Professor Joanne Hughes

Professor Joanne Hughes is the Director of the Centre for Shared Education in the School of Education at Queen’s University, Belfast, and has recently established the UNESCO Chair for Globalising Shared Education.

Professor Hughes and her colleagues at the Centre for Shared Education have conducted major projects in divided education systems in Northern Ireland and Macedonia and are now engaging with colleagues in Cyprus, South Africa and Israel.

UKNC’s Shannon McNaught catches up with Professor Hughes about her new role as a UNESCO Chairholder. Professor Hughes outlines her ongoing work fostering intercultural dialogue and the promotion of tolerance and mutual respect in divided education systems.


UKNC: What would you say are the objectives of your new UNESCO Chair and the role it plays at Queen’s University Belfast?

JH: The overall objective of the Globalising Shared Education Chair is to contribute to peace building through the promotion of intergroup contact and intercultural dialogue and education. I am Director of the Centre for Shared Education at Queen’s University and there are three core strands to our activity. In the first strand we initiate and facilitate support for Shared Education initiatives. Shared Education is a curriculum based initiative with the intention to bring together groups divided by different ethnic, social or religious backgrounds. We bring these groups together for sustained interaction, usually within education systems that are divided or separate.

In the case of Northern Ireland, 94% of the children attend schools that are either predominantly Protestant or predominantly Catholic. The Shared Education model brings children from the different schools together for curriculum-based subjects and they study together for sustained periods of time. For example, in a market town you may have a Catholic school and a Protestant school serving two communities. The Catholic school may offer German for GCSE (General Certificate of Secondary Education) and the Protestant school may offer French. With a Shared Education model, all those children who want to take German will go to the Catholic school and all those children who want to take French will go to the Protestant school. The model has shown to be very effective in Northern Ireland, not least because it has educational benefits for children, such as extending subject choice, but also because it makes more effective use of limited resources.

We are also working in a number of other divided jurisdictions. We are currently working in Macedonia, where they have a school system separated according to whether students are ethnic Albanian or Macedonian. Within that system, because there is a language difference, we are facilitating children coming together for those subject curriculums that demand minimal verbal instruction – such as art, music, science labs or physical education – those areas where children can come together for a sustained period of time and actually get to know each other. It’s based on a theoretical model called the Contact Hypothesis, which has been around for several decades. The Contact Hypothesis essentially states that as long as certain conditions for contact are met then contact can be very effective in reducing prejudice or hostility toward one another. That’s the basis for the model for the Shared Education initiative. The value of this initiative and the reason we are promoting it as opposed to a fully-integrated system is that in situations of ethnic division or conflict it is very important that groups retain or are given permission to retain their own sense of identity, and schools are often an expression of that identity. Thus, Shared Education brings children from separate schools together for sustained periods without diminishing or threatening the existence of school systems that are held dear by the people that attend them.

UKNC: How do you see your projects at the Centre for Shared Education as furthering UNESCO’s mandate?

JH: UNESCO supports intercultural dialogue in education and the promotion of tolerance and mutual respect in an educational context. One of UNESCO’s objectives is to foster intercultural dialogue for the reconciliation or rapprochement of cultures. Within that context I think our work fits very well.

UKNC:  How do you envisage the new UNESCO Chair designation will support your work?

JH: I think the UNESCO brand will open doors for the Centre for Shared Education nationally and internationally. We are already working with the Ministry of Education in Macedonia, there is a lot of interest in our work in Israel and we just recently began a project in Cyprus. We are currently working with colleagues in South Africa, where they do not have an officially-designated separate education system but where schools are divided according to race and socio-economic status. Therefore within that context there is an opportunity to develop Shared Education, which can ultimately mean that stronger schools can support weaker schools. There are not only reconciliation outcomes but potentially educational outcomes for peoples who are involved in the initiative as well.

The UNESCO branding allows access we wouldn’t have had otherwise. It also connects us to other Chairholders who have similar interests. We have been very effective in shifting policy in Northern Ireland. I think we can contribute to more policy debates nationally and internationally and, again, I think UNESCO can connect us through networks that will allow us to do so. The brand gives us an ‘in’ that we didn’t have before.

UKNC: What’s next for the UNESCO Chair?

JH: In May we had a President’s Roundtable supported by the British Educational Research Association that looked at issues related to research in divided societies and educational contexts for the most marginalised populations. We recently had colleagues from the Centre for Shared Education travel to South Africa for data collection. Another colleague spoke about Shared Education and the model at a Roundtable organised by senior officials in the Ministry of Education in Cape Town; it was a dissemination opportunity to work with policy makers, practitioners and academics.

We have applied to the ESRC for research funding in collaboration with our South African colleagues for a project that will explore the role that teachers play in peacebuilding. We are planning a visit to Israel in October; there is some interest in Israel to develop Shared Education at the level of teachers, so working with Arab and Jewish teachers and exploring the possibilities for more engagement within the teacher education colleges and facilities in the country.

We recently met with different groups of American students, who were interested in learning about Shared Education, and we gave a presentation on our work to a group of philanthropists from across the world who are interested in learning about how to best use their money to improve education systems in local and international contexts. This model has applicability not just in those societies that have separate education systems but also those with self-segregation and informal separation, like in South Africa and parts of the United States. We have not yet worked in England but we think the model has a lot of potential in England, where schools are becoming increasingly fragmented.