Susan McKay: A college reaching out to most disadvantaged

Head of Belfast’s Metropolitan College says North must fight cuts if it is to build on its progress

 

“This city has made massive leaps forward from the days when it was a solid white, two tribes community,” says Marie Therese McGivern. “This college is extraordinarily diverse and inclusive. Sometimes I stand on the stairs and look around and I am amazed. It is like the rainbow nation.”

McGivern is the principal and chief executive of Belfast’s Metropolitan College.She has been supplied with a “key messages” briefing from her PR team, but speaks about “Belfast Met” with a passion and enthusiasm that doesn’t require spin.

“We are penetrating the most disadvantaged communities, throwing a lifeline to students of all ages and backgrounds,” she says. “We embrace all. You can come here to learn English as a foreign language, or on day release from a job, or if you are unemployed. You can start with a small course and move into full-time study.

“And we work on retention. If someone starts missing classes, we are out there on their ass, keeping them in.”

Belfast Met was set up by the city corporation in 1906 to train workers for the booming industrial economy. It is now the North’s leading further education college, with 20,000 students and an impressive array of courses.

Functionally illiterate

“We match the demand for skills at every level of the economy,” says McGivern. “We have students who, when they come in, are functionally illiterate, and we have graduates who are gaining new skills to enable them to work at the highest levels of business.

“We have asylum seekers and people from African, Chinese, Indian, east European and other communities. We are the biggest supplier of A-level students to Queen’s University. We counter the brain drain.”

Nearly half of Belfast Met’s students are from the most deprived parts of the city. The college’s ptwo main campuses are in east and west Belfast. They are in swish, purpose-built buildings that don’t reflect the urban decline that characterises swathes of traditional working class areas.

Glass in Belfast symbolises hope, and these are blazingly optimistic buildings. McGivern’s large office, in the main campus in the Titanic Quarter, has floor-to-ceiling windows that take in a huge sweep of the city.

The west Belfast campus is on the peace line. It includes a community learning centre and “e3”, an economic development building with state-of- the-art business and broadcasting facilities, and incubation units for small businesses.

The college takes a zero-tolerance approach to disrespect, and McGivern says they are “pushy” about multiculturalism. “We found out our Islamic students were going out into the stairwells to pray, so we now have a faith room. We celebrate the Chinese new year and other festivals.”

Mentors

She describes a project with “Neeps”, young people who are not in education, employment or training. “These young people were at risk of getting caught up in criminality. We worked with community groups on the ground. They provided mentors who we trained.

“We have a policy in the college of not allowing anyone to wear sports tops, like Celtic and Rangers tops, which can cause conflict. But we soon found out that some of these young people that was the only sort of top they had, so we have introduced college T-shirts and hoodies now.”

Since she took charge in 2011, McGivern is credited with turning around Belfast Met. She is from working-class west Belfast and, in the early 1970s, became the first in her family to go to university s.

“I got a grant and free fees because of the Troubles,” she says. “I also got a living away from home allowance to enable me to live near Queen’s. So education got me a good life, and I want us to provide the kind of supports people need to allow that to happen for them, now, in this harsher economic environment.”

She went on to become a youth worker and later worked with the unemployed before becoming head of development at Belfast City Council.

Further education has been badly hit by funding cuts, and McGivern acknowledges that Belfast Met faces hard times.

“We are one of the biggest providers of courses in English as a second language, which has been cut by 50 per cent this year,” she says. “Over 60 per cent of our 16- to 19-year-olds get the educational maintenance grant of around £30 [€40] a week. That has already been stopped in the rest of the UK.

“The Minister for Employment and Learning, Stephen Farry, has protected that here in Northern Ireland so far, but for how long? We’ve lost 9,000 course places and 74 jobs already and there will be more cuts to come.”

Funding pressure

The college has run courses in Belfast’s network of community women’s centres, but funding for this has also come under pressure. “I can’t guarantee that this will be able to continue,” McGivern says.

As a feminist, this particularly troubles her.

“I do sometimes despair. This government seems determined to take us back to the 1930s. But as a college we are extraordinarily determined too. I refuse to be pessimistic. I don’t wear rose-tinted glasses, but I think, given the memory I have of here, of the world I lived in during the Troubles, I just see that things are so much better now.”

Still, McGivern fears that political in-fighting at the Executive and the Assembly has damaged the ability of Northern Ireland to assert its needs. “We really do need to get over ourselves. Peace has been won. It is time to move on.

“My biggest worry is the national government. We are too busy throwing our teddy in the corner and spending our time looking for ways of not talking to each other. We don’t have the unity to take on the Tories the way the Scottish and the Welsh have done. We need to get canny and strong.”

Pádraig McKissock

In the past two years, Pádraig McKissock scored six goals in the finals of the 2014 Homeless World Cup in Santiago and was nominated as the top goal scorer in the tournament. He sailed from Belfast to Norway as part of the Tall Ships race. He passed his general certificate of education exams in several subjects, including English and maths. And he has trained in youth work and done voluntary work with other young people.

“I’m from a poor background in Whiterock in west Belfast,” McKissock says. “I have six brothers and three sisters. My family is behind me 100 per cent. I met Paul Kane through football and he talked to me about Belfast Met. He’s my tutor now. They got me a grant through the Prince’s Trust. I did a 12-week course to start off with, and it just has gone on from there.”

McKissock travels from nationalist west Belfast to unionist east Belfast for his courses. “It is all mixed and we get on fine,” he says. “None of us calls each other names or gets into fights.”

He agrees with the policy of no football tops being allowed in the college. “Absolutely. Even Man United and Liverpool tops could kick off trouble let alone Celtic and Rangers,” he says.

“My goal is to get a football scholarship and play professionally. I couldn’t have done any of this without Belfast Met. I used to be very shy and I stuttered and had just no confidence.”

Kellie O’Dowd

As far as Kellie O’Dowd is concerned, life under the current British government is all about class warfare.

“The trade union movement is the best place to fight for progressive social change,” says O’Dowd, who runs Trademark, the anti-sectarian unit of Ictu. “When times are bad, a lot of organisations just retreat into themselves, put their heads down .”

“We are all about building social solidarity at a time when a lot of people refuse to bite the hand that feeds them ,” she says, “even when it isn’t feeding them any more.”

Trademark recently linked up with the women’s movement to organise a protest about welfare reforms (largely cuts). It saw women from some of the poorest communities in Northern Ireland presenting the 108 MLAs at Stormont with 108 empty purses.

“We know there are cuts coming which are even worse than those we have already had,” says O’Dowd.

It is also lending support to the Reclaim the Agenda movement, which brings together women’s groups, students, trade unionists and others. The Women’s Tech organisation, which teaches women the skills to work in the building and other traditionally male trades, received charitable funding from the Joseph Rowntree Trust .

“It is a collective,” O’Dowd says. “So we aren’t hamstrung by bureaucracy. We’ve done fun things like renaming the streets of Belfast after women. We’ve trained tour guides to do bus tours of the city, and we got all party support at the city council to include International Women’s Day as part of its calendar of events.

“We did a Reclaim the Night march and got heckled on the streets,” she says. “We do a lot on Facebook and Twitter and we have a monthly TV programme on a local station. It is all very empowering.”

O’Dowd’s colleague, Alice McLarnon, is now preparing to train 80 people in the health and safety skills they will need to join the Belfast Cleaning Co-Operative Society in order to cover a big music festival.

The co-op came about when, during conflict resolution training, women from both sides of the peace line got talking and realised they were all being paid less than minimum wage for their work as cleaners.

“We are the first registered cross community co-op,” says McLarnon. “Five women are now worker-owners, we have a van, uniforms and equipment, and our turnover has risen from £20,000 [€27,000] for our first year 2011 to £135,000 [€183.619] this year.

“We’ve done gigs like MTV awards, the Giro d’Italia and the Karl Frampton fight,” she says. “We cleaned up after Lady Gaga. We also have contracts with organisations like Women’s Aid.

“A lot of social enterprises are promoting entrepreneurs to give low wages. We are a self-sufficient business and we pay the living wage rate. For big events, we have a bank of part-timers and students.

“The women have co-op meetings at which everyone has a voice. For women who have been put down at every turn, it is great.”

Josephine McDonnell is one of the worker owners. “I love it,” she says. “I’m my own boss, but I have four others beside me to rely on.”

McDonnell used to be a rehabilitation assistant on one of the Belfast Trust’s elderly care schemes.

“We all come from completely different backgrounds and we all share skillsets and roles,” she says. “I train the other girls in admin and finance, and I also go out cleaning.

“We all provide ‘sweat equity’, which means we do a certain amount of voluntary hours on top of what we are paid for. It helps the co-op grow.”