The views of a Community Development Officer

How can we tackle sectarianism if we aren’t allowed to talk about it? When it is a taboo subject that so often makes people, even professional teachers and community workers, uncomfortable?

It has been recognised that work with young people and children is key to tackling sectarianism in Scotland (Advisory Group report) and therefore it would be logical that delivering anti-sectarian work in schools should be a large part of this. In my experience, however, this is a tough topic to introduce to some schools. Where some welcome anti-sectarian initiatives with open arms others are more hesitant but are more often than not won over with a flexible approach, such as agreeing to address broader topics such as stereotyping and accepting difference. However, more recently I have experienced a reaction in schools that begins as welcoming but quickly turns to hesitancy and resistance.

A brand new play was written to take into schools, carrying a serious message but with light-hearted, funny and entertaining dialogue. In all of the schools we delivered this in we would start with games before getting down to the hard work of discussing sectarianism and finding out how aware the children already were of it in their community. I was surprised to see how clued up they were about the topic and certainly had my eyes opened when it came to them creating and acting out their own scenes – it was interesting and hard hitting to watch ten year olds act out such descriptive examples of sectarianism!

Following this in each school we moved on to work on the play, tackling a serious issue whilst still having fun. This is where in some schools we came across some resistance, there seemed to be a misunderstanding as to why we were discussing sectarianism and a feeling that the play itself was too negative and bringing up a topic that the children weren’t aware of.

Despite attempts to keep communication channels open with meetings, workshops, phone calls and emails some schools decided to cancel citing reasons such as the play being too negative and not understanding why it had to have a disagreement in it, why did it have to be about sectarianism rather than friendship? I was confused by this as the children had been enjoying and engaging with the topic, which was confirmed upon speaking to them. It seemed strange that while some schools openly embraced this work others shied away.

This is the first time that this play has been run and some difficulty along the way was anticipated.  Most schools fully embraced the project believing that this is something that needs to be addressed or that the children need to aware of.  Other drama work has taken place in the community with children from all across the local area, with only one parent having an issue and removing their child from the play.  The feedback from the rest of the parents and those that came to watch the first play was very positive and identified a need for this to be rolled out into other areas.

I know sectarianism is not something that can be discussed over tea and cake but if it is not discussed everywhere then how do we tackle it?  Do schools not have a responsibility towards their pupils to tackle this issue from an early age?  Should a topic be dismissed because some teachers feel uncomfortable with it?  This is a topic that the children are clearly aware of, so why not address this?  If we all carry on not talking about sectarianism it won’t just go away.  Without discussion, education and awareness it will remain a part of our society.  So I sincerely ask, how can we tackle sectarianism without talking about sectarianism?