest in teacher education.
After a successful initial meeting in Belfast in 2000, Scotens was formally established in 2003 to create a unique safe space for teacher educators – north and south – to come together and discuss issues of common interest and explore ways of cooperating closely. A part of the broader island-wide peace dynamic that gathered momentum after the historic signing of the Belfast Agreement in 1998, Scotens has always been rooted in the deepest commitment to quality teaching and learning for all. We believe that Scotens is the only network of its kind operating across a contested border in the world.
Since it was founded in 2003 Scotens has organised an annual cross-border conference for educators and teacher educators, which attracts internationally renowned speakers; an annual seed funding programme which to date has funded 120 research projects led by north-south partnerships; and an annual north-south student teacher exchange that has allowed 250 student teachers to experience teaching placement in the neighbouring jurisdiction. The importance of Scotens was reflected for many years by the frequent attendance of education ministers or senior departmental officials to open the annual conference, held north and south of the border in alternate years.
The work of Scotens was evaluated in 2011 by a team from the University of Oxford led by Professor John Furlong who found the network to be “an incredible achievement” which has achieved “an enormous amount”. The review found that the forms of collaboration encouraged by Scotens stimulated “genuine professional and personal development” and reported that Scotens had contributed to the peace process by helping to normalise relationships between north and south. The authors concluded that there was “widespread belief that despite its achievements, without Scotens’ continued existence, those achievements would rapidly fade”. A more recent evaluation of its work has similarly celebrated “the reach and impact of the organisation and the range of new connections and relations it has catalysed”.
From its creation Scotens was funded in equal measure by northern and southern departments as well as membership fees from higher education instituions across Ireland. In the south £25,000 is provided annually by the Department of Education and Skills. In Northern Ireland £12,500 was provided by the Department of Education and the Department for Employment and Learning (more recently the Department for the Economy). This matched funding continued until the 2017/18 financial year when both northern departments unilaterally withdrew funding, reducing the overall income by 25 per cent, and severely limiting the extent of the cross-border activity.
This withdrawal of funding was taken by permanent secretaries in the absence of ministerial oversight following the collapse of the Northern Ireland assembly in January 2017, even though unelected civil servants should not veer into the territory of ministers by taking significant policy decisions such as this.
To compound matters, the absence of accountable devolved government ministers or an assembly education committee in Northern Ireland for more than 1,000 days has also meant that it is frustratingly difficult to lobby for change.
In the north and the south, there is growing concern that Brexit will resurrect unwelcome divisions around the border and will jeopardise delicate cross-border collaborative partnerships and relationships that had been showing such promising signs of growth in recent years.
While we appreciate the significant budgetary pressures on all government departments, we believe that at this time of heightened uncertainty and tension over the future of north-south relations caused by a possible Brexit, support for Scotens from both governments is more important than ever before.
It is therefore time to end the official indifference from north of the Irish border to this shining example of one of greatest success stories of the peace process.
Noel Purdy is director of research and scholarship at Stranmillis University College, Queen’s University Belfast and northern co-chair of Scotens. Maria Campbell is lecturer in education at St Angela’s College, Sligo and southern co-chair of Scoten