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Meet the Principal: David Hampton, Strabane Academy: Some of my proudest moments are giving kids the tools to deal with life

Leona O'Neill

By Leona O'Neill

Strabane Academy principal David Hampton (52) is looking forward to a new dawn as the school moves into its £22m building. The Banbridge man, who is married to Grainne and has three sons, Finn (16), Dylan (15) and Josh (12), hopes the energy and homeliness of the college will carry across.

Q. Tell me about your own school days.

A. I went to school at Banbridge Academy. I absolutely loved it. Sport was more important to me in those days than academic pursuits so I focused more on that. Sport was definitely more my thing. I loved rugby and cricket.

I did well in my GCSEs, indeed I probably surpassed expectations.

It was a great school, it had fantastic teachers. They kept you in line and you were always going to get what you needed to get. I stayed on there to do my A-levels in geography, biology and economics.

I didn't know then what I wanted to do as a career. I did the subjects because I liked them and I liked the teachers. My favourite subject was PE, but we didn't have exams in PE back then. If we had, I would have done that.

Q. What are your fondest memories from school?

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Strabane Academy principal David Hampton

A. My fondest memories from school would definitely be playing sport, playing rugby and the friendships that arose from that. I am still friends with a lot of the guys I played rugby with back then. That gave you a certain degree of camaraderie, resilience and an ability to work as part of a team. I was taught all that on the field. You would turn up to training on wet, damp, cold Saturday mornings and head onto the pitch in the snow and the rain. Plus, there were inspirational teachers.

I think all of that was important for me especially, considering I eventually went on to be a principal.

The school was just a good one and gave you a good, well-rounded experience. It provided all of that.

I think that what I struggled most with at that age was realising how important education was. I came from a small farming background and that was more important to me, going home in the afternoons and working with my dad. Before Banbridge Academy, I'd attended a small primary school full of other kids from farming backgrounds.

School was school and it wasn't until much later that I realised that it was crucial. I think it was following my GCSEs. I did okay, and I realised that was important. Then I came back and I did my A-levels, and again I did okay and got myself to the next stage.

Q. When did the spark light with regards to teaching?

A. I had a great PE teacher, Brian Livingstone, and there were other great teachers too, Brian Hanna, from Lurgan College and Barney McGonagle, in Friends School, Lisburn, and they were the rugby coaches. They were the guys you would have gone and seen. And they were brilliant, and still are. Even when I became a PE teacher I continued to have great interactions with them.

I went to Jordanstown and did a degree in chemistry and realised quite quickly that it wasn't for me and that it wasn't what I wanted to do. I thought to myself about what I really enjoyed, and I enjoyed PE, so that is what I pursued. I went to Stranmillis to do teacher training with an end goal to be a PE teacher.

Again, there were inspirational staff in the PE department there. I have been very, very lucky to have great characters in my life at the right times in school, at college and even in teaching.

Those PE teachers who guided me, put me on that path, they were inspirational role models and I am very lucky that we have a lot of them in this school also. I think we all have the same values. Kids come to school and they make mistakes. Where better to make those mistakes than in school? And if they can make them and know that there are people here who will help them get back on the right track, then that's great.

Q. Proudest moment as a teacher?

A. I would like to say when we won the Schools Trophy in 2000.

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Strabane Academy principal David Hampton

We have produced some great sportsmen here. William Porterfield, former captain of the Ireland cricket team, went to school here. Boyd Rankin also. And whilst I didn't have much impact with regards coaching, if I made a small tweak in terms of their values, in making them gentlemen, I hope I helped in that way.

We do a lot of things in school that make me proud. We have sport, we do Duke of Edinburgh Awards, our Scripture Union are just back from a weekend in Ballymena. All of those things are so important. It's so important that kids enjoy coming into school and realise the importance of education, but also know that there are other things they can enjoy too. When you come here in the afternoon the rugby pitch is packed, and the hockey pitch will be too.

Sport builds fantastic resilience.

Some of my proudest moments would be giving kids the tools to deal with life; resilience is a huge issue, particularly in the age of social media. It's teaching them that they can't hide from it, but you have to be able to know how to deal with it.

Q. Favourite thing a student has ever said to you?

A. Thank you. When they say thanks. You get the cards at the end, when they are leaving. They thank me and the staff and I think that is lovely.

They thank me for the support and guidance and the mentoring. Whilst the aim is that they have to move on, they still have to develop. Even when they go to university, they are not the finished product when they leave. They still have a lot to learn and they are still kids when they are here. They are only 18 years old. That is young.

Strabane Academy is like a big family. People do move on but they are still a big part of us. We have two former pupils coming back for teaching practice here and they are now off to become teachers. I think when kids go off and still feel comfortable coming back to do teaching practice, after you've only been out three or four years, it's just brilliant.

Q. Best piece of advice?

A. Don't sweat the small stuff. An old saying I'm familiar with is that "no man steps in the same river twice" because it's not the same river and you're not the same man. And that is true. Things just change, and you change, and you come back to things and learn from things constantly.

Also, manners maketh the man - and mutual respect. Respect and caring for people goes a long way.

Q. Most important trait to have as a teacher?

A. I think empathy is the most important trait to have as a teacher. Remembering that we were once there, we were once 14 years old. And you have to love your job, you have to really want to do teaching. We are all human, I don't think that there is a perfect trait to be a teacher, but I think we all have bits of it. Some bits more than others. Teaching has changed over the years but the basic premise of teaching is exactly the same.

What you are trying to do is get the information into their long-term memory and enable them to retrieve it. That is what teaching is and it hasn't changed over the years. What has changed is everything else around it.

Accountability has changed. Everyone is so accountable for everything and social media has a part to play in that as everything is out there and everyone has their opinion.

The equipment we use is different. Before, teachers were working from textbooks, there were files. Everything is now instantly accessible. But again, from that point of view, everyone's expectations are that little bit higher of what education is. People expect the very best, and rightly so, they expect excellence.

Because everything is instantly accessible on a computer, pupils often expect teachers to have the same reactions. Teachers now can't have an off day. We are almost on the same par as a computer, they can't be switched off.

There is a huge human element to being a teacher. We have to remember that, there is still interface, there is still the bit when you are in front of the children and giving them feedback. There is still the action of imparting your love of a subject, you are not going to get that from a computer.

Q. What impact does the stalemate at Stormont have on your school?

A. It's obviously having a huge impact on schools, but I don't focus on that. I focus on what I can do in here.

When you come in those school gates, that is what is important to me, this environment. There are much more intelligent and skilled people to sort all that out with the unions and representatives. And they will get there. In years to come we will look back and remember what it was like during this period in time.

What is happening hugely affects our budget. We are underfunded and have been at the forefront of that because when we merged we went on to two campuses, with the same budget, so we had duplication.

Straight away we were paying twice the electric, the oil. So we have a huge deficit, but our big focus is about trying to get back into managing our in-year deficit.

We have huge cuts, we've cut staff, the amount of money we give to departments for resources, but all schools have have that issue.

What are we going to do, close the school gates and say we're done, there is no more school? It's not an option. I think we are very good - in terms of principals and of teaching staff - dealing with all of this.

We have just got on with it and that is a good reflection on teachers, they do just get on with it.

We are all in this together. And we do not ever disadvantage our children, and that is the main thing.

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Strabane Academy principal David Hampton

Q. What is your definition of success?

A. My kids are happy and enjoy school, because if they are happy it means they are having success and are getting the grades and are doing well.

It means that the support is there that they need, and that the kids who need it are getting it. It means confident young kids. It means me enjoying my job and my staff enjoying their jobs.

Our results this year have been fantastic. Does that mean that next year we are not a good school if they are not as good? No, because it's in context. Every year group is very different.

Success for me is that ultimately the kids, when they leave here, they are going to where they want to go and they have the skills and everything they need to thrive. That is success.

We have three different pathways at GCSE. We have kids who will do a more work-related, more vocational-related pathway and some of those guys get on and do what they want to and that is absolutely brilliant.

We are a school and academic achievement is the central core and aim of the school and I am happy that we are going the right way about that also.

Q. Describe the school.

A. We are a small, close-knit family. Everyone knows everyone else. We know what is going on in our kid's lives. We care about every one of those kids who come in through the doors.

We are a caring, supportive close-knit community committed to providing outstanding education that motivates and inspires all through to their true potential in an atmosphere of mutual respect.

Q. Is every day a school day for you?

A. It is, absolutely. The only way you learn is by making mistakes and I make mistakes, my kids make mistakes, as do my staff. Let's celebrate that, let's learn from that and try not to make the same one again. We learn from them.

As a principal you have been in almost every role in the school. You have been a pupil, you've been a teacher, head of department and various roles, so you know what it's like.

You know how it feels to be a teacher struggling with an issue.

Empathy is a huge thing, as is backing yourself, having integrity and having a set of values that you stick to.

And you have to be kind to people and realise that we are all trying to do our best.

Q. You will start the new year in a new £22m school - how does that feel?

A. We have this beautiful new school, which we are moving into at the end of next month and it is a great opportunity for us.

It has been 12 years in the making, but the build has been two years.

It is a £22m state-of-the-art building. It is an amazing building - we have new labs and unbelievable sports facilities.

At the moment we are on two sites and 50% of our school buildings are mobile classrooms. You will see kids here on wet, miserable, cold days walking out to the classrooms. That was not good. So now we will all be inside.

We have fantastic canteen facilities, classrooms, touch-screen boards. Everything is new. What an opportunity it is for our kids, who have come through this school.

It is also a huge motivation for our teachers. They will all be on one site. At the moment they must travel between the two schools for teaching.

The resources and the facilities our kids will have will be second-to-none.

One of the things we are trying to maintain is the family, caring ethos and we will bring that to the new building.

We are really looking forward to the bright new future there.

It is a new dawn for Strabane Academy.

School factfile

Name of school: Strabane Academy.

Founded: 2011 when Strabane Grammar and Strabane High School merged.

Pupils: 520

Teachers: 38

Notable recent successes: 'Our A-level results were amazing, 74 per cent at A*- C. Last year we had Peter Reid, who came top in Northern Ireland in chemistry and went on to win the Queen's University Award for top chemistry student.'

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