‘Champion’ of comprehensive education Principal retires

December 16, 2013

by Christine Keighery

St Paul’s High School in Bessbrook approaches the end of an era on Thursday as Principal Oliver Mooney, the man who steered the school to record exam results and led its transformation into an open, creative learning environment prepares to retire, handing over the reigns to worthy successor and current Vice Principal, Jarlath Burns.

On Wednesday past more than 700 pupils and staff packed the Good Shepherd Church in Cloughreagh to take part in a special Leaving Mass to pay poignant tribute to their much-loved Head Teacher.  Such is the high esteem in which the outgoing Principal is held that Cardinal Sean Brady was the celebrant of the Mass.

Speaking to The Examiner following his farewell Mass, Mr Mooney described the proceedings as “extraordinary and wonderful”.

“It’s hard to find the words to describe it. We had three choirs who sang at the Mass and then the Head Girl spoke at the end. It was all beautifully done and I was very humbled and very proud of all of them.”

Elaborating on his decision to retire from a role he so clearly relished, he told us: “It was my decision to retire.  I had this in my head that when I reached a certain age that I was going to stop.

“I think that in the lifetime of St Paul’s, it’s a good time. St. Paul’s is in a very good place and we have a great team here. It’s very satisfying too that it’s one of our own team who is taking over, Jarlath Burns.  He was there when I arrived in 2002 and he’s been at my right hand, as have others, right the way through.”

The highly revered Principal has been the driving force behind the success of the school since he took over the helm eleven years ago.  He led the school through the massive refurbishment and extension and has championed the cause of all-inclusive comprehensive education since experiencing its worth within St Paul’s.

“I firmly believe in all-inclusive education,” said Mr Mooney who went on to explain how his career journey led him to St.Paul’s.

After 13 “very happy” years teaching in the Abbey Grammar School in Newry, he spent the following five years as a Curriculum Officer with the Education and Library Board before returning to the school environment as Principal at St.Joseph’s Secondary School in Newry for over six years.

“I loved my time with St. Joseph’s but I suppose St Paul’s came along at a good time in that it was something I really wanted to have a go at – the whole notion of an all-inclusive, co-educational, non-selective school where every child was welcomed.

“We have the fantastic Learning Support Centre here for children with specific learning difficulties and needs right up to students who are preparing for interviews in medicine this week. We have the most able candidates alongside those children who are always going to struggle in life so it’s a great mix and they get on extremely well together. We’re fortunate that we can do it. We’re a large school, we have the numbers and we can offer a very wide curriculum.”

With regards to the possibility of all secondary schools in Northern Ireland becoming non-selective, the outgoing Principal said, “We’re still in a situation where there are transfer tests. That does skew the primary school curriculum, there is no doubt about that and it will continue to do so.  There is absolutely no need for it. Those schools in the local area in Newry are excellent first class schools and it would just be lovely if they were serving their local communities rather than drawing children from Crossmaglen and Dromore and Kilkeel and Lurgan, which, in some ways, impoverishes those areas.

“To me schools are about educating children and educating children is more than examination results. They are extremely important and every child must get the best results they can get but if we really want a society that we can live in properly then there has to be respect for everbody in society, no matter what they do.”

“At St.Paul’s, we can say all-inclusive co-ed, non selective works, we can prove it works and anyone could come into our school and see it works. We’ve had numerous researchers here and they’re all coming away with the same findings – that this works. If it works here, it will work everywhere.”

His personal vision for the future of education in south Armagh involves strengthening existing partnerships with St Joseph’s High School in Crossmaglen and Newtownhamilton High School.

“As a Culloville man, I would love to see a school of 800 to 1,000 pupils in Crossmaglen which would serve all the needs of our children. Crossmaglen has a great school in St Joseph’s High School and we work in close partnership with it. Kevin Scally and now John Jones have done fantastic work out there.

“It would be just great if that growth at A-level that we’ve had at St.Paul’s could be experienced in Crossmaglen so those children wouldn’t have to travel 40 miles a day on a bus to achieve it. The teaching in St.Joseph’s is wonderful and results are great so that would be my hope for the years to come – that St.Paul’s and St Joseph’s would become two partner schools along with Newtownhamilton High School, with whom we also have a great partnership. That the three schools really could work like a triangle in this part of south Armagh and share with each other for the good of the children in the area.”

Mr Mooney credits his dynamic and visionary senior management team and teaching staff for enabling the transformation of the school and its incredible achievements in recent years.

He has strong praise for Vice Principals Una McAnulty and Siobhan Bradley and of course, incoming Principal Jarlath Burns.  Mr Mooney also gave special mention to former Vice Principal Anne Mallon for her “outstanding contribution” to the school, and he was keen to highlight the important work of the parent body, who he described as “hugely supportive.”

“It’s often forgotten that there is this whole governing body behind the teachers who give tremendous support to the school – all on a voluntary basis,” he said.

“The success of our school is down to the work of all of these people, from senior managment to teaching staff to the parent body, these are all significant people, everyone plays an important part.”

Often described as “an inspirational leader”, Mr Mooney has received many accolades since he embarked on his teaching career in the 1970s, not least his 2010 “Principal of the Year” award in recognition of his outstanding contribution to the educational system in Northern Ireland.

Again he credits the entire school for contributing to winning the award,  “I just went on their behalf and picked it up,” he said,

“You don’t achieve anything on your own – you achieve it with other people.  It’s a bit like Gaelic football – it’s a team sport.”

While there have been so many highlights and achievements throughout his 11 years as Principal, there are a few Mr Mooney is particularly proud of including the success of the International Projects fundraising efforts which are a huge part of the school every year, to the growth of the musical and dramatic life in St.Paul’s.

“One of the things I wanted to build when I came here, and again, I have great help with it, was the whole musical and dramatic life of the school.  I’m proud to say it has all come alive beautifully. We now have an orchestra in the school and several different choirs.

“I also wanted to resurrect the sporting life of the school. We’ve enjoyed great success there not least getting to the MacRory final in our first year of the MacRory cup in 2012.

“I believe if you’re educating children then you’re educating the whole child and if you have good music and good song and good sport within a school then you’re offering more opportunities to more children.”

These are values he knows are also held by new Principal, Jarlath Burns. Deeming any words of advice unecessary for the highly experienced incoming head, Mr Mooney said, “Jarlath is an extremely experienced administrator across several areas, including his involvement in the GAA at Croke Park through the years, his roles in managment committees, his media work, his position as Chairman of his local club in Silverbridge.

“He’s been a top class Vice Principal here in St. Paul’s and will be a great champion for the school.  I feel the school is in very safe hands, between Jarltath Burns and the senior management team here, they’re all very good people.”

Reflecting fondly on the colleagues and students he prepares to leave behind, the outgoing head said, “They’re more than colleagues, they’re friends and I have the highest respect for them. I have loved working them.  I have loved working with the young people. The children are just magnificent, and I will miss them most.”

Asked about his plans after retirement, he admits his only plan now is “to not have a plan” and to devote more time to his own five children and six grandchildren.

“I’m certainly not going to make any other big commitments at the moment. My commitment was to here and I think my commitment now at this stage is to my family.   I believe in taking each day as it comes, do the best you can that day and worry about tomorrow when it comes.”

As he prepares to take over the reins this week, The Examiner also spoke to incoming Principal, Jarlath Burns about his plans for the future.

Describing his upcoming role as ‘an enormous responsibility’ he also sees it as a privilege.

“St. Paul’s has been trusted by the community of south Armagh to deliver the education of their children for almost 50 years and we take that trust very seriously” he said.

“We consider our school to be at the very heart of the community and a reflection of it.  We are not ambitious to become the biggest, but we do want to be the best.  When you have such a dynamic, imaginative and hard working staff, it is not so hard to be the head teacher in a large school.  We are also lucky in south Armagh because education holds a very important place in the community.  Our feeder primary schools are outstanding and work closely with us to ensure there is a pathway for each child to reach their fullest  potential.”

Mr Burns echoed the sentiments of his soon-to-be predecessor, extolling the virtues of the all-inclusive ethos of the school.

“Schools like St. Paul’s, which is genuinely all inclusive, non selective and suitable for all the family, are a beacon for education because the system which is being proposed works perfectly well here.

“Our rich tapestry of talent, differing abilities and diverse educational needs, gives our school a colour and a buzz that makes us reflective of real society.  St. Paul’s is loved by its pupils, they are proud of our crest, they are loyal to our core values and this is evidenced by the fact that generations of children have come to our school and all have succeeded at their own level and in their own way.”

He also expressed his hope that the all-inclusive model could be embraced locally and nationally,

“Newry, with its four Grammar schools will be a challenge for any vision of education which has non selection at its core.  It is not up to St. Paul’s to campaign for an end to selection, but all we can do is to show by example how effective, enjoyable and productive, all ability education can be.

“I would urge schools who are fearful of change to embrace it willingly and be the Catholic school you claim to be.  No child should be rejected aged 11 on the basis of a test. Selection is not child centred, it is ruthless and unfair.”

Much like his revered colleague, Jarlath Burns sees only more opportunities ahead for St. Paul’s

“The great hockey player Wayne Gretzky once said, ‘I don’t care where the puck has been.  I want to be where the puck is going to be.’  This is what we are like in St. Paul’s.

“We are at the forefront of every single educational innovation there is.  We take risks to ensure our children have the best possible experience of school.”

He sees the biggest challenge facing education in south Armagh as procuring a new school for St.Paul’s sister school, St.Joseph’s High School in Crossmaglen.

“St. Joseph’s is an outstanding school and we consider ourselves, St. Joseph’s and Newtownhamilton High as one school on three sites.  If Crossmaglen could get a new school, we could grow smaller and allow them to grow into their new building.  This would be perfect for education in south Armagh.”

As he embarks on his important new role this week, the former Armagh GAA player conveyed his hopes that St.Paul’s will continue to reflect the south Armagh values of faith, family and football and he paid special tribute to his colleague and friend, outgoing Principal, Oliver Mooney,

“I have learnt so much from Oliver over the past 11 years.  How he manages people is not in any manual, or won’t be found in any university course, but it is based around kindness, compassion, integrity and high expectations.  To see such a management style achieve such success inspires me to be the same.”

As St Paul’s approaches the end of an amazing era where the exceptional leader, Oliver Mooney propelled it to unprecedented heights, incoming Principal, Jarlath Burns seems set to continue and build upon that impressive legacy so that this unique secondary school can remain at the forefront of all- inclusive, all-encompassing educational excellence.