Billy Ennis

Billy Ennis, Sandy Row Homework Project

Billy Ennis, Sandy Row Homework Project

Sandy Row Homework Project began in 1993. It was really the brainchild of a community worker, a late lady called Gaby Morningwigg. In those days there were some changes taking place in the mass curriculum, so the parents felt inadequate. They didn’t feel happy about supporting their children doing homework. They approached the community worker and she started a tutor-lead homework club to assist the children doing their homework. She got that started I believe it was in spring 1993. I wasn’t at the very beginning but I came in shortly afterwards maybe. So she started it off with her assistant community worker and they had a student from Stranmillis. I came in about three months down the line, must have been the autumn of ’93. I was teaching full-time at the school at that particular time. We did it one afternoon a week for two hours, I believe it was. Very early on we identified serious problems with literacy and numeracy, so consequently we began to set aside a portion of each day for literacy and numeracy. Early on it really started under the auspices of the Belfast City Council. That’s where the money was coming from for the two hours. Then across the years we started getting more money from other charitable organisations and it went on from one afternoon a week to two afternoons a week then to three afternoons. The present situation we’re in now runs from 12, midday to 4:30. The literacy and numeracy program grew over the years. More and more children were enrolled on it. We started to notch up success. Whenever I came to Sandy Row there was only one child passed the 11+. Last year there was 11 kids. There was 8 kids went through on a 92-114 in the AQE. There was 3 kids went through with a GL, there was 2 A’s and a B1. But I must emphasise: it’s not primarily an 1+ drum, it’s a literacy and numeracy project and its for any kids generally from 5 to 7. And what happens, at the present time there are 27 kids enrolled on it. Most of them will do the transfer test. But it doesn’t matter whether they do it or not. Every kid that I have up those stairs, every hour is another hour they’re building, its another brick in the foundation of their education. And even the ones that do it and don’t get it. For instance, this year there were maybe 7 or 8 children got 80-90. You know, they just missed what you need to get into grammar school. But those children will go on to High School and they’ll get into a top stream in High School and they’ll do well at High School. I have tracked a lot of them. I’ve got lots and lots of stuff in there from 93. And I’ve tracked the children. And really, looking at them, the kids that didn’t go to Grammar School, have gone to high school, they both do equally well. 

            We’ve got as many University graduated from both cohorts of children so that’s what it’s all about. But basically, it’s not about putting people to university. That’s good if you want to go to university. Frank behind the camera there today, he’s at university, I went to university. That’s fine, it’s good, it’s a good experience, broadens your horizons. But my thing is to break this cycle of awful, awful deprivation in Sandy Row. Kids leave school with no qualifications, they don’t get jobs, disillusioned, they’re standing at the corners, messing about. My success is if a child leaves school with a few O levels, goes out and gets themselves a job, starts to build a family, that’s you starting to break the cycle of deprivation. It’s starting to break whenever you do that there because obviously they will instil more of a love of education into their children and you know you’re starting to make progress then, you know. So across the years, this is into the 25thyear. There would’ve been scores of children would have come through the program. And most of them today who are on this literacy and numeracy program are in jobs today. That’s the thing, They’re working in Shorts. Some of them are in the Army. Some of them are in the youth club round there as youth leaders. Others, there’s one guy working in Financial Times. But they’re all in jobs. That’s the key thing and that’s what this is all about. 

            But a big challenge here and I suppose a big disappointment is getting funding. Funding has been a problem. I’ve been funded for virtually the last 25 years from charities. Now that’s not good, Its good obviously that the funding’s coming and children in need have done a brilliant job and other charities there’s no doubt about it they’ve weighed in behind me. But there should have been money coming officially. There should have been government money coming there’s no doubt about it. Because this homework club has long established the right to have government funding. I’ve had politicians along. They tell you you’re doing a good job, pat you on your shoulder, tell you must be very relieved and happy about this. But that’s not the thing, this place here. This is essentially the epicentre of underachievement in Northern Ireland. Around this Community Centre is really were it is worst in Northern Ireland. The worst figure's here and as you go out in rings it gets better. You know its better up the Donegal Road. Its better at Finaghy. And I take its better across Grosvenor Road and the Falls. I imagine much the same things are at play so really I could do with another tutor here to be quite honest with you. Presently I have, I’m just looking at the figures I have in front of me here. There’s 75 in membership. There’s 25 in the literacy and numeracy program. I have an average daily attendance of 12 pupils. I’ve 18 volunteers at present time. There are two of them unattached, that’s local ones. And there’s 16 from Queen’s University and from Stranmillis. Those kids don’t get anything. They come along here. If they have a car they’re feeding the traffic meter. There’s no funding for them which is a pity. So I feel the politicians, they haven’t done justice to the people. They definitely haven’t. I would have to be honest about that and say that, you know. They could have done a lot more you know. With another tutor I could do twice as much. And if you obviously want to make a dent in under-achievement you need to do those things, definitely. So that has been a disappointment to me that that funding hasn’t come. We now, I believe, have established funding. My funding runs out at the end of March this year. I think we have established some funding, which I think will be government funding from the Urban Villages. It’s to assist deprived areas within Loyalist and Republican areas. Its part of rebuilding and restructuring, helping people come out of conflict. And this will be good. That means the thing is open for another two years. And that’s definitely good you know. 

            The Sandy Row Homework Project has been one of the most innovative and exciting projects to be rolled out obviously in Sandy Row over the last 20 years. The scores that have come through here, they’ve gone into jobs. When people look back and evaluate this and say what’s happened and well I hope it will continue on, I’ll do it a few more years yet. But like I hope it continues in because that’s the future of these areas. These children they need encouraged, you know. People often ask the question “Why under achievement in an area like Sandy Row, an inner-city working class area”? Well, from my particular perspective the big problem here is lack of confidence. They don’t have confidence and consequently, it’s hard to get them, its even hard to get their parents, there’s no history of education in their homes. The child goes round home and says “ahh I couldn’t be bothered working with Billy, I’m bored of that oul stuff” and the parents just say “well that’s alright go on away out and play.” Which is a pity. I understand why the parents do that. But like it is a pity. Today now I would have, the mix of it has changed a bit which  is reflecting a bit of a change in scene in Belfast. Sandy Row as you know is a Loyalist Protestant area, but today I have Catholics coming from St Malachy’s which is good. I’m happy about that because that’s the future for Northern Ireland. We were all born here. We all got to live together you know. So that’s good. And I’ve newcomer families. I’m talking about migrant families. And you know it’s a wonderful case study. When I was running the summer program last year because the literacy and numeracy program goes for 12 months. The summer program these children were out at the door at quarter to nine. Point of fact I was worried of having the assistant tell me off about them here waiting at the door. These migrant children, from Somalia and Syria and places like this. People are lapping education up. So that’s good, that is a mix. Of that 75 I would maybe have, I dare say maybe 15 or 20 from St Malachy’s, St Kevin's’, Holy Rosary, that’s good. 

            First, I’ve got to manage that. Most people here are not malevolent towards the other side you know we’re not like that. There are obviously people who would be and I’ve got to manage that and I want to make sure people come in. I want this to be a safe space for people. I don’t want it to be a place were people are insulted or anything like that there. So I’m managing that and it’s going fine. In the schools nowadays the local primary schools I feel they have safe sanctuary status or something, I think it’s the first in Northern Ireland so actually they have mainly newcomer families. But that’s sort of working with me you know what I mean, that’s given me some credibility and some cover. Like I’m having people in  from the other tradition here and newcomer families so they're also doing something else, so everybody’s doing it. So it’s not sticking out of my book. It’s no problem and I don’t envisage having any problem. The volunteers that come in. Obviously I don’t ask them what religion they are, but I know. I’ve made some great friends, one chap called Ronan, a dental student, he’s working today over in mainland Britain.

            Thinking about the politicians again, the politicians that run the area, hardly get any money of them. Every Christmas Ronan sends me a cheque of sixty pound for the homework club. There you go, you know. Without any exaggeration I’ve had volunteers in here from Crossmaglen and Crossgar you know, from Short Strand and from Sydenham. So they’re all in here and that’s good. And the children are getting used to obviously difference and variety and that’s good, you know. So that’s the story of Sandy Row Homework Project and I hope if you’re looking at it would inspire you to come along and get involved as a volunteer. Or maybe even inspire you to do something in your own working class community because the problems must be the same across Belfast. I’ve never had an opportunity, I’ve worked up in Shaftesbury House which was an independent school and in my class I had Ian Paisley Junior and Suzanne Breen. That’s what I got. A journalist in the Belfast Telegraphtoday, they work together one desk beside the other when they were studying aspects of Irish history. I taught history and politics. That’s where I got my training. But certainly yes I hope the thing continues and goes on to make greater progress in the future.

And of course the link between deprivation and education is...

Oh yes, it’s well established there’s no doubt about it. If somebody were to ask me, one of the first things I talked about there, one of the main reasons would be lack of confidence. But another reason would be changes in family structure. I’m not being judgmental in this you know what I mean. There are changes in family structure. There are more young one parent families. Not being judgmental at all. But that brings its own problems and I see that playing into the thing here. Young girls they’re mastering parenthood and they’ve lots of problems with children and babies, so it makes it harder for them you know what I mean. And obviously with austerity and stuff like that there they haven’t got the same support. So that is another big problem. And I dare say the legacy of “the Troubles” is having an effect as well.

It is often said that in Protestant areas the drive towards education was sort of less than other areas.

 Yes I would say that now. I read the journals that Catholic areas are performing better. I would have to say that. I’m not saying that grudgingly you know what I mean. That is a reality. 

Historically, what was the situation?

You look at the thing. I don’t know, I’ve read Sister Genevieve’sbookThe Renowned Principle of St Louise’s. She came to St Louise’s and the students, obviously the results were dire, they were leaving school, it was a cycle of deprivation, no qualifications. And they were blaming the other tribe as they do in Northern Ireland. It’s the other tribe getting all the money, you know what I mean, poor us. She found the same thing. So she actually told them, I read in one of the chapters, they were trying to embarrass a nun, a nun was dealing with something to do with the facts of life, the girls were trying to embarrass the nun. So Sister Genevieve came into the class and says the only fact you need to understand is your father was unemployed all his life, your grandfather was unemployed and your mother is barely taking in washing to pay for your uniform, that’s the only fact of life you need to worry about. And she would have told them quite regularly, you need to get up of your own behind and get something done. And show the other tribe you’re as good if not better than them. That has worked out in that school. Some of the volunteers that are working here they’re actually doing a bit of teaching in there now today. And they’ll tell me they’re working fairly hard and the results are good. They’re going to the top universities and stuff like that there. So that would be a big problem. This, it’s a bit of a syndrome you know what I mean, you blame the other people. In a sense it’s an escape route. You need to get inspired yourself. So part of our job is to inspire the pupils not just to sit here and help them although I know that’s important, but it’s to inspire them. And once they are sitting down with the volunteers. They’re sitting down here with you know maybe a student dentist and somebody maybe going on to do economics, somebody else to do English, teachers, we had a doctor last year. You know they talk to them and find they are flesh and blood and say to themselves, they aren’t much different to me. If I do a bit of work I’ll perhaps be where they are. So certainly inspiring these people is important. And getting them to get away from the old syndrome of blaming everybody else because as far as you give out with the funding it’s pretty equally spread you know. But that’s the thing, that would be a big thing. You need community leaders who really want to lift the area, educate. Education is one of the main things to lift this area. Education means jobs. It means if you have a stake in the future you’re not going to go out and get involved in all sorts of different extracurricular activities. You’re not going to get involved in that. It’s a good investment for the future to keep the land from going back to violence and conflict no doubt about that.

I believe in it passionately.

Come back to Sandy Row


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