Talking Education

29.1.2022 | Moderator, Church in Society, Public Affairs, Education

Over 100 teachers, senior leaders, school governors and other education professionals from across the Presbyterian Church in Ireland came together today for ‘PCI Talks Education: A vision for the future in Northern Ireland.’ With the launch of the Independent Review of Education providing the backdrop for the conference, delegates welcomed the Minister for Education, Michelle McIlveen MLA, who addressed the morning event, which took place in PCI’s Assembly Buildings in Belfast.

Speaking at the conference, Michelle McIlveen said, “I am very pleased to be invited to speak at your conference today, which has the theme of ‘a vision for the future’. It is heartening to see so many people interested and invested in the future of education in Northern Ireland. I am well aware of the positive impact that the Presbyterian Church in Ireland has on the lives of our children and young people through your various youth ministries, as well as your invaluable contribution to the management of our schools.”

The Minister continued, “The education of our children and young people goes far beyond the Department of Education, or even schools and colleges. It requires the dedication of teachers, governors, parents and many more. The support of local churches, such as yours, is also key in placing schools at the heart of their communities.

“Sessions like today, when we can discuss ethos and vision, consider the strengths and challenges in the current system and build consensus of how we work together to bring improvements, are extremely valuable,” she said.

Having heard PCI’s Moderator, Right Reverend Dr David Bruce, commit the conference to God in prayer, those attending had the opportunity to hear from Dr Andy Brown, Chair of PCI’s State Education Committee. Speaking about the event he said, “Supporting and participating in education has been part of the DNA of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland for over a century. Our church’s history in education is undeniable and enviable, having formed schools in our quest for social justice and a desire to make education accessible. Then as now it is also our desire for children and young people to flourish, reaching their full potential in a nurturing and holistic way.”

Contributing to the morning’s discussions was keynote speaker Dr Irvin Scott, founder of the Harvard University Leadership Institute for Faith and Education. In a recorded address from Cambridge, Massachusetts, Dr Scott noted that while the context of education in the United States and Northern Ireland were, on the one hand very different, the goal of education in both places was very similar. “…[I]n the end we’re after the same thing – a group of students and educators who are achieving at high levels, who are becoming increasingly understanding of one another, who are learning across differences and who are just thriving… that’s what we are ultimately after..” he said.

At the socially distanced event, perspectives from different spheres of the local education system were also heard during the panel discussion. Panellists included Rev Robert Herron OBE, a transferor representative on the board of Northern Ireland’s Education Authority, Dr Barbara McDade from Stranmillis University College, Leanne Dunlop, who is experienced in schools’ ministry through Scripture Union Northern Ireland, and a local principal, Mark Beattie, from The Diamond Primary School in Cullybackey. Delegates were then free to participate in small group discussions on key themes, the feedback from which will inform and shape PCI’s response to the Independent Review.

Speaking at the close of the event, Dr Brown said, “We are grateful to the Minister for Education for taking time to join us this morning and to Dr Scott, for providing us with some thought-provoking insights. Our panel discussion reflected some of the diverse roles that PCI members and other Christian people play in the education system. Another important part of today’s proceedings was the small group engagement, which will provide us with much food for thought, as we seek to respond to the Independent Review of Education positively and creatively.

“We believe that the values and Christian ethos that PCI, and the other churches, cherish and promote in education are healthy and positive for children and young people. At the same time, our partnerships with local schools in our communities are an act of service for the common good. This morning has been an important opportunity to reflect on how, in a changing world, we can continue to be effective in our mission to serve our society, our communities, our families, our children and young people, through constructive leadership and partnership in education,” he said.

Dr Brown concluded by saying. “Many Presbyterian people are involved in education at all levels throughout Northern Ireland, often regarding it as a vocation rather than simply another job and I would like to thank everyone for coming and for their contributions today. In the context of this changing educational landscape, this has been a vital moment for us to pause and consider what that involvement might look like for the next 100 years.”

Echoing Dr Brown’s comments, the Moderator said at the close of the conference, “Today across many areas of life, education included, we find ourselves in a different place than the one we were once used to, which can be both a new experience and somewhat disconcerting. This morning’s conference has been an important opportunity to reflect together and I would like to personally thank everyone for their very positive engagement and extend my warmest thanks the Michelle McIlveen, Irvin Scott, and our panellists for their contributions.

Dr Bruce continued, “The Mission of God is less something we do, it is more something in which we participate, responding to what He is already doing – and God is active in this new secular environment. We give thanks for that, as we partner with Him, reflecting on where we are, reframing partnerships and relationships, while endeavouring to be a blessing in our schools.”

Photos: (1) Minister for Education, Michelle McIlveen MLA and (2) Dr Andy Brown addressing the conference (3) members of the panel in discussion (4) participants at today's conference (left to right) Dr Barbara McDade, Rev Robert Herron OBE, Leanne Dunlop and Mark Beattie. Seated are the Moderator Dr Bruce, Michelle McIlveen and Dr Andy Brown who are also pictured (5) in discussion prior to the start of the conference.

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