When Nuala Begley closes the door of the principal’s office at Belmont House Special School next week for the summer holidays, it will be a bittersweet moment.
After 39 years working in the campus in the idyllic surroundings just off the Racecourse Road, the local principal and special educational needs expert decided it was time to hand over the reins to someone else.
She’s doing so ahead of the merger of the Foyleview and Belmont schools.
Anyone working in any role within the education sector over the past 39 years would concede that the changes have been huge, but nowhere have attitudes evolved more than in the special school sector.
A letter dated October 2, 1975, when Nuala Begley got her first official job offer from the Department of Education, illustrates just how far perceptions and social changes have come. The use of the term ‘handicapped’ is just one example of the massive shift in culture which has taken place in terms of attitudes to learning disabilities.
According to Nuala, Belmont has been at the forefront of those changes down through the decades.
“When I started here we had six teachers and two classroom assistants. Now, we have 25 teachers and 29 classroom assistants,” she says.
All those staff are needed to support the 178 plus young people who attend Belmont and other facilities within the campus on a daily basis.
“The changes have been enormous, and all for the better,” says Nuala.
“Everything which has happened here over the past 39 years has been down to the commitment and dedication of our staff. The staff here give 100 per cent and more and they work very close with our vice principals Jane Bryce and Imelda Mallon whose leadership over the years has been outstanding.”
Nuala says her role too has been made easier thanks to the support of her Vice Principals.
“We’re affectionately known in here as the three witches,” she laughs.
Nuala has maintained her sense of humour through all her years in the role of teacher and then principal.
“We had one pupil who called me Mrs. Beg leg!” she laughs.
“I’m not one for being locked away in the office, I still supervise at lunch and breakfast club and I think that kind of interaction, and sense of community is exactly what has made Belmont the kind of place that it is. People here - both students and staff - have a real sense of belonging and that’s one of the things I’ll miss when I leave here.”
Nuala recalls flirting with the idea of becoming a journalist and a nurse before finding her calling in special needs education. Her family background is steeped in newspapers. Her father, the late Frank Curran, was one of the best known editors of the Derry Journal.
“I still love writing, and many years ago, I did consider becoming a journalist and I nursed for a time in Stradreagh Hospital. My dad was certainly a big influence in that sense, he always encouraged me.
“I knew straight away, when I started in special education that that was the career for me. I can honestly say that I’ve loved every minute of the work since then. Every morning that I’ve come into work here in Belmont, I’ve enjoyed it.”
While she will be sad to leave Belmont behind, Nuala says she’s happy to be leaving the school in such a good position.
“There’s no stigma now and people fight to get their children in here. We’ve had children through our doors who have experienced frustration in mainstream schools and the change in them when they come here is amazing. Literally within weeks, you can see that young person change for the better, it really is remarkable. I’m so proud of each and every young person who’s come through the doors here.
“It’s much more than just a job. I think to work in special education is definitely a vocation. I’ve always considered it my job here to strive to ensure that our children get the best possible education and start in life. Every single one of those young people have their own strengths.”
Nuala says her job has been made much easier down through the years by the staff at Belmont House,
“We haven’t had a big turnover of staff here in all the time I’ve been here. This is a job where people tend to stay, it’s a lifelong commitment in many ways and everyone who comes in knows that and appreciates that fact.”
This part of Nuala’s life has now come to an end, and while she’s sorry to say goodbye the 60-year-old mother of two says she’s very much looking forward to retirement.
Although she’s quick to point out that one of the first events in the retirement calendar is a holiday with some of the Belmont staff.
“There are no hard and fast plans for the next few years, but Spain is a very good place to start,” she laughs.