Brandywell boy, Pat O’Doherty, didn’t move far in either his academic or professional career but his impact on future generations of the city cannot be overstated. The principal of Lumen Christi College - arguably the most academically successful school in Northern Ireland - his short journey from the bottom to the top of the Folly is literally laden with thousands of examination successes. Successes the humble head teacher has been instumental in inspiring, developing and guiding.
Having been principal of the school for eight years Mr. O’Doherty’s time in office co-incides with the school being named top of the Sunday Times Examination Leagues for eight consecutive years.
The modest teacher is at pains to point out that this is but a quirk of fate, that the basis for the impressive academic success recorded at the school was laid before he commenced his tenancy of the head master’s office. “It just so happens that I took over as the first set of A-Level results were coming in,” he stresses.
Having been initially appointed as vice principal when Lumen Christi opened its doors in 1997, Mr. O’Doherty was promoted to principal in 2004, just as pupils in the school first sat A-Levels Since then academic success has followed academic success. Not only was the school named number one in the North for examination success in the ‘Sunday Times Schools Guide 2012, it was also ranked 24th in the UK.
Mr. O’Doherty said: “You always want to ensure that the results are the best you can achieve. Therefore when you see the outcomes published as a recognition of the work of students and staff, you can’t but be proud.”
The co-educational grammar school, which has 850 pupils, this summer recorded a remarkable 100% of pupils achieving seven GCSEs between A* and B grades. All 124 pupils sat the exams. That success continued at A-level where 93.6% of pupils achieved three grades between A & C.
Speaking of the eighth successive number one ranking in Northern Ireland, Mr. O’Doherty said: “It is a delight. I am delighted for the students. They take great pride in their work. To have achieved it eight years in succession is phenomenal. We are particularly pleased with that. The fear now is that there is only one way to go from here - a number two ranking in the tables. At some point it will happen and we’ll have to accept that,” he said reflectively.
“There was a ‘spring in the step’ of staff as they returned to work after the results were announced . “Meeting and talking to parents about the success it is clear that they collectively share the pride with the school.
“As an academically selective grammar school, parents do tend to choose this school on the basis that we meet the highest amibitions, both academic and socially, for their child. There is an expectation which leads to pressure on teaching staff but the students here are particularly committed to achieving their goals. To do that they are supported throughout the seven years both by parents dedicated to the school and teachers always willing to go that extra mile for them.
“That partnership is at the heart of all the success we achieve.”
It isn’t however the league tables which fill this headmaster with most pride: “I’ve been blessed to be in a position at the start of an entirely new project. In 1997 Lumen Christi didn’t yet exist but it does now due to the work, enthusiasm and committment of the initial Board of Governors, the first principal Declan O’Kelly and Monsignor Ignatius McQuillan. They built a reality from their vision for post primary education based on academic excellence. It became reality through the devleopment of pupils to their highest potential.
“I am most proud of being part of that whole process, of seeing it come to fruition and of leading that next generation.
“We started with a blank sheet, every aspect of our school, our ethos, our vision had to be created from scratch. To be where we are now is a source of great pride to me but it is not my work, it is the collective work of parents, teachers and pupils.”
Asked if maintaining the drive to be number one difficult to sustain? Mr. O’Doherty responded: “The motivation is inherent to the job. You strive for every pupil that comes through the gates; You have to. Every year group, each intake of 120 first year pupils have their life chances ahead of them. They are entitled to the same life chances as those pupils who have gone before them. So each pupil is given the same attention and support in order to achieve.”
However Mr. O’Doherty, added: “That is not to say that we are driven solely by academic success. That success wouldn’t happen without our continued emphasis on the pupils’ pastoral care. We ensure our pupils are well prepared for all the tests they face in life. I would state that much more effort goes into the pastoral care of our students than the pursuit of academic excellence. That is often overlooked when our exam success is discussed. It is the pastoral care of our pupils which drives the academic success not the other way around.”
Having been born in a family of three in Brandywell’s Bluebell Gardens, Mr. O’Doherty says in terms of his own background he hasn’t moved far. “I suppose my roots are still here in this community.”
Indeed it could be argued that Mr. O’Doherty has, been tending the roots of Derry’s future generations, indeed even future leaders, throughout his career.
A key supporter of academic selection it is unsurprising that Mr. O’Doherty passed the 11+ exam himself. Having then attended St. Columb’s College Mr. O’Doherty’s education was delivered in the very building he now presides over. “I know the place well,” he smiles.
Having left in 1975, Mr. O’Doherty then attended St. Joseph’s Teacher Training College where he obtained a Degree in Education.
“I left St. Columb’s as a pupil in ‘75 and returned in 1979 as a member of staff. It was interesting, if a little intimidating, my teachers were now suddenly cast in a different dimension - I was now working with them as colleagues.”
In his time at the ‘College,’ Mr. O’Doherty rose to head of English and also taught Latin. “I’ve always enjoyed teaching.”
Languages still hold his attention today. “I love learning Italian if only for my two week holiday there every year.”
“In my own home a big emphasis was placed on learning, my parents were very supportive.
“The single most important factor in a child attaining their full potential lies with the support of their parents.
“Parents don’t necessarily need to be confident in the subject in order to support a child’s learning.
“Simply taking an interest in a child’s education leads to an enormous increase in their educational success. That was certainly true in my case. My parents were very much concerned that I would get a good education.”
A “deeply committed supporter” of academic selection, Mr. O’Doherty said: “I believe that those pupils who have an academic ability are best taught together.”
This however does not mean that he supports either the 11+ or the current post-primary assessment tests, telling the ‘Sunday:’ “I don’t think that selection has to happen through an exam paper. All the selection information required for post primary schools already exists within the system. It is readily available but the Minister of Education doesn’t allow that information to be released to post-primary schools prior to admission. If that decision were reversed then we could do away with the admission test. The Minister should reverse that decision.”
Certainly the principal’s tenure hasn’t always been straight forward, this is the second time he has been at odds with the Department of Education. In July Mr. O’Doherty hit the headlines when he described the Education Minister’s proposed appointment of two opponents of academic selection, to the school’s board of governors as “significantly flawed.”
“None of our recommendations were appointed,” he said. “The only consultation from the Department is the name and skills set of the person being appointed, no other information was provided. I believe that consultation process is significantly flawed.”
Clarifying, he added: “My concern doesn’t lay with who is appointed to the Board of Governors, that is the Minister’s perogative. Incidentally, I’m happy to work with anyone. My concern is that the consultation process should include full engagement with the school.”
Certainly championing and developing a leading school is more than a full time job for Mr. O’Doherty. “Teaching does not begin at 8am and end at 3.30pm, it is a continual journey,” he commented.