By David Whelan

A unique concept transforming the use of closed spaces in North Belfast for the benefit of the community is continuing to reap rich dividends.

The North Belfast City Learning Centre, based at the Model School for Girls and Boys, facilitates the use of the school’s state-of-the-art facilities on evenings and at weekends.

The facilities are managed as a social enterprise, run by the charity Artemis, which re-invests profits so that the school can throw its facilities open to the local community for a nominal charge.

The scheme opens up Model’s first-class sports facilities as well as its arts and learning spaces to families living around the Ballysillan Road school.

Schools across the north are increasingly opening their doors before, during or after school hours to local groups in an effort to build up links with communities. However, the £26 Model million new-build, which opened in 2010, has moved this process on to a whole new level with the simultaneous opening of the North Belfast City Learning Centre on the same site.

Parents and children now come to night classes – ranging from meditation to computing and astronomy. The electronic village hall is an ICT suite for local people while other services include hair and beauty training, a crèche and community health clinic.

One of the biggest success stories of the partnership between the school and the community is the highly regarded sports facilities with users including football teams from both sides of the city divide and the Belfast Knights wheelchair basketball club.

North Belfast City Learning Centre Coordinator, Liz Gough, said that the project has been highly successful for both the schools and the communities for the past five years.

“In June we will be holding a celebration of the fantastic services that have been delivered since this concept was drawn up with the consultation of parents and residents back in 2004,” she said.

“A lot of what takes place here might go unnoticed on a wider scale, but for the local community and for the schools, the city learning centre is a hub of activity and valuable resource.

“It only takes you to step inside one of the purpose-built community entrances to see some of the activities happening. Those range from work with primary school pupils through to top performances for the whole community at the professional standard performing arts theatre.”

Liz said that she would like even more people to be aware of the availability of facilities, such as community meeting rooms, an ICT suite and hair and beauty vocational education facilities.

She added that the success of the project has been highlighted by the growing reputation of the BELB managed and staffed Mini Model Day Care Centre. Working with around 60 families in any given week, the centre offers year-round day care 51 and has created 15 full-time jobs and four part-time posts.

Day care centre manager, Louise Farr, said that the centre had formed a valuable link with the local community.

“We have families from across Belfast coming to use the facility but we also have past pupils and local residents availing of the service,” she said.

“Mini Model has brought about job creation, training opportunities and created links with the school that benefits all parties.

“The day care is open to all, both for child care places and QCF/post-grad training, achieving a five star rating with Belfast City Council and a recommendation from the EYSS Team inspection to seek the prestigious All Ireland Excellence Award for Day Care settings.”

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