Life is a real education

Billy McIlwaine, principal of Lisnagelvin Primary School talks to reporter Olga Bradshaw about his career, his beliefs about the holistic learning process and his joy at watching pupils of all ability levels succeed.

You are a native of the city aren't you?

I am indeed. I attended the Model primary School and from there went on to Foyle College, as it was then known, and from there went to Stranmillis College in Belfast.

What were your favourite subjects when you were in school?

Believe it or not, geography and Latin. Latin is now a dead language to all intents and purposes as far as the curriculum is concerned, but by the same token it gave me a good grounding for teaching English in any context.

Is that what you went on to study in Stranmillis?

At Stranmillis I did geography, history and French, as well as a certificate in education. I was in the first cohort to qualify to teach the Nuffield Foundation 'En Avant'. That meant we were able to teach children in P6 and P7 French and it was all done through oracy - look and say- using tapes. Unfortunately after two years when our children had been given a good grounding in French, at that time French teachers in post-primary schools did not want to know, and all children started from zero. That said, it did give them confidence and a good grounding in the language.

Where was your first school?

I came back from Stranmillis to teach in the Model School and taught there for three years, and I was the first head appointed by the Western Education and Library Board in 1973 to a place called Burnfoot Primary School which is a little place mid-way between Dungiven and Limavady and they were probably the most fulfilling nine years I have ever had in teaching.

Why was that?

Firstly, because there wasn't the same bureaucracy. Child protection was unknown, and unneeded, and I was able to develop in a small community a youth club with the help of parents, and before education for mutual for understanding became the big buzz words I had children from both sides of the community coming from a wide catchment to youth club two nights a week. Built and run on a voluntary basis.

Was that on the school grounds?

The Board supplied a pitch, a mobile and flood lighting. In the 1970s any idea you came up with there was enough money for it. So those were great years, because children who had never been outside their own townlands were travelling to England to Liverpool and Manchester for football matches, and believe it or not with all the grants that were around, including the match tickets, it only cost the children 10. That was something special.

What sort of changes that you feel had more to do with red tape and not with children's education?

I am as still as enthusiastic today as I was when I first started out teaching, otherwise I would have given up by now. In the late 1970s the then primary advisor for the Western Board was a David Vaughan, and at that time Primary Guidelines were introduced. To me they were probably the best things to hit primary schools, because they made it very clear to teachers for each of the subjects what the guidelines were, and they served us well for 10 to 15 years, but since then there has been a plethora of packs coming out, many of which were politically driven. I would have to say the most recent - the enriched curriculum - and we were one of the pilot schools for that - and the foundation stage into Stage one was modelled on much of the good practice on the enriched curriculum, gave teachers greater freedom in their choice of curriculum issues. It also engages children in the choice of subject material and gives them greater ownership of all that is coming on stream. So from that point of view I am very happy with the revised curriculum and see it as the way forward.

There is a lot more work now for teachers, isn't there?

Accountability is much greater now than it ever was. We were accountable to the Inspectorate in the 1970s when they came in every four or five years to do an inspection.

Do you still teach?

I do and that's important to me. All children here are valued equally here and I think it is a shame when children are being prepared for Transfer that children who have opted out of the system, in many cases, sit at the back of the classroom with worksheets. In our school those children are taught by myself and the special needs teacher for a minimum of two hours each day. I take maths two days a week and she takes them two days a week for English. They have computer studies on the fifth day. So they are not sitting being forgotten about and the work is worthwhile. Even then the other children are doing tests all the children are taken up to the hall and supervised by one teacher, leaving the other two teachers to work with the children who have opted out. If teachers have medical appointments or anything like that I cover the classes and I visit the classes once a month. When you are not doing it all the time you get a buzz when you get into the classroom, because that's what I trained for. I certainly still see myself as a teacher rather than an administrator/manager.

How many pupils do you have at the school now?

548.

What do you think the highlight of being the principal has been so far for you?

I wouldn't want to pick out any highlights, but while I am delighted every year by the number of children that are successful in the Transfer procedure, and get going to the school they want to, what gives me the greatest buzz is children with special needs and something suddenly 'clicks' and things fall into place for them, and they move forward. I think that's great and that gives me the greatest buzz.

Have you always had a proactive policy with regard to bringing special needs children into the school?

Yes. I think we are victims of our own success here. We have children who maybe have brothers or sisters in the maintained sector, but they have chosen to come here because they see us as a caring school, a school where we are very comfortable in working with multiple learning difficulties, some children physical problems, severe hearing loss and so on as well as children who have mental health problems.

Is the school enriched by its growing multi-culturalism?

The school is becoming cosmopolitan and with children coming from China in the East to Belize in the West and the children really get involved. The P6 children look at Europe and the EEC, and we have children from France and Belgium, as well as Eastern Europe, who on their national days talk to their peers about their country. We have cultural events so we have Nigerian women in beautiful long flowing costumes coming into the school and a Chinese woman came in with her musical instrument and an Indian woman came into the classes to talk about her culture.

Do you have any highlights?

One of the strengths of our school is drama and music and over the years we have put on many shows, we have put on Shakespearian productions and those are good because it is team work, and the whole staff is involved and there is a buzz with the children and it means some of the children we taught who are now at university, speak of their days on the stage and what has been achieved here, so that side of things is very important. Other highlights, I would say the vast majority of parents have been so supportive it has been a privilege to be here and to have a staff that is so conscientious and enthusiastic. When I come in here at 8.15am the car park will be full and at 4.45pm we are ringing a bell to tell them to go home. You don't get that in too many schools and we have a plethora of clubs and societies. One other thing that is great is children taking a greater say in school and I look at the children and wonder if they can really come up with ideas. Well, we formed a school council three years ago and that council takes a very active role in the school - and it's not just lip service, they really do come up with ideas. I have an open door policy for children to come in here with their ideas and I pass them on to the school's council to see what they come up with. The very fact that the Department is asking schools' councils to comment on policies and what is going on shows the value of that. They are getting feedback.