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Meet the teacher who 'fixed' failing school

One year ago it was a school in crisis – then this woman took on the job as principal and oversaw a remarkable turnaround in results and morale

By Lindsay Fergus

It was one of the worst performing schools in Northern Ireland when the Department of Education intervened and placed Knockbreda High School into an improvement programme.

Just one in three pupils were achieving five or more GCSEs at grades A* to C when the school entered formal intervention.

However, a year later standards — and morale — slipped even further, and fewer than one in four students left Knockbreda in 2011 with five GCSEs at grade C or above.

But this year the number of pupils receiving five GCSEs at grades A* to C at the Belfast school has gone from 23% to 47%.

Under the leadership of new principal Julie Taggart many pupils are now heading to grammar schools to study A-Levels while others enrolled in Belfast Metropolitan College.

Although the school, which has no sixth form, remains in formal intervention, it is a remarkable tale of achievement for both the staff and pupils.

But Mrs Taggart is adamant “it was not down to me”.

“It was very much a team effort with everyone pulling together,” she said.

Mrs Taggart attributed Knockbreda’s success to having a “full and honest evaluation” using the Department’s Every School A Good School and Together Towards Improvement policies.

“Then we were able to start to move forward,” she said. “We introduced a ‘no blame culture’ where everyone was open and honest and sharing good practice.” Meanwhile, she and the staff at Knockbreda turned their attentions to raising morale amongst the pupils.

Initiatives included reinvigorating the school council and encouraging the female pupils to design their own school cardigan.

Mrs Taggart said: “We wanted to make them feel valued, raise their esteem and give them a voice.”

Commenting on this year’s GCSE results, she added: “I am very happy with the results they all got. It’s not just about those who got C grades or higher, for some of them D, E and F is their best and they will go on to a further education college.”

And why did she take on a job others would have run a mile from?

“I did it because I had taught at the school for 18 years. I knew a lot of the kids and I was exceptionally proud to be a teacher in that school.”

Mrs Taggart has now passed the baton to another Knockbreda teacher, the former head of PE Ian Berry.

She has been appointed the principal of Nendrum College in Comber while Mr Berry heads up Knockbreda.

Mr Berry said: “We have been tracking pupils’ progress and getting them to set their own targets, helping them to achieve those, and if not, intervening at an early stage.

“Parental engagement is important and we have been bringing parents into the school more.”

Other initiatives that have been supported by staff and pupils have included revision classes outside of school hours, including during the holidays.

Mr Berry explained: “Staff have been doing a lot of extra work and pupils have responded to that and are motivated to do well. We are moving in the right direction.”

He added: “It’s early days. We are concentrating on the bigger picture and there are other areas we want to improve on.”

A SEELB spokesman said: “The Curriculum Advisory and Support Service in the SEELB has worked extensively with Knockbreda High School since they entered the formal intervention process, and in particular over the past academic year with Mrs Julie Taggart.

“The Knockbreda staff are to be commended for the GCSE results their pupils have achieved.

“Their dedication and commitment to the pupils and their attainment has been borne out with these results.”

Story so far

Knockbreda High School entered the formal intervention proces on October 20, 2009 — 16 days after it was inspected.

The areas for improvement identified were to improve the overall standards achieved by the pupils and

improve the quality of leadership. In 2010 35% of pupils achieved five or more GCSEs at grades A* to C. That dipped in 2011 to 23%, and rose this year to 47%.

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