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Why True Engagement is Vital for Success

31 May 2022
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by Emma Shaw

The legacies of this place we call home are complex and woven into the fabric of our identity. Each village, town and city have their own history and at times competing narratives especially around history and politics but it is those very same communities that want to thrive and see the next generations benefit from peace. It is these community members who are best placed to know and understand what the needs of their community are. There are many people and organisations with good intentions, but that doesn’t guarantee success or even buy in from the local community. It is for these reasons that I am a strong advocate for community-focused learning.

We have continuously been informed of the educational underachievement that remains too prevalent in today’s society, especially for those who are entitled to free school meals (FSM) which is commonly used as a proxy for poverty. Across the last decade, we have had several reports suggesting recommendations with politicians effectively continuing to kick the can down the road, even when these recommendations have been costed.  Where do we go from here?

In my opinion, solutions need to be community-based, community-focused and community-led, having the community as partners in the process to create and co-design initiatives that are unique to that locale. There is a wealth of untapped knowledge in communities, especially if they are classed as low-income or labelled with other stereotypes. While at university a lot of the research that I was reading was based on this deficit thinking framework that made assumptions about communities without actually ever engaging with them to seek their opinions. Television programs and clickbait journalism has fed into these labels by portraying individuals as ‘scroungers’ or ‘lazy’ and selectively editing or selecting participants that fit the narrow objectives. When reading about my own community, I am constantly faced with those same stereotypes – for those of you who don’t know me, I identify as a loyalist. For me loyalism means a sense of responsibility to and for my community, but I don’t fit some people’s negative stereotypes. I am educated, having a BA in International Politics and a MA in Education Policy and for the last several years my research focus has been educational underachievement for low-income students.

Academic underachievement for low-income students is not something that is unique to Northern Ireland, the UK or Ireland, it is a global issue. There is a plethora of research that seeks to understand why low-income students do not perform as well on tests as their more affluent peers, but that is a whole other conversation! What has been shown to improve academic achievement and outcomes for low-income students is community-based interventions and partnerships. Don’t get me wrong these are not a magic bullet that can solve all the issues but they have shown to be successful in neighbourhoods like Brooklyn, Maryland, DC, Austin, South LA and here in Northern Ireland in Shankill and other parts of West Belfast. Some Deis schools in Dublin can receive additional funding to create a full-time role that builds partnerships between the school and home environments, one thing for sure is, it takes a village.

By creating partnerships between schools, home and communities we build on the social and human capital available in that community. As I stated earlier, communities have different lived experiences and there is no one size fits all so any plan needs to be adaptive so that it can deal with the complexities of a particular community, that doesn’t mean they work in isolation. Youth clubs, schools and even ex-prisoners have been working in a cross-community fashion for decades, learning best practice together, education should be no different. By examining what has worked in other places we have a starting position that we can build from but it must be done with community at the heart of the decision-making process. These steps will encourage buy-in and participation from the community, and if we really want a project to be successful, true engagement matters.

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