BT63 5XX, three numbers and four letters can’t really decide your future; or can they? That series of characters are a postcode and that postcode means that you live in a Protestant Council Estate in the heart of Portadown but that can’t decide your future can it? In Portadown we have a largely different schooling system to the rest of Northern Ireland known as the Dickson Plan. Due to this system our academic selection happens at age 14 instead of 11 so after primary school we attend a junior high for three years, much like the American ‘middle school’ concept. It is then at the end of our three years that we undergo transfer testing where we then progress to the senior high or in some cases, college which is the grammar school equivalent. This system helps to give young people a tailored education not simply based on choices or abilities at 11 years of age. The grammar school equivalent in our system is situated on the outskirts of said council estate however out of my large group of friends from the area it was only I that qualified to attend this school, but why?
As someone who has grown up in an estate of everyday working class people I have seen the systematic failures of the country we live in. My friends, working class Protestant males are less likely to achieve academically than any other group in Northern Ireland according to the fifth Peace Monitoring Report.
So, were we as young people set up to fail simply due to the area we were born in? Many of the difficulties we have had grown up in Portadown have been due to its past during the Troubles where it was part of the area known as the ‘murder triangle’ because of the high number of killings carried out by paramilitaries, labelling us as ‘troubled youths’ due to the legacy of these attacks within our town and the surrounding Lurgan and Craigavon, When mentioning to new friends not from the area that you’re from Portadown, you’re normally greeted with a look of disgust or a joke that you live in the worst possible area but to us its home and putting aside a troubled past we still love our wee town.
Despite the bad image that many working class children receive just because of the estate they grew up in, I don’t believe for one second that we are disadvantaged in any way. In fact, our postcode includes our local youth centre which has been a saving grace for many young people in the area. Instead of being out in the streets and taking part in antisocial behaviour, we’re inside this safe space engaging in projects focused around community relations and social action. Through youth work, we, the young people of this seemingly disadvantaged area, have been given chances of a lifetime where we’ve been able to meet and build friendships with other young people from backgrounds completely different to ours and putting aside the differences in our upbringing.
One of the most life changing projects we took part in was a cross community group where we joined up with number of teenagers from a Catholic Council Estate in a neighbouring town. We travelled the length and breadth of Northern Ireland with these teens that had completely separate upbringings to us and yet we formed lasting friendships. After the project was formally over in the eyes of the youth service, we as young people continued travel and take trains to go and visit our new friends because we were all just normal young people regardless of where we had grown up. When mentioning this to parents we were all met with disbelief as 20 years ago we could never have met these young people who were just like us without fearing abuse and even putting our lives at risk. We have moved on from this past of being this town famed for shootings and violence and simply want to be recognised as young people just like any other person our age.
Although statistically, we are the least likely to succeed in life I am dead set on changing this harmful mindset as my friends become car mechanics, engineers and even serve our country within the armed forces. We may not be academically gifted but I can assure you that growing up in a council estate has ensured that we grow up determined to improve our lives and the lives of those around us all in our own special way.
These social barriers were the main reason that I have decided to stand as a candidate in the Youth Parliament elections in my local constituency. Although my campaign has barley begun as I had intended to go into local schools across my constituency and speak to my potential voters but unfortunately this has been halted by COVID-19 so I simply will be taking my campaign over to social media. The message I intend to get across will remain unchanged as I stand not on tribal lines, not as a young member of any political party and not for personal gain, but simply as a working class young women who aspires to improve the lives of all the other young people who feel trapped or destined for failure simply due to where the have grown up as society looks upon us as ‘lost causes’ or simply teenagers that are ‘up to no good’. We need someone to speak up for us and I will fight with everything I have to let us have our say over in Westminster no matter how small my voice may seem. To understand my campaign you don’t need to be interested in politics or even understand it in the slightest but rather be understand that every young person should be free to believe that they can be anything despite their household income or something as silly as three numbers and four letters.
Alana Cahoon is 17 years old and grew up in Portadown. She is currently attending Portadown College studying politics, economics and history and hopes to pursue a career in politics.