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The Five Nations 20th Anniversary in Belfast

The Five Nations 20th Anniversary in Belfast

by Camilla Bell-Davies

In early February, the ACT team travelled to Belfast for the annual Five Nations teaching conference, themed around the topic ‘Building Democratic Culture in Schools – Empowering Teachers as Defenders of Democracy.’ It was to be a particularly special conference marking the 20th Anniversary of the Five Nations, generously supported by the Gordon Cook Foundation. The theme seemed a fitting tribute to our teachers, given many  have been busy adapting their teaching in recent years to accommodate increasing concerns about the effects of social media, misinformation and false news on citizens in our ever-more fragile democracies in the west. Teachers have a central role in promoting and defending democracy through their everyday work in classrooms, in teaching and in the culture of schools. Citizenship educators have a responsibility to enable students to develop as informed, active citizens with the knowledge and skills necessary to deliberate on and address the many contemporary and controversial issues we are facing in society. The conference provides teachers with invaluable space to consider the role of citizenship in the curriculums in Northern Ireland, Republic of Ireland, Scotland, Wales and England discuss and exchange teaching approaches and ideas, and form and renew friendships.

As the plane glided over Northern Ireland, emerald green and glowing even in midwinter, I was tempted to go for a swim in the glittering sea. But Liz and I, and our country lead for Northern Ireland Anne-Marie, had work to do. We headed straight to the grand, 19th century Belfast City Hall, where we met our tour guides for Saturday’s dinner event. Then on to the Europa hotel, famous for being the most bombed hotel in Europe during more troubled times but also where Bill and Hillary Clinton stayed in 1995. It is often the focal point for international conferences and was the location for the Five Nations Conference where this year we also welcomed our first international speakers from Finland. From the Penthouse windows, a sweeping view of the city and the hills behind was cast into glowing shapes by the sunset, reminding me a little of my home city of Edinburgh.

On Saturday morning, teachers and educators arrived from across the UK and the Republic of Ireland. The conference commenced with an opening activity in country groups, to allow participants to get to know their teams. Ideas were shared about the building blocks of a democratic school, realised in creative representations and sculptural forms. There was some healthy competition between countries, with outcomes ranging from a papier mâché Houses of Parliament surrounded by paper chains of people, a bookshelf made from cereal boxes, to a stream and waterfall of democracy made from paper streamers and stones. These visual representations showed how much we had to agree on, and also how many ideas we had to share.

After lunch, Liz Moorse gave a conference welcome and speech on ‘Building democratic culture in schools, the Council of Europe RFCDC and the Democratic schools Network.’ She also spoke on behalf of Katerina Toura from the Council of Europe, on the ‘Free to speak, Safe to Learn’ initiative which involves 50 member states of the Council of Europe, including the UK, who have come together to respond to the growth of extremism and terrorism and the increase in misinformation. The campaign is designed to encourage schools to promote democracy and human rights with a view to strengthening democratic culture.

We were incredibly lucky to have guests Sir Keith Ajegbo of the Stephen Lawrence Trust, Kari Kivinen, a headteacher of the French Finnish School in Helsinki and Mrs Amanda McNamee, Principal of an integrated school called Lagan College Belfast. Sir Keith followed Liz with a speech on his journey with teaching as the head of Deptford Green School for 20 years, a mixed comprehensive in South East London with a multicultural intake in a socio-economically deprived part of the borough. During his tenure, the school gained a national reputation for its work in citizenship education.

Kari Kivinen, headmaster of the Fren-Finnish school in Helsinki, guided us through the educational path that Finland has boldly trodden to bring about integrated citizenship education, democratic participation from students learning about their rights and how to incorporate information literacy to ensure children have the skills to deal with misinformation from a young age. Having an international perspective, especially one from Finland which is the envy of anyone who works in education, was so valuable. Many commented afterwards that this was one of the things they enjoyed most about the conference, so we hope to continue with this international link in the future.

Learning about a integrated college through Amanda’s perspective was equally fascinating, not least because because Lagan college founded in 1981 as a religious response to the challenge of community conflict and a religiously divided school system in Northern Ireland. Since 1974 the All Children Together Movement had been lobbying the Churches and the Government to take the initiative in educating Protestant and Catholic children together, as seen to be successfully working in her school. 

Kari Kivinen, headmaster of the Fren-Finnish school in Helsinki

On Saturday afternoon, in the lead up to our grand evening in Belfast City Hall, our Five Nation Development Project grantees presented their work to small groups. Katie Shearer’s ‘Plastic Pollution, We are the Solution,’ from St Eunan’s primary school near Glasgow detailed a project where children learnt interactively about the importance of protecting the environment. Martin Ferguson of Ashfield Girls High School in Northern Ireland displayed his project ‘Approaches to Embedding Oracy: GCSE Literature and Democratic Deliberation,’ which is an important and sometimes overlooked core tenet of citizenship education. Thank you to both of them for those insights into their schools.

The day closed with a demo-carousel, where each country presented the projects they’d put together in the morning, the building blocks of democratic education. These conceptual sculptures spoke volumes and injected an element of fun and creativity into the sharing of ideas.

The evening anniversary dinner at the City Hall was the much-earned interval between two days of brain work, as well as a chance to dress up, dine & dance our way round Belfast’s establishments. After a historic tour of the City Hall, where we were impressed by the number of female and young mayors who had presided over the city in recent years, the Deputy Mayor gave a speech welcoming everyone and setting out the important role of teachers in democracy education. This was followed by an address from Gayle Gorman, Chair of Trustees at the Gordon Cook foundation, whose support is invaluable to the Five Nations. We were sad to wave goodbye to Ivor Sutherland, who will be stepping down as the Trustee link with Five Nations after many years, and the 20th Anniversary was a fitting place to end on. We also thank Ciaran Turner for his lovely Irish harp music, and Anne-Marie for a slideshow of inspirational quotes that ran during the meal.

A dinner of slow-cooked Irish beef washed down with wine and chocolate pudding, and we were ready to get our dancing shoes on. While the others trooped to the Crown & Fiddle for live music, a few of us stayed behind to clear up for a bit, and were lucky enough to be allowed into the High Chamber and try on the mayoral robes. Here is the ACT Team, resplendent in red with plenty of Blonde Ambition!

Sunday morning was a slower start, but thankfully we had 2 rounds of incredible workshops to focus our minds. I was fortunate enough to be able to attend Kari Kivinen’s workshop on teaching Misinformation, Malinformation and Disinformation in his school, and John McCLoskey’s religious diversity in an Irish integrated school. Both gave me totally different perspectives, and gave teachers some amazing ideas to use in their classrooms. Elsewhere, workshops were lead by Helen & Bryden teachers from England on ‘Practical strategies for teaching Media literacy,’ Kristina Kaihari from the Finnish Education Agency  on ‘The specifics of the Finnish curriculum; Human rights, Citizenship and media literacy in the classroom,’ Wales country leads Shubnam & Sue stepped up to the mark at the last minute to produce an insightful session on combatting racism in schools & society, and Niamh and Martine of Ireland shared a window into ‘Tackling Discrimination-Schools of Sanctuary.’ Thank you so much to all, and if, like me, you were disappointed not to be able to attend all of them, the workshop presentations and videos can be found on the Five Nations site.


Finally, country groups led by our committed country leads, came together again to discuss what they’d learned over the course of the weekend. One of the teachers, Kim McCauley from Scotland sums up the conference; “For me, it underlined the importance of supporting teachers across the board to feel like confident, empowered political actors if they are to be successful in creating democratic cultures within schools and developing students’ awareness of democracy and politics more widely.”

We hope that this year’s conference helped encourage teachers’ own political literacy and view of themselves as democratic actors with a voice, as well as leaving them with inspiration for their classrooms and schools. We look forward to hosting next year’s conference which we begin planning next month Writing this in April, soon after the lockdowns and isolation measures, it is hard to grasp how only a few weeks ago we gathered in such numbers to share our work. Many of the things we learned in Belfast we are still reflecting on now, and we will be for years to come.

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