Taking over the helm of a school when its future is so uncertain may seem like an odd career move, but it’s an indication of the confidence Noella Murray has in Drumcree College that this is precisely what she has done.
Mrs Murray (38), who stepped into the role of principal just five weeks ago, following the retirement of Noel Bullock, believes it is an “exciting time to be coming into the school”.
And far from being daunted by the challenge, she believes she is joining Drumcree at what is a unique opportunity for “growth and renewal”.
The school, which has faced repeated threats of closure over the past few years, is again in the spotlight this week, with proposals to replace it with a Key Stage 3 (age 11-14) school.
And as a two-month consultation period begins, Mrs Murray is calling for the local community to support Drumcree, which is the only Catholic secondary in Portadown.
She said, “I would invite anybody to come in and see what this school has to offer. I am excited about what we can provide for local people and the new opportunities ahead.”
Although only in post a few weeks, Mrs Murray has a clear vision of Drumcree “as the centre of the community and a hub of activity” and has already set in motion a number of changes.
Twilight classes have been introduced before and after the school day, where anyone identified as an under-achiever can benefit from revision classes.
And gifted children are also being catered for with a new scheme being piloted in the maths department where lessons are videoed and can be watched online by pupils in their own time.
Mrs Murray would eventually like to see this extended across other departments too, and even shared with other schools.
Sharing subjects and expertise across schools is something of which she has extensive experience. At St Paul’s in Bessbrook where she taught Irish and Spanish for 14 years, she was responsible for co-ordinating shared education across 16 member schools.
She is also a believer in bringing business and expertise into the school and has already begun forging links with local businesses including Mayfair Business Centre and Young Enterprise.
She is mindful, too, of preparing students for a changing career landscape, and matching their skills to the requirements of the labour force.
The school has introduced the ECDL, a Europe-wide recognised qualification in computer skills, and only this week confirmed a bespoke vocational programme for a number of GCSE students, which will include in-built work placements each week.
A passionate advocate of all-ability education, Mrs Murray is aware that not every child will be suited to, or even wish to, go on to do A-levels and with this in mind hopes to create a ‘vocational pathway’.
She explained, “We already do Occupational Studies in-house but we are looking to bring in new qualifications such as The Prince’s Trust and the Lift Off programme.
“I want to see a curriculum built around the needs of the child, so they are ready for the workforce.
“What we want to avoid is creating another generation of NEETs (Not in Education, Employment or Training) and to do this we need to be working in collaboration with industry.
”There will be children who take the A-level route but just churning children out along the traditional pathways, if it is not a meaningful qualification for them, is not the answer. We need diversity and flexibility in the curriculum.”
The new principal, who heads a school of 18.5 teachers and 182 pupils from a diverse range of cultures and background, is also restructuring the roles of classroom assistants, whom she considers an “excellent resource”.
She has employed two new, multilingual assistants, who speak six languages between them, and who not only help in class but also take TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages) classes before and after school.
Another new initiative will be a website, The Friends of Drumcree College, due to be launched before Christmas which Mrs Murray is encouraging past pupils to join as well.
Meanwhile, the school is a veritable hub of activity with after-school drama, music and dance lessons every week.
And new lunchtime activities have also been introduced, with judo classes and students making planters to improve the external appearance of the school.
Entrepreneurship is also alive and kicking with pupils from the much-praised Learning Support Unit running the school shop.
And the school is also working on a shared education project to bring together controlled and maintained primary and post-primary schools for a health project.
In all of the new initiatives, Mrs Murray said she has had complete support from both the parents and staff.
“The staff here have been through the wars but I have been overwhelmed at how willing they are to embrace new ideas, and to give up their time. They are very much committed to the children. It’s a school the community should be very proud of,” she said.
“The core business of a school is quality learning and teaching and every child should have excellence every day, But it’s not just about results. It’s about developing the whole child on every level.
“I was at the opening of the People’s Park and I was struck by the theme song ‘Moving On’. Well, like the park, Drumcree College is moving on.”