Clintons back aid for loyalist area schools
A range of high-profile figures who helped secure the Northern Ireland peace process are joining forces in a new campaign to assist schools in deprived Protestant areas.
The US, British and Irish politicians will return for a special event marking the Agreement's 20th anniversary next month. They will launch their campaign to tackle educational underachievement by children in disadvantaged loyalist areas.
The event organised by the newly founded Goliath Trust is backed by Bill and Hillary Clinton, Senator George Mitchell, former Prime Minister Tony Blair, and former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern.
Other key figures supporting the campaign are former UUP leader Lord Trimble, DUP MP Ian Paisley, former Irish government negotiator Liz O'Donnell, ex-SDLP leader Mark Durkan, Baroness May Blood, and former Women's Coalition leader Monica McWilliams.
They are all expected at the launch of the event in Belfast's Europa Hotel on April 11. The Goliath Trust said it will provide targeted financial support to schools that are most in need.
Eight of the 12 schools are based in the Greater Shankill area and include Malvern, Forthriver, Harmony, Blackmountain, Springhill, Edenbrooke, Springfield and Glenwood. Other state primary schools receiving assistance are Fane Street and Botanic in south Belfast.
Two Catholic schools will also benefit from funding - Holy Rosary in Belfast's Ormeau Road and St Paul's in Beechmount.
Next month's event will be chaired by BBC broadcaster Stephen Nolan, who attended one of the targeted Shankill schools, Springhill Primary.
Goliath Trust executive director Caroline McNeill said: "A total of 31% of children in Northern Ireland are significantly underachieving at primary school level, and this is most apparent in disadvantaged communities, where the legacy of the Troubles has left an indelible mark.
"Malvern Primary School in the lower Shankill has been in the midst of loyalist paramilitary feuding over the past 15 years which has decimated its enrolment and caused trauma that still impacts on the lives of children and their families.
"Around 78% of children in the school are entitled to free school meals and over half require additional support with their learning. We are proud to be able to offer some assistance to this and other schools."
Ms McNeill warned that, if the problem was not addressed now, there would be huge consequences in future years. "The educational outcomes for the bottom third of our young people are simply not good enough," she said.
"Far too many children can't read and write to an adequate standard and will have reduced opportunities available to them when they seek work. The Goliath Trust will not be able to deliver all the solutions, but we recognise the pressing need to begin to bridge the educational gap that so clearly exists."
The Trust is made up of community activists, representatives from the four main churches, and education figures.
Board member and Greater Shankill Partnership chief executive Jackie Redpath said: "While the Good Friday Agreement promised a new dawn for us, some parts of our society have been left behind.
"We are concerned that if we do not act now to support children in the most disadvantaged areas of our society, then we are condemning them to a future without hope. Our peace process depends on young people here believing that they have a stake in this society."
Mr Redpath said intervention during children's early learning was crucial to breaking the vicious circle of underachievement. "If we succeed in supporting our first 12 schools and surrounding communities, then this will have a knock-on effect on health, well-being and peace building," he said.
"Business and the economy will benefit in the long term too from a more confident group of young, skilled workers who are ambitious for their future."
Malvern Primary School's acting principal Jenny Barber said: "Our teachers, parents and pupils have kept faith in our school despite extreme pressures. The support of the Goliath Trust has provided a huge boost to the school environment and gives recognition to everything we are trying to deliver for our pupils."
Ms McNeill said she was delighted to have Senator Mitchell attending the event. "Our peace process hinges on the ongoing support of people like him who recognise that education will always be the most important weapon," she added.