Belfast Telegraph

Disheartened headmaster steps down after years of trying to get funding to rebuild his old school

By Brendan McDaid

The principal of Londonderry’s oldest school is quitting after spending 17 of his 18 years in charge attempting to get the decaying building replaced.

Jack Magill said he has been trying to pin down the £17m funding necessary for the new building — but a lack of movement has helped make up his mind to retire.

The 61-year-old Belfast native said he felt the time was now right to make way for someone else to try and secure the funding.

He informed shocked staff and pupils at the co-educational grammar school yesterday morning that he would not be returning after the current academic year.

Despite detailed plans being drawn up and launched by former ministers, the move from Foyle and Londonderry’s current split-campus site on the Northland Road to a new school in the Waterside has never been realised.

The college was due to share the former Clooney Army base site with Ebrington Primary School, which has also been waiting for years on the green light to start building work.

Mr Magill said his decision has been brought on by, among other things, “changes in education in recent times”.

But he added: “For 18 years I have been head of Foyle and for 17 of those I have been trying to get a new school.”

Governing Bodies Association director John Hart said Mr Magill’s retirement had come as a surprise. “This news will come as a shock to many, and as an experienced and dynamic leader, Jack is someone who is respected right across the sector,” he said.

“Foyle College is one of a number of schools experiencing great pressure on an aging estate.

“Uncertainty and delay serves no-one in the capital build process, and each strategic review of education seems to kick decisions further down the line.

“As an educator committed to serving the needs of young people

in the north west, I am sure Jack did not come to this big decision lightly.”

The University of Ulster in December 2011 exercised its option to buy Foyle College’s 30 acres of land to facilitate the expansion of the Magee campus.

However, this is dependent upon Foyle College vacating, and the school’s plans are now under review by Education Minister John O'Dowd.

A spokesman for the Department for Education said a decision on Foyle College was likely to be made after the publication of area-based plans in the next few weeks.

He said: “The minister announced last autumn viability audits as the first step in the process, and the second step is the area plans which will show what the future need will be.

“Publication of the plans is the next stage, and the first of these on post-primary need will be published shortly, with the second primary level plan due by the start of the summer.

“They will make out what the future provision should be, and from that the minister should be able to direct on the capital programme.

“The viability audit feeds into the plan and all relevant information will be taken into account.”

factfile

Famous former pupils:

  • Neil Hannon, frontman of band The Divine Comedy
  • Ken Goodall, former rugby union international
  • Amanda Burton, Silent Witness actress
  • George Farquhar, renowned Irish dramatist
  • Percy French, songwriter
  • Noel Henderson, former rugby union international
  • John Lawrence, 1st Baron Lawrence, Viceroy of India (1864–69)
  • Eva Birthistle, actress
  • John Ross, last Lord Chancellor of Ireland (1921–1922)

‘It’s time someone else had a go at reaching our goal’

Jack Magill will be starting his retirement with a trip to the London Olympics to watch the fencing — although Foyle College’s principal has been crossing swords with the Department of Education for the best part of two decades.

The 61-year-old director on the British Fencing board said he feels the time is now right to make way for someone else to try and secure funding for a new school.

While the principal has said that his decision to leave was “in part” due to a lack of movement on getting a new school building, it is a measure of the man that he doesn’t use words like exasperation, frustration or giving up, but there is little doubt that departmental inertia must have played a major part in his thinking.

“For 18 years I have been head of Foyle and for 17 of those I have been trying to get a new school,” he said.

“We don’t seem to be any closer to achieving that outcome, and in part this decision is about letting someone else try to get that. New-builds for schools have pretty well stopped in their tracks.”

Mr Magill said he could have gone a few years ago but felt he should stay and “try to get some kind of movement on the school front”.

Foyle College has a long and prestigious history. It traces its origins back almost four centuries to the establishment of the Free Grammar School at Society Street within Derry’s City Walls.

Mr Magill said another reason he was leaving now was the major changes coming in terms of staffing at Foyle College.

Like most schools across the province, Foyle has not escaped teaching cuts.

“There is the school redundancy procedure this year. I am going to go in the next short while and it is better for my successor to pick their team,” he said.

“That is really the thinking. I feel the timing is right for the school, as much as for anything else. It will be good to have a new principal in place for the new academic year if we are looking at staff restructuring.

“There will be a lot of people leaving under the redundancy procedure, both academic and support staff.

“The school will need a sense of strategy and direction and it is better someone coming in does that on their terms.”

A former teacher at the Belfast Institute, Mr Magill taught in England for 20 years before returning to Northern Ireland in 1994 to take up his post at Foyle.

He said he was leaving the school with fond memories.

“It is a wonderful job to have and it has been a pleasure to work with both the governors and staff. The part I will miss most will be the people,” he said.

“We have built up success in rugby and hockey, but mostly with a school like Foyle, which is 400 years old, you don’t want anything to affect it adversely and I am leaving it in a healthy position financially, with strong academic performance and extra-curricular performance.”

Opened as The Free School of Londonderry in 1617 by Mathias Springham, Master of the Merchant Taylors Company and builder of the City Walls, it has its roots in the Plantation of Ulster. Its past pupils are a diverse lot, from celebrities like Neil Hannon, of The Divine Comedy and Silent Witness star Amanda Burton, to poet and painter Percy French and John Lawrence, the first Baron Lawrence, Viceroy of India.

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