Belfast Telegraph

All in a day's work. Pentland's schooldays

Private education makes a comeback as our State schools crumble

By MAURICE NEILL Business Correspondent

FOR generations of parents boarding school conjures up a nightmare of cold corridors, swishing canes and whimpering in the rhododendrons. But Heather Pentland's school holds no terrors for today's Tom Brown.

FOR generations of parents boarding school conjures up a nightmare of cold corridors, swishing canes and whimpering in the rhododendrons. But Heather Pentland's school holds no terrors for today's Tom Brown.

The independent private school is growing rapidly because it offers the quality of education which is the envy of thousands whose children attend crumbling and overcrowded classrooms every day.

"This is a happy school, not strict or elitist.

"There is a broad range of people here compared to the early days," says the principal of Rockport Preparatory.

The keys to its popularity are its size, flexibility and the commitment of staff.

"We have time to spend with each child and develop their greatest abilities. We modify our methods to suit the pupil.

"Parents are prepared to take one less holiday a year or change the car less often to give their children the type of education we offer." The Georgian residence, set in 25 acres of woodland on the shores of Belfast Lough at Craigavad, first opened its doors as a boys boarding school in 1906. There were just three pupils and no running water or electricity.

These first luxuries were introduced by a former pupil. Eric Tucker enrolled in 1914, became headmaster in 1945 and retired in 1974. He played an active part in the life of the school until his death three years ago.

There were 40 pupils on the roll when Rockport became a trust in 1967, investing £50,000 in its first major programme of modernisation. But its reputation received a severe blow when John Agg Large pleaded guilty to 12 counts of indecently assaulting boys during a 12-year term as headmaster which ended in 1986. He received an 18-month suspended sentence in 1997.

The school opened a pre-prep department and became co-educational in the '70s. A reception class, play group and GCSE stream were introduced in another phase of expansion in the '90s. It now caters for 208 children from ages three to 16 and has a teaching staff of 20. The first pupils sit GCSEs next year.

ROCKPORT is a modern school but places a strong emphasis upon 'tradition' and has a full calendar of sports and social events. Extra-curricular activities range from jiu-jitsu to Scottish country dancing.

In the academic field it has a reputation for child-centred learning and specialist teaching for dyslexics. It is interdenominational but children attend some services in the local Church of Ireland.

Some sit the 11-plus and progress to local grammar schools. Others take entrance exams for private schools in Britain. Links with Scotland are strong and many Rockport pupils have entered Gordonstoun, where Prince Charles was a lonely schoolboy, and Fettes College where Tony Blair was a 'willing and efficient' fag.

The school received a royal seal of approval when the Duke and Duchess of York paid a visit in 1988 and Old Rockportians met in the House of Lords for dinner in 1996. Past pupils include Ulster unionists Sir John Gorman and Alan McFarland.

Historically 'old money' has rubbed shoulders with 'new money' and the 'mobile money' of globe-trotting professionals but in an age of under-funded state schools Rockport's appeal is more wide ranging.

A private education is expensive but fees are much less than private schools in Britain and range from £460 a term for play group to £2,430 for a teenage boarder. Discounts are available for families with more than one child on the roll.

Aged 44, Heather Pentland, nee Thornton, is a break with Rockport tradition. She is the first woman principal and the first from Northern Ireland.

Educated in her native Enniskillen, she worked at weekends in her father's hardware and sports goods store. She studied teaching at Stranmillis College in Belfast, specialising in primary education and pyschology, and completed probation at Sydenham Infant School.

She joined Rockport as a form mistress in 1980 and became head of junior school in 1982. She was appointed deputy principal in 1990 and principal in 1994. She is married with two teenage sons. One attends Rockport and one boards at Fettes.

The job demands a wide range of inter-personal and management skills dealing daily with administrative and teaching matters, children, staff, parents and governors. Though it is non-profit making Rockport must manage its finances as tightly as any medium-sized firm. The school has high overheads and is staffed and heated 24 hours a day during term time.

However, it has been innovative in response to financial pressures. Casual boarding, at £15 a night, and a play group were introduced in response to demand and an increasing number of parents in Britain have taken an interest in the school since the return of peace.

"It is a balancing act all the time but there is a very active Parent Teacher Association which provides us with help when we need it.

"While I set out to be a teacher I have had an interest in business management since my days in the shop in Enniskillen. This job gives me the opportunity to practice both.

"I have a son at the school and have taught every year group so I believe I understand the problems of children, staff and parents."

Though the school is expanding there is a limit to the number it can enrol if it is to retain its high standards and unique ethos.

"I know every child here and see their reports every three weeks. At GCSE level there is one teacher for every eight pupils. If we were to become bigger that would not be possible."

It actively fosters a 'protective family' environment but cannot replace the home. There is no boarding at weekends.

"During term time the children spend four nights with us and three nights at home. Ours is a sharing role and family time is precious at weekends." Rockport is proud of its tradition, but in an age of social change and league tables has learned to sharpen its scholastic reputation.

"This school remains a happy school. It brings out the best in each child and raises their self-esteem, but today we put academic achievement at the core."

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