Global Learning in Northern Ireland: Challenges, Successes and Opportunities

by Anna Grindle

This article is part of the TRAFO series “Doing Global International Relations”.


June 2016. The holidays are approaching but schools are still very busy places when our team is out at schools facilitating small group sessions with teachers who have attended in-service training on global learning in the preceding school term. A post-primary teacher is engaging students in critical discussion about the possible implications of the Brexit vote – he is reflective of the need to facilitate this carefully since the views of the local community are strongly held and influence his pupils. One teacher has developed an inquiry-based approach in which pupils will consider which factors might contribute to some countries gaining more medals than others in the Olympics. Two primary schools have had a shared-education day with no pencils or paper in sight, replaced instead by active-learning activities and small group sessions with volunteers from different nationalities talking about life and culture in their country of origin. At another meeting a teacher talks extensively about how she has incorporated global learning through a new thematic planning approach; in the same room a teacher representing half the staff of her small rural school admits their capacity for teaching global learning is limited but she is pleased to take some ideas away from the meeting.

These glimpses of the work going on in schools highlight some of the key tasks for the Global Learning Programme (GLP). The GLP is a four-year project that aims to strengthen the capacity of primary, post-primary and special schools in Northern Ireland (NI) to embed global learning. The model uses a whole school approach by providing in-service teacher training, as well as resources and guidance grounded in the NI Curriculum. The cluster-based sessions referred to above provide much-needed opportunities for teachers to share, reflect and develop a working understanding of global learning in practice. This is necessary because while many activities can be framed as ‘global’; it takes a reflective practitioner to plan and facilitate global learning in its truest form which is, essentially, education – through learning and action – for a more just and sustainable world.

This article reflects on the successes, challenges and opportunities presented in ensuring the global is incorporated into school-based teaching and learning and considers how other factors – such as curriculum guidance or mainstream public awareness of global issues –either limit or complement global learning in formal education settings.


copyright: Global Learning Programme

Global Learning in Northern Ireland

The host of the Global Learning Programme in Northern Ireland is the Centre for Global Education (CGE), a Belfast-based development non-governmental organisation established in 1986 to provide global education services not generally provided by the development sector. Over the last 30 years, the Centre has hosted a number of projects which have focused on capacity building for global learning both in the formal education sector working directly with schools, and in informal contexts through a youth-work approach and community-based education. The terminology synonymous with global learning reflects the developing discourse within the sector. For example, labels such as development education, the global dimension, education for global citizenship and now, most commonly, global learning are all used to describe this area of work, sometimes interchangeably.

An established body of research exists within the field of global learning. This has been supported by government funding particularly since the establishment of Department for International Development (DFID), and includes collaborative work by NGOs, university-based research, and research conducted by strong networks among both local and national organisations working in the field.

In the Global Learning Programme, practice for global learning focuses on helping pupils make sense of the world in which they live and to understand their role within a global society. It aims to help pupils to understand and think critically about issues and concepts such as poverty, inequality and sustainability, and to develop an awareness of the impact our own actions can have on others. Overall, the programme aims to help pupils develop knowledge and understanding, skills, and values and attitudes that enable learners to engage critically with issues, realise their potential and make a positive contribution to our world.

The Global Learning Programme  

Teachers that enrol on the Global Learning Programme receive two full days of training focusing on developing their understanding of global learning, as well as practice-based methodologies and approaches. The focus is on the development of a whole-school approach, which considers opportunities for global learning across four main areas: Curriculum teaching and learning; Effective school leadership; Community connections; and Extra-curricular activities, awards and supporting initiatives.

A self-evaluation tool with descriptive indicators for each of the four areas of the whole-school framework helps schools evaluate their current global learning practice, and act as a baseline to plan for progressive actions. The self-evaluation tool uses the principles of staged progression (from ‘non-engaged’, to ‘developing’ and ‘embedded’) which are commensurate with inspectorate guidance for similar initiatives. All schools are at different starting points and are encouraged to choose actions that are realistic, achievable, relevant to their school context, and will move them further towards ‘embedding’ global learning within their practice. Approximately 3 months after training, teachers meet for small, cluster-based afternoon sessions, which provide opportunities to share practice and ideas and discuss any challenges or opportunities presented. A further, second cluster-based session takes place about 9 months later, the aim of which is to support a cyclical process of action and reflection, thus enabling progress.

Supporting Factors

The context for global learning in terms of policy, opportunities within the curriculum, and the range of available resources is largely supportive. In particular, the Global Learning Programme, operating across four nations, has been cognisant of devolved education policy, and training programmes developed for teachers have been framed within the context of the curriculum.

To avail of training, teachers need to be released from their duties for the day, which has implications of costs as a substitute teachers need to be paid to cover the class. The budgeting of the project provided funds to pay for substitute teacher cover, this has been imperative to maximize the take-up of training, and to meet the funder’s recruitment target of 50% recruitment of primary and post-primary schools in Northern Ireland. While the Scottish GLP model has used afternoon training sessions, the English and Welsh Global Learning Programmes have developed a training approach based on ‘expert-schools’ providing cluster-based training to a local network of schools. Schools in the programme are also given a credit-based system to avail of face-to-face and on-line training offered by a network of training providers around the country.

The design of the Northern Ireland Curriculum is particularly accessible for global learning. While there are clear subject-based entry points; the ‘World Around Us’ and ‘Personal Development and Mutual Understanding’ at primary level, and ‘Environment & Society’ and ‘Learning for Life & Work’ at post-primary level; approaches to ‘building the curriculum’ provide excellent opportunities for global learning. Such approaches include thematic-based planning (e.g. ‘water’ might be the theme for a primary-school class, with integrated study of history, geography, science, arts and as much as possible literacy and numeracy related to the theme, and with a focus on concepts such as sustainability, consumption of water, climate change), connected learning through a cross-curricular approach (e.g.  teaching about sustainability across specific subjects such as Geography, Science and Politics), or a focus on skills (e.g. pupils working in groups on action projects related to sustainability, as well as other supporting initiatives such as shared-education to encourage collaboration between schools).

Arguably, the pioneering work of NGOs in developing resources and approaches for global learning was ahead of its time. Although first published in 1997, Oxfam’s Curriculum for Global Citizenship outlined clear guidance on the parallel development of pupils’ knowledge, skills and attitudes. Similarly, the sector championed active learning methods and the role of the teacher as a facilitator of learning, significantly before this language became mainstreamed in curriculum guidance. The sector also supported the need for teachers to address controversial or sensitive issues within the classroom environment, as well as advocating for collaboration and partnerships for learning.


Global learning is nonetheless limited, to a certain extent, by some of the same factors that support it. While the curriculum presents possibilities for the most creative delivery of global learning, sustained priorities in schools and how learning is time-tabled and structured along subject lines can limit the possibilities for implementation. At post-primary level, the focus of formal assessments at age 16 means that the possibilities for connected learning using a global learning focus is limited to the first years of post-primary education. Collaborative planning does at times exist between teachers of a small number of subjects; however, this is often championed by an enthusiastic practitioner. Often, space for global learning at post-primary level emerges through a project, for example students linking with a local primary school, or learning focusing on a particular theme in a certain week of the year.


copyright: Global Learning Programme

Inclusion of global learning through thematic planning is easily facilitated at primary level – many primary teachers who participated in the training recognized that they were doing more than they initially thought. The challenge for teachers include willingness to engage pupils on sensitive issues, for example the refugee crisis, and planning for more process-led, skills-based learning opportunities.

Over the years, the education and campaigns work of NGOs has brought real life stories and far off places into the classroom through thoughtful case studies that provide ‘actions’ such as fundraising and campaigning for pupils to follow through based on their learning. However, some of the popular early work of NGOs has held sway with teachers; often there is still a notion of ‘the other’, references to the ‘Third World’ or generalized notions of place, such as ‘Africa’. Moving away from simplified actions such as fundraising, to more critical, pupil-initiated actions requires a more explicit focus on the development of skills. This could be facilitated through action-based learning with pupils considering and selecting different options for action based on a more conceptual understanding of how change takes place, e.g. through giving to charity, raising awareness, campaigns or advocacy.

Additionally, the ‘global’ is often conceptualized as problematical, and seen in terms of disasters and suffering in other parts of the world. Concepts such as interdependence and sustainability mean that pupils here are inextricably linked to events further afield. The placing of the self and notions of responsibility and participation within a wider context requires complex and in-depth understanding that is often not possible in a busy school timetable. Parallel to this is also the need to reframe ‘global’ discourse within formal education to help pupils see the wealth of culture, art, diversity, natural spectacle and resources that exist globally, and to introduce these more positive aspects into the experience of the pupil.


Sustained, critical and effective pedagogy for global learning depends equally on the skills and willingness of educators, as well as opportunities for pupils to develop a considered and critical approach to global learning.

In the classroom, skills-based approaches must form the core of learning. Pupils need to develop critical thinking skills, to unpack their own assumptions and see issues from diverse perspectives. These skills will enable pupils to engage compassionately with sensitive issues, to work alone or in a group, to source relevant information, and to consider problems with a focus on the possibilities of change. This will require that pupils consider the approaches and solutions suggested by others, and apply thoughtful actions, even if not of their own design. Pupils will only learn and practice these skills if they are exposed to them in the safe spaces of the classroom and in their local environments.

Similarly, teachers need to make the best judgement call on how they exemplify the global within their teaching, how they build the curriculum and develop skills, being aware of the context, community and influencing factors on the pupils they teach. In GLP cluster sessions, teachers have the opportunity to share practice and ideas, and discuss how they grapple with the sensitivities of introducing critical enquiry.


The Global Learning Programme has maximized many of the positive learning opportunities afforded  by the current Northern Ireland curriculum. It has also had to wrestle with factors such as pressures on the timetable, teachers’ time and workload, and other policy priorities such as a focus on literacy and numeracy, assessment and school improvement. The overwhelming feedback from teachers who have participated in the programme’s training has been positive and suggests a strong level of interest in global issues.  The challenge for the programme is to ensure that the training provided is cascaded back into schools and manifests itself in classroom practice. Through the provision of a designated web site (, cluster-based follow up sessions, and ongoing support, we hope pupil understanding of global issues will be enhanced as a result of our work.


Anna Grindle is the Global Learning Programme Co-ordinator in the Centre for Global Education. Anna Grindle holds a BA in Geography from Queen’s University Belfast, a Post-Graduate Certificate in Education from University of Cambridge, and a MA in Participation, Power and Social Change from the Institute of Development Studies at the University of Sussex. Previous posts include working for Oxfam Scotland as a Curriculum Adviser in Education for Global Citizenship. Additionally, she has carried out work focused on the participation of children and young people in service planning with the Children and Young People’s Strategic Partnership (CYPSP) and engaged in policy-based work with young people while on behalf of the Voluntary and Community Sector Forum. She has also lived and volunteered in Uganda, co-ordinating an in-service teacher training programme in life skills education, combining this with participatory action research for MA study. E-mail:


Further Readings on TRAFO:

Antonia Witt, Felix Anderl, Stefan Kroll, Philip Wallmeier (2016), Clues, Careers, and Curricula – Doing Global International Relations, TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research.

Amitav Acharya (2016), Developing Global International Relations: What, Who, and How?, TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research.

Anthoni van Nieuwkerk (2016),  Reflections on (not so) International Relations … and what scholars from the Global South can do about it, TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research.

Frank Mattheis (2016), New metres for a wider world: interregionalism and Global International Relations, TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research.

Catherine Baker (2016), South-East European Studies in the ‘House of International Relations’, TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research.

Amaya Querejazu (2016), Andean Cosmovision and Global Governanc,  TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research.

Tim Rühlig (2016),  Is there a Chinese understanding of International Relations?, TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research.

Jochen Kleinschmidt (2016), Global IR and Academic Authorship in Latin America: Why Inclusion Is Not a Panacea, TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research.



Citation: Anna Grindle, Global Learning in Northern Ireland: Challenges, Successes and Opportunities, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 9.11.2016,

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Editorial Board (2016, 10. November). Global Learning in Northern Ireland: Challenges, Successes and Opportunities. TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research. Abgerufen am 14. Juni 2024, von

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