Meet the Principal: Sean Rafferty of St Louis Grammar School: The 'secret' of achieving the best exam results in Northern Ireland for three years in a row
Sean Rafferty (57), principal of St Louis Grammar School, Ballymena, talks about policing pupils' mobile phones, the future of teaching, their new £4 million extension and a terrifying incident during a school sports day in 2017.
Q. Briefly describe your school.
A. Excellence, endeavour and empowerment. Our staff chose those words. One of the first things I did as principal was try and have a brand identity. It's taking the original school motto - Ut Sint Unum (that they may be one) - a step forward.
Q. What is the school's ethos?
A. It's a family faith-based school where Christian values and a Catholic ethos is to the fore, although between 10 and 15% of our pupils are non-Christian and non-Catholic.
Q. Your view on integrated education?
A. It has its place in society. Some areas of Northern Ireland lend themselves better to it than others. Personally speaking, I think it dilutes the faith-based element of schools.
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Q. St Louis has been top of the league table for the past couple of years. This year 100% of A-level pupils got three A*-C grades and 99.3% got seven or more GCSEs. What is your secret?
A. It's about hard work and doing the simple things well. To have the structures in place that allow every child to achieve.
Q. Some of your detractors have suggested that you push easy subjects.
A. I refute that categorically. We have a very wide curriculum which allows every child to achieve highly. We allow every child to choose subjects that meet their career aspirations. Every subject that we have allows our students to get into and to be accepted to high demand courses. At A-level we have three or four B tech subject areas and a smaller number of students follow those academic pathways. This year, for example, we had a greater number of pupils following high demand courses than we've ever had.
Q. Such as?
A. Medicine, veterinary science, dentistry, engineering.
Q. In 2017 a man was jailed for lobbing bricks and shouting unsavoury stuff during your school sports day. That must have been terrifying. Was school security upped after that? Were there any more such incidents?
A. It was terrifying. We always take security very seriously. You can't legislate for somebody on a public thoroughfare throwing a stone over a fence. I'm glad to say that was a one-off incident.
Q. You caused a stir in 2011 by stopping pupils visiting local shops before school. Any other crusades recently?
A. No other crusades recently. We had latecomers to school and it was suggested that they were stopping off to buy supplies... so we made sure they came directly to school. It was also the health and safety aspect.
Q. What's your policy on bullying?
A. Zero-tolerance. Our pastoral care structure is very proactive. It would be almost incumbent upon every student to report bullying if they come across it.
Q. Are pupils allowed phones in school?
A. We allow our young people to have phones and we use them in tasks in some subject areas. Our students would do online quizzes in geography, business studies, English.
Q. How do you police mobile phones?
A. We have a three-strike policy. If phones are used in corridors or outside classroom time or in classrooms the teacher takes it off the pupil. Three strikes, it goes into the office and parents have to come and collect it. Usually that's enough of a deterrent.
Q. Earlier this year a teenage Enniskillen schoolboy was found guilty of upskirting. Have you had any issues like that?
A. No, but we're not complacent.
Q. Does that issue worry you?
A. It does. We try to encourage responsible use of phones and technology and online profiles... although these days everybody's life is a Facebook page.
Q. Do you teach pupils how to protect themselves online?
A. We do. Indeed, we have an event running this week where we're bringing in a workshop for Year 8s (first year) and their parents.
Q. What is the most important quality to have in this profession?
A. Patience, resilience, sense of humour, high quality interpersonal skills, being an eternal optimist and never being afraid of a challenge.
Q. How has teaching changed?
A. Social pressures. The expectations on teachers are immense and varied. As well as being educators, teachers are expected in many cases to be social workers, family counsellors and career guidance officers. There's also accountability from parents, the inspectorate, and from society. There are financial pressures as well.
Q. What fiscal pressures do you have in the current climate?
A. In a voluntary grammar school you cannot go into negative equity. We need to make sure we can pay the staff, run the school, keep up to date with refurbishments and provide broad expansive curriculum opportunities.
Q. How do you manage funding problems?
A. With great difficulty. We have a school bursar and a finance committee on our board of governors. We've had to cut back on aspects of our curriculum - extra-curricular trips. We're charging more to participate in events. For example, in the past we've taken pupils on a trip to Dublin that would've been covered by the school. Now parents would be levied with a £10 or £15 surcharge. Education should be free at the point of usage.
Q. What does the future of teaching look like?
A. Government and society needs to value teachers more by remunerating them. The profession has been the scapegoat for lots of innovate changes with very little infrastructure to follow it. I fear for a future where, for example, graduates in the public sector can earn £10-15k more so there is going to be a pull away from teaching. IT teachers aren't coming because they're earning more in the private sector.
Q. So it is becoming difficult to recruit teachers in some fields?
A. Yes - IT, maths and business. In the past there was quite a number of those teachers but now the pay in the private sector cannot be matched in the public sector. Young people are seeing better working conditions, better pay and it's a dynamic that I see growing even further in the next couple of years. And the irony is that we need our best people for the next generation. Languages are being decimated. We're doing A-level French and Spanish but elsewhere they're not offering any modern languages at A-level and that's to do with finances, curriculum pressures and pupil demand and outcomes.
Q. What has been the most notable change over the past 10 years?
A. The onset of information technology and social media. It has revolutionised teaching. E-learning is the order of the day. From podcasts to YouTube to webinars, they add so much to the dynamic, regardless of the subject. We can access resources across the globe. In science, for example, we can see what's happening in schools in America, Australia; you can give your students a wider base of resources.
Q. Tell us about your £4m extension.
A. We're in the final throes of completing that. We've developed a centre of excellence for creative and expressive arts. That project had added a whole new dimension because it allows us to consolidate our art, drama, moving image and music departments into one.
Q. Proudest moment?
A. Seeing individual students achieve their personal best, students overcome adversity. Meeting former pupils who've come back to personally thank me for directing, inspiring, guiding and motivating them.
Q. The nicest thing a student has ever said to you?
A. Recently a pupil who was leaving school thanked me for being there for him and acknowledging him for who he is. He had overcome so much adversity and had to deal with death in his family.
Q. What is the best piece of advice you,ve been given, or would give?
A. Be yourself. Don't appear to be something you're not; you'll be found out. Be honest and truthful and respect others. You can't buy respect, you must earn it.
Q. Your definition of success?
A. Success comes in many shapes and forms. It could be an older pupil looking out for a younger one on a bus, or somebody achieving highly in exams, or overcoming adversity.
Q. How important is academic success?
A. It opens doors. It's not the be all and end all but it does bring opportunities. It's the key to higher national apprenticeships, to progress into third level education and professional opportunities which are higher paid.
Q. You live in Portglenone, Co Antrim, and are married to primary school teacher Moira (57) with whom you have five children - Kevin (29), Catriona (27), Aideen (25), Noleen (22) and Roisin (20). Three of your children were at St Louis under your leadership. How awful was it for them, having dad as principal?
A. Terrible. They said it was their worst nightmare come true. It cramped their style. Let's say there was a code of practice that we didn't talk about school matters... and my information was usually well after the event.
Q. You went to St Patrick's PS Aughtercloney, Ahoghill, and then St Patrick's College, Maghera. Fondest memory from your schooldays?
A. Doing my GCSEs; I remember the freedom of not having to go into school between exams.
Q. What about the studying part?
A. I wasn't overly academic. I was an average student.
Q. Did you enjoy school?
A. There were good days and bad.
Q. Favourite subject?
A. English - I had an inspirational English teacher (Sean Murphy) who made the subject come alive.
Q. What did you struggle with most?
A. Sciences. I wasn't scientific at all.
Q. When did you know you wanted to teach?
A. I was offered an opportunity to do Business Studies at Jordanstown and on the same day an offer came in for St Mary's teacher training college. My careers adviser said that I could go and become a teacher and if didn't work out I could always go and do business, but not vice versa. It was a toss up.
Q. What are your memories of teacher training?
A. My fondest memories are after I qualified - of walking into the classroom and it being my room and making sure I gave the best opportunity to every child sitting in front of me. One that sticks out is trying to teach Seamus Heaney to foreign nationals. It was quite difficult trying to explain the nuances of Death Of A Naturalist.
Q. You started your career at Cross and Passion College, Ballycastle. Then you were head of English at St Patrick's Barnageeha, Belfast, vice principal at St Mary's College, Clady, principal of St Paul's College, Kilrea, principal at Holy Trinity College, Cookstown and then here in 2011. You're the eldest of eight, you have three brothers and four sisters. Any other teachers in the family?
A. Three of my siblings (two sisters and a brother) are teachers in Co Tyrone.
Q. Do you see yourself staying at St Louis forever?
A. I do. Hopefully this is a culmination of all the best practices in all of the schools I've been in.
Q. Amusing stories from your profession?
A. You realise you're becoming old when parents of children visiting the school are asking if you remember what THEY were like in class. You look at their offspring and see the apples don't fall far from the tree! It's sobering when you realise your past pupils are now your present parents; where does time go?
Name of school: St Louis Grammar School Ballymena
Number of pupils: 1030
Number of teachers: 63
Notable for/recent successes: Academic excellence/Top of A Level league table
Number of pupils who are boarders: None
Annual voluntary contribution per pupil: £100
Notable alumni: Northern Ireland football manager Michael O'Neill, film-maker Mark Cousins, renowned violinist, harpist, and soprano singer Tara McNeill, political commentator and ex-MLA Daithí McKay
Quickfire quiz for the principal
Tea or coffee?
Whiteboard or blackboard?
Maths or English?
Summer or Christmas holidays?
School lunch or packed lunch?
Favourite day of term?
June 29 or 30. The last day of term.
The Green Mile.
The Power And The Glory by Graham Greene.
Now you’re asking me, not into music at all. I’ve no favourites, couldn’t tell you a band.
Best piece of advice?