Meet the Principal: Robert Robinson, Campbell College - 'We have expanded our reach and have boys boarding from Mexico, Shanghai and a number from the Cayman Islands'
Our brilliant new series hears from some of Northern Ireland's head teachers about their jobs
Campbell College headmaster Robert Robinson on ‘elitism’, suspending pupils over cannabis, the impending Brexit and their cadets organisation.
Q. Why do you use the title headmaster instead of principal?
A. This is my 18th year as a head. When I went to Rainey Endowed School in Magherafelt in 2002 I, along with some of my staff, still would have been called 'master' in the street by parents or people I knew who met us. In this school we belong to the Headmasters and Headmistresses Conference, the Association of Heads of leading independent schools. Within that there are many other names given to school heads.
Q. Before going into teaching you had the idea of entering the Church. What happened?
A. When I went to Methodist College as a student I had been raised in the Methodist Church and my family were steeped in it. It almost seemed like an inevitable career path that I would go to Queen's University, Belfast, study psychology, graduate and so some job for a while and then enter the church.
As a boy I had been influenced by a very bright minister, the Rev Richard Greenwood, and that had played a part in my wanting to go into the Church.
Q. But it did not happen?
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A. When my wife Sharon and I met in my final year at Queen's she had spent some time prior to that working in Africa with the Church of Scotland - a year in Malawi. After some discussion we decided that I would not enter the Church. That was a hard call.
Q. How did your studies at Queen's go?
A. I found psychology very difficult and discovered I was better at science. I enjoyed chemistry and graduated in it. However in 1985 if I was going to stay in Northern Ireland and use my chemistry degree there were few options available to me. I could go to Norbrook in Newry, Galen, now Almac, was just being established and so I fell into teaching.
In falling into teaching I fell into something I was good at and something I enjoyed. Ultimately it stopped me going into the Church and influencing people for good. However I can think of nowhere better than being a schoolteacher or a school principal if you want to influence people for good.
Q. Was teaching all you hoped for?
A. My first school was Gastry High School outside Ballyhalbert on the Ards Peninsula. It was great. I was just married at the time - Sharon was teaching in Regent House.
Mr Eddie Beckett, who was one of the founders of the school, was head at that time. In my first couple of years of teaching he showed me what a principal does and the effect he had on families and pupils. The environment he had created over those years I thought was great. He was a positive influence on me as was the school.
Q. What was next for you?
A. I spent a couple of years at Cambridge House boys school in Ballymena. My wife was from Broughshane and we thought maybe of settling down there to have a family but things did not work out and I moved to Regent House where I stayed for a considerable time. At one stage my wife, myself and our two children Anna and Stewart were all at the school at the same time.
Q. Didn't your move to Rainey Endowed have a big effect on you?
A. It did and I keep a record of its activities in my office still. It was founded in 1713 at the time of the penal laws by a Presbyterian Hugh Rainey who willed that it would be open to all. Some 180 years later the Church of Ireland wanted to make it a Church school but the local parish priest and Presbyterian minister took the case to the High Court in Dublin and won the right for it to remain open to all.
When I arrived there I found a place which was very influential in the mid-Ulster area which had gone through all sorts of pain and hurt in the 1970s and 1980s. I found a very close community among the alumni who loved the school with a passion. I hadn't found that before.
Q. Surely the same attitude exists among the alumni of Campbell College?
A. It does but I could understand that more quickly in its case. For many years the majority of pupils were boarders - it was only in the last 25 years that day boys became more common than boarders. When pupils live together, go to school together and play together for up to nine years they form bonds of friendship that last forever and that is what happens here.
Q. You were awarded an MBE for services to education while head of Rainey. How did that come about?
A. To a very large extent one's success is due to the team that works with one. During my time there we worked very hard to form the Magherafelt Learning Partnership involving Rainey, St Mary's Grammar School, Magherafelt High School, Sperrin Integrated College and St Pius X College. This opened up more opportunities for young people in the town and surrounding areas.
By the time I left there were more than 200 pupils in sixth form rotating between the schools.
This was real bridge-building giving the children more opportunities when they left their respective schools. It also built community and broke down barriers.
Q. Where do your boarders come from?
A. We have expanded our reach in attracting boarders and now have boys from Mexico in the west to Shanghai in the east and also a number from the Cayman Islands. The first boy to come to us from the Cayman Islands was the son of a man my wife had taught in her first A-level class. That made a connection when he was looking to send his child to Northern Ireland to be educated. Others have followed since. We also have boarders from countries in the EU.
Q. What effect do you think Brexit will have on the school?
A. I don't know because we don't know what is going to come.
There is an obvious business response. All EU students are entitled to the same grant for their tuition. If we are outside the EU later this year the EU students will no longer get that grant and so, therefore, if they come here to board that grant will be added to their costs. They will be in the same position as our students from Mexico or Shanghai.
Brexit may depress our market. We have been building boarding numbers but it will be more difficult to sell our offering if it is more expensive and I am concerned about that.
Q. Are there other implications?
A. My life in teaching has been about breaking down barriers and cross borders and showing openness to all. Part of the rhetoric attached to Brexit is 'the stranger in the land is not welcome' and I struggle with that. This school is a melting pot of culture, religion, denomination or no religion. All of the pupils have to be welcomed and have to feel that the community feels that way too.
Brexit concerns us greatly financially but also with its challenge to the ethos of the school. We have adults saying this isolation is what they believe Britain should be for and I am not convinced on that.
Q. Your school will not be the only one affected.
A. Education is a huge jewel in the UK and Ireland. People travel from all over the world to educate their children here and we have thousands of young people going to British and Irish universities.
Brexit is something bringing risk to that where it is not needed.
That is outside my control but we will respond within the organisations to which we belong and ask them if they can have influence and encourage others to see that education is something positive which happens in Northern Ireland.
Q. Some time ago it was reported that a number of pupils had been suspended after being found with cannabis at the school. How difficult is it to make pupils aware of the dangers in modern society?
A. I suspended seven boys for two incidents of having cannabis during one week.
That created media interest but I personally and the school also got an immense amount of praise for our handling of the incidents.
I was asked by one BBC reporter why I had not expelled the pupils involved. My response is that they were children and, as children, deserved a second chance.
If, however, any were involved in something like that again then they would be abusing that second chance and that would be a different matter.
Cannabis and other problems are endemic in our society and it is my role along with the head of boarding and the head of pastoral care to create a culture within the school to educate boys on what society is like and how they can live in it safely.
If they choose to use cannabis they are choosing to do something which is illegal and which carries consequences.
They should not do that in school because they are putting themselves at risk, putting others at risk and putting the school at risk.
Q. Campbell College is seen by some who have never been there as an elitist establishment. Do you accept that definition?
A. I never like the word elitist. We get no funding for capital works and that brings its challenges when you have a Victorian building and you need development. You have to have money to pay for that. We have to manage that and that is difficult.
The demand for a capital fee causes a second selection. You have the academic selection and then it is going to cost £2,787 to send a child here for a year and then that is multiplied if you have a second child who you wish to send here. That is where we lose demand for our school.
What we try to do is award scholarships and bursaries to offer to families facing that problem. Part of our task is to generate sufficient funds to be open for all and we are successful in that. All of that money comes from alumni. Perhaps 50 years ago their parents got that support and they remember that.
Q. Do you regard academic success as a measure of how well the school performs?
A. When my mother sent me to Methodist College in 1974 she did not send me to get good A-level results. That never entered her head.
We have lost something since the mid-80s when Thatcher economics came into education. The goal of going to school is to be educated and developed academically, physically, spiritually and emotionally. Study is at its core but we have to give the boys opportunities to grow, not just to produce good exam results. We provide an education to enable every boy to do their best.
Q. The cadets organisation plays a big part in this school. What is its role?
A. It is a youth organisation, not a recruitment organisation for the military.
It gives boys who are not necessarily interested in sport or academic high achievers activities to enjoy that are different.
An example is a boy who has just been awarded a three-year university scholarship and one year at Sandhurst through his involvement with the cadets where he blossomed.
Last year he led the cadet parade down Horseguards Parade in London and this year is the chief drum major for cadets in the UK.
In times past we had an officer training corp at the school and in World War 1 when officers were first out of the trenches one quarter of all the boys who went off to war from this school lost their lives. Proportionally that was the highest toll of any school I know of in Ireland.
Two former pupils of this school won Victoria Crosses and the family of one of them - Lt Col William English - donated his medal collection to the school. He served in the Boer War - for which he won his VC - the First World War and the Second World War during which he died of a cerebral haemorrhage. His descendants later suggested the school sell the medals to fund outdoor education for our pupils and they raised a couple of hundred thousand pounds.
Another gift to the school was the large organ which sits in our Central Hall.
Q. What other pursuits are on offer?
A. We have started an eco club. We are lucky to have 100 acres of grounds where boys can play, do other outdoor activities or just go for a stroll.
Quickfire quiz for the principal
Tea or coffee? Coffee.
Whiteboard or blackboard? I haven’t used a blackboard in a generation. Always whiteboard, and even now rarely because everything is electronic.
Maths or English? Maths.
Summer or Christmas holidays? Christmas is special but probably summer.
School lunch or packed lunch? Easy. School lunch.
Favourite day of term? First day.
Favourite film? Lord of the Rings but that wouldn’t be a shared experience with wife or family.
Favourite book? Probably Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, again because I’m a romantic.
Favourite band? Beatles.
Best piece of advice? Be yourself.
Favourite subject? Maths.
When founded: 1894
Number of pupils: 959 (senior school) and 280 (kindergarten and junior school)
Number of teachers: 78 (senior school) 15 (junior school)
Number of boarders: 150
Annual fees: £14,747 (boarding), £2,789 (all students’ capital fees)
Notable alumni: Bill Campbell, Nobel Laureate Medicine, CS Lewis, author, two VCs William English and Edmund De Wind, Jonny Quinn and Gary Lightbody of Snow Patrol and Tim Martin, multi-millionaire founder of the Wetherspoon pub chain.