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Protestants must learn the value of education

The Troubles left many people in Northern Ireland with little to lose; and the peace process should have brought many gains. In most places it has, but there is a hefty proportion of people who feel little material benefit from political progress and now, with the recession, they feel little hope for the future.

Not so many years ago statistics showed higher unemployment and lower incomes for Catholics in Northern Ireland. Laws on discrimination and structural changes (the RUC becoming the PSNI, for example) have, I'm glad to say, opened up the jobs market. But recent figures suggest that there has not been a levelling out but a reversing of the balance, with the Protestant employment situation worsening faster than their Catholic counterparts' prospects.

How can that be good for anyone? I can list some problems we now face: low achievement among young Protestant males in schools; discontent and in some cases anger and violence. It was so sad to see the eruption of rioting among young people who should be facing their adult years with hope and confidence.

It's the duty of state, church, schools and families to nurture these people; it is immoral to leave them behind as Northern Ireland moves forward, and it is a disservice to our wider society. We hear so much about low academic achievement among Protestant males. Or perhaps we should bemoan the lack of "aspiration" rather than focus on "achievement" measured in certificates? And why do so many Protestant youths lack both?

While the giants of industry towered over Belfast, many working-class Protestants had no incentive to study; there was plenty of work, and a culture which meant it went to the "right sort of people". Historically you learnt on the job, often through a formal apprenticeship.

That, with the factories and mills, has almost gone; but in too many cases the mentality has not shifted towards the idea of gaining the grounding at school and looking for other types of work.

Traditional industry gave life a structure. For those who had ambition to progress there were clear routes to follow. Also the unions were strong, giving a political voice and offering another possible route to personal development.

When there was plenty of work it was pitiful not to work - when I was made redundant in 1990 I had come from a background where we all worked, we paid our stamp and our union sub, we retired when the time came. I had no idea how the benefits system operated; now we have young people who know no other system! We have to open their eyes to possibilities and the broader and more open their experience of education, the better. What saddens me is that almost 20 years ago there was a big push from the community leaders in the Shankill to have the area designated an 'Education Action Zone'. But the project was parked just as we thought we would succeed, and since then we have seen an increase in the problems it was designed to target, and an increase in the cost of tackling them.

I would not deny that one of these problems is the sectarianism which still flares into aggression. This sectarianism has to be openly opposed, and that process should start with the young. I firmly believe that exposing children from an early age to a culture where difference is acknowledged and respected is crucial. Our elected politicians must take the lead; as long as our schools are, in practice, segregated along religious lines, any messages about sharing and equality are sent out in the context of statutory division.

A change in our system of schooling would affect these young lives in so many ways. Sharing resources means wider access to resources. This better use of the budget would mean ending the current duplication of services and accepting the sense in working together. This would lead to well-equipped schools and community hubs where libraries and leisure centres flourish instead of being run down or closed. Best practice in the classroom can be discussed and shared.

Education should be responsive to the needs of young people and the changing culture they are living in. We have good teachers who offer this, but they need good structures, properly resourced, to work in. A classroom where diversity is respected means young people are comfortable in their own culture and identity. This then broadens horizons, whereas segregation allows people to look no further than the end of their street. Young people need to feel part of a wider world, where there opportunities can be found or created.

I should point out that for some years, at grassroots, many people have been quietly reaching out to neighbours. It's up to politicians to build on this and to follow the lead of the voters. A senior Tory at Westminster was derided for saying we were all in the recession together - but we are all in Northern Ireland together, we are all working through the peace process together, and to weather the economic storm all sections of the community must feel that we are moving to a better future together.