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Meet the Principal: Christos Gaitatzis of Omagh High School on the importance of non-selective and integrated education

Meet the Principal: Christos Gaitatzis, Omagh High School

By Laurence White

Christos Gaitatzis, who is originally from Greece, took up the post of principal of Omagh High School in September this year. Aged 41, he is married to Martina (41) and they have an eight-year-old daughter Eliza.

Q: How did you meet your wife?

A: We met in Blackpool when we were both teaching in a very large school. She is originally from Victoria Bridge in Co Tyrone and had gone to Preston to do a degree and became a very successful business studies teacher.

Initially we were just colleagues - although being a fiery Greek I fell in love with her immediately. When we started going out we decided to keep our relationship a secret and it was two or three years later in 2007 that we told the other teachers that we were getting married later that year.

Q: What had brought you to England?

A: I grew up in a town called Polykastro, outside Thessaloniki, Greece's second largest city, which dates back to the time of Alexander the Great. Most of the real Greek feta cheese that you will eat is produced around my home town. My grandfather was a dairy farmer but with goats and ewes, not cattle.

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Christos Gaitatzis, principal of Omagh High School

My dad was in the merchant navy but when he met my mum he started up a small garage and I have two brothers, one of whom is in the Greek army.

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I did well at school but when it came to A-levels I was not sure what I wanted to do.

I considered medicine or entering the military academy.

I always loved a challenge and then the idea of going to university in England came to me.

There were no tuition fees to pay then and the European Union had opened the doors for students to travel abroad.

Q: What did you study in England?

A: I went to Sunderland university and studied pharmacology and I did well, gaining a 2:1 degree. Being in England was the challenge I was looking for. I obviously met a lot of new people and experienced new cultures. It was the first time I had met anyone from Ireland, India, Pakistan or even France.

Q: What was your next move?

A: Initially I had planned to go into biochemistry but then the idea of teaching took hold. It was something that would keep me occupied.

I liked the idea of coping with people of different backgrounds, being involved with different topics and dealing with a large number of people on a daily basis. That to me is the biggest challenge in life and where could I get that challenge - in teaching.

Q: How did your teaching career develop?

A: I was a big fan of football in the '90s and I began to follow Blackburn Rovers and that led me to do my teacher training in the north west of England where the team was based. I simply chose where I would go based on the success of a football team as I did not have any connections anywhere in the UK.

I did my teacher training in Preston and began work as a physics teacher. My first school was a small Catholic school - very similar in size to Omagh High - in Leyland in Lancashire. Then about four years later I moved to a Church of England grammar school for boys in Blackpool and then later became vice-principal of another Blackpool school. It was an area where there were high levels of deprivation.

Some years later I followed the principal of that school to an independent fee paying boarding school in a very affluent area and became a senior teacher there. That was my last job before coming to Omagh.

Q: Had you been to Northern Ireland before?

A: Martina and I used to come here regularly to visit her family and we would spend time on holiday here. Other years we would holiday in Greece. When the job of principal at Omagh High came up last summer I decided to apply for it. We knew we wanted to bring up Eliza near family and spend more time together. That was more important than being away from home no matter how many other opportunities there were.

Q: What are your impressions of your new school?

A: I came from one extreme to the other. The independent school was in a very affluent area and that was reflected in the school. In Omagh there are concerns over the condition of the buildings and maintenance issues. But it is no different from what many other schools here are experiencing.

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Omagh High School

Q: What else do you know about the school?

A: It was the first controlled non-selective school in Northern Ireland to get an 'outstanding' award during inspection in 2013 which was a great accolade and that level has been sustained up to the last inspection in May this year.

Q: What are the challenges you face as principal?

A: While the school has set very high standards it has multiple challenges. The fabric of the building is past its sell-by date. It needs significant investment to keep it looking good but we are trying to sustain a good level of presentation of the building.

We are waiting to get into a new school on a new campus with five other schools in the town. Hopefully that will happen within the next decade.

Q: What is the ethos of Omagh High?

A: It is a co-educational non-selective school with a very open perspective. Everyone is welcome in the school and there are a significant number of pupils from a Protestant background and a good number of Catholic pupils.

I find the pupils are not so keen to talk about religion as much as parents might be. I feel it is a totally integrated school.

We also have a number of children, 10-15, who come from Europe and don't speak English. We spend a lot of time with them to help them.

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Christos Gaitatzis, principal of Omagh High School
 

Q: What are your hopes for the pupils of Omagh High?

A: I believe that 20-30% of the pupils are of very high ability and could go on the university if they wished. We have a whole spectrum of abilities and that is very important to us.

That is what we want to promote and we want to offer every pupil a quality education and care. Outstanding care and education is a part of what we do every day. I am happy to tell parents that their children do not need to go to a selective school to get a good education or to become well rounded individuals.

Q: So examination results are not everything?

A: No. Pupils should get extra value added to their lives by the time they leave school. We want every student to rise and rise as they go along the educational process and this is achievable in a non selective school by taking heed of the abilities of each student.

Q: What do you think of integrated education?

A: I am a big believer in non-selective and integrated education. That is immense for this province in order for us to become better. I genuinely believe mixing kids of different backgrounds is very good in a societal context. The staff of a school define the space and the standards and if you have staff of high quality - like we do - that sets the tone.

Q: How has the squeeze in public funding affected schools?

A: There are several effects. Staff salaries have increased by 1-2% over the past 10 years but there has been no real increase in funding per pupil. Increases in pension contributions and National Insurance contributions have had to be absorbed by schools.

This has made things very difficult for a number of schools and there are now more schools in budgetary deficit than are in surplus. The cost of things like books and energy have gone up three, four or 5% which is another challenge when income has not risen.

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Christos Gaitatzis, principal of Omagh High School

For us in Omagh, schools were supposed to be on a new campus by now. That means that maintenance issues have become worse and are going to be very expensive to fix and that will have a high impact on my budget. We are trying to squeeze water out of a stone. Very recently I discovered that the space beneath our assembly hall resembled a swimming pool. Some central heating pipes had broken and flooded the area. So our maintenance people had to work all weekend to pump out the water and fix the leak. I had 120 kids doing mock exams and they had to be switched to the sports hall.

Q: Does the lack of devolved government make the problems worse?

A: The lack of politicians and the lack of decision makers play a role. No matter how good the Permanent Secretary of the Department is or how hard he works some decisions have to be taken by elected representatives.

The politicians need to get together and start taking decisions for the good of the people, not for their own good. They have to stop thinking about their personal careers and start representing the people and start talking to each other. Yes there is a crisis.

Q: What else impacts on the schools?

A: Industrial action has taken place over the past number of years and that has resulted in us not being able to intervene on certain things. We work on the goodwill of staff because of that industrial action.

Q: You present a very challenging future?

A: There are multiple problems and they can cause a chain reaction. But we are optimistic because we are in this job to make kids good leaders and good learners so they can make this world a better place than it is.

There has to be a clear indication of where we are heading and when. We are using our own human resources to get through the storms - we are walking barefoot in the snow.

Q: How are you settling into Omagh as an individual?

A: Northern Ireland is one of the friendliest and warmest places I have ever been, although I am not talking about the weather, but rather the hearts of the people.

I am of the Greek Orthodox faith and in Preston we had a very small community but it grew and eventually we got our own church.

That is one of the things I am missing in terms of my spiritual work and guidance - not having my own church and priest.

I have to say my prayers alone or go to the churches of my wife or my friends. I can go to any denomination.

Q: Are you still a big football fan?

A: I am a qualified basketball coach and I have always loved the sport. I played for the north Greece team at under-16 level and still support Aris Thessaloniki. There is a basketball team in Omagh and maybe I can get involved with it because I love the sport.

Q: Tell me something unusual about yourself?

A: My surname means bagpiper and my grandfather was a bagpiper. I cannot play but my younger brother who is in the Army plays it.

School factfile

Name of school: Omagh High School

Founded: 1961

Number of pupils: 410

Number of teachers: 27

Notable for/recent successes: First controlled school in Northern Ireland to be awarded outstanding status (2013).

This accolade consistently confirmed in follow up inspections (more recently May 2019). Consistently achieving GCSE and A-level results above the Northern Ireland average for similar schools.

Motto: Outstanding Care and Education is at the heart of what we do!

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