Meet the principal: Nicola Connery, Strathearn School - 'We don't look at student's religion; once you've put on that uniform you become a Strathearn girl'
Nicola Connery (49) on staff and pupils pulling together in times of tragedy, being one of four schools sharing A-levels in east Belfast, and why being principal of the all-girls establishment has become her dream job
Q. Briefly describe Strathearn.
A. We're an all-girls school that prides itself in offering a range of opportunities in terms of academic and extracurricular but underpinning everything is ensuring that their well-being is paramount.
Q. What is the school's ethos?
A. For every pupil to reach their potential. Three years ago the girls came up with a new motto - 'Encourage, empower, excel'.
Q. You're in your 90th anniversary year which you marked by planting bulbs. Tell us about that.
A. The girls wanted to leave a legacy so every child from four-year-olds in Prep (Penrhyn, 140 pupils) to my 18-year-old girls planted a bulb in our anniversary walkway at the front of the school. Beds were dug for every single year group, so in the springtime all of those bulbs will come out. They planted a tree too. We also decided we would have 90 acts of kindness.Rather than just contribute money, we asked all the girls, by individual or class, to do an act of kindness. We've had people out doing beach cleans, weeding gardens and a Christmas lunch for the community. We've asked the girls to think of others rather than themselves because we do recognise that we all have good lives here.
Q. What is your view on integrated education? What's your percentage make-up?
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A We are integrated. We make no difference. We're open to everybody. We purposely don't look at a pupil's religion because once you put on that uniform you become a Strathearn girl.
Q. Where do your pupils come from?
A. I don't have a natural catchment in east Belfast. About 48% of my children come from a three-mile radius but 58% come from beyond: Ards Peninsula, Bangor, north Belfast, Lisburn.
Q. Your policy on bullying?
A. Zero-tolerance. We educate the girls about their behaviour and relationships and the way they should behave towards each other. Kindness is a word we use a lot at Strathearn.
Q. How has teaching changed over the years?
A. Technology is the big change. When I started I was drawing diagrams on the board in chalk. Now everything is at the flick of a switch, we've access to online videos and it has become much more visual. Every room here is equipped with an electronic whiteboard. Children are registered in the morning on computers. Gone is the letter home to parents in the schoolbag; now it's parentmail. Although social media gets a negative name it can work very positively because we can reach out very directly and quickly to parents. Pupils now are more aware of the world around them, and social media means they're more exposed to different environments.
Q. Do schools feel a bigger responsibility in the social media world?
A. Yes. Schools are the best portal for getting the message out, so all schools now have excellent pastoral care systems. We don't try to do it all in-house; we bring in external expert agencies to empower the girls to be the best citizens that they can be and look after their personal welfare.
Q. What pressures are there on the job nowadays?
A. Finance is the big one. Every school is having to manage a very tight budget. The other area is special educational needs. With no functioning Assembly, it's difficult to address either.
Q. How aware are the pupils about Stormont?
A. We have a strong school council here; we're trying to teach them that debate and discussion is the right way forward for change. We've just started a politics department, and we're bringing in MLAs so the girls can put questions to them. So far the UUP's Mike Nesbitt has been here.
Q. So you're offering politics at A-level now?
A. We always did - in collaboration with other east Belfast schools. Campbell College, Bloomfield Collegiate and Ashfield Girls and Boys have an agreement that we share subjects at A-level.
Q. Tell us more about that.
A. Campbell doesn't offer media studies; I do it here. Campbell or Bloomfield offer German in alternate years so my girls and Bloomfield girls will go to Campbell to make a viable German class. I don't have moving image arts but Ashfield Boys has one of the best.
Q. What about the problem in Northern Ireland of educating too many teachers?
A. That's a yes and a no. In some areas, maybe. In the secondary sector there are still shortages in some areas such as sciences and business studies.
Q. In 2017 you were one of three principals (with Robert Robinson and Dr Darrin Barr) who teamed up against drugs. There was an e-safety booklet. How well did that initiative work, and have you had to reprimand any pupils for dabbling?
A. We've never had a drugs problem here. We have excellent girls and an excellent pastoral team who regularly keep them informed on dangers and how to keep themselves safe. We are proactive.
Q. You've taught in co-educational and same-sex schools. What's the advantage of a girls only school?
A. The girls don't have any gender bias towards their subject choices. Two of my top subjects are maths and physics. They also stay focused on their studies.
Q. An unwelcome advance was made to one of your pupils in Bangor as she was waiting for the bus, and there's been a well-documented incident of a teacher sending inappropriate messages to a pupil at a Belfast grammar school. Do you have special classes to teach the girls about such dangers and threats?
A. The girls have a weekly 'Learning for Life and Work' tutorial programme with a form tutor and the element that deals with such matters is personal development.
Q. In 2013 a pupil, Catherine Buchanan, died from leukaemia. Another, Holly Massey, was diagnosed with a rare brain tumour last year. It can't be easy coping with that?
A. We are a family at Strathearn and we have a strong sense of community. Last year we raised £20,000 in one week. That showed to me what a special school this is and just how much we care about each other. When something difficult comes we really pull together.
Q How important is academic success?
A. It opens doors and allows the girls to move forward but in this day and age it must be balanced with a skill set.
This year our exam results were our best ever. At GCSE 97.5% got 7 A*s to C, but 74.5% of those grades were A*/A - so over 800 of our grades out of 900 were A*/A. And A-levels were our best ever - 88.5% were 3 A* to C but 51% of those were As or A*s. We are very keen that a child becomes involved in the extracurricular life of school and that's why we have a 55-minute lunchtime (compared with 30 minutes elsewhere) because we do our music at lunchtime and sport in the afternoon; at Strathearn you can be in the choir and on the hockey team.
Q. What's the best advice for combating exam stress?
A. Be prepared and listen to what the teachers are telling you.
Q. You've got many notable past pupils. Recently Strathearn English teacher Wendy Erskine published a collection of short stories. What is the secret of talented alumni?
A. A good professional teaching staff who encourage the girls to strive for their dreams.
Q. What's your definition of success?
A. Reaching your own true potential in whatever field that may be.
Q. Why be a principal?
A. I set out to be a teacher but was encouraged by other people. As I went through all the ranks I realised that you can make a difference.
Q. When did you decide to go for the top job?
A. Only five or six years ago. I'm humbled and proud to be principal here. We have phenomenal buildings but the beating heart of this school is the pupils.
Q. You're originally from Lurgan but now live in east Belfast with your 54-year-old husband David, a civil servant, and sons Jonathan (17) and James (15). How do the boys feel about having a principal for a mum? Are you very strict?
A. They don't mind. At home I'm mum. The principal hat isn't worn at home.
Q. What subjects did you take for A-level? University degree?
A. English, geography and history. Geography degree at Queen's.
Q. You went to King's Park Primary and then Lurgan College. Fondest memory?
A. Being well taught and having good friendships. It was always very homely. There were only 40 girls in my sixth form year.
Q. Did you enjoy school?
A. I loved it, and possibly that's why I'm a principal today.
Q. Were you very academic?
A. I was bright. Certainly not top of the class but I enjoyed studying and the work involved, particularly at A-level.
Q. If you had to go back to school, where would you send yourself?
A. I would love to come here, or to any of the schools I've taught in.
Q. What did you struggle with most?
A. Volume of work. I'm a perfectionist. I always wanted to do my best, so knowing when to stop was something I struggled with.
Q. When did you know you wanted to teach?
A. My parents Betty and Jim (who are in their 80s) would say that from primary school I always showed a tendency towards teaching. I always had an affinity with children. At Sunday school I always wanted to help the little ones.
Q. Any other teachers in the family?
A. No. My brother Philip (51) is a businessman.
Q. How did you get into the teaching profession?
A. A very straightforward route - A-levels, Queen's degree, PGCE in geography at Ulster University and then straight into my first job as a teacher of geography and games at Antrim Grammar School in 1992. I was 22.
Q. You spent eight years at Antrim Grammar, seven at Victoria College as head of geography, vice-principal at Strathearn in 2007, then you left for two-and-a-half years to become principal of Wellington College, returning to Strathearn where you've been principal for three-and-a-half years. Proudest moment of being a teacher?
A. I feel proud every single day, particularly in this role, knowing you can make a difference to a child's life.
Q. The best thing a student has said to you?
A. "Thank you." That makes it all worthwhile.
Q. What's the best piece of advice you've been given, or would give?
A. Be yourself and believe in yourself because if you don't believe in yourself you can't expect others to believe in you.
Q What's the most important quality to have as a teacher?
A. Empathy. You need to understand that there's more going on in their lives than the classroom.
Q. What's next for the future?
A. I'm here. Strathearn is in my blood now. I want to keep doing the best job that I can do for this school, individual pupil by individual pupil. I love it.
Name of school: Strathearn School.
Number of pupils: 770.
Number of teachers: 53 (nine in Penrhyn Prep.).
Notable for/recent successes: Songs Of Praise prize-winning choir and accomplished past pupils.
Number of pupils who are boarders: None.
Annual voluntary fee: £140.
Preparatory department: Penrhyn (fees £3,875 to £4,350 per year).
Notable alumni: Businesswoman Margaret Mountford, Sir Alan Sugar's former adviser on The Apprentice; Olympic swimmer Sycerika McMahon; newsreader Andrea Catherwood and award-winning playwright and novelist Lucy Caldwell.