On a Wednesday evening last April – just two weeks after the commemorative meetings at Queen’s University to mark the Good Friday Agreement anniversary – a remarkable but little noticed event took place in the Long Gallery in Parliament Buildings.
For one evening only politics returned to Stormont. Issues were debated. MLAs from across the political divide participated.
It was inspired by twenty Year 11 students – ten from St.Dominic’s Grammar School and ten from Friends’ School Lisburn. They had worked together for eight months within a shared education programme and this was the evening when they presented their report and recommendations on different aspects of gender equality to their friends, teachers, parents, school governors and a cross party panel of seven politicians who represented the various parties which sit in the Assembly.
The class explored four different aspects of gender equality here in Northern Ireland – bullying of LGBT pupils, how depression and mental health issues affect boys and girls differently, a woman’s right to choose – whether it be the right to breast feed in public or to have an abortion – and same-sex marriage.
The class had spent two terms exploring how we might bring the law in Northern Ireland more into line with that of our nearest neighbours, Great Britain and Ireland. The students talked to people who are affected by the current legislation, interviewed representatives from all seven political parties in Northern Ireland and met journalists and front bench spokespeople from the two main parties in Dublin.
The emphasis throughout the course was on the practical side of politics and leadership rather than the theoretical. The class developed an appreciation of the importance of listening, as much as contributing, to the debate, of demonstrating respect to those who hold opposing views and a mastery of the key skills involved in establishing win – win solutions.
The students gained immensely in self confidence and leadership skills. Two fourteen year old students, one from each school, were totally unfazed by an interview on “Good Morning Ulster”, much to the astonishment of their delighted parents.
At the end of our session the MLAs offered their verdict on what they’d heard. It was a thumbs up. The MLAs endorsed the manifesto which the students had drafted. What was even more amazing was the change which had come over the politicians during the presentation. They seemed infused by a fresh energy.
Our politicians don’t have a great image but what I realised that evening was that, regardless of their different backgrounds, each one of them had stood for election because they wanted to make a difference. Sure, like all of us, they have egos and personal ambitions, but they had entered politics primarily to engage with the issues which matter to their fellow citizens.
It was clear that no one was more frustrated with the current set up than they were.
As we went our separate ways at the end of the evening, a couple of MLAs asked me, “What’s next?” And, in truth, I hadn’t thought much beyond that evening in Stormont.
Slowly the combination of the enthusiasm of the young people with whom I had worked and the desire of the MLAs to make a difference got me thinking. What if this was only the start of something much bigger? Could we roll the project out to other schools in Northern Ireland? Could we work together to help the next generation learn from the mistakes of our generation?
I contacted the MLAs with whom we had worked. Would they agree to form an advisory committee and use their expertise to guide us? Would they even respond to my email?
They not only all responded with alacrity but enthusiastically embraced the initiative. They were especially keen to expand the project across the widest possible range of schools – including those which are based in areas of socio-economic deprivation, have limited resources and little or no prior experience of shared learning – and wanted to ensure the inclusion of students from marginalised groups.
Paula Bradley, Karen Mullan, Nichola Mallon, Mike Nesbitt , Nuala McAllister, Clare Bailey and Gerry Carroll agreed to form an advisory committee to support the project. We have already held our first meeting in Stormont to explore how to translate that aspiration into reality. Their endorsements testify to their determination to make this initiative work. What is especially significant is the similarity between the reasons for their support and the absence of any spin or point scoring.
Paula Bradley (DUP):
“I have enjoyed my involvement in this project. It is important to encourage and enthuse young people about politics and the decisions that affect their lives. It is easy to be put off politics, or not recognise its importance. I am in the business of championing practical politics. My party supports increased co-operation and sharing in education, and I wish those involved with this project continued success”.
Karen Mullan (Sinn Fein):
“Sinn Fein is very supportive of shared education and the evidence has shown that when schools work together in partnership and in tandem with good leadership it leads to better outcomes for pupils. Sinn Fein is particularly committed to tackling educational inequalities and addressing educational underachievement, both of which are inextricably linked. To properly address these issues Sinn Fein wants to work with other progressive parties to put equality at the centre of our children’s education”.
Nichola Mallon (SDLP):
“The SDLP is delighted to support the ‘Politics In Action’ schools programme. Some of the most engaged and compassionate citizens in our society are our young people. This program not only recognises that but will give young people a greater opportunity to come together to debate and importantly try to reach consensus on some of the greatest challenges facing us. As well as helping them to develop valuable skills for life, this project will help encourage I hope, a new generation of political leaders to step forward”.
Mike Nesbitt (Ulster Unionist):
“I am keen to express my unqualified support for the Politics in Action initiative. As a matter of principle, I believe you can never do enough to engage the community in thinking about the power of politics, nor can you start too young. Having witnessed the conclusion of the inaugural programme, I need no persuading that Politics in Action is an excellent vehicle to achieve the above in a manner that promotes shared education.”
Nuala McAllister (Alliance):
“During my year as Lord Mayor of Belfast, I was delighted to host a group of young people from Belfast who were so enthusiastic about engaging in local politics; it is great to see the programme expand. We in Alliance are more than happy to support this initiative, ‘Politics In Action,” in the hope that more young people across Northern Ireland find their voice and confidence to participate in public life and use their voice for change.”
Clare Bailey (Green):
‘I am delighted to see the Politics in Action school project become established.
This is a shared education project that is centred on the principles of civic participation where by the students develop the skills needed to listen and learn from each other and the end result is to reach agreed outcomes.
I hope that many more of our current politicians will get involved. Who knows they might even learn a thing or two from the students’.
Gerry Carroll (People Before Profit):
Too often our society is focused on what separates, divides and keeps us apart rather than those issues which we have a common interest in fixing. The pupils at St. Dominic’s and Friends Lisburn have demonstrated how young people can come together in a positive way to discuss and resolve the issues that are effecting young people today. A lot of people in Stormont and Westminster could learn a great deal from speaking to these fantastic young people”
The Principals of the to schools involved have no doubts about the initiative’s educational value.
Carol McCann (Principal, St. Dominic’s, Belfast):
“Politics in Action provided wonderful opportunities for pupils from St Dominic’ s and Friends’ School to come together to discuss and debate the issues which matter to them and to young people everywhere. They were given a unique opportunity to research and plan together, to meet with, and challenge politicians both North and South. All of the pupils grew in confidence and developed a multiplicity of skills through the process which culminated in an event in the Long Gallery at Parliament Buildings when they presented their findings to politicians, educators, representatives of their respective Boards of Governors, and last but not least, their very proud parents. In education, we talk much about Pupil Voice. This experience was Pupil Voice at its very best. Beyond all that they have gained, the pupils involved will have fond memories of this experience forever.”
Stephen Moore (Principal, Friends’ School, Lisburn):
“Politics in Action has allowed our pupils to gain experiences they would not otherwise have had, and has challenged them to think. In the context of Shared Education, it has given them invaluable opportunities to engage with other young people and has helped them see the world from a different perspective. I look forward to our continuing involvement in Politics in Action and to hearing what our young people have to say about how they want to shape their futures in Northern Ireland and beyond.”
There is still much to do but our aim is to launch the project next year. When it gets off the ground (as it will) the credit will be largely due to the enterprise of twenty Year 11 students supported by seven politicians who had the courage and vision to recognise that by working together, each one of us can make a difference for the better.