One of the least-known but most remarkable success stories of cross-Border co-operation between Northern Ireland and the Republic in the aftermath of the Belfast Agreement is an educational one. Yet it is a success story that is now threatened through the short-sightedness of senior government education officials in the North.
The Standing Conference on Teacher Education North and South (SCoTENS) was set up in 2003 to bring together universities, colleges of education, teaching councils, education trade unions, education centres, curriculum councils and other bodies involved in the education and training of teachers on the island of Ireland.
Since then it has seed-funded 120 research projects, bringing education researchers together from all parts of the island, and in the process has sparked a real renaissance of research in the teacher education field, not previously known for its research prowess.
It has organised an innovative scheme that has brought more than 250 teacher-education students to do part of their assessed teaching practice in schools in the other jurisdiction: a "transformational experience" for the students involved, says its evaluator. And it has organised a prestigious annual international conference that has attracted leading education speakers from the UK, Europe, the US and Australia.
The Standing Conference has received plaudits from education leaders and politicians at home and abroad. One of its founders, the late Prof John Coolahan of Maynooth University, probably the most distinguished Irish educationalist of the modern era, said in his long career the achievement he was most proud of was the creation and development of this North-south network.
In the words of the lead author of its "overwhelmingly positive" 2011 evaluation, Prof John Furlong of Oxford University, the Standing Conference was an "incredible achievement" which had produced "an enormous amount".
Former minister for education Mary Hanafin has said that if the type of interactions, research, workshops and publications had not been happening through networks such as the Standing Conference, "the North-south barriers that we all want to see removed simply would not have been broken down to the same degree."
I watched the fostering of a new sense of confidence and the challenging of stereotypes both among the teacher education students and the pupils they were teaching – through this cross-Border initiative
As the former director of the Centre for Cross Border Studies, which provides the secretariat for the Standing Conference, I watched the fostering of a new sense of confidence and the challenging of stereotypes both among the teacher education students and the pupils they were teaching – through this cross-Border initiative.
I remember listening to the story of a student from Leitrim doing teaching practice in Belfast as part of the SCoTENS-sponsored North-south student teacher exchange project, who in three short weeks totally undermined the anti-Catholic prejudices of both his fellow-teachers and his pupils in a primary school in an overwhelmingly Protestant area of East Belfast by his brilliant leadership of a project on the Titanic.
Despite the new divisions caused by Brexit, and the decline in interest in North-south co-operation, I believe the Standing Conference experience can still point the way towards a real meeting of minds between teachers, students, education administrators and even parents on this island in an area where everybody wants one thing – what is best for the children of Ireland. Because for me such a meeting of minds around something that is of clear mutual benefit to everybody is the real meaning of unity: the voluntary unity of people in a common cause, not the unenforceable unity of states with clashing identities.
Now, however, the Standing Conference is threatened in this new era of government cutbacks and Brexit isolationism. The short-sighted people at the top of the Department of Education in Northern Ireland last year decided to cut its £12,500 (€14,500) annual grant to it (thus precipitating an equal reduction from the Northern Department for the Economy). The Department of Education in Dublin is continuing its matching funding.
These cuts have meant the network has €29,000 less to spend on its wide range of projects, a quarter of its original €116,000 budget.
By any standards, the extraordinary amount of work carried out by this largely voluntary all-Ireland network represents excellent value for money, not only in education but also in terms of reconciliation on the island.
One immediate result of this arbitrary funding cut has been that this year, out of the 17 applications for seed funding for North-south research projects, most of them of a very high standard, SCoTENS could only support only five.
Andy Pollak was the founding director of the Centre for Cross Border Studies in Armagh. He is a former Irish Times education correspondent.