FINBAR MADDEN officially takes over as principal of St Columb’s College in under four months time. This week, he spoke to the ‘Journal’s SEAN McLAUGHLIN about his priorities, his views on plans for transforming the post-primary sector and why his school is about much more than its famous past pupils.
Finbar Madden is in no doubt that “challenging times” lie ahead for the education sector across the North.
“The question is,” he says, “how do we deal with the challenges that confront us - both those that are immediately obvious and those still to reveal themselves?”
The 43-year-old, who takes over at the helm of St Columb’s College this September, also believes that new proposals signalling the end of academic selection, single sex schools, and the creation of two new sixth-form colleges in Derry are “hugely thought-provoking” and provide a “vision” as to how education might evolve locally in the future.
Mr. Madden, who’s been at the ‘College’ for the past 18 years, says he has “plenty” of ideas for the future development of St Columb’s.
First-and-foremost, the Belfast-born teacher says he’s ready for the task that lies ahead - at the same time insisting he’s never been one for “quick fixes” or “glib solutions”.
“I’m not interested in simply introducing change for change’s sake,” he says. “Any changes that I bring forward will be the result of mature reflection and will be designed to enhance the great work that we already do.”
The father-of-three succeeds Sean McGinty as College principal, taking over the running of the city’s largest grammar school which currently has more than 1,500 students and almost 100 teaching staff.
His priority, he says, is “quite simply to build upon the unrivalled reputation that St Columb’s College enjoys as a provider of the highest quality Catholic education.”
He adds: “I believe that what has marked St Columb’s out during its 133 year history has been its willingness to face up to and overcome the many challenges that inevitably face those working in the education sector whilst always striving to provide a first-class educational experience for all of its pupils. I also believe that the College also enjoys a deserved reputation as a great place to work. It is my intention to maintain and build upon these great traditions.
“St Columb’s is an institution that is overflowing with talent and I look forward to working in fruitful partnership with all of those who make up the broader College community – governors, staff, pupils and parents – as well as all of those involved in education in the city and beyond for the betterment of our young people.”
Mr. Madden says he now wants to spend some time “talking and listening to” those individuals and groups that make up the community that is St Columb’s College - as well as the broader educational community - “reflecting on how best we can work together to move the school forward.”
“Whatever changes we do implement must be changes that continue to enable us to fulfil our core vocation as the educators of the whole person,” he insists. “That is fundamental.”
The principal-elect agrees that it’s a particularly challenging time for post-primary schools across the North: “The most obvious things that come to mind are the challenges resulting from the severe financial retrenchment that is facing all schools, not least coming to terms with reductions in staffing levels. In addition, there is the challenge of working to ensure the sustainability of our schools locally. These challenges are also equally relevant to our colleagues in the primary sector.”
He adds: “What I have been most heartened to see and already experience is the very real ‘community of support’ that exists among the post-primary heads in the city and surrounding areas. I believe that this support network will play an important part in sustaining all school leaders throughout the challenging times that lie ahead.”
Turning to Monsignor Eamon Martin’s recently published ‘Together Towards Tomorrow’ proposals - which herald a radical restructuring of Derry’s post-primary sector - Finbar Madden says: “It’s a hugely thought-provoking document. I believe that it provides all those involved in the education sector - parents, pupils, staff and governors - with a vision as to how post-primary education might evolve within the city and its hinterlands in the coming years. In being asked to consider the contents of Monsignor Martin’s paper, all of us charged with the development of our young people are provided with the opportunity to reflect at the most fundamental level on two things: firstly, our own understanding of what the core purpose of Catholic education is and, secondly, how best we can work together to provide an educational experience (in the very widest sense of those words) that enables each and every one of our young people to fulfil his or her undoubted potential.”
Mr. Madden says St Columb’s, as a school community, is still engaged in “reflecting upon, discussing, debating and drawing together” its responses to the questions raised by Monsignor Martin’s paper.
“There are significant elements within the document’s proposals that are not new or at least not beyond the experiences of those working in St Columb’s College or those involved with the outworkings of the Foyle Learning Community. Equally, there are aspects to what the paper is proposing that will seem challenging. In addition, the whole debate on the future of educational provision in Derry must also take into consideration the broader challenges – particularly at this fraught time economically – of providing the high quality educational experience demanded by the Entitlement Framework within a city that experiences unacceptably high levels of social and economic dislocation.”
Shaping the future
Mr. Madden acknowledges that there are no easy answers to the questions posed by Mons. Martin’s paper: “My immediate intention is to ensure that St Columb’s College continues to play a leading part in shaping the post-primary educational future of this city and its surrounding areas whilst remaining fully committed to preserving and promoting the distinctive ethos and educational experience that has always marked this school out.”
Mr. Madden says that, while much has changed at the school since he joined its staff in 1994, many other other things have remained the same “and for that I am very thankful.”
“Chief among these are the fruitful - and essential - partnerships that we have built and maintain with our parents as well as the support that we give to and receive from our local community. Within the school, I am edified by the constant willingness of our staff to give of their best at all times as well as the constant inspiration that we receive from the endeavours and achievements of the young men (and women) that we are privileged to educate.”
Asked if the school’s worldwide reputation - thanks, in no small part, to a band of illustrious past pupils, including two Nobel laureates - is somewhat of an ‘albatross’, Finbar Madden responds: “I would never describe the reputation that we enjoy as an ‘albatross’! Rather I see it both as a source of immense pride and as a challenge for us to aspire to at all times. There are many schools that would be only too glad to be able to count as their own even a faction of those College pupils who have made their mark locally, nationally and internationally and so we must never cease to celebrate their achievements. That said, for every St Columb’s pupil that ends up with his name in lights, as it were, there are countless others who have made and will continue to make their own quiet and fundamental impact on the world that they inhabit. I would like to think that it is equally to them and their example that we owe our reputation.
“We believe that we are helping to mould the young men who will go out to make their mark on the twenty-first century world. Every day the achievements of our pupils - whether it is within the classroom, on the sports field, in the debating chamber or in the music suite – fill me with both wonder and pride. They are our ‘reputation’ and we could not be more proud of them.”