Twenty staff began work this week on a pioneering "Early Years" project to break into the cycle of low educational achievement in one of the UK's most deprived communities.
After an intensive six-week training course, they will regularly visit the 400 or so women each year who have babies in the Greater Shankill, a strongly Protestant part of West Belfast, to give them advice and support. Training will continue for one or two days a week afterwards, giving the workers a clear idea of their role, a higher level of skills and the ability and confidence to identify problems and refer them to professional back-up staff for further action.
It is hoped that 70 workers will be involved eventually, thanks to funding of Pounds 6.4 million over four years from the European Union and the Making Belfast Work initiative. It is part of a cross-community package under which a similar sum will be spent on schemes mainly for 11 to 25-year-olds in the Catholic Upper Springfield area.
"The early years initiative is part of a regeneration strategy for the whole Greater Shankill area. It is the long-term catalyst for change," local community activist Jackie Redpath said. "Education is the key way to build up the capacity of the area long term and we are starting very far back. For example 80 per cent of young people leave school at 16 on the Shankill, but only 20 per cent on the Falls Road.
"Early Years plans to take an entire generation of children and create for them and their parents a whole infrastructure of services." Under the motto "empowering parents - developing children", the proposal for the scheme in 1994 painted a picture of an area which has suffered from violence, redevelopment and the decline of the linen, shipbuilding and engineering industries.
"Over the past 25 years a community has survived, placing a lower value on education, recycling to its children their parents' own recent negative experience of education, in a context of a dramatic increase in lone parent families to 43 per cent and increasing benefit dependency.
"By effecting a process of empowerment of parents, particularly in parenting skills, we not only contribute to equipping the child for life, but we raise parents' self-confidence and esteem, which opens up pathways of opportunity for the parent in training, education, leisure and community involvement, leading to increased employability and employment, building the community's problem-solving capacity.
"This twin-targeted parentchild programme can make the gains permanent, " it argued.
The new staff, whose main qualification is to be parents or have parenting skills, will begin at ante-natal clinics with expectant mothers who wish to use the service. In the first nine months they will "encourage the creation of a positive, caring, responsive relationship in a language-rich environment", encourage contact with other parents with babies, build the confidence and self-reliance of the mother and enable her to find her own solutions.
Between nine and 18 months, the key task is to offer guidance in fostering the child's language, cognitive, social and motor skills, stress the importance of speaking and reading and seek expert advice for any problems. This work continues with the introduction of the child to pre-school facilities, eventually leading to a seamless move into nursery education. At the same time, the mother may have developed the confidence to return to education, training, community involvement or employment. "There are a lot of lone parents who do not have any social life; they go home and close the door behind them. This is social exclusion in a big way and we hope to tackle that," said one of the organisers, May Blood.
"At the same time we have a lot of children on the Shankill who leave school at 16 without being able to read or write. Secondary schools say it is not their fault because they came in with a mental age of seven or eight; primary schools say the children could not even sit or tell their colours when they arrived with them; nursery schools say the children were withdrawn and could not tell black from white.
"With education being so badly regarded on the Shankill, we are tackling it in several ways. We hope early years will mean children are better able to take advantage of nursery education and that parents can come back into society. We have a lot of talent in homes and we want to draw it into the community and give everyone a stake in society," May Blood added.