1964 – St. Joseph’s H.S. Golden Jubilee – 2014

September 22, 2014

For the final installment of our St Joseph’s Golden Jubilee series, The Examiner speaks to much-loved current Principal, John Jones, who told us of his pride at being at the helm of the progressive school in this, its 50th year, and how he and his dedicated teaching staff strive to continue the school ethos of “every child counts” while consistently raising St. Joseph’s standards to consolidate its place at the forefront of Catholic education in Northern Ireland.

Renowned for his exuberance and warm personality, John Jones certainly lives up to his reputation, as he wholeheartedly welcomes me to St. Joseph’s and takes me on a guided tour in and out of classrooms which have admittedly seen better days, in order to showcase the excellent standard of education that is provided at the school, despite its longstanding issues with poor and aging facilities.

Whilst he is thrilled and excited that the school is finally to receive the new build it so richly deserves, John is keen for me to witness the great rapport and good relationships that are evident between teachers and their students, and to soak up the family atmosphere which pervades throughout St. Joseph’s in spite of its lacklustre surroundings.

“Yes, the physical condition of the building is not good and our children deserve better and deserve to be treated the same as all other children, as up until now, this hasn’t been the case,” he says.

“Despite this, I firmly believe that what goes on within this building is more important than how modern the facilities are and the standard of education at St. Joseph’s has never suffered because of the physical condition of the building. In fact it has only got better and better,” he adds proudly.

On the walk back to his office, the affable Principal stops every few minutes to chat to a student he invariably knows by name, congratulate them on their latest achievement or ask them to remind him of what they learned in certain lessons today.  Teachers too are accosted and introduced, their individual strengths and accolades highlighted and praised by John. It’s all done with much laughter and banter and its clear this is a man who fosters great relationships with both staff and pupils and one who loves his job.

This is confirmed by John as he recalls how he first came to St. Joseph’s 32 years ago.

“I’ve been a one school man. I started here in September 1983 after a year of substitute work in Newry and South Armagh. I applied for the job through an ad in the paper and I’d hardly been to Crossmaglen in my life,” says the Newry man, who remains fiercely proud of his Derrybeg roots.

“Weeks and weeks went by without any reply and I was sure I hadn’t even got an interview until one morning a brown envelope arrived through our door in Third Avenue, Derrybeg.

“It was from Fr Moran, Secretary of the Board of Governors at the time, informing me that I had been appointed teacher of Religious Education at St. Joseph’s, Crossmaglen.

“I couldn’t believe it! I wasn’t interviewed so obviously my references from Kevin Campbell at Cloughoge Primary School and the Vice Principal, Mrs Hughes from Jonesborough School worked for me! Although Bernard Crilly often remarked that after he appointed me they started to interview people – whatever he meant by that!” he jokes.

Being the “new kid on the block” John says he was tasked with coaching the Senior boys for football almost every dinner time and he feels this was a great way of establishing himself and building up relationships.

“That’s a great strength of this school,” he says.

“The relationships we have with the children. I like to think I’m a people person but the relationships in this school between staff and pupils are just phenomenal.”

“As a non-selective, co-educational school, we don’t judge people by exams at 11 and yet we are bucking the trend in that we’re doing very well in both GCSE and A-Level” he adds.

“That academic progress and achievement has been a goal since the school opened 50 years ago.  Archie McMullen was a legend and did great things for the school.

“I also owe a lot to Bernard, Frank and Kevin.  I’ve worked under all three and they’ve been fantastic, so committed and dedicated to the school.

John pays special tribute to the work and support of his valued senior colleagues, in particular Maire Mulligan who he describes as “totally committed to the children of St. Joseph’s.”

“Maire is the longest serving teacher in the school and has been the Head of Science, the Head of Senior School and now Vice Principal.  She is in charge of the curriculum and has marked out our very successful ‘Pathways’ for children.

“There are different Pathways available within the school for individual children at Key Stage 4 which cater for pupils of all interests and capabilities” he explains,

“Not every student will go to university or college. We have children who attend  SRC two days a week to work towards BTECS, Occupational Studies, and Trades while also doing the minimum of 5 or 6 GCSE’s.

“Mrs Mulligan meets parents individually during Year 10 to make sure we have a pathway to match each child. We try to serve the needs of all learners, in keeping with the ethos of our school – every child counts.

“Maire Mulligan’s mantra has always been – ‘Every child, every chance, every day’ “

Mr Jones reveals that he and Mrs Mulligan have over 65 years experience in teaching within St. Joseph’s between them and says he feels it is a great testament to the school that teachers are retained there, most for all of their careers.

“I’ve been here 32 years and there have been a few times that opportunities came up to move elsewhere but ultimately this is where my heart is,” he says.

“The people of South Armagh welcomed me as a blow-in – a Derrybeg man and a Down man.

“As a teacher I’ve always been very lucky that I’ve been promoted at different times in my career in the one school. I know people go elsewhere for promotions but I’ve had all that here and I just love it here.”

John admits that becoming Principal was tinged with some regrets “because I do missing  teaching terribly.”

“I miss that contact in the classroom and the teacher-student relationship, that drive of having an exam to pass and pushing the children on.”

Despite his pangs to teach again, John says that he loves coming to work “because of the people I work with and the children in our care.”

“We have children here who are now at university and college who were probably written off at 11 and who have proved the system wrong.  That’s down to the good quality teaching in this school and the commitment of the staff and governors.

“Governors Terry Hearty and Geraldine Donnelly have been very proactive as have Megan Fearon and Dominic Bradley, Conor Murphy and the legendary Tom McKay.  These people have all been so good for our school.”

Citing the improvements and developments he has seen over the years which have continued to make St Joseph’s a school of excellence, John feels that the introduction of A-Levels really put the school “on the map.”

“We have 80 students in our Lower Sixth form this year – the biggest Sixth Form group we’ve ever had.  People now realise you can stay for 7 years at this school, and that pupils can progress to university or further education from St.Joseph’s.

“The choices for A-Level are also increasing.  This year we’ve introduced Additional Maths for Year 11 and we introduced A-level Maths and A-Level Chemistry.  We are consistently trying to broaden the choices and if the demand is there we will try to accommodate the children.

“Years ago a lot of High schools would have done CSE’s while the Grammar schools would have done ‘O’-Levels – that was another way of showing that we were somehow viewed as second rate. Now everybody does the same qualifications and you can complete your entire secondary education here at St. Joseph’s so its a level playing field for us now.”

Besides academic excellence, John is also extremely proud of the musical and sporting achievements of the school and recalls the hugely successful production of the musical ‘Grease’ in the school last year as well as the two Ulster Championships won in football last year.

“I believe children are receiving a very rounded education here at St.Joseph’s. They’re not labelled, it’s co-educational, it caters for all abilities and it’s on the doorstep for many people.

“We’re certainly not perfect and have areas for improvement but, with the advent of the new school, I see that as a great vote of confidence in us and what we provide in the local area.

“I would ideally love that the new build would be completed within the next 4 years but that might be just an aspiration of mine.

“We have no Drama facilities or no Music practice rooms and our Sports hall is old so I would hope all these will be remedied with the new build.  I do remind people that it’s what happens inside this old building that really matters  but I do hope when the new build finally comes it will give everybody a new lease of life and reinvigorate the school.”

As for his own vision for the school, the proud Principal says,

“We’re often referred to locally as the ‘top’ school in terms of our location in the town but I always say to the children that I want us to be known as the top school because we are the top school at everything we do – that would be my vision for St Joseph’s.

“At the height of the Troubles here, we used to have stop teaching because of the noise of the helicopters.  We often had to lie under desks during shooting incidents, but those days are gone now and it is important for people to know that this is a school just like any other, which offers the same opportunities, if not more, for young people.

“I could not work in a better place and I am delighted to have been part of the education of generations of families in this area.

“Teaching is a privilege and if I was to turn back the clock to when I started out in my teaching career, I would not change a thing.  I can safely say I have never looked since that first day back in September 1983 and I continue to be fiercely proud of everything St. Joseph’s does and all it aspires to do.”