Posts Tagged Northern Ireland

An Education – our Primary Focus (Part 4)

Feeling almost hopeful today after reading The Guardian piece on Frank Field (former Labour minister, now the Coalition’s “Poverty Advisor”)) preparing review on ‘how to prevent poor children becoming poor adults’.

Apparently, Field said he said he was disturbed by research showing how accurate a prediction can be made as to where a child will be in their 20s, by looking at their ability at 22 months and just before five years. Narrowing divisions in children’s readiness for school at five was central to tackling divisions in later life, he said.

He is right to be disturbed. But he shouldn’t be surprised.

Certainly this has been known to the wonderful Sutton Trust Charity for some time and even an uninformed observer such as myself has been bemoaning the lack of interest in and commitment to progress interventions aimed at supporting the development of disadvantaged children in their most formative years. My three previous posts over the past year on the subject: herehere and here.

This has been a particular concern of mine in Northern Ireland where most of last year was spent arguing on post Primary education when the real prize is – as the Sutton Trust continually point out – closing the cognitive and associated aspirational gap among children way way before we start to concern ourselves with means of post primary selection.

Anyway, maybe Field is starting to listen and will follow through on the plans outlined in the article. If so that’s commendable but I also hope this is only the start.

In Northern Ireland I hope @conallmcd and NI Minister for Education, Caitríona Ruane take notice. Closer to home I hope that @cllrstevereed and @chukaumunna pick this up and recognise it is for this very reason that local residents are so concerned about plans for an extension of the Ofsted rated Outstanding Sudbourne Road Primary School (and nursery).

What I wrote in March of this year seems still to be relevant today. Shame. But saves me re-typing:

“Consistently on this blog I have maintained that while some form of streaming or selection is a must in any mature and inclusive education system, our real focus should be on primary education; on ensuring our administration of that education is innovative and inclusive enough to support pupils from socio-economically disadvantaged backgrounds and encouraging an ethos of and commitment to  ”concerted cultivation” of our young children among parents and local communities.  We are currently failing our young people during their most formative years”.

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An Education – our Primary focus

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I meant to comment on this last month but travel kept me away from the PC:

This was a fascinating article on February’s Sutton Trust Report and I was actually genuinely delighted to see an echo of a  few of my suggestions made back in October 2009 in a article on the long running post Primary School selection process in Northern Ireland:   

(check under “some humble suggestions”)

More and more we are coming to understand that education is a sophisticated and much more social process than any narrow debate in NI about post primary education selection or means of selection would have us believe. Consistently on this blog I have maintained that while some form of streaming or selection is a must in any mature and inclusive education system, our real focus should be on primary education; on ensuring our administration of that education is innovative and inclusive enough to support pupils from socio-economically disadvantaged backgrounds and encouraging an ethos of and commitment to  “concerted cultivation” of our young children among parents and local communities.  We are currently failing our young people during their most formative years.

NI has wasted over a year wrangling on the narrow issue of post primary selection. It’s time someone started to address the more formative, fundamental – and root cause – issues associated with Primary Education, otherwise the means of post Primary selection will be entirely a moot point.  There are some easy ‘quick win’ fixes to this challenge as I and the Sutton Report suggest while we understand how to cultivate that wider community and parental ability to contribute to the life-long success of our most precious resources. 

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Will the real Gordon Brown and David Cameron please stand up?

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown captured d...
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The last few weeks have left me still puzzled by both the leader of the Government and the leader of the opposition.

Yesterday I watched a large portion of the Prime Minister’s latest meeting with the Parliamentary liaison Committee. It was fascinating not just in the range of subject matters but also because it demonstrated the undeniable grasp Gordon Brown has on all aspects of Government. His performance was assured, informed and in parts both deferential and humorous.  He seemed more at ease then I’ve seen him for some time. It was a reassuring performance.  I wonder does he sense the tide turning with latest polls suggesting a rather meagre 7% gap between the parties?

He seems, if anything, to hve been emboldened by the abortive, potentially divisive and certainly irresponsible (speaking as a Labour voter) ‘leadership challenge’ of Hoon and Hewitt.

And yet still, so often, in Public he fails to project the same reassuring persona/political force as he did in front of fellow parliamentarians yesterday. And the Clare Short testimony has raised more questions about who Gordon Brown really is – the sulking, whispering, marginalised coffee drinker or a conscientious war objector whose Political loyalties took precedence over his personal instincts? The general sense coming out of the Chicott enquiry will be tat he left the Dept Defense vulnerable as a result of major cost cuttin in the months aftr the Iraq war. But is should be made clear that all those testifying – including John Reid – agreed that the actual needs of war in Iraq were met, the overall impact on the Armed Services was significant.  This is a subtle but to his opponents unimportant difference and at today’s PMQ David Cameron was back on top as he dished out a good od fashioned battering of the PM on this basis.

Meanwhile across the house, apart from todays PMQs,  it has not been a great few weeks for Mr Cameron or the Conservatives. Flip flopping first on recognising/rewarding marriage within the tax system (something I vehemently disagree with on a number of grounds – not just scientifically) and then on the extent of cuts in the first year of any Conservative Parliament…”not swingeing”?! And yest the Shadow Chancellor continues to sound slightly more bullish on the extent of savings that must be made immediately. I wonder how they felt in Davos when almost every other country in attendance was in the Brown/Darling camp of “its too early to stop spending and risk falling back into recession”.  Of course – the rest of the world – including the US could be wrong and Cameron and Osborne could be right…. I wonder.  The pressure continues to come for his party to reveal more specific details of their economic plan and the word “inconsistency” seems to be appearing more and more in headlines associated with the Conservatives. If the Labour Party is smart there is ground to be made up with that line if it is played well.

And then, with my Northern Irish hat on, his Political naivity in the role he played in the infamous “Hatfield House” Unionist Unity talks. Did he take a moment to think how these might appear to the Nationalist community in Northern Ireland? How on earth can he expect to play the role of independent peacekeeper and arbiter for NI politics in the ext Parliament is he was now to be elected?

The embarassment of the Lord Stern announcement and subsequent retraction might seem like small beans but it was embarassing and is just another suggestion of the naivity of a party who want the General Public to elect them to manage one of the most challenging periods of social and economic upheaval many of us have known.

Some of his sheen and confidence has clearly been knocked. The Prime Minister has been in the main resurgent at recent PMQs (today excepted) and it feels like, if not seismic, there has been a slight shift in the fortunes of these two leaders.

As Sir Alex Ferguson likes to say, this is now the business end of the football and Political seasons, what he likes to call “squeaky bum” time.  An interesting battle of style, personality and political nous is playing out between these two men who would be king.  I wonder who’s bum is squeaking most right now?


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A New Vanguard?

Parliament Buildings of Stormont in Belfast, N...
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Very pleased to see Conall McDevitt take his place as SDLP MLA in Stormont just recently.

I don’t know Conall but I follow his blog avidly and have great reports on him from various friends in and around the SDLP and NI Public Relations.

Like Cllr Ian Parsley (whom I have mentioned here a number of times), Conall aspires to a more a secular, considered and constructive Politics for the people of NI.  This should be our simple right. Instead we continue to squander the promises of devolved government on petty scrabbling for scraps from the sectarian table…forgetting that we surely hoped for and certainly deserve something more. 

These are important times for NI and its Politicians. 2010 promises to be a challenging year for all in the UK and NI in particular. Perhaps when our elected officials get beyond settling their self-interested scores on Policing and Justice they might have enough time to consider some more minor issues for the coming year. Oh like:

  • The post primary education shambles
  • The certainty of Public Sector reform whether at the hands of a Conservative or Labour Government….how much longer can we expect to sustain a position when more than 60% of our economy based on the Public Sector? And if efficiencies are required – and let’s agree they will be – what will the effect be on NI’s already struggling economy when we have to cut loose public sector workers on a disproportionately small Private Sector?
  • Improving our Health Care provision in the face of proposals for £100m+ “targeted” cost savings in the 2010 – 2011 year
  • Taking action on the 2009 IREP report…what is the “Northern Irish advantage” to be and who – if anyone – is going to make it happen for the short, medium or longer term?
  • Water Charges….we know no one wants to talk about it but this Ostrich has to come up for air soon surely?
  • The growing crisis of a generation of young men and woman in some of NI most socially deprived areas leaving school with no qualifications, plan for training or hope for employment

Is it just me or do those Parades suddenly seem like a walk in the park? Yet 7 days and counting…..and there they still are while Rome burns.

So Conall – good luck to you. I’ll be following with interest. Its a big job but do not waver from your instincts – they are the right ones and they are shared by far more of us than many of your colleagues at Hillsborough appear to understand or care.

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Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes (N Ireland style)

Growing up in Northern Ireland it takes a lot to surprise you after a while – particularly anything remotely political or paramilitary.  We seem to specialise in the ridiculous.  But this excerpt from a posting on Slugger O’Toole today left me quite speechless.

In an article about Community Restorative Justice Schemes, the piece cites this BBC Radio report:

“Harry Maguire is an ex-IRA prisoner who was convicted of murder. He now works for Community Restorative Justice, an organisation who try to stop punishment shootings. “A number of the shootings that have taken place over the last year have been done in a very haphazard manner,” he said. “They’re unprofessional with what they’re doing. There’s been a number of these punishment shootings where the intention has been to shoot someone in the knees. On one occasion a person was shot in the shoulder.”

Yes, let me repeat that:

“There’s been a number of these punishment shootings where the intention has been to shoot someone in the knees. On one occasion a person was shot in the shoulder”

I’ve only fired a gun a few times – and almost always legally of course and even I fancy my chances of hitting a knee in the course of close up act of “community policing”.  At worst I’d settle for back of the thigh and put it down to nerves. But the shoulder…..the shoulder?!?! Who are these people?!

I shouldn’t laugh but really….all together now….”head, shoulders knees or toes (knees or toes?!)”?

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A Confederacy of Dunces

Reconciliation Sculpture at Stormont, Belfast
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One of my favorite books is the wonderful “A Confederacy of Dunces” by John Kennedy Toole.  It’s a shame he cornered the market on that wonderful turn of phrase for it could oft be used to describe goings on at Stormont – no more so in the last few weeks.

How dispiriting to see the same old games of tribal/religious (don’t ever mistake what we have in Northern Ireland for genuine politics) brinkmanship played out to the familiar backdrop of Stormont and Hillsborough Castle on the, to be frank, relatively minor issue (in the context of poposed healthare budget cuts, economic fragility and the post primary education shambles) of Policing and Justice devolution.

I was ready to vent my spleen on this topic today, having climbed back on the Blogging saddle as it were but then in catching up on six weeks of Google Reader reading (?!) I came across yet another excellent post from Jeff Peel.
I couldn’t have said it better in any way, so I won’t try. You can just visit here instead and enjoy.

I’ll leave you instead with some wise words offered by JTK via his unique creation Ignatius J. Reilly – a sentiment shared perhaps by all of us watching with interest those on ‘the hill’:

“Then you must begin a reading program immediately so that you may understand the crises of our age,” Ignatius said solemnly. “Begin with the late Romans, including Boethius, of course. Then you should dip rather extensively into early Medieval. You may skip the Renaissance and the Enlightenment. That is mostly dangerous propaganda. Now that I think of it, you had better skip the Romantics and the Victorians. For the contemporary period, you should study some selected comic books.”


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Embarassed, NI

Young people interacting within society.
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“Out of Ireland have we come.
Great hatred, little room,
Maimed us at the start.”  

WB Yeats (1865 – 1939)



Thanks to Conall McDevitt for bringing to my attention the unfortunate and unsavoury actions of a few mindless NI Facebookers.

This sort of story makes me so ashamed of my otherwise proud Northern Irish (and Irish) heritage. But it isn’t a surprise – I sadly am convinced that too many of our population still bear many of the insular and xenophobic attributes of a people inhabiting a small island on the western fringes of Europe that has for many years been a cauldron for national, racial, religious and community suspicion/conflict.

The events of the summer involving the South Belfast Romany community echoes throughout this latest news piece. But it does not end there. Sadly I have seen, first hand, how racist some members of our society can be as a consequence of tree or four separate instances directed at either my Eritrean born Canadian wife or myself as her partner.  You’ll forgive me if I spare you the details and expletives.  Instances that mean she will never now acquiesce to my long held dream to move back home and raise a family. And I can’t really blame her.

As always of course – and I do recognise this – much of this is the work and views of a (albeit a potentially significant) minority – most of my fellow countrymen and women recognise that we know as much as any nation about the challenges of settling in foreign lands or the hospitality afforded to our people by foreign governments as a consequence of our own diaspora throughout the late 19th and 20th centuries. We are, in the main, a warm and hospitable people who recognise the obligation on us to provide refuge to those who cannot find it elsewhere but also the merits of managed and facilitated immigration.

However at a time when, as a small island economy trying to get off our knees, we need all the friends (tourists, investors, advocates) we can make, we should never underestimate – particularly in the age of social media – how stories like this play out across the globe and influence perception of us as a people and a place.

I’m tempted to take this on a tangent related to the reform of the education system in NI and in particular the importance of the Primary School system in preparing our children not just for further education but to be well rounded, informed and considered members of civic society – true ambassadors for our corner of the world, but it’s late. But those who brought shame on NI with their Facebook vitriol are evidence that something – however isolated the powers that be may claim – isn’t working in how we prepare our young people to prosper in a multi-cultural society and that needs to be addressed (at home, at school and in local communities).  That is  definitely one of my aspirations for our work at the Washington Ireland Program for Service and Leadership.

There is plenty to joke about in this sad day and age without spouting “ironic” vitriol at the expense of some of our society’s most vulnerable members.  Let’s close on this one from Dave Barry – I couldn’t think of a ‘joke’ more apt right now:

“Ireland is a medium-sized rural island that is slowly but steadily being consumed by sheep”.


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BIUF Launch

BIUF I was delighted to be invited last week by Thomas Lowe and Chris Punch to the launch of their new London based NI Political Networking group – the British Irish Ulster Foundation (note the timeless challenges of finding a universally suitable and inclusive (read inoffensive) name for any cross-Northern Ireland Political interest organisation!).

The aims of BIUF are set out on their website. The principle is a good one and for those of us in London with an active interest in NI Politics it’s another good reason to congregate, speculate and gesticulate on all matters Norn Iron. The first event, held in The Houses of Parliament last week saw a solid crowd brave the inimitable evening HoP queues to hear from Cllr Ian Parsley, Alisdair McDonnell and Welsh Labour MP, Chris Ruaneon the topic: “The future of Stormont: building bridges, breaking ties”.

It was an interesting evening. I personally came away most impressed with Cllr Parsley – who I had been aware of by reputation alone. I’m probably an easy sell though being someone whose interest in NI politics is solely on matters of political (i.e. not tribal) ideology. And it is for those reasons that I am actually a little excited to see where the likes of Cllr Parsley see the Conservative UU Party alliance going. If the Conservatives can really make this about something broader than the preservation of the Union then I think they might surprise some people in how attractive they could become. If they get caught up in the traditionally narrow political agenda of Union-ism at the expense of all else then it will be a real shame, not just for them but for those of us who are desperate to see an ongoing “normalisation” of political debate in NI.

Anyway – I though Cllr Parsley spoke well. He was reflective, considered and provocative when necessary. He clearly has a challenging time ahead but I will watch on with interest.

SDLP’s Alasdair McDonnell however, did not perform as well. And that’s a shame for me as the SDLP is my natural political party. But I fear for them – I’m not sure I or they are entirely clear on where they are going or how they plan to get there. None of the SDLP leadership candidates – in my opinion – offer a remotely viable alternative to the leaders of the other parties (damning praise indeed) and as one of my friends – a Conservative PPC in the next GE married to a SDLP supporter texted me a few weeks ago: “Watching Spotlight in NI. Margaret Ritchie is on. If this is the best SDLP have to offer god help you and them”. What a shame. Oh the cruel irony that is their (and the UUPs) isolation as a consequence of the Good Friday Agreement.

My biggest source of surprise (and disappointment) on the night was Dr McDonnell’s response to my question on reflections to the recent NI IREP. Mr McDonnell stated that the future for the NI economy was in “small, one and two person” companies and not “these big multi-nationals…who eventually sail off to Malaysia or wherever”. I and the delightful (but I’ll leave un-named for their own protection) Invest NI attendee (who I met at the end of the evening) seated beside me could hardly believe our ears. I made the point later in the night that I was sure NYSE would be delighted to hear that on the back of their creating 400 well paid jobs the week before. I’m not saying there is no place for SMEs – of course there is and must continue to be – but as an act of suppressing economic development, all but dismissing MNCs as potential investment partners for Northern Ireland Inc takes some beating.

Chris Ruane spoke well but had an easier task in presenting findings on the dire state of education in some parts of NI with ELBs in debt and large swathes of young people (from geographic locations commonly associated with social deprivation and exclusion – (surprise surprise) leaving school with no qualifications (at all). Sobering stuff and another reminder of the real issues of the day we need to see Stormont addressing. The night ended with some time honoured drinks and networking where I had the pleasure of meeting a number of attendees – all of whom impressed with their intellect and insight. Generally it was a fine start for BIUF and I look forward to being part of the network as it grows.

Well done Tom and Chris.

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Happy 15th WIP

A proud moment

A proud moment

October 8th was a proud day for all of us who have – in one way or another – been fortunate enough to benefit from our association with The Washington Ireland Program for Service and Leadership (WIP) as it celebrated it’s 15th Birthday in Dublin.

It was a particularly proud day for me as a WIP Alumni (1997) as my employer, Accenture, agreed to co-sponsor the celebrations, our second Annual WIP Celtic Cup Golf fundraiser was a wonderful success at the K Club in Kildare and I was afforded the opportunity to join President of Ireland, Mary McAleese and US Ambassador to Ireland Dan Rooney in speaking from the stage to those attending the evening reception at Dublin Castle.

The Washington Ireland Program for Service and Leadership (WIP) is a unique, not for profit,  US-Ireland charity that is helping to prepare the next generation of young Public Service leaders from Northern Ireland, Ireland and, through it’s sister Program The South African Washington Ireland Program (SAWIP), South Africa. Starting off back in 1995 as a program exclusively about conflict resolution in Northern Ireland and restricted to a small number of NI students only, the program has matured into a broader international program addressing a wide range of issues which a new generation of leaders will be required to tackle.

Every year, WIP inspires and equips ~30 young people from Northern Ireland and Ireland and 6-8 from South Africa, who have distinguished themselves in their own communities (academically, socially, politically or through acts of Public Service), to lead.  It does this by offering scholarships on our Service and Leadership Development Program. Over the course of this 6 month Program each year WIP works with these young people to:

  •  Encourage and reward acts of active citizenship and Public Service in their own communities – required in order to gain acceptance onto/graduation from the Program
  • Expands their professional leadership skills by placing them in Political, Business and Social internships for 6 weeks in Washington DC each summer*
  • Creates an environment in which they are challenged to consider and develop the leadership skills (and conscience) necessary to address the real and immediate Public Service challenges of their generation – development of post conflict societies; economic recovery and sustainability; social exclusion/mobility; social enterprise; religious and cultural dislocation
  • Supports them in completing Public Service projects in the USA (e.g. a New Orleans clean up effort in 2007) and
  • Administers a Public Service leadership development training course during their Washington DC summer internship.

These skills are perhaps less fashionable/typical in a charitable sense but they are absolutely necessary and we should not be ashamed of investing in their development. I like  think of it as an act of supreme optimism (a gamble on inspiring future leaders) and investment in long term sustainability – sustaining Public Service and Leadership skills (and commitment) for the next generation. That’s an investment from which many others will in turn benefit – WIPs ‘power of multiplication’.

At a time when the idea of and need for “leadership” has never been greater across the globe, I am so proud to be associated with WIP.  We WIP Alumni are a very special and privileged group. Each of us has been provided with the gift of opportunity: the opportunity to learn; the opportunity to gain perspective and understanding; the opportunity to live with, work with and meet some of the most inspiring servants and leaders imaginable – our host families, our intern colleagues, our guest speakers, our WIP and SAWIP classmates. What we do with that opportunity is now up to each of us. Trust has been placed in us that we make good on the investment that has been made in us by the groups above as well as the WIP Board. What we do next determines the direction and meaning of this Program.

At a time when we face some unprecedented challenges on a local and global scale: challenges of economic recovery and development, social mobility, international conflict; energy provision and sustainability; rising nationalism and associated racism…….I think WIP asks all of us associated with it this question: 

 “If I am not for myself then who will be? But if I am only for myself – who am I? And if not now – when?’

That’s a question we must continue to ask – at home and abroad.  Happy Birthday WIP. Here’s to 15 more.

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