Driving into the grounds of Thornhill College, you can’t fail to be impressed by the sheer stature of the building. The impeccably kept grounds and red brick facade stand just yards from the former grounds of the school just across the road where pupils often braved the elements rushing to different buildings between classes.
In 1966, Creggan girl Marguerite Hamilton became one of those pupils and apart from a few years at university and a two year career break, she’s been a Thornhill girl in one way or another, ever since.
Today, as principal, her office overlooks the grounds and the Culmore Road and what’s left of the old school across the road.
Over the course of 47 years, she’s seen more than a few changes in Derry, and what school life means for parents and pupils alike.
From the very beginning, when she left Holy Child Primary School with her entire class to make the journey to Thornhill in what was then regarded as the countryside, Marguerite says she was sure of one thing.
“I always knew I wanted to be a teacher,” she smiles,
“I knew from the very beginning, looking at the teachers around me like Mary Mackey, Sister Emmanuel and Danny Lynch, that I wanted to be like them.”
Looking back at her own time at school, the Thornhill Principal says she had an interest in learning, but rarely graced the school sports pitches.
“I was never really into sport and to be honest in those days, apart from maybe debating, sport was pretty much the only extra curricular thing on offer.”
The holistic approach to education has since been born, and these days, Marguerite presides over a school where the pupils are afforded credit for every aspect of their ability - academic and otherwise.
For teachers too, the method of passing on knowledge has changed immensely as have the tools to do the job.
“We’ve definitely come a long way,” says Marguerite.
“I remember when we first got a school language lab, we were so impressed with the language booths and the technology and we looked back on old photographs lately and laughed at how far things have come since then!”
Technology aside, the local woman is keen to emphasise that the focus at Thornhill very much remains on the relationship between teachers and pupils which she believes should never be compromised by developments in new technology.
“I’m a still very keen on a teacher in the classroom teaching the girls,” she says.
“Technology can assist that but it should never stand in the way of that unique relationship.”
That relationship, Marguerite believes, is key to the solid reputation the school has built up having educated thousands of Derry girls against a highly charged political and social climate in the city down through the years.
“When you went to Thornhill in those days, you got on a bus and came out to the country. We had pupils from every single community in Derry and from as far as Claudy and Park and beyond and all the tensions those girls were subjected to during the worst days of the Troubles were brought with them to school which was a safe place.”
“I’m so conscious that we’re standing on the shoulders of women who were distinguished in all kinds of ways in the day to day challenge as wives and mothers during those tough years in this city. The women of that generation were very strong women who held things together with strength and resilience and we can learn so much from them.”
Having studied and taught through those turblulent years, the Derry woman, like all others in her field, has less to contend with in terms of a volatile political climate here now. However she’s also quick to point out that huge social disparities continue to exist when it comes to the difference between men and women.
“The gender gap is still there, and it’s one of the reasons I’m so passionate about single sex education,” she says.
“Every figure we get suggests that the gaps are still there, economically and right throughout and that’s something we try to change every day, with every group in the school. For us, it’s about our girls realising their strengths and talents and giftedness and the contribution they can make wherever they go.”
With that in mind, Thornhill is one of the schools encouraging students to avail of provisions in STEM subjects such as applied science.
Providing these options, Marguerite believes, is vital for the next generation of female students. However in the middle of one of the biggest recessions the country has ever seens, schools must be inventive about their sources of funding.
“That’s one of the reasons we’re launching a bursary scheme, whereby past pupils, if they wish, can sign up to pay £12 every year to ensure that every girl who comes through these doors has access to every enrichment opportuunity. The bursary money would also be used to assist girls going to university and to provide basic support,” she says.
Presiding over the academic future of 1400 students is a job the Culmore based principal takes in her stride and she believes every student leaving the school should leave Thornhill with a strong sense of achievement.
“My aspiration is that our girls leave here confident and that they’ve been stretched and know their work and dignity and see themselves as leaders. I want them to look back on their time here as good fun, and move on with the emotional intelligence to form good relationships and with kindness and compassion.”
She also acknowledges that in the past, some pupils may not have felt enriched by their experience in the school.
“I know there must have been girls who feel we weren’t able to serve them and I’m sorry to hear that. That’s the truth, and it’s part of the story of the school and it has to be said.”
The very nature of school as a starting point in life allows for change to become fluid as the years go by and Thornhill has been a vehicle for change in the city, producing a generation of strong women who have become leaders in their communities.
“Every year, we send around 200 girls into the world, and we welcome another 200 into the school. Nothing stays the same,” says Marguerite, pondering the 80 year anniversary.
As for finding time to relax outside of the constant churning of the education machine, the local woman is a keen member of the local Columban community and is very much looking forward to the upcoming celebrations in the city, but really, Thornhill and its 1400 students and 100 teachers are never too far from her thoughts.