Shared Education in Northern Ireland: A Qualitative Study of Intergroup Contact

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


This thesis explores students’ experiences of intergroup contact in two cross- community shared education projects in Northern Ireland. A recent innovation, shared education involves collaboration between separate schools to deliver joint classes and activities. A core aim of this collaboration is to enhance community relations by providing regular opportunities for young people from Catholic and Protestant backgrounds to meet. This study considers participants’ experiences of shared education in the light of this aim, focusing on their interpretations and responses within particular social, historical and biographical contexts.

The study employs contact theory as its theoretical framework and adopts a qualitative approach, in response to calls for research on intergroup contact that is sensitive to participants’ perspectives. Analysis of interview and observation data elucidates the contextual influences on pupils’ interpretive frameworks and considers how these, along with features of the contact situation, inform their expectations and experiences of shared education. The findings suggest that tendencies towards separation and feelings of anxiety can be reduced when the features of the shared class are conducive to contact - i.e. where the teaching style, class composition and classroom design help to encourage interaction. However, where these features are not sympathetic, few participants report forming acquaintances with pupils from the other group. The analysis also indicates that interaction, where it occurs, tends to focus on group similarities and non-contentious subjects. Rarely do participating students engage with those aspects of difference that are the most divisive in terms of intergroup relations.

In exploring processes of contact via shared education from the perspective of participating pupils, this thesis makes an original contribution to the bodies of literature on intergroup contact, education and community relations. Furthermore, the use of a qualitative approach highlights the complexity of certain taken-for- granted concepts in contact theory, with implications for the design of future studies.
Date of AwardJul 2015
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Queen's University Belfast
SupervisorJoanne Hughes (Supervisor) & Tony Gallagher (Supervisor)

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