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Campbell College: 'Boys of four walk into the school and, from that day on, they will be Campbellians for rest of their lives'


Campbell College

Campbell College

Robert Robinson, headmaster of Campbell College

Robert Robinson, headmaster of Campbell College

The school’s senior rugby side

The school’s senior rugby side


Campbell College

Campbell College headmaster Robert Robinson talks to Rebecca Black about the challenges of leading one of the best known schools in Northern Ireland and his worry about the cuts to funding from Stormont.

Q. Tell me about your background, where are you from and what inspired you to become a teacher?

A. I grew up in Belfast. In 1981, the year of the hunger strikes, I finished my time at Methodist College and when most of my peers were choosing to escape Belfast I opted to stay put.

I held a strong hope that life in Belfast would improve and I did not want to leave my home at this time. I wanted to stay and make a difference.

I decided to read Psychology at Queen's University with the view to subsequently going into the Church.

I soon discovered that Psychology and I were not suited and so I reverted to Science where I immediately felt comfortable.

I fell into teaching. However, once I had fallen, I knew that I had found my niche. As a teacher my inspiration has always been driven by my own experience. No child should feel invisible, every child is different, and each has their own unique strengths, so attention to the individual is paramount.

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Q. What was your first job?

A. My first teaching post was in Glastry High School where I had the pleasure of teaching some incredible children - children of all abilities and backgrounds.

This diversity was the best learning ground for me as I had to quickly develop strategies that would bring out the best in each pupil.

I arrived in the final years of the principal, Eddie Beckett, who had established the school and was inspirational to me - he strongly advocated the potential for how teaching could transform lives. After I married I settled in Newtownards where I taught chemistry in Regent House.

I was very involved in the development of Regent and this experience enabled my move to Headship at Rainey Endowed in Magherafelt. My 10 years as Head of Rainey Endowed saw a transformation of the academic performance of the school, the collaborative activity between schools within Magherafelt and my work there earned me an MBE for services to education.

Q. When did you start as Headmaster of Campbell and what drew you to the position?

A. I started at Campbell in 2012 and was immediately struck by how different it was to my previous school. I had moved from a country grammar to one of the most prestigious schools in Northern Ireland - if not Ireland.

I would not have moved for any other position. The heritage of Campbell was a huge draw for me - you can feel the 120 years of history in every corner of the place.

I was excited about the opportunity to work in an environment that recognised and celebrated the individual. What particularly interested me was the Board of Governors' commitment to drive the college forward and I saw this as a great opportunity to be part of a strong team with a clear and exciting vision for the future. In the last four years at Campbell we, as a team, have moved this school forward by leaps and bounds in tandem with the ethos of the place.

Academically the school has been delivering record results in recent years but more importantly the passion for the college from our pupils, staff and parents is stronger than ever.

We provide individual attention and care for each and every boy and in return we are privileged to enjoy the commitment and passion of our boys as they head off into the world, forever holding Campbell College in their hearts.

Q. What makes Campbell different to other schools?

A. I believe the main difference is grounded in our people. Our staff who go the extra mile, our pupils who wear the school crest with pride and respect, our parents who work with us to get the best for their children and our Old Campbellians who give back - not just to the college but to the world around them.

There is a shared belief that 'together we make a difference' and I have not witnessed that sense of community at any other school.

But there is also a host of tangible differences. For instance, 150 of our 1200 pupils are boarders, hailing from all corners of the world and representing a wide range of cultural, social and religious backgrounds. This is an international family.

As a boarding school, we have a number of our staff and their families living on campus and so the College is full of life, seven days a week, 365 days a year. Even in school holidays the college is filled with youth groups, residential summer schools, weddings, festivals and events. It never stops! We had 400 people in our Great Hall on Saturday past attending a screening of one of the Harry Potter movies as part of the Belfast Film Festival.

We are an all-boys school and committed to the premise that boys learn differently. Our senior school is not 100% academically selective - 70% of our intake at Year 8 is based on academic selection and 30% is not.

This sets us apart from other Grammar Schools and is part of our commitment that every child has a different educational journey.

We have one of the largest Combined Cadet Force divisions in the UK, one of the country's most successful school rugby teams, world-renowned authors, Olympians, Victoria Cross and Nobel Prize winners, international rock stars and leading actors among our Alumni. Not to mention we have our own pipe band and 120 years of history - our buildings hold a century of stories in their walls! The list goes on.

Boys walk through our gates at three or four years of age and from that moment they are Campbellians until the end of their days. We have generations of families who have attended the college - some of whom have been married here and many of whom have their names etched into our history. This is no ordinary school - it is a family and a way of life.

Q. As a fee-paying school how accessible is Campbell?

A. Campbell College is a Voluntary B Grammar School and as such we charge a capital fee: for a day pupil these fees are £2,600 a year, that is £50 a week, £7 a day.

The fee we charge pays for the maintenance and development of all our historic buildings and our 100-acre campus and its facilities.

Whereas other non-fee-paying schools are granted funding to maintain and develop their buildings and grounds, we raise all this money ourselves.

We use these funds to ensure a superb campus for our pupils but also to help preserve a piece of local heritage for future generations. Our buildings and grounds are over 120 years old and we are committed to sharing these with the wider community.

We open up the campus on an increasing basis each year via a variety of public festivals, heritage open days, historic tours, school events, community events, charity activities and nature walks.

Each year over 6,000 people not connected to Campbell enjoy our buildings and grounds and we aim to increase this accessibility over the coming years through a number of ambitious public access projects.

Throughout its history Campbell has been committed to ensuring that those who are not able to afford the fees are given equal opportunities through our bursary and scholarship schemes. Thanks to contributions from Old Campbellians over the years these bursaries and scholarships have delivered life-changing benefits to generations of boys. The philosophy of our founder continues.

Q. How much is the college connected to its local community?

A. Our founder Henry Campbell was a philanthropist - an individual who believed in making a difference and giving back to society.

His legacy continues in the college to this day. The school is well-connected to and continually contributing to its wider community.

Whether financially through bursaries, scholarships and charitable activity or through sharing our campus and facilities with the local community, Campbell knows the role it should be playing in East Belfast and beyond. It has been part of the Belfast story for over a century and will continue to be so for many years to come.

Q. Can you comment on Campbell's position in the league tables?

A. Firstly, league tables do not compare like with like and along with many of my peers I set little store by them.

I am not concerned with a measurement system that is devoid of any rigid quantifiable approach. 70% of our Year 8 intake is chosen via academic selection and 30% is not.

Our results cannot be reduced to a 5 A* - C figure and compared with a school that is 100% academically selected. That does not make sense.

We need a system that shows the educational journey of a child through school. In this technological age there is no reason not to have a meaningful measurement such as a value-added system; looking at where each individual pupil starts at Year 8 and tracking their individual improvement: where they start versus where they end up. The same principle could be applied to the primary system.

Once we introduce a standard measurement that removes the differences then we can start comparing schools in an equitable way - if you ever think making narrow comparisons between people is a good thing to do.

Secondly, I am a firm believer that education is about more than results. It is about the whole person, their character and their ability to go into the real world and stand out from the crowd, be an individual.

Returning to my starting point - the premise that each child is different and our role as educators is to inspire each pupil to be the best he or she can be: that is what we should be measuring.

Q. How will you be affected by budget cuts?

A. Harshly! We are affected just like all the other schools of Northern Ireland, and we will be looking at how we will make cut backs to cope with the shortfall the Department of Education imposed into the budgetary allocation. In addition, as we do not receive any grants for our buildings and grounds and already fund these elements from our own purse, we are under even more pressure as a tough economic climate hits our own fundraising capabilities and hence we can be hit doubly hard.

Q. What are your hopes for the future?

A. To continue the journey we have begun and to realise the full potential of Campbell College, as a place of educational excellence, as an important part of the history and fabric of Belfast, but most importantly as a place where boys are affected for good; young boys at three or four years of age start their educational journey in the safe knowledge that they will leave at 18 a full and rounded individual - the best that they can be and ready to make a difference to the world.

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