Dear Caitriona, I am writing to you in your capacity as Education Minister to give you a flavour of the June end of term reports at the new school on the hill at Stormont.
Some of the 108 pupils have clearly done worse than others but I would suggest the phrase which might sum up the school’s overall performance is: ‘must do better.’
Better at what, you may well ask? Well, let me give you my conclusions from reading the reports under the headings listed below.
Pupils of all ages and creeds are catered for in the new Stormont school and they like to do their own thing at every opportunity. I might single out young Ian Paisley, whose father is the school’s most famous Old Boy. Ian Junior is a boy who likes to draw as much attention to himself as possible. He gets himself into all sorts of scrapes and causes no end of bother. The school has found great difficulty in keeping him out of court.
Another pupil worthy of mention is prefect Sammy Wilson from East Antrim, who refuses to use the school bus service and travels daily on a motorcycle. His future in the entertainment world seems assured.
He could go on to become Northern Ireland’s answer to the dare-devil stuntman Evel Knieval because he can carry out the truly remarkable feat of riding a bike and holding down at least three jobs at the same time. How he accomplishes this nobody but himself knows.
The chief prefect is Peter Robinson. He has warned the other pupils to stop having odd jobs on the side interfering with their studies but Sammy simply carries on regardless. “I will continue to do everything,” Sammy asserts, and I’m afraid no one can do anything with him when he gets into such an aggressive mood.
School Team Spirit:
A big problem here. No teamwork can be detected. The top class is made up of 10 pupils, all of them prefects, coming from different sections of the community. Instead of pulling together they remain barge poles apart. Some even refuse to pass the time of day with one another and are quite proud of their behaviour.
I would single out young Gregory Campbell from Londonderry for special mention. He has expressed a particular dislike for Marty McGuinness, even though both boys come from the same town. Campbell’s school report says he is very good at the hokey-cokey. In other words, he puts his whole self in but he also likes to put his whole self out whenever he spots a pupil, like McGuinness, whom he doesn’t like.
There is no doubt that inter-pupil relations remain difficult. For example, Reg Empey from East Belfast and one of the few female prefects, Margaret Ritchie, complain of regular peer pressure such as bullying in the classroom.
And the school’s disciplinary rules have been severely tested by the disruptive behaviour of Iris Robinson from Dundonald. She has been known to set upon another of the senior prefects, Michael McGimpsey, and beat him up when he is doing his biology homework.
All of this is not conducive to team-building, never mind the fostering of fraternity and pride in the school.
The promotion of openness, transparency, honesty and integrity is essential in all schools but sadly I have to report that some pupils at Stormont have chinks in their personalities. I’m not saying there is any actual cheating in exams.
However, there seems to be a lot of sailing close to the wind when it comes to paying for school lunches and dinners, tuck-shop spending and general administration of pocket money. We need to know a great deal more about this by the next school term.
I’m pleased to say that some of the more senior pupils have been setting a better example recently — albeit not before time — in handing back money they shouldn’t have spent when they went on overnight trips to London.
Without naming names, it remains to be seen how these pupils fare with their futures at the school — not too favourably, I would guess, unless there is a major change in their greedy behaviour.
Frankly, Caitriona, the Stormont school seems very unsettled. It hasn’t performed well. It has far too many pupils.
If inspectors were called in, they might recommend a big reduction in classroom size, pupil intake as well as in administrative spending.
The pupils need to engage far more with the general community and show that the school is really making a more worthwhile and significant contribution to our society.
At the moment, we are not getting good value for the taxpayers’ money which is spent on it. For example, 16 of the pupils, including eight prefects, are also funded to belong to a posh school at Westminster. No one can be quite sure what they do or learn there, if anything.
There is also too much truancy. Somewhat embarrassingly, when television cameras have been invited into the Stormont school, hardly any pupils appear in the main assembly hall.
The senior prefects, such as Robinson and McGuinness, are rarely seen together other than when there’s serious trouble outside the school gate or in the local community.
In general, I think there is something worryingly half-hearted about the way some of the pupils behave, as if bits of their brains wanted to be in the school but other bits didn’t.
The new Stormont school is much too grand and too comfortable for any of them to run away. I think all the pupils are committed to staying, some more than others, but unless there are better exam results soon, I’m afraid an axe should be taken to the extravagant staffing and spending.
In summary, ‘must do better’ must mean a lot, lot, lot better.
PS: The school experienced a serious incident on European elections day in May 2009 when many of the pupils from the unionist community were subjected to constant verbal abuse outside the school gate during the voting.
This has continued with no let-up and is likely to become an even bigger problem in future.
The culprit has been identified as Jimmy Allister from Ballymena, who has been going to another establishment abroad but has now been spending more time here at home.
He is the leader of a gang which wants to get into the school and cause further disruption.
It’s hard to see how this can be avoided unless the whole school shows more unity of purpose and delivers better results by the time the next end of term report is sent out to parents.
The worse case scenario is that the Stormont institution could close altogether if young Allister and his gang get their way.
That can’t be ruled out at this stage.