Posted by Dr Joanne Stuart OBE, Director Attrus Limited, IEF Trustee and Former Chairman IoD NI
Club de Madrid is a non-profit think-tank comprising democratic former presidents and prime ministers from 58 countries. It was formed in response to the international need for thoughtful leadership and the reconstruction of societies emerging from conflict – Northern Ireland is not alone!
The “Club” brings together a wealth of intellect and experience to bear on economic and social problems, and it’s no accident that one of its major projects focuses on Shared Societies. To quote from its report:
Shared Societies generate economic dividends for governments, businesses, communities, families, and individuals. Through a “virtuous cycle”, these economic dividends of Shared Society further enhance a society’s capacity to be shared, which in turn, generates more economic dividends.
Sharing and cohesion are crucial in rebuilding a community both economically and psychologically, and business leaders are impatient to see strong leadership providing the roadmap towards a truly shared future for Northern Ireland.
Education plays a vital role in building what the Madrid Club refers to as “society’s capacity to be shared”, yet currently in Northern Ireland, 95% of children learn in a school perceived as belonging to one tradition or the other – despite opinion polls showing almost 90% of people favour integrated education. It is disappointing that the proposals thrown up in Area Based Planning do not include any real attempt at enabling sharing and integration across the school estate.
A business owner not only has to make sure that everyone is treated equally, but must also prove that the working environment is open and welcoming to everyone, no matter their background, creed or colour. This is as it should be; equality legislation underpins a progressive and cohesive society. But there is a dichotomy when the private workplace must comply with this legislation, yet we continue to fund schools from the public purse without any demand that they are actively open in their ethos. Whilst every education sector will tell you that they welcome all cultures and traditions, the reality is that 93% of pupils at maintained schools are from the Catholic tradition, and nearly 75% of pupils in controlled schools designate themselves Protestant. Schools need to take further steps to make their environment one where everyone can be open about their background and learn to accept and be comfortable about difference.
Today’s job market is very different from yesterday’s, with growth in the STEM-related industries, tourism and creative industries and with a culture of labour mobility meaning our young people have to be confident working outside their own communities. Boundaries have to be extended and education must provide the enabling platform giving young people the confidence and skills to broaden their horizons. As it is, the workplace offers the first opportunity for many young people to engage with someone from a different background.
Further, it’s obvious that the public money spent on managing division could be put to much better use. Our schools need to be shared spaces but they also need – and deserve – the best facilities and equipment, introducing pupils to the state-of-the-art technology our industry must use to compete in a global marketplace
Our economic strategy presents a clear vision of export-led growth and inward investment to become a progressive, diverse and outward looking economy. In order to create the “virtuous cycle” we must apply the same clarity of vision to our education system.