Building belief amid despair

25th June 2004 at 01:00
BMWs not NVQs impressed on the mean streets of north Belfast - up until now. Andrew Mourant reports

In an area of north Belfast which is riven by sectarian feuds a Catholic boys' school is struggling to motivate teenagers.

The area is the Ardoyne where unemployed young men are likely to be seen patrolling the streets in flashy cars.

"There's a counter-culture round here, a critical mass, where education isn't valued," says Tom Armstrong, a local headteacher. "The trouble is when our lads see others who don't work driving around in BMWs, they think 'why bother?'"

Racketeers rule in the Ardoyne, a community of 7,000 living in cramped homes unrelieved by green space.

The area is torn apart by the feuds of nationalist gangsters and confrontations with Protestants corralled in the enclave of Glenbryn. And in this environment Tom Armstrong and his staff at St Gabriel's college strive for improvement.

In the neighbourhood teenage boys, persecuted by local thugs, have been driven to suicide. Several were at St Gabriel's. "No one will ever know what might have been for them," says Mr Armstrong. "Those kids could have gone either way. But if you get to children early enough you can mould them. They need direction."

His business for the past four years has been to impart that sense of direction. He is trying to educate adults and children in territory still at odds with itself.

One community worker, who had five members of his family killed during the troubles, is one of the co-founders of Survivors of Trauma. This organisation offers therapy, counselling and education classes to the bereaved, and yet it considers north Belfast's 15 to 19-year-olds a lost cause.

Not everyone shares such foreboding. Amid St Gabriel's gloomy buildings - severe fences to keep out troublemakers, grimy perspex windows instead of glass - optimism is epitomised in the new European Union-funded computer suite. It is the smartest room in school and inhabited by purposeful members of the fledgling sixth form. There are plans also for an Astroturf football pitch and music room.

Despite the counter-culture outside, 17-year-old Michael Quigley has decided to bother. He is doing GCSEs in English and maths and a national vocational qualification in leisure and tourism.

"One of my friends said 'you're mad for staying on'. But I'll learn more than they ever will," he said.

Yet Michael, despite raw memories of the young men who killed themselves, doesn't want to leave the Ardoyne. "We were all mates," he said. "The first one who did it, I was with him the night before. I couldn't believe he was dead."

Stephen McCann, 17, has seen a huge change at St Gabriel's. "When I first came, it was looked down on," he said. "But when Mr Armstrong came in, he said we were going to work for qualifications, not academic but vocational." Stephen is doing an NVQ in tourism and leisure and an A-level in media studies and has plans to do an A-level in computing and go on to university.

Tom Armstrong's background is in community work and training teachers. St Gabriel's was, he says "an area ready to try things".

"The staff and the area deserved better and were willing to do things a different way. We've come a long way, varying the curriculum. We pull in people from FE colleges to help with 14 to 15-year-olds in a vocational context. I also send my boys out, not necessarily to colleges but places that promote other educational projects.

"There's a holistic development from age 14 - it's too late at 16 to say 'now we start with FE'. We need to show FE lecturers there's a different way of doing things. Our kids identify very quickly those who want to work with them." Meanwhile, ex-pupils who left without qualifications have started trickling back to St Gabriel's.

"We've set up the school as an NVQ sports centre separate to the school."

he said.

"Sports awards are a catalyst - some want to go into coaching. Four or five who left up to 10 years ago are studying with our Year 13s. They've also talked about doing A-level media studies. It's a breakthrough, these are boys you'd never have thought would come back."

It is a brave experiment. Yet economics suggest that St Gabriel's, a school of under 200, may be on borrowed time.

"We live with that possibility. But that's no reason not to do what I'm doing - we've created a staff who are highly trained and want to work here and kids who believe in themselves."

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