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Meet the principal: Inst's Janet Williamson on being female head of all-boys Belfast school and the education funding crisis

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

By Claire McNeilly

Janet Williamson (53) talks about the education funding crisis, the future of teaching, and what it is like being the female head of an all-boys school.

Q. Briefly describe Royal Belfast Academical Institution.

A. Inst is open to all boys regardless of religion, class, background. We have over 100 feeder primary schools so we are quite unique.

Q. What is the school's ethos?

A. As an all-boys grammar school, our strapline is excellence and participation. We encourage each of the boys to achieve their potential and that is academic, emotional, physical and spiritual. In terms of participation, we expect all the boys to get involved in activities in and outside of school.

Q. What is your view on integrated education?

A. We are an integrated school. I don't believe that Integrated schools with a capital 'I' own that word. I believe we are integrated. We don't make any difference if somebody is from a certain religion or ethnic background.

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Q. So what's your policy on bullying?

A. We have a very strong anti-bullying policy and it forms part of our positive behaviour policy. In managing bullying, you look at the situation around who is being bullied, the allegation, what is causing the bullying and then we would use our pastoral structures to manage that, to also educate young people about what bullying is; bullying is more than physical, it can be emotional through social media.

Q. You had some problems with sectarian graffiti in 2017 - KAT (Kill All Taigs) was discovered on a door inside the main building. Have you stamped out sectarianism?

A. That was addressed at the time. We stressed that the school has a zero tolerance on sectarian bullying. Last year some boys had become involved in sectarian behaviour and again that was managed by the school. We have zero tolerance on sectarianism.

Q. What's the most important quality in a teacher?

A. A genuine empathy and respect for young people. Wanting the best for them. The best teachers are those teachers who prioritise every day their pupils, getting the best out of them and keeping things fresh and relevant.

Janet Williamson chatting to our reporter Claire McNeilly
Janet Williamson chatting to our reporter Claire McNeilly

Q.  How has teaching changed over the years?

A. There are three significant differences. One is around the amount of recording, administration, tracking and assessments. It's necessary but very time-consuming and it's certainly not how we initially did things when I started 30 years ago. Secondly is the level of accountability. The third is the increased complexity of pastoral concerns that present themselves on a nearly daily basis.

Q. What pastoral issues are you confronted with most?

A. It changes. You will see different trends with each year group that comes through. Social media has definitely been on the increase in terms of the issues that come from that, such as bullying online.

Secondly, we are a very complex society now in terms of even young people having concerns about Brexit - they are concerned about the fact that there's no government in post, they get worried about global issues. Young people will actually say that it distresses them and is causing them anxiety.

The last part of that is the whole agenda around mental wellbeing.

We have a wellbeing programme in school, we do wellbeing surveys, we have a full-time permanent member of staff who's responsible for wellbeing, but the demand seems to be growing. Those are the big challenges. The curriculum we can manage.

Q. What pressures are there on the job in the current climate?

A. Industrial action is putting pressure on the profession.

Colleagues also face pressure around the work/life balance and how to maintain the level of professionalism needed to do the job well and at the same time manage their own health and mental wellbeing.

Q. How do you manage funding problems?

A. I'm trying to manage it by being proactive. I'm a member of a small group of headteachers who are currently pulling together responses from questionnaires sent to every post-primary principal in Northern Ireland. We intend to lobby Westminster around our funding and we have two simple messages. Increase funding by £500 per pupil in every sector, that would make a massive difference.

Our second message is that the money should go directly to schools, not into the Education Authority.

Q. What's your biggest funding challenge?

A. We're one of only two Voluntary B schools (Campbell College is the other) in Northern Ireland, which means we don't get any direct money from government for our capital.

Every brick, every door handle, every cup - we pay for all of that. We have done a lot of fundraising. We mainly ask alumni rather than parents. We try to reduce the extras we're asking from parents. There has been a little bit of creep, maybe giving out less stationery. We have over 6,000 old boys on our database and they have been very generous. They've funded a new technology centre of innovation, new science labs. Schools who don't have a big alumni base must be really struggling.

Q. Some principals can't even afford toilet roll. Your funding issues surely aren't as acute as that?

A. We have reached a crisis within Northern Ireland. We've managed to sustain our provision but it is not sustainable going forward if we continue to be underfunded. It's not that schools are mismanaging their funding. They are under-funded compared to Scotland and England and Wales; there's a big gap now between us and the rest of the UK and Ireland.

Principal of Royal Belfast Academical Institution Janet Williamson
Principal of Royal Belfast Academical Institution Janet Williamson

Q. What does the future of teaching look like?

A. I think it's healthy. We still have a real love of teaching here, unlike England where there's a crisis. There will be more technology, but the traditional pedagogy is still essential. The bare skeleton of a teacher is still there; you have to build up your relationship, prepare your resources, differentiate.

Q. What's the best advice for combating exam stress?

A. The five Ps. Proper preparation prevents poor performance. It's about being organised and planning and not leaving things until the last minute.

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

A. The level of additional administration. The complex social, pastoral priorities and that high level of accountability.

Q. You attended Cairnshill PS in Belfast, then Carolan Grammar School (now Wellington College) and Glenlola Collegiate, Bangor. You took geography, history and English for A-level. What was your favourite subject?

A. Geography.

Q. Did you enjoy school?

A. Yes, I liked studying.

Q. Were you a teacher's pet?

A. No.

Q. What about university?

A. I read geography at Oxford University and was a scholar at St Catherine's College. I went to Oxford in 1985 after I'd taken a year out to study in America. I attended high school in California as part of an exchange programme that Glelola Collegiate had brought in. It was a very different experience. During my year in America I realised that, as much as I was enjoying my experience, I didn't want to live there and that everything was not as it seemed in terms of America being the panacea of everything.

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

A. I took a year out after I graduated just to figure out what I wanted to do. I was under pressure to do law and went on a three-month placement with a law firm but I was very unhappy.

I was in a car accident with a friend. Somebody crashed into us, but the person who looked after us happened to be the PGCE tutor at Oxford. And so, through discussion with him, I decided to try the PGCE, and on day one in the school (Gosford Hill in Kidlington, Oxfordshire) I realised this is what I wanted to do.

Q. Any memories from teacher training that stayed with you?

A. I remember learning how to establish a relationship with boundaries with the pupils. You're not much older than them but you're the teacher and having those clear boundaries is really important.

Q. You taught in England as a senior teacher at Aylesbury (boys') Grammar in Buckinghamshire, then vice-principal at Wilson's (boys' grammar) in Surrey, before coming back here to serve as principal at Antrim Grammar for four years before taking over at Inst in Jan 2007. Most of your experience is in boys' schools. Is there any reason for that?

A. Because of my background - my father was the captain of the 80th and 10th Bangor, my brothers were in the Boys' Brigade.

I grew up in a family (I've three brothers and one sister) where there was a lot of youth work done with boys so it came very naturally.

Q. What's the funniest thing a student has ever said to you?

A. A boy who was involved in a rugby accident was on the "happy gas" and as we were leaving the ambulance he turned to me and said: "I love you, Miss."

Q. What's the most important piece of advice you've ever been given?

A.  You need to have an element of surprise in terms of not always doing what's expected of you, or reacting the way people imagine you would.

Q. You now live in east Belfast, although you anticipate a move to the countryside after you get married. Can you tell us about that?

A. I'm getting married next July to James McCune, a senior teacher at Dromore Primary School. His middle son (of three) Andrew (16) lives with him and he'll live with us once we're married.

The wedding is at Ganaway Boys' Brigade Activity Centre, which my father built, followed by a blessing in the Maurice Williamson Heritage Centre in Ganaway, just outside Millisle. It'll be the first wedding they've ever had.

The church is called a beacon centre, it's built like a tent to symbolise the camping that's part of the Boys' Brigade. It will be different and guests can, if they wish, go caving, abseiling...

Q. Do you ever wish you had children? Don't you think you'd have been a brilliant mum?

A. I don't have any regrets about that. It wasn't an option for me. But I have my own extended family and I love working with young people so I always feel like I'm having lots of interaction with them.

Q. What is your definition of success?

A. Fulfilling one's potential and, as a head teacher, enabling others to fill theirs.

Q. And how important is academic success?

A .Very important. The reason I finally decided to go into teaching and make that my career is that I read a paper - Education is the root to social mobility - so on a bad day I repeat that to myself and that's why I continue to do what I do.

Q. You can do a GCSE in motor vehicle studies here. What's that?

A. It's brilliant. It totally engages the boys. I brought that in four years ago. We have three mopeds.

You learn the rules of the road, maintenance, and the practical side of it. You have a practical exam at the end. We started with six pupils and now we have two classes.

A school that dates back more than 200 years

Name of school: Royal Belfast Academical Institution

Founded: 1810

Number of pupils: 1050

Number of teachers: 58 in main school and 7 in the preparatory department

Notable for/recent successes: Rugby and a very rich extra-curricular programme

Number of pupils who are boarders: None

Annual fee per pupil: £1,000 (but you can apply for a school bursary)

Preparatory department: Inchmarlo (175 pupils)

Notable alumni: Titanic designer Thomas Andrews, rugby star David Irwin, broadcaster Stephen Nolan

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