Business leaders have a strong message for politicians regarding education in Northern Ireland, and a strong wish for their voices to be heard by decision-makers.
A recent business breakfast at Crumlin Road Gaol in Belfast, jointly hosted by the Integrated Education Fund (IEF) and the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) with the Belfast Telegraph, brought together a wide spectrum of the Northern Ireland business community.
Guests included representatives from the Institute of Directors, the Federation of Small Businesses, Women in Business, the University of Ulster and Employers for Childcare as well as from the US Consulate in Belfast. The topic under consideration was ‘The Business of Education and a Shared Future’. To open discussions, Baroness May Blood, Campaign Chair of the IEF, Dr Joanne Stuart, Director of Attrus Ltd, and Ian Coulter, CBI Northern Ireland Chairman, each presented an overview of the current Northern Ireland political, economic and societal landscape.
Discussions at the individual tables revealed that guests held clear views of what social changes are needed to improve the chances of business in Northern Ireland. It was also clear that there is an appetite within the private sector for more involvement both at school level and in public decision-making. Whilst many business people are already involved in schools as governors or on parents’ support groups, there were certain key areas suggested where the business sector could be more active such as careers advice, vocational training and working to raise aspirations and foster a business ethic.
Participants felt that entrepreneurship should be embedded in the curriculum.
From an economic viewpoint, the education system was felt to be inefficient, with cross-sectoral duplication cited as an element of this. It was pointed out that an export-focused economy, which is needed to ensure and underpin recovery, will mean coming to terms with cultural diversity. Young people need the skills to deal with diversity in the workplace, both in Northern Ireland and increasingly in an international context. Many guests agreed that segregation at an early age potentially causes division in the workplace, which in turn impacts on the productivity of businesses. One concern which was raised was that working out the Cohesion, Sharing and Integration policy must not be a missed opportunity for politicians to tackle segregation in our education system.
One breakfast guest did concede that businesses have not always been interested in getting involved in the public sphere: “There has been a tendency of avoidance regarding the big political issues by the business community. There is a great imperative to ditch these constraints and this cautious approach.” However, the mood at Crumlin Road Gaol suggested business people are certainly now ready to address policy issues and get involved.
Overall, the meeting concluded that Northern Ireland’s schools need to be shared spaces but they also need, and deserve, the best facilities and equipment, bringing young people into contact with the state-of-the-art technology that Northern Ireland industry must use to compete in a global marketplace.
This will need money, and from a hard-nosed economic point of view, integration makes sense. It also represents social progress, which was acknowledged to make economic growth easier. As one guest commented: “I don’t see how the government can make an overall strategy for education without dealing with the fundamentals – and integrated education is fundamental.”
For further information please contact the IEF at:
Tel: 028 9033 0031