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The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent

Shankill Education


Mick Hall • October 3 2004

The BBC Northern Ireland web site carried an article in which West Belfast MLA Diane Dodds highlighted a recently published report that claimed nearly two-thirds of people of working age in the Shankill Road area of West Belfast had no educational qualifications. Once again these figures demonstrate the contempt both the British Government and the UUP, whilst it was the majority Unionist party, have historically displayed towards working class Unionists. Whilst in office the SF Assembly Education 'Minister' made a start at getting to grips with this problem by abolishing the Eleven Plus and selective education. However given the figures from the report Dodds highlighted, this alone is clearly not going to be enough. Unless major resources are pushed into this community and similar ones in the North, a considerable population of a lumpen underclass will become a permanent fixture within the Unionist working class communities, with all the opportunities such a population offers the exploitative tentacles of paramilitary criminal gangs such as the UDA.

Some may claim that the population of the Shankill has always been poorly educated; whilst this is undoubtedly true, the difference today is that there are few job opportunities available these days in heavy industry. In the past a poorly educated youth on leaving school, if family contacts where available, or if the youngster was persistent or indeed lucky enough, he had a fair chance of either getting an apprenticeship in the shipyard or in one of Belfast's other engineering companies. If his educational abilities were too inadequate to attain an apprenticeship, the industries I have aforementioned always needed fit young men to man the likes of a shipyard heavy gang or as a tradesmen's mate. Few, if any, of these industries exist today and certainly not on the scale they once did. Thus, the poorly educated have an ever-shrinking jobs market to apply for work within. Yes, there are still employment opportunities in the new economy that is slowly developing in the North, especially the service industries such as tourism, call centres and retail. Whilst these businesses are prepared to take on people without qualifications, even in these certain social skills are required, in addition to a basic understanding of arithmetic and grammar. It is also a harsh fact of this new economy that those with the most basic education are doomed to remain on the lowest if not minimum wage with little chance of promotion or job security.

There is no doubt that the people of areas like the Shankill are no less intelligent than those Protestants who reside in the more leafy suburbs of Belfast, or indeed their working class nationalist neighbours. No, what we have here is what as far as making use of life's chances is a double whammy. Central and local government have neglected their educational opportunities to the most shameful level, but also amongst many working class Unionist families there has been a lack of ambition for their children. I feel I must add so there is no confusion here, I am not saying there is a lack of love or care of their children by these working class parents, far from it. But due to the lack of educational opportunities experienced by many of these parents themselves, their sights have become set at a very low level as far as their future ambitions for their own offspring is concerned. It is sadly an attitude of, "Well, this is the way of the world".

That education has not been a priority is nothing new within this loyalist community, as can be demonstrated by contrasting the number of Loyalist prisoners from within it who gained educational qualifications with their Republican counterparts. Within the Nationalist working class communities education, whilst often equally inadequate although for slightly different reasons, has always been seen by a majority of people as the foremost opportunity to a better life economically. Sadly this has not been so within Unionist Working Class communities. As far as I can gather there is no equivalent within Loyalism of individuals like Dr Anthony McIntyre or Dr Pat Magee, working class Republicans who both gained doctorates while imprisoned, let alone the hundreds of Republican prisoners who gained lesser educational qualifications, although rightly of equal importance to those who achieved them.

Within the Unionist working class community in the North, as in many similar communities elsewhere in the world during the industrial age, parents set their sights on their male children following in the father's footsteps, down the mine, into the shipyard, docks, etc. The reason this attitude did not take hold to the same degree within nationalist communities in the North was because in the main they were barred from such reasonably well-paid manual jobs by the ingrained bigotry of the northern statelet. Hence many of them became aware and understood the value of education for their children.

In my mind there is absolutely no reason why the kids on the Shankill cannot achieve the levels of educational qualifications achieved in middle class Unionist areas. For this to come about any new government that eventually gets beyond the latest rounds of posing, spinning and self aggrandisement by the north's politicians will have to come clean about the low level of academic achievement currently being attained by many of the most disadvantaged children in the North. Having said this they can then get on with doing something about it. All of the participants in this new assembly government, if and when it comes about, will have the unique opportunity of being able to truthfully proclaim, “It was not us who were responsible for the sorry mess in education but the British government.” Thus even within the limitations of their power as far as education is concerned, they have an opportunity to serve the people of the North.

Unfortunately there is a major flaw within the GFA that may make these politicians behave true to past form. That is, the agreement was set up along sectarian lines, thus many of the north's politicians view their main responsibility as being solely towards their own community. Thus it is difficult, when the agreement all but encourages it, not to see how pork barrelling can be avoided. Still this is where SF has a great opportunity if they are, as in the past, allocated the Ministry of Education. If so they will have a chance to prove that they have the interests of the Unionist working class communities as much at heart as they do the nationalist.

Finally it is impossible to write about education in the North without pointing out that 95% of Northern Ireland schoolchildren are educated in segregated schools, with all this implies for cross community inter-relationships. In reality segregated mean either Church of Ireland or Roman Catholic administered schools. This has surly got to be challenged and reduced rapidly. Incoming Education Ministers must set targets of how, on this issue, change will come about promptly. However one should not lose sight of the fact with faith schools on the rise for political reasons across the Irish Sea and the fact that any incoming Assembly Education Ministers will almost certainly have sent their own kids to the North's segregated schools, is hardly a good omen for the future as far as solving this problem is concerned. Still, if we reach the stage of there being another N.I. Government, in which the DUP and SF can co-exist in office, all is surely to play for.



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The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent



All censorships exist to prevent any one from challenging current conceptions and existing institutions. All progress is initiated by challenging current conceptions, and executed by supplanting existing institutions. Consequently the first condition of progress is the removal of censorships.
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Index: Current Articles

5 October 2004

Other Articles From This Issue:

Marty O'Hagan Three Years On
Anthony McIntyre

Say it in Breac'n English (Part Three)
Seaghán Ó Murchú

Shankill Education
Mick Hall

Where Are We After Fours Years of Intifada?
Haithem El-Zabri

The Letters page has been updated.

2 October 2004

John Kerry: He's Milking it, He's Milking it!!!
Patrick Hurley

Ultimate Deadline by Endless Postponement
Anthony McIntyre

Say it in Breac'n English (Part Two)
Seaghán Ó Murchú

Tears of Women Heal the World
Elana Golden

When a Beautiful Soul Comes to Visit
Mary La Rosa

Via Haiti US megaphones Venezuela: "Will you comply?!"
Toni Solo



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