Positive change is happening across Derry and Strabane – that’s the overarching message of the recently published Statement of Progress based on the evidence presented by Council and its statutory and support partners.
The Statement, which was launched in November, is the first significant milestone in the Community Planning process – and is a record of all progress achieved since the Strategic Growth Plan launched two years ago, referencing a series of economic, social and environmental indicators.
The report aims to provide transparency around the business of Community Planning and the performance of the statutory and support partners tasked with its delivery.
It focuses on the eight key outcomes identified within the plan following an extensive period of public engagement.
One important element of the progress recorded is a move towards creating a better skilled and educated workforce and increasing training and learning opportunities for young people.
The Education and Skills Delivery Partnership, tasked with overseeing the delivery of better education and skills here, is chaired by the private sector, and lead employers have formed a number of sub groups focusing specifically on skills needs.
This partnership has played a key role in the delivery of the City Deal, drawing in £50m of innovation funding from the UK government to support innovation and skills development through a raft of pioneering projects currently under development.
In terms of academic output the Statement of Progress highlights that Derry and Strabane are performing well in comparison to the other ten Council areas, with the highest ever percentage of school leavers achieving 5+ GCSEs A* - C and a higher percentage of school leavers achieving 2+ A-levels than the NI average.
The report also documents the improvement in vocational training and skills pathways with much work being done in local communities to assist people who are unemployed, economically inactive or affected by a disability.
These include programmes such as Steps to Success, Access to Work and European Social Fund projects.
Chair of the Education and Skills Partnership is successful local businessman and former Chamber of Commerce President Gavin Killeen. Gavin has been involved in the Community Planning process since it began and is confident that Derry and Strabane has the skills and talent that - with the right support – will transform the economic prospects of the NW.
“We are beginning to see progress here in the North West, and that is the result of the strong partnership approach to education and skills involving our education providers and local businesses,” he explains.
“One of our major assets is a fantastic talent pipeline based on a firm academic foundation, but our biggest challenge is providing the opportunities for school leavers and graduates once they navigate successfully through the school system.
“We are seeing improved training and learning opportunities, but too many of our graduates are then taking their skills and talents elsewhere. We need to bring the career opportunities that reflect the skills profile of our workforce, and ensure that we reap the benefits of the first class education system that sets the NW apart.
“There are obviously some significant challenges – such as the delay in the delivery of a graduate entry medical school at Ulster University that has such a pivotal role in our plans. But we will continue to work on the business cases for the key strategic projects that will initiate growth here so we are ready to hit the ground running at the first opportunity as funding support becomes available.”
One person who has experienced first-hand the improving levels of support now open to local people trying to change their lives through learning, is local nurse Suzanne Gillespie.
After many frustrating years battling with Dyslexia and the lack of confidence she experienced as a result, Suzanne found the support she needed to follow her vocation through the Kickstart Programme.
When she arrives at the General Medical Ward at Altnagelvin Hospital where she has worked for the past year, Suzanne still feels an immense sense of pride that she is now doing a job that she loves.
Now a General Medical nurse providing daily care for patients presenting with a wide range of acute conditions, Suzanne looks back at a time when she felt completely trapped by her own lack of confidence and a sense of failure that prevented her from moving forwards. And how one decision to call her local Council turned all that on its head.
“I left school feeling like I had never reached my full potential,” Suzanne recalls. “I found certain aspects of school difficult due to my Dyslexia and as a result of this I placed myself into a box. I think that within this box I just accepted that I would never have any formal qualifications.
kickstart to work
“The courses or jobs I was interested in all naturally required the basic qualifications to apply, but the thought of going back to school to do my Maths and English scared me as I just assumed I would fail.
“Then I found out about Kickstart to Work and had a meeting with a skills advisor, who took the time to explain everything they could offer me and how the classes worked.
“I signed up to do my Maths and English, and the classes were small and the teacher tailored her approach to each individual.
“The classes were unlike anything I had thought they would be and I found myself actually enjoying them. Kickstart really looked after me and ensured I was on track to achieve everything I wanted so I successfully completed my Maths, English and two computer courses.”
Suzanne’s growing confidence led her to take her studies further and she realised that a third level qualification was well within her abilities.
“Kickstart helped me realise that I can do just about anything with the right support,” she said. “The most difficult thing I found about the whole process was removing myself from the box I had placed myself in and taking that first step. Little did I know when I started my Maths and English just how much my life would change.
“With a new found confidence and self-belief I went on to apply for the Access course at North West Regional College, with the intention of going to University to pursue a career I never believed I could ever consider.
“I went on to get a place at Ulster University’s Magee Campus to study BSc Nursing (Adult). Ulster University provided me with any additional support I required and I have now qualified with a 1st in Nursing (adult) BSc (Hons). I have now been working as a qualified nurse for nearly a year, and this was all made possible by stepping into Kickstart to Work.”
Suzanne is just one of the many people affected by the positive changes already evident two years into Community Planning.
Her story and the experiences of a number of local people involved in an array of local programmes and projects are captured within the full Statement of Progress which is now available to view online at www.growderrystrabane.com