the old school responds… and so do I…

Coat of Arms of Ballymena Academy

Apologies for the long posting – this is partially due to the response from the old school… but do read on…

Last year as part of Anti Bullying week, I took the opportunity to write to the headmaster of my old school, Ballymena Academy, to seek clarity on the school’s policy on bullying, particularly homophobic bullying.

I didn’t hear back from him, so in January I wrote again, but still heard nothing until this morning I got a response from him. It seems that the letter I wrote in November never arrived and that the letter that I wrote in January got lost in the depths of Royal Mail. However, the response is as follows:

22nd September, 2011

Dear Mr Campbell,

I am replying to your letter, received 21st September, 2011 but dated 13th January, 2011. There has not been any previous communication on this matter from you.

You raise several issus in your enquiry about the school’s measures to prevent homophobic bullying.

I will begin with pupils.

  • In the 21st Century, Ballymena Academy takes all forms of bullying seriously and seeks to ensure that all our pupils benefit from their education, enjoy the experience of their schooling and feel that the school does value them as individuals and treats them with respect.
  • As the Anti-Bullying policy’s name suggests, it is the framework for the school’s approach to this important work. That policy is kept under review, various key groups are consulted on an annual basis and the point which you have made about the wording of a specific section will be part of the review process carried out in the course of this school year. The policy is not the whole story, however, despite its importance. The realisation of the school’s caring ethos, in and out of the classroom, is much more significant.
  • School Councils are a valuable feature of school life and enable the “pupil voice” to be heard. Young people are enabled to express their own concerns, or those of their peers. Homophobic bullying has not been raised, although there have been opportunities to do so. We recognise that children and young adults may be reluctant to raise such issues in a public forum but it should be said there is an openness and candour about the approach in the School Council meetings.
  • There is a very well-developed Pastoral Care system, with a Vice-Principal having oversight, seven Heads of Year – assisted by Pastoral Assistants – and, in addition, a Senior Teacher with direct responsibilities in the Sixth Form. All classes have a Form Tutor and there are Peer Mentors from Years 13 and 14 with classes in the Junior School. All pastoral staff and peer mentors are trained and the detection, prevention and elimination of all forms of bullying have priority. This is not a matter which is taken lightly and we seek to discharge our responsibilities fully and well.
  • There is an independent counselling service for pupils, funded by the Department of Education and whilst the discourse between counsellor and client in undisclosed, if the Counsellor became aware that homophobic bullying was occurring she would let us know about it, without naming of identifying any individual, just to ensure we are aware and can keep a particularly close watch on things.
  • The school emphasises the ‘respect agenda’. We are well aware of human tendencies, however, and would not suggest that bullying has been eliminated from this school. We can, however, say with confidence, that we have gone to great lengths to reduce bullying, to increase awareness of its unacceptability and to deal with it appropriately when it does occur. We have also gone to great lengths to find any signs and to measure the extent to which the steps taken by the school are successful.It is in that context that the school, at its own expense, makes use of the Kirkland Rowell surveys – Education Perceptions Monitor – of pupils, parents and staff perspectives. In the March 2011 survey, 1156 pupils out of 1200 responded anonymously. The pupils’ response perception of the school’s anti-bullying policy was rated as ‘outstanding’. Parental confidence was equally high. Parents commended the school’s efforts to self-evaluate and the Education and Training Inspectorate, in their 2009 Inspection Report referred to

    – the outstanding culture of self-evaluation that guides and supports the development work of the school and action to promote involvement;
    – the very good quality of care, guidance and support for the individual needs of the pupils.

  • The school also makes use of ALIS (A-Level Information System) based at the University of Durham. One feature of the ALIS programme is the extended questionnaire which asks Year 14 leavers about their experience of the school, specifically about bullying. Pupil responses here endorse the school’s approaches and indicate that where bullying occurs it is infrequent and at relatively low levels.
  • You state that at the time of your attendance in Ballymena Academy

    no one seemed that bothered about the homophobic bullying that was going on.

    That is your perspective, but I have no reason to doubt the impression you have formed. We now live in a different world, with different imperatives and different educational priorities.

  • When parents and/or pupils are dissatisfied with any aspect of the service provided by this school there is a complaints procedure which ensures their concerns are drawn to the attention of the Board of Governors which is obliged, by law, to provide a full explanation of its findings.

Secondly, staff –

    The Salary and Appointments Policy has a clear focus on equality and compliance with employment law.
    Staff may appeal any decision of the Board of Governors in relation to salary placement and appointment to posts.
    Grievance and Harassment Policies are available if Staff believe they are being treated unfairly or subjected to improper treatment or are not protected against such treatment.
    Disrespectful treatment of any member of Staff by a pupil is regarded as a very serious matter indeed, meriting disciplinary action.
    In the Kirkland Rowell survey, Staff rated their morale as outstanding. Matters such as equal opportunities and handling of personal issues were also rated very highly indeed.

Please do not take the previous paragraphs as either arrogant or complacent; this school is conscious of its responsibilities to its pupils and staff and is seeking to improve upon its previous best.

You feel you have a

responsibility to the pupils of today to be concerned for their welfare.

We, who have statutory, as well as professional and moral, obligations to safeguard all those entrusted to our care, are held accountable by the relevant authorities and it is in that context that this letter is written.

This has proven to be a lengthy communication but it is an honest and open response to your enquiry. I trust that you find it of some assistance in understanding the school’s approach.

Yours sincerely,

J R Hassard (Principal)

I am pleased that it seems that my old school has moved on quite a bit from where it was when I was a pupil. However, in some respects it hasn’t really, yet.

When one consults its website and clicks on ‘Hall of Fame’ in the menu, it seems that the only fame that one can have is by being a ‘Head Boy’ or ‘Head Girl’ or by being good at sports. As one who was neither of these: it seems that other things are not important.

It would, of course, be quite wrong of me to suggest that LGBT pupils are not good – and have not been in the past – good at sport. However, it is not just sport at which Ballymena Academy old pupils have excelled as the names below illustrate. I am sure that there are many, many others, but just by thinking off the top of my head, I can think of a musician whose name lives on in the name of the Music Department of the school:

Heather Clarke

and also of some  politicians…

Politics

In the first mandate of the Northern Ireland Assembly after the Belfast Agreement there were quite a few Old Boys of Ballymena Academy amongst its members principally, of course, The Lord Alderdice, first Speaker.

Of course in the early 1980s there was Edgar Graham who was murdered at the age of 29.

And further back in the twentieth century, Sir Roger Casement, CMG, who was a British diplomat and early human rights campaigner for the Congolese, turned Irish revolutionary, hanged in 1916 under the Treason Act.

Other than that Wikipedia suggests other notable former pupils including:

The Churches

The Rev’d William Booth CVO, who had been Sub-Dean of the Chapel Royal.

The Armed Forces

Air Vice-Marshal William Harbison, CB, CBE, AFC, FBIM

Commandant Vonla McBride CB, Director from 1976-9 of the Women’s Royal Naval Service (WRNS)

Academia

Albert McConnell, Provost of Trinity College, Dublin from 1952-74, and Professor of Natural Philosophy from 1930 at the University of Dublin.

Prof James Sayers, Professor of Electron Physics from 1946-72 at the University of Birmingham, from 1939-43 developed the cavity magnetron which was essential for centimetric radar, and later worked from 1943-5 on theManhattan Project.

6 thoughts on “the old school responds… and so do I…

  1. Michael
    I take your point that the sign of success in your school may appear limited to Head Boy/Girl and a list of Sports, but that is very common and somewhat historic. It is excellent also that you have undertaken the research which could show to others that working hard at school can lead to great things in a wide range.
    So how would you like to see youR school recognise success and could you suggest something to the Headteacher?
    A wall of fame was something I saw at a school last year and that worked very well.

    1. A Wall of Fame was something that was suggested by those attending the AGM of the Old Pupils’ Association a couple of years ago. I believe that what has happened is that it was put on the website – and as I pointed out has become only Head Boys/Girls and Sportsmen. I will be replying to the Headmaster and suggesting that an actual Wall of Fame project be started within the school – I am sure there is somewhere within the building that it could be put. Any ideas from others on this would be gratefully received.

  2. As a past pupil who has only just left the Academy recently I find it hard to understand what the aim of your communication with the school is? Are you looking for someone to blame as regards your experience at the school or are you just trying to stir up issues where there are none? The school is not the same place that it was whenever you, my parents or my grandparents were in attendance it has evolved and become even better! In my experience any hint of bullying was quashed immediately and as stated in Mr Hassard’s letter there is a brilliant support structure for pupils if they have any issues. As a junior school pupil I appreciated the advice given by peer mentors and as a peer mentor while in Sixth Form I loved helping the junior school with any issues that they had! In school it was not an air of every man for himself it was a case of the whole school working together to provide a safe and happy environment for everyone. The main point of your communication seemed to be about the risk of bullying to LGBT pupils but I know for a fact that this does not occur. We had several openly gay pupils in my year and I know that there are more further down the ranks of the school and let me tell you they were neither ostracised nor held apart for being some ‘special’ sort of person. They were, like the rest of us, pupils at Ballymena Academy, there for an education and to get some good grades to enable us to do the job that we wanted in the future.

    As regards your opinions about the Hall of Fame on the website, it is a digital form of the massive honour boards in the assembly hall. Of course there are other people who have excelled and are famous for different reasons but if you take a look through the archives of the website, whenever something notable occurs with a pupil be they past or present an article is written up and put on the website so that you can go and read what is currently happening to our alumni. As regards other achievements not being recognised that is a complete and utter lack of knowledge of the schools current stance towards pupils. The Academy professes to be a ‘centre for learning and excellence’ and without a doubt it is! There are regular achievement assembly’s where awards are present and achievements are celebrated, There is the annual prize day where an almost interminable length of names are read out to receive prizes for achievements in every area of school life – be it a subject prize, an exam prize, a contributions to music/sport/art/drama/school life award. Such is the extent of these prizes and awards that there must be TWO awards ceremonies. And in addition, each year a notable past pupil comes back and speaks about what they have achieved and gives pupils a realistic view of their career path.

    In all honesty you sound like a someone who is very bitter about their school experience and I do believe that you need to sit down and have a think about what your motivation for this communication is.

    All the best,
    E Dunlop

    1. Thank you E. Dunlop for your contribution to the debate. It is heartening to read of the experience of more recent pupils of Ballymena Academy. I have no reason to doubt the truthfulness of your report and so am very pleased that things have indeed moved on from what the school was like for me.

      You ask why I contacted the school. It was quite simply to make sure that the school generation of today is being looked after correctly and with proper pastoral care. I am not bitter about my school days – I was mostly very happy at the Academy albeit with some minor blips.

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