Education is seen as central to the effort to make Northern Ireland a more equal society. Paul McGill reports
The Northern Ireland peace deal offers an historic opportunity for a reformed education system that would help to tackle inequality in Ulster, according to Mo Mowlam.
In a speech that owed little to her prepared text, the Secretary of State said it was stunning that 99 per cent of young people she met still wished to participate in the political process.
"It is amazing that the wish to take part has survived the way it has considering what young people have come through," she said.
Dr Mowlam said that giving people the chance to return to learning was an essential part of building civic responsibility. "We must break the cycle of deprivation, whether through nursery education, smaller class sizes or other means," she told a conference on education for civic and social responsibility, held recently in Belfast.
Dr Mowlam said the Government could not legislate for attitudes but could only set the parameters. One of these was education.
"It is crucial that we do not have a situation where 20 per cent of people gain no benefit from the education system because they come out of it with nothing.
"We should not have people in their 30s and 40s who do not have a future. Welfare to Work gives them options. Nobody should be cheap labour and everyone should have a chance to get a qualification," she said.
Dr Alan Smith, a lecturer at the University of Ulster, said that social and political education and education for mutual understanding had taken big steps forward over the past decade. There was more parental support than previously for this work, there was a language to allow adults and pupils to articulate what they were trying to do and there was a willingness to ask critical questions.
The conference was one of a series organised by the Northern Ireland Council for the Curriculum, Examinations and Assessment as part of a wide-ranging review of the Irish curriculum. Others will tackle dealing with children under five, the information revolution, education of emotion and intellect, and the arts. There will also be a conference on work in the new millennium, led by management guru Charles Handy.