Good communication skills are crucial in Jill Caskey’s role within the Integrated Education Fund (IEF).
Here’s how Jill became a Parental Engagement Campaign Manager with the Integrated Education Fund
Give a brief outline of your career to date.
I graduated as a Primary School teacher, and even though I loved working as a teacher, I found I was more passionate about the wider educational climate and the reconciliation process within Northern Ireland. This led me to work for a cross community children’s charity for eight years as Programmes Manager, training professionals in contentious issues, and coordinating community relations volunteering programmes for young people. I worked briefly as a Family Learning Coordinator in east Belfast helping families to engage in their child’s educational experience before joining the Integrated Education Fund as Parental Engagement Campaign Manager in 2018.
What was your favourite subject at school?
I had two, English and Art.
Did you go on to further/ higher education, if so what did you study and where?
I completed my B.Ed. in Primary School Education, specialising in Art at Stranmillis University College Belfast. I then decided to go back to study a few years ago, and completed a MSC part-time in Community Youth Work at Ulster University.
How did you get into your area of work?
I have spent years facilitating difficult conversations with a wide range of stakeholders and this, combined with my passion for education and improving the lives of young people, has led me to my current role. Working with families previously also allowed me greater insight into engaging with parents.
Is this what you always wanted to do?
I always wanted to have a job I loved, and to do something which made me feel like I made a difference, I feel like my contribution to integrated education is fulfilling both these objectives. Since it was established in 1992, the IEF has helped to make a huge difference to the lives of children and young people by bridging the gap between the limited government money available for integrated schools and what was actually needed. The IEF is a registered charity which is entirely dependent on fundraising. It financially supports the establishment of new schools, the growth of existing schools and those schools seeking to become integrated through the transformation process.
Northern Ireland remains a deeply divided society. Mistrust and misconceptions are among the biggest threats to a better future. Many children still reach adulthood having had little contact with people from the other side of the religious divide. Where better to start than with educating children together?
Were there any particular essential qualifications or experience needed?
A background in education as well as parental engagement, managerial experience and excellent people skills would be needed.
Are there alternative routes into the job?
I think a background in community relations or reconciliation work would also be useful for my current role.
What are the main personal skills your job requires?
I think communication is key in most jobs, but particularly important in my current role. The outreach element means I frequently engage with schools and communities, or speak at events about integrated education, but it is equally important to communicate your message successfully on a variety of social media platforms.
I find it is also very important for me to strike the balance between being strategic and being adaptable, as you need to be responsive to parental demand. Parents can now register their support for their child’s school to become integrated on Integrate My School so this demand can pop up all over the country alongside current work streams.
What does a typical day entail?
Every day is different, but I need to balance basic managerial skills alongside running a busy campaign. Generally, my days are really full, consisting of visiting schools, planning for wider promotion of integrated education or attending an engagement event. This can be alongside meeting parents, or school Boards of Governors, who want to know more about integrated education.
The Integrate My School website was launched in 2017 and underpins the campaign that I oversee. The website informs parents about legislation that supports parents to access more integrated education and allows them to register support for their child’s school to become integrated. Once 20% of parents of a school register their support for integration then the school’s Board of Governors is legally required to hold a parental ballot of all parents to become an integrated school.
Seven schools voted for integration last year, and others are exploring the process currently so the demand is increasing and the IEF would support schools at all stages of the process.
What are the best and most challenging aspects of the job?
The best aspect of my job would be visiting schools and seeing happy children, as ultimately that is the most important thing for me. The main challenge is dispelling the myths and misconceptions that some people have about integrated education, such as integrated schools are neutral spaces, secular or that there will be less of a focus on the educational attainment of pupils. The good thing is however, that the engagement side of my work allows me the opportunity to dispel those.
Why is what you do important?
I think the legacy of our past has left many people within our society leading separate lives. However, the overwhelming majority of parents support what we are trying to do but they just don’t know how they can become involved. It is rewarding to see our campaign helping to empower parents and schools take positive action. In 2019, seven schools held a democratic ballot of parents on whether their school should consider integrated status. It was incredible that the percentage in favour ranged from 86% to 100%.
What advice would you give anyone looking to follow a similar career path?
Develop your communication skills, both interpersonal and on social media platforms and never think you’ve learned all you need to know. Education is such a broad field and there are always new ideas, policies and research that should filter into what you do.
If you weren’t doing this what would you like to do?
It would definitely be within the field of education, but I feel like I still have plenty more work to do in my current role.
What is the one piece of advice you would give to yourself on your first day?
Breathe… you can’t do everything all at once.
Describe your ideal day off.
My ideal day would be spent with the people I love, eating great food and spending time outdoors.
And finally, what’s the key to any successful job search?
I think it’s really important to love what you do, we spend so much time working that it is really important to do plenty of research and go with your gut feeling if a job is a good fit for you. I am a firm believer that you will flourish doing something you love.