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Meet the Principal - Karen Quinn, of Victoria College: ‘When I was a pupil here, my mum was the principal. She came to my first prize night as a guest of honour in her own right’

Our brilliant new series hears from some of Northern Ireland's top head teachers about the rewards and challenges of their jobs

By Laurence White

Q. You have quite a family connection with Victoria College.

A. Yes, I was a pupil at the school and my mother Margaret Andrews was principal here. At prize night the other night I was able to get a photograph of me with my mum and my predecessor as principal here, Patricia Slevin.

It is quite a moment when your mum comes to your first prize night as a guest of honour in her own right. She retired from the school about 13 years ago and was principal for about 10 years.

Q. So you came from an educational background?

A. All those on my mum's side of the family have all taught at some time except for one uncle, who is a doctor. Maths was a tradition in our family and they all went to Queen's University and that was a tradition that continued with me, my brother and cousins.

My aunts and uncles' passion for education inspired me the whole way through my education and teaching career. It was part of growing up in my family.

Q. Was maths your favourite subject as a pupil?

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A. No. It took me a while to come round to maths. I would have regarded myself as a late developer. It was not until GCSEs and A-levels that I found my strengths.

I always found maths came easily to me but it was only in those later years that I developed a passion for the subject and I went on to take a degree in applied maths at Queen's University.

Q. Were you always going to be a teacher?

A. I did consider joining the police at one point but teaching did happen. I resisted it for as long as I could. I wanted to be able to teach maths well to young people. Maths gets a bad reputation. I did my PGCE in Leeds, where some of my family were teaching.

Q. How have you been able to help young people with maths?

A. I have set up a YouTube channel with thousands of videos which has attracted lots of hits. It began when pupils were on study leave and were stuck on a past paper and needed my help. One of the pupils asked if they could record me explaining how to do the problem and then put it on YouTube.

Karen Quinn
Karen Quinn

I did a lot of research and got myself an iPad and began making my own videos. That shows how far education has come and that is exciting.

We are preparing young people for jobs that don't exist at the moment but we are told that they involve technology and we are playing a catch-up game in that respect.

Q. How do you get young people ready for the world of work, especially in technology?

A. This year Victoria College has been chosen to be an MTech Academy. The initiative is in its second year and we will be working in partnership with 15 other schools and many outside companies including PWC, EY and Allstate.

Thirty of our young people will get the opportunity to engage in work-related learning and find out what jobs of the future will be. At the launch of the initiative there were eight to 10 experts from the partner companies and every one said they wanted to recruit young people from Northern Ireland but were having to go outside Northern Ireland because they cannot find people with the required skills here.

I also want to address the gender gap, which is huge in technology. There are so few females going into this area.

Karen Quinn
Karen Quinn

Q. Did you teach in other schools before coming to Victoria College?

A. I was very fortunate. I taught in Bangor Grammar twice and also in Belfast Inst, and Wellington before joining Victoria College. That was my rebellion against my family. Each of them stayed in their schools for 30-40 years.

I feel really blessed because in every school I learned something new and met some great practitioners.

Q. What has been your best moment as a teacher?

A. There is no one single moment. My favourite time is the lightbulb time with any pupil when you see their face change and you know you have changed their understanding of whatever the subject is and you know you are doing the right job.

I also love results day and I love the unexpected results, especially in my subject area. Watching a young person open an envelope and see they have passed that subject which they said they would not pass. And then they come to you and thank you and I tell them: "Don't thank me, you did it."

The school uniform
The school uniform

Q.  Do you regard academic success by your pupils as the main aim of the school?

A. Absolutely not. Our motto is to inspire every pupil to fulfil their potential. Academic success is just one measure of potential.

My prize night speech was almost 30 minutes long and, for example, I highlighted students who excelled in debating; who played hockey at a European level and those who competed at international level in sailing.

It saddens me as an educationalist that we publish league tables because they are just a set of numbers. Behind each number is a story that we cannot articulate.

We are letting our young people down by not agreeing that we need to measure more than academic success.

Victoria College is extremely proud of its academic results but they are just part of what I am proud of. I have goosebumps when I hear my pupils sing. One cannot measure that in a set of results.

Q. Young people today face more pressures than previous generations. How does Victoria College help them?

A. We engage with a wide range of external agencies. We don't shy away from modern issues. The issues that young people are facing, we will stand up and face them with them.

Our job of helping the young people to fulfil their potential means we bring in as many agencies as possible to help them navigate things like Instagram and the online world, social pressures, mental health pressures.

Q. Are there other initiatives that you take?

A. We are the first school in Northern Ireland to engage with the Breck Foundation [Breck Bednar, a 14-year-old Surrey boy, was groomed by a man who ran an internet gaming server and who lured the teenager to his flat where he was murdered. His mother established the foundation to campaign on internet safety].

We are bringing Breck's mum and other people over to talk to our young people and parents and stakeholders. She will tell her story and hopefully out of that we will all learn.

At the recent climate change rally in Belfast we engaged with our pupils and helped them work on what they wanted to say at that rally.

Q.  What are your views on integrated education?

A. We have pupils aged from two-18 (we have a prep school) and 51 boarders including a number of international students. We are a very diverse school with a very wide intake across Belfast and that is reflected for example in the sports we offer - hockey, tag rugby, Gaelic games, rowing, sailing, badminton, basketball and many more.

I believe we are an integrated school. We did not transform to meet that criteria but I would challenge anyone to come into our school and say we are not integrated.

It is not just about sports we offer. We are inclusive of everyone no matter what their beliefs, their background or lifestyle choices. We help them to make the best decisions for their life. You want integration that happens because people respect what you offer.

Q. What changes have you noticed in education during your career?

A. Now we are looking more towards skills and widening the curriculum to take account of what employers want, but also listening to our pupils.

There are big changes around social media, mobile phone culture and pressures on young people.

Q. Funding must also be a big problem?

A. We have endured a 10% funding cut over the last 10 years, which in simple terms means we had to run the school for free for one year.

We have been operating on a split site for 31 years with both junior and senior campuses.

The financial pressures on schools - and I don't use the word lightly - is coming to a crisis point.

We talk about area planning, but it is not happening. Show me any other business which you run on a year to year budget.

We need serious investment in Northern Ireland if we want to prepare our young people for the future. We need quality wi-fi to help them use new technologies effectively.

We are teaching science, IT and home economics in rooms not fit for modern science.

We are not alone in that. Many people want money from a very small pot and that pits schools against one another. We all want the same money and have to make individual business cases for it.

Our young people only have one chance at school. I only have one go with them. The longer we underfund the schools, that is another generation gone through.

Our young people want change and our politicians need to listen to them and to take action.

Our schools are on their knees. This is the single biggest challenge at the moment.

Q. Your husband Michael is a doctor in Belfast City Hospital and presumably faces the same challenges in his job?

A. We have very interesting debates at home. As a family - we have two young daughters - to have two people working in very key public sector industries which are both seriously underfunded at the moment is frightening.

I am very lucky because when I go home Michael grounds me. I have the best job in the world - and very supportive parents - but some days are tough because of problems my pupils are facing. But my husband is a haematologist dealing with very ill patients and I realise how lucky I am.

Q. What are your hopes for the future?

A. We can repair our education system. We have incredible young people and I have recently met representatives of international companies who want our young people but we have to bridge that skills gap.

We could do something very special in Northern Ireland if we invest in our young people. But it has to come from the centre, the Department of Education. We need a strategy as well as infrastructure and financial support.

I would like to see greater support for Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS). At present if a young person is in crisis they have to wait too long before they are seen and get help.

If we look at our most vulnerable learners all the services to support them are not in place either. We are so reliant on charities to come in and run programmes and talk to our young people. I am totally blessed with my staff and parents and given the current constraints what we do is phenomenal.

Early intervention is the key to everything. When you cannot get that for your young people then you cannot help them or it will be more difficult. They might need less support if it was available earlier and they might suffer less.

Q. Finally, what about Brexit?

A. It would be nice if someone could take charge so we could see the implications of whatever outcome there is.

Quickfire quiz for the principal

Tea or coffee? Tea

Whiteboard or blackboard? Neither... iPad

Maths or English? Maths; I'm a maths teacher

Summer or Christmas holidays? Both

School lunch of packed lunch? School lunch

Favourite day of term? End of term Favourite film? Only because I've watched them recently, the Godfather trilogy (except number three)

Favourite book? (Pauses) One that I've read most recently, Sweet Home by Wendy Erskine. I worked with her.

Favourite band? Too many to mention and I can't have the pupils knowing that.

Best piece of advice? You've only got one life, live it!

Favourite subject? Maths!

School factfile

Name of school: Victoria College

Founded: 1859

Number of pupils: 897

Number of teachers: 51 full-time and 10 part-time

Notable for/recent successes: Being chosen to take part in the MTech initiative which will help prepare students for the future world of work

Number of boarders: 51

Cost: £11,100 p.a./£300 per week

Tuition fees: £7,550 if not UK or EU citizen

Preparatory department: 145 pupils

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