The Principal of St Mary’s High School in Downpatrick, Mrs Sheila Darling, addressed a packed hall at the school on the school’s prize day today. And it was a special day also as the school celebrated its sixtieth year after the Mercy Order set it up in 1957.
Mrs Darling said: “St Mary’s was opened on 8 September 1957 by the Sisters of Mercy to ensure the girls of the area could access a high quality education. For the last 60 years the school community has been true to the founding principle, that of supporting every young person to be the best they can be, to develop spiritually, intellectually and emotionally and to enable them to build a better life for themselves, their families whilst giving something back to their local communities.
“Across the decades the school has been an extended family to many thousands of students and their families. The local and global economy has been greatly enhanced as a result of students in this school being educated to a very high standard and being supported to take their place in society. Our past pupils can be found in many walks of life eg. business, medicine, education, law, finance, entrepreneurial, etc.
“Recently I uncovered some hand written letters relating to the first year of the school. One was written in January 1958 by a member of Governors, D J Williams – he noted his delight at the curriculum on offer to the students in that it had both academic and vocational pathways for them to choose from.
“Long years after that letter was written this idea of two pathways was enshrined in law in NI with every school, regardless of their title having to offer the same access to all students. This has resulted in every student in NI sitting the exact same examinations for GCSE, As and A2 level on the same day and at the same time as every other school , irrespective of the school they attend. DJ Williams thinking was certainly ahead of his time away back in 1957!
“Today we are still working to ensure our curriculum meets the needs of our students in the 21st Century and we are continually reviewing our provision to ensure it is fit for purpose. Along with offering the statutory elements of the NI curriculum we have widened our curriculum eg.
* All KS3 students are able to access computer coding courses, a good foundation for the advancing digital technologies we are all now living with.
* Mindful of the need to support our young people to think creatively and contribute to the local and global economies all our junior students have access to an entrepreneurial course, perhaps lighting that all important spark for future generations of successful business women, former students of St Mary`s, to bring prosperity to their families and this small island of ours.
* We run a range of Shared Educational programmes bringing pupils together from across the political divide supporting reconciliation, respect and tolerance across our communities.
* Our senior students have access to a range of enrichment programmes some of which include from food and nutrition, financial planning, faith development and volunteering
“No doubt you will have heard this week the report published from the group of academics, employed a number of years ago by the Stormont ministers to investigate and research the transfer test. Their conclusion is no shock to us, the selection is bad for all students, bad for the economy and creates divisions in society, eroding the self-esteem of many.
Mrs Darling said that every student joining St Mary`s is treated with dignity and respect, is made to feel welcome and valued and has the exact same educational entitlement as they would have in any other school.
She added: “Across all the key stages in St Mary`s every students has access to a broad and balanced curriculum that meets their individual needs. They are taught by teachers who care about them, who want the very best for them and who work hard with them to ensure every child makes progress and experiences success.
“Today as we hear about the achievement of these students it will become abundantly clear that in this school students get an outstanding education, that they are well supported to move on to University, to engage in other study programmes or take up employment.
The outcomes at GCSE, As and A2 have been outstanding eg
* 100% of the students at GCSE secured pass grades as did those at As and A2 level
* 1/3 of the GCSE students scored exceptionally high grades of A*and A
* 10 students secured 10 GCSE passes each with all their grades in the very top categories A*-C
* 6 of the top performing students have a collective total of 55 GCSE qualifications with 42 out of the 55 being at A*/A grades. Truly remarkable
Last year the NI figures released by the department of education was that 47% of students across NI got good GCSE grades that included English and Maths. The figure for our students is currently sitting at 62.5%, a very long way above the NI figures as a whole. We congratulate all our GCSE students and remind them the job is not yet complete there is two more years of study to get good A level results so keep up the hard work.
* At A2 level 100% of the students achieved grades in the A*-C categories, another very high statistic.
* 50% of these students scored A*-B grades.
We are aware that many of our A level students are heading to University, some here in NI others abroad, others have taken up apprentice-ship places. Whatever choice you have made following your exceptional A level results we congratulate you all along with your families and your teachers for the hard work and perseverance that has brought us to this day.
Michelangelo said “The greater danger for most of us lies in not setting our aim too high and falling short but in setting our aim too low and achieving our mark”. In St Mary`s we have high expectations for every child, and we persevere so that every child works hard to be the best they can be.
“I want to thank parents, guardians and grandparents for placing trust in us to care for, education and inspire your children, to thank you for working in close partnership with us for valuing education in the home, for working with us to build resilience and helping the young people to understand that hard work and determination is a basic requirement to secure success.”
Mrs Darling explained that she was pleased with the outstanding educational achievements and was pleased with the warm generous nature of the students willing and able to think of others, to give something back, to make a difference showing how care and compassion is still alive and well in St Mary’s in this 60th year.
“We are indebted to the Sisters of Mercy for setting up our school in 1957 to educate the young ladies of the area, to all the families that have passed through our gates these last 60 years, and to the five Principals that have led this school before me;
* Mother Aloysius 1957 – 1973 (16 years)
* Sister Teresa 1973 – 1982 (9 years)
* Sister Anne 1982 – 1992 (10 years)
* Mrs C Murphy 1992 – 1998 (6 years)
* Mrs P Smyth 1998 – 2010 (12 years).
“Gratitude is also due to the staff past and present with each person having brought their own gifts and talents to educate, support and inspire the students who have graced our halls across the decades.
“I feel incredibly lucky to be the Principal of this great school with its rich history and tradition, to work alongside thoughtful, caring members of staff who day in, day out bring our school motto ‘Every Child Matters’ to the forefront of all that they do.
“Today on this 60th anniversary I want to publically thank them for their hard work, commitment and loyalty to St Mary’s extended ‘family’.
“Finally, we would be nothing without our students. How wonderful it is to see them wearing their uniforms with pride, watching them grow and mature as they navigate their way from those first tentative steps as new Year 8 pupils to the self-assured confident young ladies we see before us today. We believe in our pupils and in their futures and we help them to realise they can-do anything they put their minds to. Parents and grandparents never underestimate the importance of your role in this educational journey, you are a major part of the success story.
“Remember you are young ladies, you are the future of our country, the world is there for you to enjoy and to contribute to. Continue to value your association with St Mary`s, stand tall and meet the challenges you face with the knowledge that God is with you, that your family and your St Mary`s family will always be part of your support network.
“Nelson Mandela said: “Education is the most powerful tool you can use to change the world”… if you remember this you won`t go far wrong.