In a work capacity, I was invited to attend the Spirit of Enniskillen’s annual Together schools conference at the Wellington Park Hotel, which brought together over 100 Year 13 pupils from 20 schools across Northern Ireland, to explore and discuss 6th Form leadership for the Sharing in Education programme that is supported by the International Fund for Ireland.
The first workshop was among practitioners. In our group, former SoE Director, Chuck Richardson, expressed his fear that the Northern Ireland Executive may support shared education programmes for economic reasons (i.e. the inevitable need to reduce stock of school buildings), but not include programmes that will prepare pupils for the mixed contact that will bring. Robin Wilson added that this risks what has developed in parts of Scotland, where pupils end up segregating themselves within the shared space.
The second workshop was with a group of about a dozen Together participants; I was the only non-participant. They asked themselves a series of questions about leadership among young people, how it could be developed. Some of them didn’t see themselves as leaders, yet, but I said that I thought they were being a little hard on themselves — the fact that each of them care enough to want to change something they don’t see as right in their community and that they’ve put themselves through this course was evidence that they were already leaders.
But it became apparent to me that these young leaders aren’t necessarily getting enough mentoring support. They all had praise for the facilitation during the course, and acknowledged those in their school environments, but felt they weren’t yet given due respect in the wider community. Indeed, one participant remarked that she came up against a gatekeeping scenario, where the young leaders weren’t given true ownership of a particular external programme.
My concern is that without leadership developed beynod these programmes, through mentoring, each tranche of SoE participants become pioneers but ultimately frustrated. An important factor for some consideration.
It was great to hear feedback from the participants themselves, in an informal plenary session:
Some points made were:
- Together programme is useful because it brings people together to do things together, which otherwise isn’t going to happen
- Talking about contentious issues doesn’t change your identity, but it does improve understanding of another’s perspective
- It builds confidence in speaking with those that you do not know
- Participants serve as advocates for this work in their own schools
- The importance of mixing with others at a younger age, “because we all live in the same place”
- Discussions with others can be hard at first, but easier as you get to know them
- The positive role that facilitators play
Department of Education Minister, John O’Dowd MLA, was a guest speaker and he made positive remarks:
The Minister said that building a new society requires leadership, and that the Good Friday Agreement was created to serve as a device to build a new society, with leadership at all levels. He said more than once not to let the politicians get away with all the leadership roles.
And that leadership can be lonely, and when they feel this way, to remember why they joined this SoE programme, why they set out on this journey — to make change.
Ms Mary Southwell, International Fund for Ireland board member, also made some brief remarks, describing all the programme’s participants as role models for society: “There is no doubt that our future is in really good hands.”
It was up to Maeve Grimley (SoE School Support Worker and acting emcee, and as the Education Minister would have her, a future journalist!) to conclude the conference. She said that she hoped the participants enjoyed the programme’s opportunities to meet others and discuss important issues. And fittingly, she evoked the memory of SoE founder, Gordon Wilson, whom she described as someone who wanted to enable ordinary people to do extradorinary things with good leadership.