Cross-community project aims to educate NI pupils about the Great War

Tyne Cot cemetery in the region of Ypres, Belgium.
Tyne Cot cemetery in the region of Ypres, Belgium.

Teachers have praised a new initiative which aims to teach all schoolchildren in Northern Ireland about World War One, in a bid to improve cross-community knowledge.

Education Minister, Peter Weir, and Communities Minister, Paul Givan jointly launched the project which will allow local school children to visit the battlefields in France and Belgium.

The Battlefields Project will be open to every post-primary school in Northern Ireland and Youth Groups will also be given the opportunity to benefit from the scheme.

It is hoped that the scheme will improve cross-community understanding of the war.

Head of History at Carrickfergus College, Mark Webber is optimistic about the cross-community project.

He explained: “There is a disjoint in knowledge within Northern Ireland when it comes to understanding the facts about the First World War, but there shouldn’t be - as Catholics and Protestants both fought alongside each other.

“This initiative looks set to address the cross-community issues regarding the ‘Great War.’

“Any education which seeks to represent the fact that there were three Irish Divisions fighting against the Central Powers and not just The Ulster Division is to be applauded.”

Head of History at Carrickfergus Grammar School, Bonita McMaw agreed: “For too long history has presented Unionists and Nationalists contributions to the war in an unbalanced way. Learning about individual stories on the battlefields will undoubtedly help pupils more fully understand the complex political motivations, of both sides, during the Home Rule Crisis.

“This is a welcome and exciting opportunity for Year 10 pupils to engage with the past during this important decade of centenaries.

“With mounting financial pressures on schools and the very real consequences of these cuts clearly evident, it is wonderful to see the Executive prioritising projects like this.”

Ms McMaw added that Carrickfergus Grammar School is keen to get involved: “We have already expressed interest to the Education Authority for both the 2017-18 and 2018-19 academic year.

“It is a unique chance for pupils from both communities to recognise the great cost paid by the people of this province during the First World War.”

The news comes as similar schemes have been running in England and Scotland for a number of years.

At the launch in the Somme Centre, the Education Minister said: “Millions of people lost their lives during the First World War and that must never be forgotten. That is why I believe it is so important that our young people should be encouraged to remember those who died.

“This scheme will be open to children from all backgrounds and is a unique opportunity to learn about our past.”

Communities Minister Paul Givan explained: “My Department is committed to supporting young people from schools and youth groups to visit First World War battlefield sites in Belgium and France.

“These visits are essential for those interested in developing a wider understanding of the sacrifice that so many men, many from Northern Ireland, made a hundred years ago.

“They will be able to visit places of significance to our community memory including cemeteries, memorials, battle remains and museums.

“It also gives young people in Northern Ireland the same opportunity as schools in England who are already receiving financial support to visit the battlefields.”

Mr Webber remained positive about the opportunity, but noted that the timing of the trips should be carefully planned, taking into account dates of important historial significance when trips would be most relevant for pupils.

He added that care must be taken to ensure there is no disruption during the busy exam period for pupils.

Mr Webber also pointed out that the dates proposed in November would be more suitable: “If this is the case then we may well see the trip as a reward for excellent class work or a keen interest.

“Our Department Meeting is next Wednesday where we will consider the proposal. I would suggest favourably.

“The bottom line is that it is a chance for young people to actually visit places they have only read about in books.

“It will also be of assistance in cross-community issues.”

Ms McMaw was also optimistic about the learning opportunity, adding: “Carrickfergus Grammar School partook in a similar community relations project, funded by Carickfergus Borough Council a few years ago.

“We know from experience that pupils can explore wider issues in situations like this and relate it to their own lives and personal perceptions - perhaps in a more meaningful way than the classroom permits.

“We are sure that Year 10 pupils will benefit from just as rich a learning experience.”