It is fitting as principal Deirdre McDonald takes her leave of Saint Catherine’s College, that the school should yet again feature in the top five list of non-grammar schools in Northern Ireland.
Mrs McDonald, who has spent almost 40 years at Saint Catherine’s, the past nine as principal and 15 before that as vice-principal, has overseen significant academic success at the Armagh, all-ability school.
In her farewell speech at a leaving mass at St Patrick’s Cathedral, she paid tribute to ‘Team Saint Catherine’s’ - all those people who had helped make the school what it is today - and described the past 40 years as “the impossible dream”.
During her career at the school, which began when she was 21, she watched it grow from a fledgling all-ability school, at a time when pupils had “low aspiration and low expectations”, to a school which has been praised for its excellence.
In the Irish News league tables published on Monday, the school recorded 79.1 per cent of pupils achieving five GCSEs, including English and maths, at grades A*-C, with 95.6 achieving any five GCSEs at grades A.
And in a recent inspection, Saint Catherine’s achieved the rare feat of ‘outstanding’ in all six categories.
Mrs McDonald recalled arriving at the school on a “gorgeous June evening” as a “very young graduate and a very nervous one” and being interviewed by the then headmistress, Sister Considine - who was later to become one of her “dearest friends”.
The all-ability Saint Catherine’s College was in its infancy then, having been created three years previously in 1973, by the merger of The Sacred Heart Secondary Intermediate School and the Sacred Heart Grammar School.
She said, “I was captivated by the then radical concept of a school dedicated to opening the immense inherited giftedness of girls of all abilities, all backgrounds, all circumstances, a school determined to end the cruel wastage of talents caused by accident of birth and circumstance.”
She recalled a “love affair” with the school which was to endure and deepen over four decades, and spoke of the many people she met and relationships she forged down the years, the ‘highs’ of sporting and academic accolades, extraordinary musicals, long meetings “soaked with laughter” as well as times of personal tragedy and sorrow.
She said Saint Catherine’s had helped hundreds of thousands of young people break out of a cycle of “low aspiration, low expectation, diffidence and hopeless”,
Today, she added, sons and daughters, granddaughters and great-granddaughters take it for granted that university or further education is their destination and that they can successfully apply for Oxbridge if that is where their dreams lie.
Mrs McDonald, who had originally been due to retire at the end of January but has agreed to stay on until a new principal had been appointed, said she had the faith to know that her successor “will safeguard all that we cherish in Saint Catherine’s and will lead the school with confidence to new heights”.
She paid tribute to her late husband Arthur for his invaluable support and her children Iain and Aoife “who have never known life without there being a Saint Catherine’s in it”.
She added, “I look back to that nervous, young woman in 1976 going home to ask her father ‘Can I take this job in Armagh?’, not knowing that it was to be the dream job, the job of a lifetime, a 40-year labour of love, a plan hatched no doubt in the all-knowing heart of Jesus.”