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NI's controlled schools are not solely Protestant ...some of them are 95% Catholic

By Rebecca Black

The first chief executive of the new Controlled Schools Support Council, Barry Mulholland, explodes the myth that all controlled schools are exclusively Protestant and describes how he plans to operate and grow the first organisation to champion the sector.

Q. Can you explain what the controlled sector is?

A. The controlled schools cover a very wide family of schools. There are controlled nurseries, primaries, non-selective post-primary schools, grammar schools and special schools. Within that, all nursery provision would be organically integrated.

You would have integrated schools at primary, integrated schools at post-primary and we would also have some Irish-medium schools, with at least another two undergoing the processes to become controlled. The vast majority of special schools are controlled schools.

Some people would regard controlled schools as secular state schools with no connections to church, but the vast majority of controlled schools, through the process of transferring from the three main Protestant churches, would have links and representation from those three churches on their board of governors.

They would pride themselves on being schools with non-denominational Christian values underpinning everything within the school, but also pride themselves on being schools that are open to all faiths and none.

Some people would find it strange, but it's a fact that there are controlled schools in Northern Ireland which are attended by more than 95% Catholic children. It's not an easy thing to explain to some members of the public. Demographic change has seen controlled schools within areas catering for the population that has developed in that area.

There are other controlled schools that would not consider themselves to be integrated, but they are naturally integrated and would have excellent levels of representation from the two communities. I can think of Ballykelly, Strabane, Sion Mills, all sitting on percentages of 40-something or 50-something. These schools are very proud of their organic integration.

Q. So it is definitely just a myth that controlled schools are Protestant schools?

A. It's too simplistic to say that. One of the things that controlled schools are very proud of is the ethos, which is about being open to children of all faiths and none.

Q. Do you think the controlled sector suffered from not having a representative body to support and promote it in the past?

A. The whole reason for the creation of the body is set within the perception within controlled schools that they haven't had a voice.

For me, as a previous chief executive (of the Western Education and Library Board), that is something I have had to put a great deal of thought into - how that perception evolved.

As a chief executive, I was very proud of my connections with the controlled sector, whether it be youth clubs or schools, but I was also very conscious as chief executive that I had considerable monies allocated to me by the Northern Ireland Assembly to be distributed across all schools equally.

So while other sectors would have had advocacy bodies very overtly speaking out on behalf of their schools, the education and library boards (ELBs) would be very actively seeking the resources that would be required for controlled schools, but they wouldn't also be speaking out or advocating on their behalf.

So there was naturally a feeling within controlled schools that they were not being represented, that they did not have a voice, though behind the scenes everyone within the ELBs were doing their very best for the controlled sector, but it was on the basis that if the controlled sector got something, it would go to all schools and there would be a requirement for equality.

I think schools felt very much that they were not enjoying the same level of representation as other sectors such as the integrated sector, the Catholic maintained sector, the grammars and Comhairle na Gaelscolaiochta.

They felt that there was a gap, and they very much welcomed the announcement that there was going to be a controlled sector support body.

I think one of the indicators that reflects how important that was to controlled schools is the registration process. We were set a target of 60% of schools in the controlled sector registering with us by Christmas to allow us to be able to say we represent the majority of controlled schools.

We passed that target in October, having only started up in September. It's a very formal registration process, but already now we are around 90%. That is a true reflection of how important the existence of this body is for them.

Q. Can you tell me about your career background?

A. I am from Lurgan, I have lived there all my life and I continue to live there. I qualified as a teacher back in the early 1980s. I was involved in teaching for about a year, then I moved into youth work, working in the Southern Education and Library Board as an area youth worker.

I moved up to senior youth worker in Craigavon in an area-based project, and from there I became a youth officer in the Belfast Education and Library Board (BELB). I moved up through the BELB senior management structure to be the chief administrative officer in Belfast, which was part of the senior management team working to the chief executive. In 1983, I went for a job as chief executive in the Western Education and Library Board, and I was very fortunate to secure that post. I worked as chief executive in the west right up until last April, when I left the Education Authority.

Q. That is a massive placing of trust in you as chief executive. Is that daunting? What are your plans to repay that vote of confidence?

A. It's a big vote for trust in me as our chief executive and the senior management team, but it's a recognition of the work that was carried out by the working group of 10 people over four years - intensive work that lobbied on behalf of the controlled sector, put forward the case, got into debates with the powers that be, the former Education Minister (John O'Dowd) and the last minister (Peter Weir).

(It was about) convincing of the Department of Education and the ministers that there was a real need for this organisation. It's a reflection of trust, but it is also a recognition of all of the work that was put in.

I will do everything I can do as chief executive to ensure that we meet the expectations of our schools.

Q. And what are your plans for the organisation?

A. We would have very clear plans based on discussions that have taken place with schools about the areas of work we are going to be involved in and the support we can give schools. We will be working with school governors in terms of supporting the governance process, helping in relation to the development of the knowledge of governors and skills to do the job and working with our colleagues in the Education Authority (EA).

I think it is important that we work very closely with EA, that we don't duplicate any of their work, but that we add to and give added value to the controlled sector by working together.

We'll also be looking to ensure, when the reconstitution of governors is coming online, that we support the process of helping get our schools the right type of governors and ensuring that they have good governance arrangements in place. We'll then be looking at the whole area of ethos development and the importance of ethos within the controlled sector.

It is recognised that ethos has a massive contribution to make to the quality of education within schools. That ethos is already celebrated in the controlled schools. We'll work on ethos with the university at Stranmillis and others, including the EA and Transferors Representatives' Council.

The third area we will be working on will be advocacy - giving a voice to the sector. As advocates, we will represent the interest of the schools and the sector as a whole.

And the fourth will be about raising standards, and that covers everything from schools that are facing challenging situations and also combining research opportunities to inform teaching and learning within the schools and the whole process of area planning.

Q. Speaking of area planning, are you concerned about how hard the controlled sector has been hit by school closures?

A. Area planning will always be a very challenging area of work, but it is also a very important area of work. We have to ensure that we have the right number of schools in the right areas providing high-quality education to the children.

Any decisions around area planning must have at their centre the interest of the pupils. Everyone will talk about the implications of finances, and that all has to be taken into account, but I have listened very carefully to two ministers and there is no doubt that what they want on area planning is children getting the best possible education within schools.

I think if you talk to principals, they're more comfortable when the conversation goes around the quality of teaching and learning than simply talking about the size of the school or where it is financially.

There are some schools that due to their geography, regardless of what numbers or what it costs, they will have to exist. I can think of Rathlin Primary - you are not going to put children on to boats to bring them across to the mainland to get a primary education.

We will, without doubt, be involved in area-planning processes and we will be representing the interests of controlled schools at the highest levels within those processes.

Our focus will be on ensuring that whatever processes take place at an area-planning level are in the best interests of teachers and pupils attending controlled schools.

We will also be looking to maximise the opportunities of shared education that are going out to the controlled schools.

Q. There are a sizeable number of controlled schools in the formal intervention process. Is that on your radar?

A. Very much so. We want to work with the Department, the [Education and Training] Inspectorate and EA to support schools like that which are facing very challenging circumstances and bring about the required improvements to ensure that they are able to move out of the formal intervention process.

Q. Teacher unions are taking action against the Education and Training Inspectorate (ETI) with some refusing to co-operate with inspectors. What is your view of that?

A. There are wider issues in relation to education and wider issues facing teachers. In terms of the industrial action, that is one of the focuses of the industrial action, to bring pressure to bear on the powers that be to listen to the issues that teachers are facing.

I don't think it is in direct opposition to ETI. I think it is a process that is being used to gain a particular outcome or get attention for the issues the trade unions are highlighting.

Q. Is it a daunting challenge to come into a brand new organisation and to have to set everything up from scratch?

A. No, it's a pleasure and a privilege. Throughout my career I took study very seriously, and my continuous professional development. I completed advanced diplomas in education in order to be a youth worker at Stranmillis, having completed my initial teacher training at St Joseph's.

I went on to Queen's to do a master's in education, and the University of Hull to do an MBA, all with the purpose of being able to contribute more to the education service. I have been very lucky with my jobs to be able to move through the experiences that I had. I have enjoyed every single job.

When I saw this opportunity, it was one that I had to go for. I had been in controlled schools, controlled services, controlled youth clubs for so long that when I saw a job to head up support services for controlled schools, it was a dream come true for me.

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