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Meet the Principal: Assumption Grammar’s Peter Dobbin on why social media is a pain and how school coped after death of pupil

Assumption Grammar’s Peter Dobbin (48) on the Ballynahinch school’s bid to boost pupil numbers, dealing with a student’s death, equipping the girls with strong skills for employment, and how a passion for Spanish completely changed his life

Claire McNeilly

By Claire McNeilly

Q. Briefly describe Assumption Grammar School.

A. It's an all girls Catholic grammar school established by the Missionary Sisters of the Assumption in 1933. It's inclusive of everyone. We look after their needs as best we can.

Q. What is the school's ethos?

A. Fully alive is our ethos and our school motto is ex sola virtute honor ('from virtue alone comes honour').

Q. What is your view on integrated education?

A. There is a place for it. Parental choice is more important, that parents have a choice of good schools. We are 95% Catholic, but other religions are embraced.

Q. What is your policy on bullying?

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A.  Zero tolerance. The staff are brilliant.

Q. What is the most important quality in a teacher?

A.  The ability to understand and empathise with young people, develop a relationship and connect and support them in their learning and pastoral development.

Q. How has teaching changed over the years?

A. There's a much better understanding of how to meet the individual needs of a student. It's more focused on the different learning strategies necessary to bring everybody on board. There's a lot more work done on monitoring, analysing and tracking every student's progression - and not just academic, it's holistic. We do every job: counsellor, psychologist, mediator. You think you're going into the job to teach a class but it's much, much bigger.

Assumption Grammar principal Peter Dobbin

Q. What pressures are there in the job these days?

A. Financial is the classic one. The educational challenge is making sure your curriculum meets the needs of every student, and making sure that you're offering the right subject choice.

One of the biggest challenges is the skills associated with getting pupils ready for the workplace more than just the knowledge, and that's been a big transformation for us because we're doing a lot of work on a female leadership programme which is really taking off.

Q. Tell us more about that.

A. It's the 'SisterIN' Leadership Programme which is about inspiring tomorrow's female leaders. It's looking at inspirational women in the workplace. Basically, our post-16 girls are being inspired for future leadership. It's enrichment. Anybody can apply but it's only for girls who really know at this stage that they want to become future leaders. But the skill set associated with leadership is not understood and it's about trying to equip them with that skill set - resilience, target setting, action planning.

Q.How does it work?

A. It's voluntary and being implemented this year. We've got leading women in over 40 businesses throughout Northern Ireland who have engaged. We've sent our girls out and they've had a day being inspired mentoring with the female leader, bringing it back to school, discussing it. They also have to lead a leadership initiative within the school - debating club, eco club, human rights club etc - and that's enriching our whole value-added curriculum.

Assumption Grammar principal Peter Dobbin

And as part of their leadership they need to bring the younger pupils on because their legacy is also important; when they leave the school they'll be able to say what they did and what they've left behind.

Q. What inspired you to do this?

A. Because there's a big gap. You may have some of the best pupils in the world at that moment in time but they haven't got a clue about the workplace.

It's about developing the skill set associated with the real world. It's a Department of Education initiative. The whole female agenda is massive. We're piloting it as a school and working with the Department of Education, the Education Authority and the Departments of Finance and Infrastructure. We've got it trademarked now so it's about how we can push this further. It's very exciting.

Assumption Grammar principal Peter Dobbin

Q. In general, what does the future of teaching look like?

A. With the technological advances, knowledge is going to be at the click of a button. The teacher will become much more of a facilitator in how to learn as opposed to imparting knowledge.

Q. Social media can sometimes be a problem. What is your take on it?

A. It's a complex one because there are so many positives to the potential of social media, outweighed by a lot of negatives, which is the inappropriate use of social media. One of the big fears for us is that students still haven't realised that what they put on social media is traceable for a long time.

Q. Have you had any issues with social media?

A. It's a pain. There's no getting away from that. It usually happens outside school but is brought into school and is done through, for example, the [multi-media messaging app] Snapchat world. There's the isolationism that goes on through social media. Snapchat allows you to declare where you are at a moment in time so if you're in a friendship group and you see there are four girls in somebody's house and you're sitting in your house... things like that happen and parents phone in to tell us.

Irish Olympic Athlete Ciara Mageean

Q. Do you allow mobile phones in school?

A. Pupils can bring them in but can't use them. Non-use of the mobile phone is our policy.

Q. Why allow them into school then?

A.  Parents wouldn't be happy if mobile phones weren't allowed in school. Our catchment area is so wide, some girls travel from Portaferry, Kilcoo or Dromara, so it may be an-hour long journey. Parents want to be able to contact their children.

Q.  How do you manage funding problems?

A. We've trimmed everything from staffing to looking at class sizes. We've pared back as much as we can without impacting on the curriculum. I've a fabulous director of corporate services who oversees all aspects of finance.

Q. In July this year teacher Catherine McCormick settled an indirect sex discrimination case against the school. What lessons have been learned?

A. Human resources are always evolving. Making sure that we treat every member of staff with equity and fairness at all times is the core of our values.

Q. In 2018 there were rumours that your school would merge with St Colman's and St Colmcille's High School. Are there any fears over Assumption's future viability?

A. We're actually going bigger. This week we're putting in a case for change to increase in size by 10 students because the demand to get in far exceeds the places. Assumption Grammar is fully alive and thriving.

Q. In 2016 Ellen Finnegan (19) died in a fire at her Castlewellan home. How difficult is it to get pupils through a tragedy like that?

A. Any tragedy is so tough on pupils and staff and that's when your beliefs and values kick in and your support structures, and you all stand together as a community and as a family and you get through it, and that's what we did.

Q. You live in Crossgar with your Spanish wife Sonia, a teaching assistant who is in her 40s and with whom you have two bilingual daughters, Amanda (18) and Alicia (14). Tell us how you met.

A. I had a job in an Irish bar in Toledo, south of Madrid, in 1997 and she was working with me. We've been married for 19 years.

Q. What is it like for your daughters having Dad as principal (past pupil Amanda started at Queen's University this year and Alicia is currently in Year 11)?

A. This job involves extremely long hours. I can be out of the house at 7am and not back until after 11pm.

The danger for me was always putting my career before my family, whereas having my children at school I can certainly say I've been part of their upbringing and education.

They are very supportive of me... but do I embarrass them? Absolutely.

Q. You studied Spanish, French and religion for A-level before taking a degree in Spanish and French at Queen's. What was your favourite subject?

A. Spanish - it just took over my life.

Q. You attended St Colmcille's Primary and St Patrick's Grammar in Downpatrick. What is your fondest memory from those days?

A. The friendship group at grammar school. We just laughed for seven years together.

We lost touch, but thanks to social media we've reconnected and it's been great.

Q. Did you enjoy school?

A. I loved everything about it - the subjects, the learning - and I was a very sad person who wanted to go to school every day.

Q. What did you struggle with most?

A. Art. I always wanted to be able to draw. I just didn't have it.

Q. At what moment did you know you wanted to teach?

A. From a very young age I was teaching everybody and anybody. I remember doing spelling tests in primary school with people.

Q. You are the fifth of seven children to dad Cyril, a former NIE employee-turned-photographer, and homemaker mum Sally, both of whom are now in their 70s. Are there any other teachers in the family?

A. No, I'm the only one.

Q. How did you get into the teaching profession?

A. After my four-year degree I did a PGCE at Queen's from 1994-1995 and I got the first job I applied for, at Aquinas Grammar in Belfast as a French and Spanish teacher.

Q. What are your memories of teacher training?

A. Not having much of a clue. You think you know how to teach - you don't. I remember learning about the different strategies, new techniques and realising that all kids need to be individually taught at times.

Q. You spent 19 years at Aquinas - as head of year, head of Spanish, senior teacher, vice principal - before becoming Assumption principal in 2014. Are you staying here?

A. Absolutely. The advantage Assumption has is that it's an international school with a very strong link to South Africa and we've got a big educational congress there in March which means that, in this position, it's not just one school.

I'm involved with a lot of other international Assumption schools; we go over there and have an input into the strategic direction of the schools.

Q. What is your proudest moment of being a teacher?

A. The leavers' Mass in May every year. As principal you take full responsibility for everybody who leaves the school.

So for the last six years, seeing every girl at the Mass, seeing how well they've turned out, irrespective of just academic achievement, just as people and seeing how happy they are.

Q. The best thing a student has ever said to you?

A. "Thank you". We forget the potential impact we have on every single student.

Q. The piece of advice you have been given or would give?

A. Live your own life. You only live once, live it as you want.

Q. What is your definition of success?

A. Seeing the girls leave as well-rounded individuals.

Q. How important is academic success?

A. Exceptionally important. It's always high profile because parents expect it, students expect it and our staff expect it.

It's a central point of our education system but we appreciate it's not everything.

Q. Best advice for combating exam stress?

A. Organisation, target setting, deadlines, managing your time. If you do all that bit by bit everything is doable.

School factfile

Name of school: Assumption Grammar School

Founded: 1933

Number of pupils: 840

Number of teachers: 55

Notable for: Music. Mr Dobbin: "We have an annual concert every year. And 60 of our musicians and Irish dancers have been asked to perform in New York in March 2020 and we're also performing in the St Patrick's Day parade."

Number of pupils who are boarders: None

Annual voluntary fee: £60

Preparatory department: None

Famous alumni: Actresses Niamh McGrady and Eileen O'Higgins; Irish Olympic Athlete Ciara Mageean; Enterprise Ireland chief executive Julie Sinnamond, poet Leontia Flynn, and fashion designer Mary Rose McGrath.

Quickfire quiz for the principal

Tea or coffee? Water

Whiteboard or blackboard? Whiteboard

Maths or English? English

Summer or Christmas holidays? Summer

School lunch or packed lunch? Packed lunch

Favourite day of term? June 30

Favourite film? Lord of the Rings

Favourite book? The Hobbit

Favourite band? Queen

Best piece of advice? Live your own life

Favourite subject? Languages

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