A ground-breaking early years project has brought regeneration and renewal to a deprived part of Belfast that had almost given up hope. Jenny Witt reports.
Boarded-up flats, charity shops and high unemployment characterise one of the oldest working-class districts of Belfast - Protestant Greater Shankill. And that depressing picture was reflected until recently in the area's schools.
In 1992, a mere five children from Greater Shankill's 12 schools passed the 11-plus exam. And that was a good year. For many years, not a single child passed the exam.
How different from the boom period of the mid-19th century through to the 1960s, when the shipyards, the linen trade and the engineering works were Shankill's heartbeat and local boys were virtually guaranteed a job after serving their apprenticeships in the docks. But these industries collapsed in the 1960s and 1970s, leaving thousands of skilled men and women out of work. Education was no longer a gateway to the shipyards and lost much of its meaning. Schools began to close.
The Shankill's unloved flats were built in the Sixties in an attempt to redevelop the area, but generations had lived in the two-up-two-down terraces in streets which housed thousands of dockers and linen mill workers, and the flats were never adopted by local people. Those who did move in felt they were being uprooted. Others left the Shankill altogether, a process accelerated by the Troubles. The population dropped from 75,000 in the late 1960s to its present 30,000.
But now, at last, there is some good news, thanks to an ambitious education project that has rekindled the area. Eighteen children from Springhill primary school alone have just passed the 11-plus, most of them with A grades.
Children are now the linchpin of a wide-ranging area regeneration strategy, devised by the Greater Shankill Partnership. An early years project, established to stimulate thirst for learning and maximise educational opportunities, has received a spectacular response.
"Research showed that education, more than any other factor, was very undervalued," says May Blood, information officer for the project. "The chief executive's vision was that, if we ever got any money, we'd start with a completely new generation."
The cash - pound;13 million of it - came in 1996 from the European Union's URBAN initiative, a boost that turned the project into the area's third largest employer. "I don't think we envisaged just how big it would be," says Ms Blood.
Many of the 400 children born locally each year are now getting a head start in their nursery education. The project provides a vast range of services for infants and toddlers from birth to three years old, on the basis that their language and much of their attitude towards education is determined at that stage. Older children are also becoming involved.
By last October, 72 under-fives were attending a playgroup, 53 were enrolled in a nursery school, 14 were using a toy and book library, and 13 were attending a pre-school class. Guidance on language development and a "Books for Babies" scheme have come on stream.
French classes for three and four-year-olds also got off to a good start. "Speaking French - it was unheard of on the Shankill," says Ms Blood. But members of a recent visiting team from the Canadian Broadcasting Service were flabbergasted when the children sang them 'Fr re Jacques' in French.
One of the project's key aimsis to boost communication between schools and parents. Last August project workers visited 200 families who had a child starting primary school that year and gave out "goodie bags" containing drawing books, pencils, rubbers and other materials, put together with the help of headteachers.
They also contained information on how parents can help their children prepare for school. And the visits were a good opportunity to explore children's or parents' anxieties.
In the 1996-97 academic year, 134 parents from the area enrolled on education and training courses. These included studying towards a National Vocational Qualification in childcare and courses as varied as word processing, "parents as teachers", and basic science, English and mathematics.
"It can be difficult if you have had bad experiences at school in the past," says Ms Blood. "But you find that once you've got them through the school gates they say, 'Well, I could do this computer course, couldn't I?' The parents are saying 'I'd better perk up and learn this', so they're learning with their kids in order to help them with national curriculum work."
Ronnie Lamont, Springhill primary school's principal, who confirms that the work at pre-school level has borne fruit, says: "An additional factor was the influx of funding into our schools through the Raising School Standards initiative (a Northern Ireland scheme that encouraged struggling schools to volunteer for government grants). For the past four years Springhill has had an average of 15 or 16 children passing the 11-plus."
Homework clubs, provided by three outreach centres in Ballysillan, Ballygomartin and the Shankill Road, are another key ingredient.
By 1999, this giant operation will have to have become largely self-sufficient because of a time limit on the EU's URBAN grants. Ms Blood hopes the health board and other mainstream bodies will fill the breach and buy the project's services.
In the meantime, Queen's University is researching the progress of children who have come through the project. The Government's commitment to the community will also be put to the test. Recently a local primary school was closed and a wave of anger swept the area. Ms Blood argues that the project is doing what Labour has long advocated: "We're building a grassroots organisation with the (health and social services) trusts as partners," she says. "People are beginning to move back into the area, and they are buying houses."
As you come up the Shankill Road, a huge yellow sign on a disused building proclaims, "Acquired for the Greater Shankill Early Years Project". Optimism is returning.