North Belfast and its communities suffered greatly during the Troubles and have continued to be constrained by social and sectarian difficulties. Now, however, a committed coalition of its community, church and schoolsis collaborating to realise a shared vision for the future provision of Catholic education in the area.
Representatives from the nursery, primary and post-primary school principals and boards of governors in the Catholic Maintained Sector, as well as representatives from the community, established an Education Task Group following a community education conference in 2008. They were responding to an invitation extended by Bishop McKeown for the communities of the Sacred Heart, Holy Cross and St. Vincent de Paul parishes in North Belfast to formulate a proposal for submission to the Northern Ireland Commission for Catholic Education Post Primary Review.
From its inception, the Group has been driven by the firm conviction that education is key to the regeneration of the area. Its aims are to establish a cohesive, collaborative and progressive education system that can build on the strengths of tradition and existing good practice to meet the education needs of the parish communities. As Elaine Burns, chairperson of the Education Task Group explains, ‘Our Group is passionate about the need to place high quality education at the heart of the community in this area of North Belfast as a critical element of rebuilding the social, community and economic well-being of an area that has faced significant challenges over the last 40 years’.
The Group is strongly of the view that post-primary provision should not be considered in isolation and that a lifelong education solution must be developed for the area from nursery through to adult education.
Fundamental to this vision is the creation of stronger links between all the schools in the North Belfast Area Learning Community (and beyond where appropriate) to provide community-based and inter-community educational opportunities for all, including collaboration opportunities with local colleges and universities.
In developing its proposals, the Group undertook extensive economic and demographic statistical analysis to evaluate a variety of solutions and opportunities, as demonstrating the sustainability of any new education provision in the area is critical to the success of achieving government support for the proposals.
Whilst there are two post-primary Catholic maintained girls’ schools in the area, there is currently no corresponding school for boys. Families of boys are faced with the increased financial burden of having to pay for travel to schools outside of the area. There is also currently no choice of a co-educational post-primary school within the Catholic Education Sector of North Belfast.
To bridge this gap, the Group recommended the creation of a new all ability co-educational school with between 800 and 1000 pupils between ages 11-19; building on the existing two schools and extending the provision to boys. The focus on education for all abilities and on co-education is seen as vital towards helping to rebuild the social fabric and confidence of the Catholic community in North Belfast.
The Group has also suggested that the new school specialise in e-media and related studies. The proposed e-media learning facilities would, it felt, add to the vocational opportunities for pupils in subjects that are increasingly in demand within the Northern Ireland economy, including the design and development of content for the web and other multi-media content providers.
The proposals for the school include a specialist e-media studio and related learning technologies (e.g. digital video and sound recording and editing technologies, animation software, etc.).
The Group has also proposed that the new school have a focus on the Irish Language (e.g. an Irish-Medium Unit), as part of creating a post-primary pathway for the increasing number of those in the area who wish to choose the Irish-medium education route for their children; as such, the Irish Language could also form part of a collaborative offering to other schools in the area.
Through strong links with the community, it is proposed that the new school will also offer adult education opportunities, which will again help to build the skills and employability of those within the local community.
Over the last 12 months, the Education Task Group’s focus has widened to encompass the development of options for the primary and nursery schools in the area, with a view to establishing co-educational nursery and primary provision in each of the three parishes. Once again, its vision is all-inclusive, with adult education provision for the area utilising the primary and/or post-primary school accommodation in partnership with further education colleges and universities in Belfast.
Historically, the identity of this area in North Belfast has its roots in the linen mills and the rows of mill workers’ houses in areas close to the churches. Families of these three parishes honour a strong tradition of working together on a number of fronts, including education; the building of the Catholic parish post primary schools in the area was originally a joint effort. These collaborative partnerships and shared heritage can only be strengthened by the visionary endeavours of the Education Task Group.
Michael Clarke, Goldblatt McGuigan – Advisor to the Educational Task Group
Elaine Burns, Chairperson
Education Task Group
Michael Clarke, Goldblatt McGuigan
Advisor to the Educational Task Group