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Ireland in Schools

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Diversity in the white community
The work of IiS is being used to address the question of diversity within the apparently homogenous white community in Britain, an issue highlighted by, among others, Parekh (2000) and the DfES ‘Ajegbo Report’ (2007).
This not only challenges polarisation between black and white communities but also promotes a holistic appreciation of contemporary society. Following on from these views of the present what are the implications for studying the past? As the largest ethnic minority the treatment of the Irish community provides a valuable way of illustrating this approach.
Issues based approach
Paul Bracey, Alison Gove-Humphries and Darius Jackson argue that an organic and holistic approach to the past provides the means by which ancestry can be explored. They adopt an issues based approach rather than a ghettoised approach towards ethnic history. This is central to the philosophy of the Ireland in Schools programme, which seeks to embed an Irish dimension within the curriculum rather than bolt it on.
Pupils’ responses

What do pupils think of such an approach? Pupil views emerged during focus group interviews intended to evaluate two very different packs of curriculum materials in a Year 4 of a First School in Worcestershire serving a primarily white working class community.

The first set of interviews considered their responses to a historical novel called Safe Harbour, which looked at the experiences of children being evacuated from England to Ireland ( In this exercise an Irish dimension merely served as a historical backdrop in exploring a fictional relationship between two children and their grandfather.

In the second exercise the historical dimension was much stronger in that pupils explored the reputations of Alfred the Great and Brian Boru who have comparable stature in the discourse of their respective societies in England and Ireland.



What both of these had in common was the way in which they encompassed regional and ethnic diversity, which challenges the notions of a white homogeneous population. How did year 4 children respond to this weighty issue?

The following responses from pupils went beyond what was expected. Many of the comments relating to diversity were initiated by the pupils rather than as a response to the interviewers’ questions.

Safe Harbour
The work on the novel Safe Harbour had modern resonances. The pupils used their prior knowledge of both Anne Frank and evacuees to make sense of the narrative and made explicit references in their discussions. However, one child went further and said that it helped her to understand how people feel if they are forced out of their country and ‘come to live here because it is safer’.
Alfred the Great & Brian Boru

The activity where children asked their parents about Alfred the Great and Brian Boru clearly advantaged children with Irish backgrounds. Whilst most pupils were able to make a comment about Alfred only a handful had parents able to tell them about Brian.


In one class a very quiet girl was able to talk about Brian at length and importance was placed on her Irish background. In another class the following interaction took place:

Teacher: Did any of your parents know about one of these two?
Child A: My dad knows about Brian, he’s Irish.
Teacher: Did he say what he knew?
Child A: He knew lots but didn’t tell me.
Child B: My dad says he’s the best Irish king… and my dad says his mom’s mom is related to Brian, ‘cus her family is from Ireland.

In both the classes observed the pupils listened to the comments about Brian with interest. Though the overwhelming majority of pupils did not have any family links with Ireland, they were enthusiastic about the work for several reasons which came out in focus group discussions.


A small number of pupils from each class formed two focus groups to discuss the work. Both groups agreed that learning about Brian was interesting and that they had enjoyed it, as one pupil summed it up ‘It gives more information about things you don’t know’, and another said ‘we never learnt about it before’.


One child was pleased as she could talk about it to her parents.


Another child, without Irish ancestry, thought studying Brian was important because it ‘was good not to just learn about the English’; she went on to say that studying Brian had made their friend (child B mentioned above) pleased, as they were Irish.

A parent's response
Whilst this unit was being studied one of the teachers was approached by a parent who was impressed at how her son was inspired by the history he was studying - he told them about it all the time. She was delighted he was interested in his own Irish roots.
What does this imply? There were no negative responses. Clearly this may have reflected a number of factors such the classroom environment and the membership groups and relationship with the researcher. However, the way in which topics were introduced as a natural part of the curriculum together with the experiential approach both with the packs and teaching and learning which took place facilitated an opened minded approach towards diversity.