IEF: integrated education essential to drive prosperity

Tony-Carson-(14)Entrepreneur and author Tony Carson gives a candid external view of Northern Ireland and emphasises the imperative of integration for local growth and inward investment.

When Mayor Bloomberg addressed a US – Northern Ireland investment conference four years ago, he struck a chord with many entrepreneurs.  To me as a businessman, his statement still rings true; with the difference that Northern Ireland PLC is currently operating in a much tougher economic climate.  It’s even tougher when you still carry the burden of an historical reputation for division and unrest.  Pictures of Martin McGuinness with Queen Elizabeth II, of the new Titanic centre, or of the First and deputy First Ministers together at the Giant’s Causeway are all useful marketing tools, but I don’t feel that images are enough to persuade investors to do business in Northern Ireland.

I have a strong commitment to Northern Ireland.   I was born and brought up here, though we eventually moved to England as my father Frank Carson’s  showbiz career took him there. But I return frequently.  My business activities,  however, are carried out elsewhere, mainly in the UK and, more recently, in the Republic of Ireland.   I have interests in the hospitality industry as well as in manufacturing and communications. I have invested in Northern Ireland’s  future philanthropically through my involvement in charities including the Integrated Education Fund; but I have not yet felt able to invest here entrepreneurially  and I am representative of many business leaders in this.

The positive images coming out of  Northern Ireland, such as the warm and enthusiastic crowds at the Irish Open Golf Tournament at Portrush recently, can certainly create interest in the place.  But  when a company investigates Northern Ireland as a place to do business, there will be a number of factors influencing their decision: economic incentives being a major one, but  the social context in which the company would be operating is also crucial.

I’m sure I don’t need to reiterate the costs to the public purse of the social divisions and duplicated services  in Northern Ireland. However, the focus for growth has to be on private business and it’s time to acknowledge the effect of division on the private sector in Northern Ireland.

Business is about people. Firstly the people who will buy from you – and Northern Ireland can certainly supply a market. Then there are the people who will work in a business; Northern Ireland can also supply an educated workforce, with an upper stream of high achievers.  But academic qualifications, whilst worthy of celebration, are not enough in business terms.

To face an increasingly diverse world,  a job candidate must have a horizon broader than the end of the street where they grew up;  a street bounded by ‘their’ church, ‘their’ school and still in some cases “their” mural on the gable end.  Successful education produces a willingness to learn, and not just to learn from books; it produces openness to new ideas and viewpoints. The experience of school life is crucial in this and Northern Ireland’s segregated system fails in that respect.
And whilst lower tuition fees may keep bright students at home for a few years, a section of talented young people become frustrated with what they see as a restricted society, and seek new and varied experiences elsewhere.  We need to offer them the cultural and social nourishment which helps them grow and develop as rounded individuals, and show them that their home turf is a rewarding place to live and work.

And let’s not forget the ‘tail’ of underachievement, of school-leavers not prepared adequately for the world of work; schools and business  must share best practice,  and work for the benefit of pupils and not for institutions.

But beyond this, anyone considering inward investment will expect to bring a number of staff with them, especially executives. The way to retain those valuable employees is to offer a lifestyle which is good for them and for their families.  It has to be a lifestyle at least as good as the one they are being asked to leave.

Hazelwood-IC-(2)Any suggestion of a divided society works against that; as long as you have segregated schooling, then a divided society is part of government policy. While 93 per cent of pupils at Maintained schools are from the Catholic tradition, and nearly 75 per cent of pupils in Controlled schools designate themselves Protestant, it will be difficult to persuade the outside world that Northern Ireland has moved on socially even if its towns and streets are largely peaceful. It will also be difficult to attract new talent if the place is not seen to embrace difference. If the perception is that in Northern Ireland people stick to their own kind, it will not seem likely that newcomers from elsewhere are welcomed into the classroom.

We have seen in Northern Ireland a change to the Police Service to make it more open and acceptable to all sections of the community.  At Stormont, we see cross-community power-sharing and we hear pledges regarding a shared future and a cohesive society.  But business leaders are awaiting the firm evidence of a commitment to sharing and integration at grassroots level, enshrined in how housing and schools reflect popular demand for cohesion.

Overcoming  this recession will take creative thinking and an enterprising mentality; It would be great to see those same attributes applied to the education system in Northern Ireland.

A few years ago I co-wrote a book, Integrate to Accumulate, which explores how a shared school system can fuel both social and economic growth. Taking a global perspective and learning from international examples, we showed how developing a shared future can bring real economic benefits, producing a well-rounded and well-educated workforce and attracting inward investment.

I firmly believe that economic problems cannot be tackled until social divisions have been addressed.  This will take vision and  courage from politicians and decision-makers.  As I’ve said, I am a supporter of the Integrated Education Fund and I campaign in Great Britain, telling people how much potential there is in the young people of Northern Ireland and how much they deserve the opportunity to develop together.   Mayor Bloomberg talked about “the sooner barriers come down” a whole four years ago: tomorrow isn’t soon enough.  I can see a brave new future for Northern Ireland, but I’m impatient to see it become the present. Northern Ireland needs a shared, cohesive future, and it has to start with the young.

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