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Meet The Principal: Robin McLoughlin, Banbridge Academy -'Charity is a main part of our ethos and it's humbling to see our pupils, staff and parents helping others'

Claire McNeilly

By Claire McNeilly

Robin McLoughlin (48) of Banbridge Academy on coping with the tragic death of a popular pupil, dealing with his father’s dementia and how he had to rewrite a school’s policies after just starting out

Q: Briefly describe Banbridge Academy.

A: Warm and welcoming; our biggest success is a happy school.

Q: What is the school's ethos?

A: To know pupils individually and care for pupils individually.

Q: What is your view on integrated education?

A: All schools should be naturally integrated. Banbridge Academy welcomes all faiths and no faiths - over 20% Catholic, less than 5% other and 75% Protestant.

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Robin McLoughlin of Banbridge Academy

Q: Your policy on bullying?

A: Zero-tolerance. We have 20 anti-bullying ambassadors here.

Q: A number of your pupils recently cut their hair for the Little Princess Trust, which provides real hair wigs children and young people across the UK. Amy Uprichard (22) is a former pupil of Banbridge Academy who suffered from cancer. Now in remission, she was first diagnosed with acute myeloid leukaemia when she was 16. It must make you very proud to have people in your school who are prepared to do that?

A: Charity is a major part of our ethos and it's very humbling to see the work from our pupils, staff and parents in focusing on helping others in so many charities. As a school, we work with families when difficult diagnoses are made and many pupils have had personal issues with cancer. We had a huge number of pupils who came forward to donate their hair.

Robin McLoughlin of Banbridge Academy with journalist Claire McNeilly

Q: What pressures are there on the job now?

A: We're facing a time of unprecedented challenge in education and there are many pressures - financial, curriculum, social media. My role is focused on offering the best quality of education, in and outside the classroom.

Q: How big a problem is social media?

A: Young people are growing up in a society that's much more challenging than the one I grew up in. They're comparing their lives to an airbrushed life that isn't real and unfortunately that puts pressures and strains on them.

Q: How do you manage funding problems?

A: There's not enough money in the system. We have 10% less teachers than five years ago. Obviously that reduces the curriculum offering in the school and increases class sizes.

Robin McLoughlin, principal of Banbridge Academy

Q: What subjects have you lost?

A: Only German.

Q: One of your pupils, Katherine Neill died a week after getting her A level results in 2016. How does the school deal with such a tragedy?

Katherine Neill

A: I still have Katherine's prayer card on my keyboard. At a time of tragedy it is difficult for a school community but it's also incredibly humbling, as leader of a school, to watch how people support each other - pupils, staff and parents. I have nothing but the highest praise for Katherine's mum and dad and the warmth they showed to the community at a time of great tragedy in their lives. And also noting but the highest praise for the pupils of that year group who were so supportive of each other. I had the opportunity to go to the house to give her family her A level certificates because Katherine was an incredibly bright, capable, articulate, young lady who had so much to give in this life.

Q: A-level pupil Hana Hughes, was recently involved in a legal battle with Coca-Cola over her alcohol-free Ginnocent drink. Was there much talk about this in school?

Hana Hughes

A: We have a huge young enterprise group in the school and Hana is an example of the entrepreneurial spirit here.

Philip Doyle

Q: Ireland rower Philip Doyle, is just one of many Banbridge Academy sporting successes. What is the secret of the school's sporting prowess?

A: The resilience and mental toughness of our young people and excellent coaches. Prior to last Easter we won seven Ulster or Irish titles in five different sports - hockey, table tennis, cross country and athletics. The extra and co-curricular life is big here.

Q: You grew up on a farm in Portadown. Where do you live now?

A: In Moira with my wife Jennifer (41). God hasn't blessed us with children yet.

Q: You did four A levels - Biology, Chemistry, Physics and Maths. What about university?

A: I started dentistry in Dundee University and quickly realised I'd drifted into it rather than making a conscious choice. I didn't like dentistry or being away from home so I came back after one year and did physics at Queen's University Belfast.

Q: What was your favourite subject?

A: Physics.

Q: What is the best advice for combating exam stress?

A: Prepare well and trust in your ability.

Q: You attended Seagoe Primary, Killicomaine Junior, then Portadown College. Did you enjoy school?

A: I found it challenging in comparison to staying at home on the family farm. My mum struggled to get me to go to primary school but she insisted that we all got a good education. Her phrase was that an education is hard to obtain but easy to carry.

Q: Your fondest memory from your school-days?

A: Friends. Mostly through my extra and co-curricular activities. It was my saviour. It's why I started to enjoy school. I enjoyed the camaraderie, built resilience, and learnt all those softer skills in an informal setting.

Q: What did you struggle with most?

A: Languages, art and music. My mother insisted that my brothers and I learned to play the piano. I can still just about play it.

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

A: Second/third year at university - when I saw an advert for student tutoring one day a week. I went to Belfast Royal Academy and taught A level physics students. I'd spent a fair degree of my life helping at youth camps and with junior football and rugby sides. I enjoyed working with young people and drifted into teaching. And I've loved it. It's a great job. It's a great opportunity to give back and work with young people.

Q: You are very close to your mum Winnie (83), a former PA and shorthand and typing teacher, and 85-year-old farmer dad Cyril (whom you call 'Boss'). Any other teachers in the family?

A: I'm the youngest of three. My eldest brother David (52) is a doctor and my middle brother Alan (50) is a history teacher. They both live in England. My middle brother is my best friend and his son Eddie (13) is a ray of sunshine in all of our lives. My other brother has two daughters Ella (16) and Maria (15). They are beautiful girls.

Q: You did your PGCE at Queen's University. Which school gave you your first job?

A: I was a student teacher here at Banbridge Academy on placement for 11 weeks. At the same time a job was advertised for Bangor Grammar and I was delighted to take it. I spent eight years there as a physics teacher and rugby coach and I also taught the prep department science.

Q: When you went to Bangor Grammar in 1995 it was a difficult time for the school because when you arrived a teacher had been suspended over sexual abuse allegations. It was the first child protection case in schools across Northern Ireland. (The teacher was jailed for seven years for indecent assault and gross indecency on 11 to 13-year-old boys over 23 years and it prompted a review of child protection guidelines).

A: There was a lot of change, the school moved forward dramatically, and I was involved in a lot of those groups. A vice-principal, senior teacher, head of department and myself were tasked with writing the whole pastoral scheme of the school and rewriting whole school policies; as a young teacher you don't often get that sort of opportunity.

Q: You left Bangor in 2003 to take up a vice-principal's position at Grosvenor Grammar and you then became principal in 2008. Why did you leave after 12 years?

A: Very rarely do heads move in Northern Ireland so that was me for life; I was going to stay at Grosvenor but then my circumstances changed when my father got dementia. I moved to Banbridge Academy in January 2015.

Q: How is your dad now?

A: I'm the only brother at home. I firmly believe in family. My father and mother gave me everything and were very supportive. My mother's the main carer for my father. They still live in our family home. I have total peace and contentment and Banbridge Academy is where I'm meant to be. Dementia is a family illness and it's a challenging time. My father does the best that he can. He knows who I am, he knows who my mum is, but less so other people.

Q: Your memories of teacher training?

A: I've a great memory of my chats with the then physics (now ICT) technician Stephen Gilliland, who helped look after me. Prior to coming here, I was in Boys Model for 11 weeks and that taught me the most because of the challenges the school faced at that time, being on the divide prior to the Good Friday Agreement. It was a beacon of safety in the community for young people.

Q: Your proudest moment of being a teacher?

A: A pupil with no physics background came to Bangor Grammar to study A level physics. He was in a class where every other child got an A after two years and I got him a D. That's my proudest grade of any child by a considerable way. He moved on in his journey of life with that grade.

Q: Your favourite thing a student has ever said to you?

A: 'Thank you' is much appreciated and happens regularly. I get a lot of thank you cards.

Q: The best piece of advice you have ever been given - or would give?

A: Maintain a sense of humour, give your best and help others on that journey. It's who I am. I'm here to serve.

Q: The most important quality to have to be a teacher?

A: Empathy with our young people. It's also important to meet a child where they are on their journey so you can bring them forward.

Q: The future of teaching?

A: Incredibly bright. We've capable young teachers coming out; it's such a shame there aren't enough jobs available for them.

Q: Don't we have too many teachers?

A: Perhaps too many for the current climate, but if you look at the number who are going to retire in the next few years we need a large number to come in.

Q: What is the biggest change you've noticed in the past 10 years?

A: The challenge that schools face now; it used to be educate. Now there are so many more responsibilities such as tackling obesity, social inclusion, society's issues.

Q: Your definition of success?

A: A happy child who has the opportunity to develop, meet their dreams and fulfil their personal expectations.

Q: How important is academic success?

A: It's not the only thing. It runs alongside development of skills, happiness, well-being. What we need as a country is high-end vocational and technical qualifications of equal esteem to academic qualifications. Everybody is as important as everybody else.

School factfile

Name of school: Banbridge Academy

Founded: 1786

Number of pupils: 1322

Number of teachers: 90

Notable for/recent successes: Academic achievement and sport

Number of pupils who are boarders: None

Annual voluntary contribution: £100

Preparatory department: None

Notable alumni: DUP MEP Diane Dodds, UUP politician Jo-Anne Dobson, Irish rugby player Tyrone Howe, Ireland hockey Olympian Eugene Magee

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