It was billed as a higher standard of school for a higher class of pupil and Model Primary School proved to be just that when it first opened its doors in 1862.
A quick scan of the names listed in the original ‘Pupils Application Book for Londonderry District Model School’ clearly indicates the high social status of those who studied there.
Among the first pupil’s names listed is Barry McCorkell, whose father William was then Mayor of Derry and part of the famous local shipping family. Another name on the list was John McCarter, whose father Thomas McCarter was the proprietor of the Derry Journal.
And despite the Catholic Church wanting nothing to do with the new Model Primary School, the school role lists several Roman Catholics among its attendance and even mix of Established Church (now Church of Ireland) and Presbyterian pupils.
“It was always a mixed school - it was an integrated school in the days long before official integrated schools existed, “Principal Paul Sheridan explains. “We were set up to educate and in that respect we welcomed children from all creeds and backgrounds.”
The foundation stone was laid in 1861 and the doors officially opened in May 1862 and it was certainly the school of choice for the children of local high society both in Derry and beyond from the very start. The now popular yet controversial practice ‘Grannying’ certainly wasn’t a problem in those days as Mr Sheridan explains.
“There were several big names from the city who attended the school but there were also a lot of people from Donegal as, of course, there was no border back then,” he says.
The school, one of Derry’s oldest, was officially opened Rt. Rev William Higgin, Lord Bishop of Derry and Raphoe, who was also a Commissioner for National Education. The Model Schools in Ireland were set up and controlled by the Commissioners of National Education and were established essentially as ‘models’ for all in the fledgling National Schools System.
Their buildings and equipment were to be superior to other institutions and all salaries were paid by the State. The Model Schools, besides setting and achieving high educational standards for their pupils, provided for the early training of teachers. Following partition in Ireland, responsibility for the Model Primary School passed to the Borough Council in 1929 and later in 1973 - after local government reorganisation - the Western Education and Library Board became the controlling authority.
In 1938 the original school building was replaced and a more extensive Model School was developed on the mature site.
Today the school prides itself on celebrating cultural diversity with pupils from a vast array of ethnic background and religions. “In P1 this year we have 40 children and there are six different first languages spoken - that’s just an example of the diversity in the school. We see ourselves very much as an integrated school. We may not have the official name of being ‘integrated’ but we have pupils who are Catholic, Protestant, Sikh, Jehovah’s Witness, Muslim, Hindu and those of no faith.”
Throughout its illustrious history Model Primary School has educated many of Derry’s leaders and high profile figures and Mr Sheridan anticipates no end to the central role played by the school in forging the leaders of the future. Among the more high profile past pupils of the school are Neil Hannon of The Divine Comedy, rising pianist and singer song writer Maeve McGinley and Robin Walsh, a former controller of BBC NI.
Paul Sheridan is the 12th Principal of the Model Primary School since its foundation and next week hopes to be joined by four other former principal’s of the school (Malachy Doherty, Michael Roulston, Billy McIlwaine and Hugh Lindsay) for a special event as part of three days of celebration at the school.
Education Minister John O’Dowd is due to pay a special visit to the school to mark its 150th anniversary next Thursday, which Mr Sheridan says is the main celebration day.
“I’m hoping that the four former principals can attend the event along with past teachers, principals from other schools, representatives of the Western Education and Library Board and alumni. There will be a tree planting ceremony and the unveiling of a commemorative rock with the school logo chiselled into it.”
The highlight of the day will no doubt be a colourful balloon release by the 335 children who attend the school at noon.
An Open Door Day is to be held on Wednesday to allow past pupils the opportunity to revisit the buildings and enjoy a little nostalgia as they recall their school days. Mr Sheridan has arranged for a selection of school registers to be on display on the day. “There’ll be an opportunity to walk around the school, take photographs and ask questions for those who want to revisit their school days and celebrate the occasion with us.”
Friday will be “a day for the children to enjoy the celebrations and to have some fun” Mr Sheridan says as he strives to ensure it is they who take the most pride in what is, at least for now, their school.