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Meet The Principal: 'Pressure from parents via social media has grown', says Clare Bradley of Holy Cross College in Strabane

Meet The Principal: Our brilliant new series hears from some of Northern Ireland’s head teachers about their jobs

Leona O'Neill

By Leona O'Neill

Holy Cross College head Clare Bradley on almost eradicating the Transfer Test process in Strabane, celebrating the achievements of all pupils, and how she nearly left the school she now loves and leads after stressful first year as a young teacher during Troubles

Q: Do you remember your own school days with fondness?

A: My A-levels where geography, English and domestic science, which would be called home economics now.

My favourite subject was geography, my first and greatest love. I loved it because it is active and alive and doesn't date.

There are dynamic processes all the time, the Earth is evolving and it is just so fascinating.

It's wonderful to see all the different physical and human processes intertwined with each other.

I went to Loreto in Coleraine. It was a very different place back then in the late Seventies. It was a convent grammar school and a boarding school.

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I was a 'day girl' and the boarding girls knew each other very well since they were together all the time.

The rest of us were kind of on the outside. I found that quite difficult.

It was a selected school. It promoted academic selection and probably elitist provision, which is very different to what I have been involved in since I became a teacher.

Clare Bradley in her office at Holy Cross in Strabane, Co Tyrone
Clare Bradley in her office at Holy Cross in Strabane, Co Tyrone

My fondest memories from school are of the camaraderie among the sixth form girls. Once we got to post-16 school was probably a more social place. It had been quite rigorous for five years.

I was also inspired in my A-level years by my geography teachers and that prompted me to keep up the subject.

Q: Was there a particular moment that sparked your desire to teach?

A: I always wanted to teach. I can remember teaching my dolls when I was a little girl.

Back when I was growing up there weren't very many other vocations promoted. It was teaching and nursing for girls.

I always had an inclination for teaching. There are quite a few teachers in the family - my daughter Moya is a teacher and I married a teacher. My brother is a headmaster in Garvagh and we have a cousin who is the principal of a school in Ballymena.

Holy Cross College, Strabane
Holy Cross College, Strabane

My sister and I would pretend that we were teachers when we were young. We would mark books and the like.

I knew from a very early age that I wanted to go into teaching and I didn't really stray away from that path. It was an easy progression for me.

I went from school quite smoothly into St Mary's Teacher Training College in Belfast and then I entered the real world after that.

And by that I mean I got a job in St Colman's High School in Strabane - where the amalgamated Holy Cross College now stands - and I found it really, really tough.

Q: What did you find tough about it?

A: It was different from anything else I was used to. I had gone to a girls' grammar school and St Mary's.

Holy Cross College principal Clare Bradley with Year 8 pupil Macara Kelly
Holy Cross College principal Clare Bradley with Year 8 pupil Macara Kelly

I had no idea that there was another world of education out there. I was thrust into a very large boys' high school, St Colman's.

It was a difficult time during the Troubles. Strabane was hit by the Troubles in many ways.

There were a lot of social issues that I wouldn't have been privy to before that. There were a lot of challenges that suddenly became part of my life.

I had to toughen up very quickly and get used to it or I wouldn't have survived it.

Looking back I was very keen to get out of Strabane and St Colman's, but once I settled in I grew to love the place and became very loyal to it.

I look back on it now and I see young teachers coming in being met with similar challenges.

Teaching when you are in your 20s, no matter where you are, is a challenging task and you have to be strong, dedicated and committed to get on with it.

Q: What has been your proudest moment in your teaching career?

A: There have been a few proud moments for me.

I remember vividly the first student who got an A in his A-level geography. I still remember his name. He is actually the father of one of my pupils here now.

I was proud because I know I taught to the highest level and that is always what you are aiming for, in the first few years, is to make sure that you are teaching to that level.

So when someone actually achieves that level you know you have reached that standard. That was a very proud moment for me.

Seeing a lot of the students who would have come from the non-academic classes in their junior years achieving high grades at A-level is always a proud moment.

I taught in the school up until last year and every August is a proud moment when you are opening results and you weep along with the children and laugh with them.

It is so satisfying to see the joy that they get from that accomplishment always makes me proud.

Q: What is the best piece of advice you have ever received?

A: There was a teacher at St Colman's, Louise Breslin, who was a great role model to me.

She was in the classroom next to me when I started and she would have given me a lot of advice. She would have told me to be myself and have high morals and principles and stick to them. Don't waver in the pursuit of them. And I have always tried to live by that mantra.

She instilled a lot of values in me to help me along the way when I was crying as a young teacher.

She is still a great friend. She is a strong woman.

Q: What do you think the best quality is to have as a teacher?

A: You have to have resilience. You have to be able to take the rough with the smooth and be able to cope with a certain amount of negativity and criticism.

You also have to be resilient enough to understand that it's part of the job and not necessarily a personal criticism.

Sometimes you feel emotionally battered. And that is part of the job.

You have to keep standing up for what you know is right despite pressures and challenges.

Q: How do you think teaching has changed over the years?

A: In some ways teaching hasn't changed at all. In many ways teaching is the same as it was 100 years ago in so much as you are there to instil some information and values in children. And that is what teachers still do.

In other ways it has changed in a lot of ways. Technologically it is very advanced compared to when I started. The use of information technology has made huge strides since I started teaching.

In some ways it has benefited teaching hugely. Everything is electronic, communication is easier. But it means that there is less verbal communication between people and less association in staff rooms.

A lot of people would spend time reading emails. I'm not sure that is an advantage.

In terms of the children's experience, it is wonderful in that we have talking whiteboards, suites of computer rooms and a technology department that is wonderful and a music department that is state-of-the-art.

All of that is bound to improve the student experience.

In that way learning has changed hugely, but the core process remains the same.

Children are still sitting at desks in Ireland. Teachers are still in charge.

So much has changed, but so much has remained the same.

Q: What pressures are on teachers these days?

A: There is an awful lot of accountability in terms of meeting deadlines.

Teachers have a lot of paperwork to do. They have a lot of policies that they have to adhere to.

That is why there is industrial action at the moment, because the teaching unions think there is an overload.

There is a lot of pressure, even from principals to teachers, because we have certain deadlines we have to meet to fulfil obligations to the Department of Education.

There is also a lot of pressure from parents.

Parents are much more vocal and have social media platforms that they wouldn't have had.

Some parents take advantage of that, not always in a positive way. Teachers can be vulnerable and exposed to harassment.

Because teachers are humans and they are on social media platforms, they have to be very careful. And that is part of our child protection policies.

There are a lot of challenges in the social media world.

Q: Do you think a lack of government has impacted on schools?

A: It has impacted very negatively on teachers.

Morale is low. They haven't had a pay rise in seven years. There was some kind of offer on the table inside the last six months and it is now been diverted to the Stormont talks, and rightly so, because it is putting pressure on our politicians to get together.

Seemingly the deal was almost settled and shelved again. So there is industrial action and work to rule. Therefore there is less time for curriculum planning because everything has to be done inside the school day.

Our funding has been cut drastically and that impacts on all the teachers.

We have found ourselves in a situation where we have far less money than we had five years ago.

The budgets have been cut. We make all sorts of pleas about it and no one listens, we don't get any extra money. And year on year it is getting worse.

We are now in deficit in this school, where we hadn't been.

And when you are in deficit it affects everyone. You can't afford the same number of teachers or sub teachers, resources, curriculum ideas to be brought forward because it costs money. It restricts everyone.

That would be different if there was someone taking responsibility.

Q: How do you manage funding problems?

A: We have a bursar and we do it with the utmost care.

There is a big pressure to manage a large budget like we have in this school. The books have to balance. It makes it difficult as principal because I have to turn down suggestions and opportunities for staff and students that, had we been in surplus, might have went ahead.

We have to watch every penny and we have to fundraise, which is something we would not have had to do.

We have a very active PTFA (Parents, Teachers and Friends Association) and we fund some of our activities through that.

That is not ideal, but it funds the likes of buses for trips that we just simply couldn't afford.

Q: What do you think the future of teaching will look like?

A: I think the fundamentals will be the same. There will still be schools, still teachers in classroom settings, the layout of the classrooms might change a bit, but the fundamentals will be there - the passing of information, morals and values etc.

But I think as time goes on it is going to become more accountable in terms of stakeholders and parents.

It is all increasing year on year and therefore the pressures are going to increase.

Everything is so driven by documents that make you accountable. I think, particularly in the age of social media, teachers are going to be scrutinised even further. It might drive some people out of the profession and discourage some young people from going into it.

It is hugely accountable. Teachers are vulnerable to pressures from society that perhaps they wouldn't have been in days gone by.

Q: What is your definition of success?

A: The definition of success is having equality of access for all pupils. I have promoted non-selection. It has been to the forefront of my career and I still promote non-selection of children at 11 years of age.

This school is anti-Transfer Test. We really do believe that all children develop at different stages and therefore they should all be allowed equality of access at 11 and then go through their own little pathway and reach their success at different times.

My definition of success is when each child reaches the pinnacle of their own success.

But many children don't reach it because at 11 years old age they are told they are a failure and that can influence them in the school that they go to and the path that they take.

It is ingrained in them at 11 and it inhibits their development.

Q: Your school is thriving. What has been the success of Holy Cross College?

A: This is an all-ability school. It was a difficult process to amalgamate. We were joining with a grammar school. There were two ethoses coming together. It was a long process to get parents to support the school and coming on board.

Of course parents were cautious and wanted the best for their children.

But we are nearly at the point of no transfer test in this area. It takes pressure off parents and a lot of pressure off the children.

We do stream. But the children are all coming in here in the same uniform and have the same equality of access.

I think non-elitist provision is the best. I think academic success is hugely important.

One of our core aims is excellence in education. Academic success is what we strive for.

And just this year for the first time we had a student who achieved four A*s at A-level. That is as good as it gets.

We have one girl who has gone to Cambridge to study law and another to Oxford to study law. So excellence in education is, without doubt, our core aim.

But academic fulfilment does not mean getting three A-levels for everyone.

Someone of 16 years old coming out with five GCSEs is excellent success.

It depends on the individual's pathway and ability. We want everyone to achieve the best of their potential.

School factfile

Holy Cross College, Melmount Road, Strabane.

Founded September 2004 when St Colman's High School, Our Lady of Mercy and Convent Grammar Schools amalgamated. The new school opened on its Melmount Road site in December 2008.

Pupils 1,533

Teachers 98

Notable recent success - proactive in sports and the arts. Amy-Mae Dolan is the face of Riverdance. Tyrone's Cathal McShane is the top scorer in the Senior GAA Championship.

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