Platform of good practices

Dealing with controversial issues


Country: Northern Ireland
Education Level: Secondary school
Approach: Controversial issues
Target Group: Students, Teachers, Staff, Families

Brief description of the practice

Dealing with controversial issues is an educational whole-school project that takes advantage of the diversity in the classroom (it is an integrated school in Northern Ireland) to address polemical issues. By training teachers, providing them with guidance notes, sets of activities, fact files about specific controversial issues and other initiatives, and understanding the complicity of the families, the New-Bridge school has developed a comprehensive whole-school approach.

Objectives of the practice

The school aims to develop a whole-school policy and practice on teaching controversial issues, which would:

  • To encourage the teaching of controversial issues;
  • To ensure a consistent approach to teaching controversial issues across subjects;
  • To build staff confidence to teach controversial issues;
  • To encourage pupils to express their views;
  • To enable pupils to develop respect and a deeper understanding of their own and others’ views; and
  • To support the school ethos and, as part of this, promote diversity and inclusion.


The Teaching Controversial Issues project (TCI) is built on the assumption that pupils from different backgrounds (Catholic, Protestant, ethnic minorities) are likely to have conflicting views about different issues that could lead to tension in classrooms and the school in general, if ignored. Appreciation for diversity is the starting point of the project: diversity of opinions, views and values is considered as an opportunity to learn, and is visible in many different ways.

Teaching and learning about controversial issues is about enabling pupils to deepen their understanding of issues, reflect and think critically, and reflect on their own and the views of others. This helps teachers and pupils to better understand others and build relationships based on respect, trust and co‐operation. It mainly teaches them essential skills to engage in dialogue with each other.

Since 2013-2014, teaching controversial issues was identified as an area for whole‐school development. As part of the school’s self-evaluation and planning process, the Senior Leadership Team worked with heads of English, History, Citizenship and Religious Education departments who are experienced in teaching controversial issues. Teachers and pupils were also consulted to obtain their views on teaching controversial issues. The project is now present at many levels of the school organisation:


At classroom level:

  • Activities: Teachers use, in their classroom, a set of activities that help encourage thinking about controversial issues.
    • KWL is one of the teaching methods that is used quite often. It is an effective way of connecting the content of a lesson with the preoccupations of students. When they start working on a (controversial) topic they often use the KWL method. The pupils are asked two questions at the start of the lesson and one at the end. They write down their answers on post‐it notes and post them on a graffiti board: “What do you KNOW about the subject? What would you WANT to know about it? What have you LEARNED?” In a next step, after having connected the topic to their own knowledge and curiosity, the teacher starts talking about the content he/she’s expected to teach but not without connecting it consistently back to the group’s questions.

The graffiti board can be used at the end of the topic for summarizing issues and drawing conclusions.

  • Conscience alley – role‐play strategy that allows pupils to gain a quick synopsis of all the issues related to a specific topic (this activity is often used by the anti‐bullying ambassadors).
  • Giant steps – a useful activity to explore diverse opinions and emotions with regards to a particular issue. It allows everybody to have a voice even if they don’t speak out.
  • Four corners debate
  • Five questions – information‐gathering activity which allows pupils to explore an issue more in depth or to break it down into smaller subthemes or tasks (unpacking complicated topics).
  • Hot air balloon – a planning tool, it encourages pupils to confront an issue, explore its implications in a comprehensive manner and adopt a structured approach to future preparation and planning. (Who needs to be in the balloon? What needs to be in place for the project to be successful? What is holding it back? What will make it fly at great speed? What might blow the balloon off course?
  • Using powerful images and film

Collage: this activity asks pupils to represent their views on an issue or concept in a visual, creative and engaging way. It encourages pupils not only to communicate effectively, but also to develop their interpretation skills of other people’s work.

What do you see? (on a given image/picture, without making any interpretation about what the pic is trying to say): a Facing History strategy which allows pupils to discuss their first ideas, opinions and questions about an issue before rushing to make an ill‐informed judgement.

Slow reveal: not all of an image is revealed to the pupils at one time.

  • Consequence wheel – this activity allows pupils to consider what points may be most relevant when considering a key question.
  • A “No easy answers board” exists in each classroom to post questions that the teacher or group cannot answer immediately. If such a question emerges, the group can post this question on the No Easy Answers Board (particular area of the room) and to revisit it during or at the end of the lesson to see if they have found the answer. If not, they return to it at a later time, offering the teacher and the students time to gather information. When a teacher admits that s/he doesn’t have the answer to a question, this also changes the relationships in a classroom. It demonstrates to pupils that nobody has all the answers.
  • Graffiti board: this can be used to post post-its with answers on a specific question, to debate and interact with others in a respectful way, or, at the end of the topic, for summarizing issues and drawing conclusions.


At school level:

  • A group of 24 students are also anti-bullying ambassadors who undertake peer intervention to prevent bullying. These student ambassadors have also received training on how to deal with controversial issues around bullying and relationships tensions (e.g. LGTB).
  • Teacher training: The 2013 school’s self-evaluation process identified a need for professional development on teaching and learning about controversial issues. This was addressed by: providing opportunities for staff to discuss and share practice, in-service educational training and departmental meetings.
  • Many In-Service Educational Training (INSET) courses have been organised to provide skills related to dealing with controversial issues and conflict management, such as ‘Positive behaviour management strategies’, ‘Restorative practices’, ‘De‐escalation strategies’, ‘Teaching methodologies’... Training focused on: developing a shared understanding of what makes an issue controversial; planning to teach controversial issues; identifying opportunities to develop skills; using effective questioning.  Knowing their pupils and anticipating responses allows teachers to avoid bias when dealing with issues, de-escalation strategies help manage pupils’ emotional responses, supporting pupils’ ability to self-reflect and manage their emotions. To prepare these INSET courses, attitudinal surveys of pupil and parent opinions are carried out and used to inform developmental planning.
  • Peer learning dimension: teachers train and support their colleagues on how to deal with controversial issues. This may not have been consciously thought through at the start, but it proved to be beneficial for the project. Teachers seem to accept the views and ideas of their colleagues more easily in comparison with the views of external experts.
  • The Community Relations Equality and Diversity (CRED) team has been an important body in the launch of the TCI project in the school. It developed guidance for teachers, pupils, parents and members of the Board of Governors. Their work has been gradually adopted by their colleagues, so that many teachers feel confident enough to use controversial issues methodologies by themselves. The members of the CRED team are selected from a cross‐section of staff in terms of expertise, teaching experience and range of attitudes and beliefs. The wide array of activities they have developed include:
  • Guidance materials which included: a rationale for teaching controversial issues in the school; an interpretation of what controversial issues are, clarification of the roles and responsibilities of each department and teacher; curriculum links and teaching approaches, such as: facilitating discussion; developing the competency to skilfully disagree with others; developing communication and thinking skills; emotional development; managing emotional responses; and developing attitudes and dispositions.
  • CRED keyring: ‘easy steps guidance cards’ that are present in each classroom in case teachers need a quick reminder.
  • Fact Files: these are a support for teachers who have to teach about these topics, bearing in mind that returning to the facts helps to de‐escalate heated discussions. The files, which are also sent to parents, gather the facts about certain topics, as a joint CRED effort to research the topic and to consult experts. There are Fact Files on remembrance, the Easter Rising (against London rule), the Battle of the Somme, the British Queen, Nelson Mandela, Syria, and Stormont (the Northern Ireland parliament).
  • ‘Activities which promote good learning when teaching controversial issues’ booklet available in each classroom.
  • During the Easter Rising centenary, the CRED team produced a ‘Did you know’ exhibition and series of assemblies that highlighted the Decade of Centenaries commemorations for Easter Rising and the Battle of the Somme.


At community level:

  • Families: The school was founded by parents so it has a long tradition of involving families. Parental involvement and community relations are also two major principles of the Council for Integrated Education, Northern Ireland (NICIE). The main activity of the Friends of New‐Bridge (parent‐teacher association) is organizing social and fundraising events, but they also have a say in the educational approach: After the policy on dealing with controversial issues was designed and formulated, it was sent to parents. On one occasion, also, parents raised the issue of whether or not to use The Bog Child, a novel whose protagonist has family links with the IRA. Recently the school organized a cross‐curricular Connected Learning drama and assembly on the Holocaust which was attended by parents.
  • External involvement: The school is member of several partnerships and networks (see below), and participates in several initiatives outside the school. It also puts a lot of effort into communicating its model for teaching controversial issues externally.

To set a positive example of peace and integration within the local and wider community, the school was involved in Amazing the Space Youth led Peace Event, on International Peace Day 2016.

Implementation process

  1. The school was founded in 1995 by parents.
  2. Initially, some teachers of different subjects started implementing controversial issues practices individually in their classrooms. But despite many good practices being identified, there were different understandings of what was a controversial issue, and there was not a consistent approach shared by all colleagues.
  3. After a school evaluation in 2013-2014, “Teaching Controversial Issues” became a whole-school project with the objectives of aligning school policies and procedures to support TCI, developing a consistent whole-school approach, and improving the skills of the staff to put TCI into practice.

Challenges and opportunities posed by the context

  • The school has pupils from the main Catholic (46%) and Protestant (44%) traditions, and from other ethnic minority groups. Pupils are likely to have a range of conflicting views about different issues that could lead to tension in classrooms, and the school in general, if ignored, but it is also an opportunity to learn from diversity. Being an integrated school (with Catholic and Protestant students) is in itself a demonstration of the will to overcome some barriers still existing in Northern Ireland society.
  • The school is supported by several networks and institutions as part of the Shared Education project, including Corrymeela Peace and Reconciliation residential, Facing History, Banbridge Youth, Council for the Curriculum, Examinations and Assessment (CCEA), Council for Integrated Education, Northern Ireland (NICIE) and Forgiveness Education.

Results and impacts

The examination results of the school are excellent. In 2015 it achieved the highest General Certificate of Secondary Education results in the integrated sector and were placed among the top ten non-selective schools in Northern Ireland.

As for results related to controversial issues, current commemorations of Irish historical events ‘The Decade of Commemoration’ and the production and circulation of ‘Fact files’ on the various commemorations demonstrate ways in which sensitive Northern Ireland issues can be addressed with consensus.

By constantly questioning and evaluating the New-Bridge school has developed a culture of evaluation. For example, to prepare their In‐Service Educational Training (INSET) days and the next school year, attitudinal surveys of pupil and parent opinions are carried out and used to inform developmental planning. An evaluation exercise also formed the basis of the Teaching Controversial Issues project.


To evaluate the trial of Teaching Controversial Issues across subjects, the Senior Leadership Team and the CRED team used a questionnaire, and interviewed the heads of department and teachers, and carried out lesson evaluations and plenary sessions with students. Regarding student learning, the inquiry reached the following conclusions:

  • Most pupils found learning about controversial issues interesting
  • Most pupils found the activities enjoyable and motivating.
  • Most pupils felt able to express their views.
  • Some pupils felt uncomfortable with certain issues and were less willing to participate actively.
  • The activities helped pupils to think critically about issues.
  • The activities helped pupils to understand others’ views.

The practice has been recognized as a good practice by being awarded several prizes as recognition of their work: the Council for the Curriculum, Examinations and Assessment has selected the New-Bridge school practices in their Good practice Guide on dealing with controversial issues/hot topics. In 2017, NICIE has honoured New-Bridge with the Excellence in Integrated Education Award which demonstrates that the school community has completely infused its management, governance, teaching and learning with an excellent and exemplary integrated ethos: Integration is at the core of New-Bridge’s vision and ethos. In 2017, the school has also been awarded by the biennial Evens Foundation Peace Education prize.


  • Teacher training: Several complementary trainings together with peer learning measures allow for the strengthening of teachers’ skills in dealing with controversial issues.
  • Set of controversial issues teaching methods: The school’s CRED team has identified a large set of simple activities that are naturally used by many teachers in their respective lessons. This eases the teaching task of educators, trains students in several methods that are commonly used, and also provides coherence at the school.
  • Whole-school approach: the fact that all teachers are consistently trained in the subject, and are provided content and methodological resources to apply them at school as well as the creation of the CRED team are key element to develop such a comprehensive project.
  • Strong leadership: The project is steered by both the Senior Leadership Team and the Community Relations, Equity and Diversity team in a way in which it has succeeded in making controversial issues teaching mainstream in the daily practice and in a way accepted by all stakeholders.


New-Bridge student

“In this school, we are taught many important values - top amongst them the importance of inclusivity. Here, we get to meet people who may not look like us, who may not come from the same background as us, who may not share the same religion. Here, we get to learn about different cultures, and listen to each other’s stories, and it’s here that we get to embrace our differences and share in our common identity”.

Education Training Inspectorate Inspection 2012 Report

“The highly inclusive ethos of the school ensures that all pupils have good opportunities to develop the ability to think critically and to recognise and value diversity which prepares them well for life and work. The school gives a high priority to inclusion and integration within the school and shows a strong commitment to the welfare of the pupils and staff”.

Further information


Eimear McKeown


New-Bridge Integrated College

25 Donard View Road, Loughbrickland, Banbridge, BT32 3LN

Northern Ireland