Rockport School: It costs £12,000 a year and educated Ulster Rugby star Paddy Wallace and Miss Northern Ireland Tiffany Brien
As the private Co Down school wins further recognition for its academic excellence, well-known pupils and the current head boy and girl tell Una Brankin why they love it
Gary Lightbody may have described himself as "skinny as a broom handle and as formidable as a wisp of cotton candy" as a child on the school football field, but the Crawfordsburn 'wimp' went on to conquer the equally competitive rock charts with his band Snow Patrol.
The award-winning singer/songwriter, is arguably one of the best-known past pupils of Rockport School, the revered educational establishment in Craigavad which has its own Mr Chips, in the form of headmaster George Vance, cycling through its grounds.
Highly regarded for its academic and sporting achievements, the independent junior and senior institution is now rubbing shoulders with the royal-linked Gordonstoun, as the first school here to be accepted into the Round Square worldwide association of schools.
Only 120 schools in the world belong to this elite affiliation, created in 1966 by German educator and philosopher Kurt Hahn, who also established Gordonstoun -- alma mater of Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, as well as Princes Charles, Andrew and Edward.
It has taken Rockport two years to meet the strict criteria of Round Square, a process involving a presentation by the students to Round Square delegates and another by headmaster Vance to 25 international headmasters in Aiglon College, Switzerland.
The membership has opened up all sorts of exchange opportunities for Rockport's privileged pupils -- this autumn, two of them will be travelling to the Round Square International Conference in Jordan, while others will be joining the Round Square movement's international community service projects, which include helping with food production and irrigation in Sinai, and delivering humanitarian aid in Romania. It's an impressive achievement for a small independent school of just 200 pupils, and there are few prouder than its current Heads of School -- Jack Wright and Jill Vance (head boy and head girl, in other words) -- or some of its high profile alumni, including rugby star Paddy Wallace and former Miss Northern Ireland Tiffany Brien.
HEAD of School Jill Vance (16) lives in Holywood and has been a pupil at the school since 2007, she says:
I only found out about Gary Lightbody attending Rockport after I joined the school, but now the staff and pupils do a lot more research on the alumni, which is really important as it shows us what is possible in a small school and also encourages us to strive for more.
I came at the start of R6 so there wasn't a big entry process to undergo. I remember getting a huge welcome pack from the then headmistress, which was very daunting for me, as I was really worried about starting a new school.
I must admit that it took some time adjusting to the kilt we wear as part of the uniform, but now I don't mind it. It's scary when you see a new uniform at first, but as soon as you actually go to school you begin to realise that everyone is in the same boat and it's important to get that sense of belonging.
At first it was very intimidating; I really loved my previous school so the initial transition was very difficult until I actually started. I had a completely different idea of Rockport because I had been shown around the school while it was empty. I didn't have a taster day so I had been speculating all summer on what this Hogwarts-style school might actually be like. I was slightly horrified when I found that school didn't finish until 5.30pm, but realised quickly that getting your prep (homework) done at school is actually a good idea.
I can't even remember my first day, but I felt comfortable and at home within the first five minutes. All of my doubts had faded as my initial perception was far from the truth. The headmaster is like Mr Chips, cycling his bike around the school, but don't tell him I said that!
Personally, I've never seen any bullying in my seven years here -- if there is any it's nipped in the bud, but we all look out for each other here. There is a zero tolerance approach to it.
The most important life lessons I've learned at Rockport so far are that there's more in you than you think, and never to let people tell you that you are incapable of something: everything is possible.
Rockport has given me the self-belief and resilience to tackle whatever comes my way. In my role as head girl, I often have to stand up and speak publicly, meet and greet visitors to the school and present information to groups of people. This experience will, I feel, be invaluable in later life, as I feel comfortable in presenting publicly. One of the key messages the staff try to instil in the pupils is to be confident, but not arrogant.
Overall, I feel that the small class sizes are the most beneficial aspect of Rockport. The individual support can really help when you are unsure of a subject. Also, the pupils always talk about a family atmosphere here -- and it's true.
TIFFANY Brien (23) was a pupil at Rockport from 1993-2002. She works full-time as an estate agent and is a keen and accomplished sailor. She says:
I remember my days in Rockport better than my days at secondary school. It has had a lasting impression on me and I will forever remember my 10 years there.
When I was at Rockport I didn't realise what a unique environment I was in -- it only dawned once I had left and moved on to secondary school. I was so fortunate to have been given so many learning experiences and sporting opportunities that have set me up for so many scenarios in my life to date.
I didn't get into my local primary school, so Rockport was my only option. I was first-born and had no siblings there, but absolutely loved it, so mum and dad sent the rest of us there too, after seeing how well I had got on.
I started when I was three, so I have no memories of my first day, unfortunately, and I don't remember getting my uniform, but I loved it because it was so different. I wore a grey skirt and a green Bridgedale jumper with shoulder and elbow pads.
I also remember getting school colours which went on your jumper below your house badge. I made it my mission to get two rows of colours, hence I was part of every club and society going!
Rockport was very small and close-knit. I never experienced any bullying it was very intimidating when I started going to the large classes at Methodist College in Belfast at 11.
It was a huge step from my class of just 10 pupils in Rockport and it took me about a year to settle into my new school.
My favourite teacher at Rockport was Miss Holland; she was my PE teacher and netball coach.
Netball was a big thing for me in Rockport -- I played with all my best friends and captained the team to win the Northern Ireland Finals, and got through to the UK Finals in England.
When I was 10, this was a massive deal for me and I still remember it so well! I also remember writing a 'book' when I was 10, called The Terrific Tales of Tiffany -- I'm sure this was a thrilling read with 10 years of life under my belt.
I was a goody-two-shoes, so I never got into trouble for any rule-breaking.
Although I think there were a few suspensions in my day for things like smoking behind the sheds.
I think what Rockport taught me was that it is very important to work on every aspect of your life and not just academic studies.
Obviously, studying is very important, but so are all the extra-curricular activities, which I think helped me become a more well-rounded individual.
My best friend in Rockport was Levi Rogers. After P7 we went our separate ways; I went to Sullivan and Levi went to boarding school, so we lost touch for a few years.
But we came back together in sixth year, when we both moved to Methody.
I would love to go to a past pupil event if one was ever organised.
I have most of my fellow pupils on Facebook and it is quite interesting following their lives and seeing how everyone is growing up, getting engaged and having babies.
Rockport was a superb stepping stone for me into life.
I've always said I owe a lot to the school and for every opportunity it had given me.
It is really a special place which I will remember very fondly."
RUGBY star Paddy Wallace (34), who attended the school from 1985-1991, plays for the Ulster team, and was a member of the Ireland side which lifted the U-19 World Cup in 1998, as well as the Ireland Grand Slam winning team of 2009. The Belfast man is married to Tina and they have two children, Paddy Jack (7) and Leila (5). He says:
I've had so many concussions I can't remember my first day at Rockport -- honestly! When we moved to the area Rockport was right next door to us and I'm sure my parents wanted the very best for me and my brothers. There was a relaxed atmosphere there, due to by the small numbers in class and that seemed to really bring out the best in everyone. I remember Gary Lightbody when I was there -- he was a few years older than me but he seemed like a decent footballer -- a goalkeeper, if my memory serves me right.
I hated the process of getting the school uniform.
It felt like you were wasting one of your last precious days of the summer holidays. The jumpers felt slightly military but they kept you warm while in the Tucker Hall.
My English teacher, Sam Russell, was both my favourite and most feared. He was my teacher in Upper Sixth and I remember him fondly.
He would scare Wordsworth into the deep chasms of your memory -- I can still recite "I wandered lonely as a cloud ...".
I broke a few rules in my time at the school and did my fair share of stints in detention! I don't remember anyone ever being expelled, though.
My best friend at Rockport was Tom Lindsey. We would spend alternate weekends at each other's houses. We both loved sport and that's what probably drew us together as mates. We stay in touch now through social media now.
I learned a lot from Rockport. We were told 'Pursue what you enjoy' -- and that was the best piece advice I was ever given.
HEAD of School Jack Wright (16) is from Holywood and has been a pupil at Rockport since 2010. He says:
Rockport has been my life since my first day. What makes it special for me is the people -- all the staff who would help you with anything and the caring friends you make all along the way. We like to call ourselves is the 'Rockport family' because we are so small and we all care about each other, and we are all close.
I had a difficult time at my old school, so my parents decided to move me to Rockport because my sister had been there for three years and had really excelled in all areas. As soon as I walked over that front gate, everyone helped me forget my past experiences and urged me to move forward.
From day one, Rockport changed me for the better -- my personality exploded. I was popular and I got involved in the Rockport Dramatic Society, which led me to getting a lead role later on.
I was even playing sport and I'm now playing rugby for the Ulster under-18s club. My parents couldn't believe the change. Every day has been a blessing since. I really do owe Rockport so much: my confidence, public speaking ability, being secure and able to make up my own mind, and even just standing up for what I believe in.
I didn't really know of the famous alumni before I became a pupil, but they are still involved within the school and they have inspired me. I'd like to follow in the footsteps of Paddy Wallace and go on to represent Ulster in rugby, too. One of our old boys is a former Lord Mayor of London -- I quite fancy giving that a go!
All of the staff are amazing; they give 100% and would do anything to help us in anything. It's hard to pick one favourite teacher but if had to, it would be my drama/music teacher Miss Carr: she's like a best friend and a second mother at the same time.
There's never any bullying here. We are a family and we are all so close we look out for each other. We do not want to hurt each other. If there have been any incidences in the past, the staff have dealt with them immediately.
Rockport helps you in every way in preparation of moving on, especially with our ethos and education outside the classroom. Also, all pupils are thrown into as many opportunities as possible, for example, public speaking, sporting, drama.
The best advice I've been given by Rockport is to never give up. Rise to the challenge -- whatever that may be and let nothing hold you back. Be the best you can be, treat all people equal no matter who they are or the background they come from. Be kind and considerate, look out for your neighbour, and be grateful for all you have.
Never settle for second best, but be determined and vigilant and grasp ever opportunity that comes your way."
HOW MUCH IT COSTS ...
* Rockport is the only independent junior and senior school run along public school lines in Northern Ireland
* Founded on March 17, 1906, by Geoffrey Bing, it is run as a co-educational day and boarding school and caters for pupils from the ages of three to 16
* Pupils are also prepared for entry to leading schools throughout the UK, at 13-plus and 16-plus, with scholarships and bursaries awarded annually
* Rockport is a fee-paying school with day and boarding options. Day fees begin at £1,840 per term for R1 pupils, rising to £4,040 for older pupils. Boarding fees range from £1,340 to £2,640, with casual boarding offered at £40-£50 per night
* The school follows the Northern Ireland curriculum in the junior years and prepares children for the Transfer Test (though increasingly the majority of pupils remain at the school).
* The teaching staff also prepare children for the 11+ and 13+ for transfer to mainland public schools, and over last three years Rockport pupils have shown consistent improvement at GCSE level.