‘Some children are anxious or angry. Sometimes they’re blank. And then they’re expected to go straight into class’

Teachers in primary schools on the Falls and Shankill strive to overcome hunger, poverty and low-expectations of their environments to encourage children on to better things

There are simple ways to tell the stories of the Malvern Primary School on the Lower Shankill and its Catholic counterpart, St Joseph’s on the Lower Falls, the latter just a few hundred metres from the back of the Europa Hotel.

Both face daily challenges worsened by poverty; by more than a decade of British spending curbs; by the legacy of the Troubles in districts once riven by killings; or, simply, by discrimination in Northern Irish society.

Both are led by inspirational school principals, with Genevieve McSorley at the Malvern and Mairead Weir in St Joseph’s, a former past pupil who grew up locally at the height of the Troubles in the early 1970s.

The simple story is that poor Protestant districts are worst afflicted by social ills, low aspiration, the ever-present hold of loyalist paramilitaries, or the hankering for days when the Protestant working class did not need an education to secure employment.

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This story also says that Catholics, for decades faced with sectarianism, have long seen education as the only route out of poverty, so that parents push their children to study, to go to college, to succeed.

The story is true, or true often but not always; or, sometimes, it is a partial reflection of the reality that faces socially deprived communities. For every one of Northern Ireland’s underprivileged, getting an education is hard work.

One-eighth of people in Northern Ireland have no more than a primary education. Dropout rates at second level are high while the numbers in post-secondary education are a third of those in the Republic.

Located on Forster Street, the Malvern school is still surrounded by the security fencing and magnetically locked doors installed during the Johnny Adair-era loyalist feuds of the early 2000s.

By the mid-2010s, Malvern’s numbers had plummeted – fuelled by the feuds and the Shankill’s population’s collapse from 75,000 50 years ago to the mid-20,000s today, the most visible legacy of the Troubles and Belfast’s industrial decline.

Stormont’s then minister for education, Sinn Féin’s John O’Dowd was invited to the school. Local parents applauded him on his arrival, one person who was there remembers.

‘We will always be pushing children to have high expectations. There was a lot of negativity when I came here and it is hard to get away from that’

—  Genevieve McSorley

The school was saved. “To be fair, John O’Dowd hasn’t a sectarian bone in his body, even the Democratic Unionist Party would accept that,” says former SDLP MP and education campaigner Alasdair McDonnell.

The Troubles’ trauma is intergenerational, says McDonnell: “Granddad got married, did time, ended up with a dysfunctional family. It’s literally cascading down the generations. The mental instability is turning up in the second and third.”

Today, Genevieve McSorley is six years in charge. When she arrived, Malvern had just 98 pupils, dangerously close to extinction. She brought it up to nearly 130. The arrival of asylum seekers saw numbers rise to 180.

The children from Somalia, Syria and “a lot from Sudan”, Iran too, have brought extra funding which helps, though not without complications from some locals resentful of their presence.

“Mostly it’s very good. Mostly it’s very quiet,” says McSorley, “the children have integrated well, playing with each other. They’ve made a big impact, because they and their parents are ambitious, they want to learn.”

Sometimes, though, tempers flare. Last Christmas, a party was held in a local community centre so the new children would not feel left out: “Everyone got a gift,” said one local, “but then some people got up in arms.”

McSorley chooses not to talk about the row, though parents were invited afterwards for coffee and games with children and bingo: “They enjoyed it and said they couldn’t wait to do it again,” she says.

The two schools struggle for money. Greggs, the UK bakery chain, offers free bread. “We have children here who probably don’t eat from the 12.30 free school dinner until the following morning,” says McSorley.

Breakfast and mid-morning toast and fruit are provided, too. The lunchtime meal is means-tested, “but we must be close to 90 per cent qualifying for that, including the asylum children”, she says.

Some teachers have found it too hard and quit after a few months. “But that’s better that they just go,” she says. None of the teachers live locally, but vital classroom assistants who would likely earn more working in a supermarket do. It would not be worth anyone’s while to commute for the pay on offer.

So, is she hopeful? “I always am, I have to be. We will always be pushing children to have high expectations. There was a lot of negativity when I came here and it is hard to get away from that.”

Remembering her first sight of Malvern’s fences, grills and doors, she wondered if she could cope. Today, the security is probably not needed, though it has occasional uses: “It’s probably more expensive to get it removed,” she says.

Stormont and better-off schools do not “really understand” places like the Shankill, says McSorley, who will shortly meet the DUP’s Paul Givan, who has been the North’s Minister for Education since February, along with other Shankill principals.

“Fifty per cent of ours need a wee bit of extra attention,” she says of the children in her care, but educational psychologist services are threadbare. “Some children are anxious or angry. Sometimes, there’s just nothing there at all. They’re blank. And then they’re expected to go straight into class. It doesn’t work.”

Malvern’s nurture class helps, where small groups of pupils in a quieter environment slowly emerge from their shells with the help of the “absolutely brilliant” teacher, Angela Norrie. “Everyone wants to be in there,” says McSorley, with a smile.

Few of Malvern’s students do Northern Ireland’s transfer tests, which decide at 11 whether a child heads to grammar or secondary school. Not every grammar provides better education, though most get higher results.

But they do provide better connections.

Traditionally, it is argued that poor Protestant boys do worst, an argument that fuels loyalist resentment – they feel they are “losing out and that the other side is [winning],” says one education expert, speaking privately.

Undoubtedly, such boys often do badly, but a 2020 Economic and Social Research Council report painted a more complex picture: with poorer children from both communities not doing well, especially those with poorly educated parents.

This year, Malvern has eight children preparing for the transfer test “and none of them have dropped out”, says McSorley. Better-off families elsewhere enjoy an advantage because they pay for grinds.

At the entrance to St Joseph’s primary school on Slate Street a mile away the doors open automatically and the noise from children of multiple nationalities in the yard is thunderous.

Mairead Weir, born nearby on Sultan Street, enthusiastically greets visitors. “Before it was about keeping children safe, but the best care we can give is a full education, to open doors. We tell them to reach for the stars.

“Every success, no matter how big, no matter how small, is celebrated. And we encourage the parents to enable children to reach for the stars. If they don’t know how, we’ll help,” she says.

Not one to pull punches, Weir is scathing about the North’s transfer test: “We’re in a system that is totally unfair, that separates children academically. I am an 11-plus failure, and it does stay with you, it does.” (The 11-plus was the old academic selection test abolished in 2009.)

Two-thirds of St Joseph’s pupils qualify for free school meals, the best metric Northern Ireland has for tracking disadvantage, though changes to welfare rules over the last decade have damaged the value even of that measure.

Education has always been a priority locally but hard to focus on when “you’re struggling to put food on your table”, she says, joined by colleagues Caroline Morelli and Laura McAllister, who leads the school’s award-winning nurture unit.

Together, “Easter schools” are held for “borderline” GCSE students or extra tuition for others over the summer. Ideas are borrowed from everywhere says Weir, who works closely with the West Belfast Partnership and local schools.

‘There has to be a total reset of how government works. Departments must work together because a lot of what we are dealing with falls under health, or housing, not education’

—  Mairead Weir

Like her counterpart in the Malvern, Weir hunts for outside support. Sixty-five loaves of Greggs bread offer toast every day; money from Manchester United part-owner Jim Radcliffe’s petrochemicals group Ineos pays for courses children would never access otherwise.

Unemployment is a major problem but so too is the curse of low-paid employment for local people who work hard as “cleaners, porters or in retail” but who still struggle, Weir goes on.

Morelli is St Joseph’s parental support officer. Starting off as a classroom assistant, she later got a degree and now runs classes for parents to help them. She trains classroom assistants who have gone on to work elsewhere.

The parents’ classes are “fantastic”. “We could not accommodate the numbers,” she says, emphasising St Joseph’s place in the community. Years later, past pupils still return for advice about college options. “They’re still our kids,” she says, proudly.

Last year, several dozen students did the transfer test; 15 got a place in a grammar school. “Ten more could have walked it, but they chose not to because we have good schools near us that are not grammars,” says Weir.

Space is a problem for St Joseph’s and its 330 students. Two 50-year-old Portkabins show their age. A newer one cadged from the nearby Grand Central train station’s developers will be ready soon. For now, every inch of corridor space is filled.

“There has to be a total reset of how government works. Departments must work together because a lot of what we are dealing with falls under health, or housing, not education,” she says, envious of the extra help that disadvantaged schools get from the Republic’s Deis [Delivering Equality of Opportunity in Schools] system.

Southern teachers’ salaries are noted, too. The St Joseph’s teachers had some “eye-opening” staffroom conversations with student teachers from Dublin’s Marino College, says Weir.

Standing outside on Slate Street, Alasdair McDonnell agrees: “Our political system has failed. We’ve got the killing stopped, right, but the political system has failed. It hasn’t failed the politicians, but it has failed the people.

“We’re condemning another generation to despair,” says the former SDLP MP, who is on the board ofeducational charity the Goliath Trust. “Stormont has been run by civil servants for 50 years interested only in bureaucracy. Nobody is thinking about education,” he says.