The Danske Bank Blackboard Awards at Stormont on Friday night were the perfect companion — some might even say antidote — to the troubled picture of a fractured society painted by Robert D. Putnam in his epic new study ‘Our Kids’.
Author of the seminal book Bowling Alone, Putnam’s thesis is that the American Dream is increasingly beyond the reach of large swathes of working class and poor people across the US. Education, of course, is the admission ticket to advancement but ‘Our Kids’ shows how the children of those already at the bottom of the economic ladder have the odds cruelly stacked against them throughout their school years.
This burning issue of how to realise the full potential of all our young people, to have no child left behind, is as relevant in Belfast as it is in Boston, as pertinent to a prosperous future in Dublin as it is in Detroit.
I haven’t reached the final chapters of ‘Our Kids’ yet to discover the solutions posited by Putnam but I am convinced that all of us can do more — as a government, as a community, as individuals. That’s why I was heartened to meet this weekend with Sir Nigel Hamilton to hear of a unique and inspiring initiative by alumni of Boys Model High School in North Belfast to provide £3,000 ($4,200) annual bursaries to some students heading from the the North Belfast all-ability school to university.
Kudos to those alumni — including Nigel himself — for giving back.
But, sadly, at a time when it should be all-hands-on-deck to ensure our kids do the very best they can, some of Belfast’s most venerable schools remain wedded to a system which excludes those from the most financially-strapped families from their hallowed halls. That’s despite the fact that, as Putnam points out: “Regardless of their own family background, kids do better in schools where the other kids come from affluent, educated homes…This pattern appears to be nearly universal across the developed world…poor kids achieve more in high-income schools.”
Yet, while the system may be rigged against those kids from often disadvantaged backgrounds, meaning that society doesn’t exploit all its bountiful social capital, the one constant shining light in our education system is the excellence of our teachers.
It was a pleasure then to be with 40 superb teachers at the Blackboard Awards who have taken the science of education and elevated it to an art, touching and transforming young lives to create the compassionate citizens and the audacious ambassadors who are building Belfast.
Everytime I meet a distinguished leader — people who are making a difference, pushing the boundaries and building bridges — I also meet someone who speaks of the crucial role encouragement from teachers played in their development.
May their blackboards — and whiteboards — forever be tools of transformation and transcendence.
This Friday I plan to join a panel of distinguished Bostonians to launch this Belfast International Homecoming (October 12-14) brochure in our sister city. With the support of Invest NI and the Irish American Partnership, I will be bringing a message of relentless progress from Europe’s fastest-growing knowledge economy — Belfast — to the number one city in the US — Boston. I’ll be hitching my wagon on the transatlantic journey to the Mayor of Belfast Arder Carson and those sporting ambassadors Robert Fitzpatrick and Steve Thornton of the Belfast Giants who teamed up with Mayor Marty Walsh of Boston to make the Friendship Four ice hockey tournament a triumph. The four US universities taking part in the 2016 BelPot are set to be announced at the end of their visit giving us another opportunity to roll out the red carpet for four top college teams and their fans. We’re not yet at the scale of Neil Naughton’s American Football College spectacular between Georgia Tech and Boston College — which sold 4,000 tickets in just nine minutes this week — scheduled for the Aviva in Dublin on 3 September. But as a city we are certainly moving, in the immortal words of Wayne Gretzky, to where the puck is going to be.
Finally, I was in Dublin this week to join a debate with former Tánaiste Michael McDowell on Irish identity. The former PD leader blindsided me twice. First by delivering a powerful contribution in Irish on identity and 1916 and secondly by expressing warm words for Sinn Féin regarding the promotion of An Ghaeilge in the North. Which brings me to the mesmerising beauty of Belfast’s hills as caught in the last part of Ar Scáth na Sléibhte, a production by Doubleband for BBC. Cormac Ó hAdhmaill presented — and I had a run-on part.