Bishop of Derry: We need to create the future and not be trapped by the past

Bishop of Derry, Donal McKeown.
Bishop of Derry, Donal McKeown.

The Bishop of Derry, Rev Dr Donal McKeown who has a background in education says that Derry is raising its children for export and that the expansion of Magee College is vital for the future of this city. Here is his take on the current situation in Derry.

I recall a school debate exactly fifty years ago. The motion had to do with the site for the new university and I remember well one contributor whose main concern was that, if the university did not go to Derry, Northern Ireland would be too heavy on the east coast and would flip over into the Irish Sea!

Little did our teenage banter realise just quite a different sort of horror that was going to explode a few short years later.

The hurt caused in the North West by the 1965 decision still lingers on.

Despite that, there is a sense of local pride as tourists come in ever greater numbers.

Culture has made a great contribution to keep alive our civic pride. But our idealistic young people want to be more than extras in a celebration of yesterday. They want to be part of a community that attracts young people.

Too many young people are being educated here to benefit somewhere else.

I am only a recent arrival in Derry. But it seems to me that, if we are to improve our local economy for all young people, a number of key steps are necessary.

Firstly, we need to look again at how we structure our schools in this area.

The absence of a broad range of university faculties means that the North West schools are rearing teenagers for export. But there is more than that.

Our skewed economic structure means that ‘academic success’ is still judged by some schools to be access to the professions and the public sector.

We export our qualified professionals who can’t find work and aren’t developing enough of the local skills we actually need.

That is a huge structural waste of resources.

Change will include following the example of places like Germany and encouraging far more of the ‘best’ students into engineering rather than seeing those subjects as mainly ‘vocational’.

It requires an end to schools and further education institutions fighting over 16-19 year olds.

An excessive focus on almost meaningless league tables means that many young people are encouraged to worship at the altar of social status rather than to become creative contributors to the real economy.

There is a real temptation to prioritise competition in the service of institutional pride rather than working in collaboration for the sake of our young people.

Too many are made to feel discarded in the race to please the great god ‘Success’.

Key decisions are forced far too early in life.

Pope Francis said that the principal excellence we should strive for is the ‘excellence of solidarity’. There is no ‘shared future’ without that.

Secondly, look at a map and it’s clear that motorways/dual carriageways go from Belfast to Dublin, Ballygawley, Larne, Randalstown and Glarryford.

In the North West, we will face permanent exclusion from many markets if we do not have a least one motorway-standard connection.

Since increasing numbers of students have to work and stay at home, they are discouraged from coming to study in a place that is seen as being over the hills and far away

Thirdly, huge numbers of school leavers go to Britain because of the lack of third level places here.

Our students keep many Scottish universities afloat.

There must be further opportunities for not only a bigger campus at Magee but also for a co-ordination of collaboration with the North West Regional College.

And there may be a role for further cross-border complementarity with the 4,000 students of the Letterkenny Institute of Technology with its faculties that complement what Magee offers.

The 50th anniversary of the Lockwood Report may focus our minds predominantly on the development of university facilities in Derry. And this city desperately needs that development.

But, if we cannot muster our energies to look at the big picture as well, the children of 2065 will rightly condemn us for failing them.

We need to create the future and not be trapped by the past. That means discussing the challenges of 2015 and not merely re-running arguments from a by-gone age.