On Wednesday evening, Paul Haslam joined a cross section of the Derry public at a debate about what’s widely considered as the biggest education shake up here in years.
He wasn’t there as a parent, or a teacher, or a member of staff at the Western Board where he worked for 22 years but as someone with a passion for education. While he wasn’t wearing any of the hats mentioned, the Prehen man was probably the only person there with direct experience from all possible ends of the local education spectrum.
If you think the name sounds familiar, it’s because it is. During his time with the Western Board Paul signed off on over 5,000 eleven plus result letters and subsequent offer letters for post primary schools.
His name was the one which appeared at the bottom of the controversial piece of paper which many saw as prematurely labelling our young people and beginning the dreaded process of academic selection.
He also spent a significant portion of his time with the WELB attending admission appeals for grammar schools in the High Court.
You’d be hard pressed to find a man with more knowledge of the education system.
As secretary of the recently established Foyle Branch of the Labour Party, Paul’s been vocal in his opposition to some aspects of the ‘Together towards Tomorrow’ paper which lays out the Catholic Church’s proposals for a major change to the secondary education system in the North West.
Learning matters to him, as does the capacity for the school system to influence the wider community and the attitudes of the generations it churns out.
He’s a self confessed ‘bookish’ person. That goes back to a childhood in Preston when his mother, who had been a librarian, would take him to the library once a month when the new books came in.
“That was a great experience,” he recalls.
He has fond memories of his own school experience, with a number of memorable teachers who had come through the Second World War.
“The maths teacher had been a rear gunner and the art teacher had been captured by the Japanese so they were a pretty interesting lot,” he smiles.
“I remember in particular how the maths teacher was a tight little man but he just had the respect of everyone. I always remember that.”
After finishing school, Paul went on to study science at university in Edinburgh and in the halcyon days of the education grant, was able to stay on an extra two years after graduating and get an arts degree.
“I still hadn’t a clue what I wanted to do at that point,” he says.
“Then I was coming down the stairs one day and I saw an advert on the wall looking for people to do teacher training in Uganda.”
Having already travelled extensively in Europe during his school and student days, Paul decided to enquire further and vividly remembers going to a talk in London about what to expect in Africa,
“It certainly didn’t put me off,” he laughs.
“The first thing I remember about arriving in Uganda is that it was hot. It was amazing coming in over the Sudan but obviously being there was a total culture shock. For my first teaching experience I was sent up north of Uganda. It was an eight hour bus ride complete with goats and chickens!
“My first teaching position was at Dr. Abote College in Lira. My second teaching practice was in Trinity College. I was teaching a classroom of girls in a lab and was suffering from mild Malaria at the time when the professor from London came to assess my teaching. I remember thinking if I passed it it would be a miracle because I was under so much pressure, but, in the end, I passed.”
Paul continued to teach in Africa until he met his wife Margaret - a Cushendall woman - there in 1971.
While the Troubles were beginning to take hold of the North, Paul and Margaret were living through a second extremely violent coup in Uganda.
“It was just brutal there at that time, even compared to what was happening here at the time with the Troubles, what we were seeing in Uganda was just on another level. I remember we were coming home from the cinema one night and we witnessed one of the government ministers being beaten up by order of the police and there were points when we were seeing dead bodies lying around. It was just horrific,” he says.
In the midst of the political and social turmoil, Paul maintains life in school continued as normal.
“Life on campus remained the same,” he says,
“One of my pupils even went on to compete in the Munich Olympics.”
Paul and Margaret returned back to the North in 1972 and soon afterwards the Blackburn man took up a teaching post at St Columb’s College which was his first introduction to life in Derry.
When it comes to his thoughts on Derry’s most famous school, he keeps it simple and straightforward.
“A school is a school is a school,” he says.
“The staff at St Columb’s were very good to me and I made some good friends there but I found the caning very difficult to come to terms with, I resented having to do it and I didn’t do it very much at all. It just didn’t seem right.
“What I would say is that there was a sense in the college at that time that when people came from certain working class areas some teachers felt they were there to make these boys middle class. I definitely felt that. But at the same time there’s no doubt that the schools here were a bit of an island and an oasis away from everything that was happening.”
In 1976, seeing limited prospects for promotion in his position at St Columb’s, Paul took up a post as Education Officer with the Western Education and Library Board where he worked until 1998 before retiring.
Working at the very heart of the education system he observed many aspects of the school system here and since retiring, has still kept a firm focus on the next generation of learners.
When he is indulging - just a bit - in retirement, you’re likely to find Paul at the piano or listening to his record selection. In an ideal world, free of financial constraints, he says he’d devote more time to travelling, particularly in Croatia.
Ever loyal to education, Paul currently sits on the board of governers at Oakgrove Integrated College and has just published a response document on behalf of the Foyle Branch of the Labour party to the radical plans for post primary education here.
Some might say he’s proof that while you can take the man out of the school, in this case at least, it’s not possible to take the school out of the man entirely.