The challenges that lie ahead

Finbar Madden, newly appointed principal of St. Columb's College.  (1105JB41)
Finbar Madden, newly appointed principal of St. Columb's College. (1105JB41)

By his own admission, Finbar Madden has had a “frenetic but enjoyable” start to his career as principal of St Columb’s College. He took time out of his busy schedule this week to speak to the Journal’s SEAN McLAUGHLIN about plans, priorities and prospects.

Finbar Madden (44) is a man on a mission.

“I firmly believe St Columb’s enjoys a well-deserved reputation as a great place to work, a place where staff can experience genuine fulfilment through their work with young people,” he says. “It is my intention to maintain and build upon these great traditions.”

Mr Madden, who has been a member of the College staff for 18 years, says that, above all else, his school is “overflowing with talent”.

“I am greatly enjoying 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.”

Married with three young children, Mr. Madden - a native of Belfast - says the first few weeks of the new school year have “gone in a whirl.”

“They have been exciting, challenging and extraordinarily busy. I can’t believe that we are already into October; the time has just flown. At the same time, the whole school community has really played its part in making the start to the year everything that I would have hoped it would be.

“I suppose at this stage I’m already knee-deep in the challenge, whatever it might be. If one is involved with the running of a large school there is no option but to get on with it. I would say, though, that every day is different and that variety of experience makes me relish the challenge.”

Turning to his priorities as principal, Mr. Madden says his overriding concern “will always be to build upon the reputation that St Columb’s College enjoys as a provider of the highest quality Catholic education.”

“I believe that what has marked St Columb’s out over the last 133 years has been its readiness to face up to and overcome the many challenges that, inevitably, face those working in the education sector. At the same time we have always striven to provide a first-class educational experience - in the broadest sense - for all of our pupils.”

He adds: “Having said all of this, I suppose that I see my immediate priority as spending a period of 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. That, I believe, is fundamental.”

He says feedback from parents has already been extremely positive in terms of the work that all members of the College staff have been engaging in.

“That, in many ways, is the key point; this is a question of effective teamwork, not a one man show!”

The St. Columb’s principal says he would have liked to have devoted the summer break to formulating ideas - “but whether I had enough time [to do this] during July and August is a moot point.”

He adds: “The first week of July was taken up with our Year 8 Summer Scheme during which close to 200 of our new intake spent three valuable days in the school getting to know the building, their new classmates, the teachers and the Year 14 Peer Mentors.

The next couple of weeks after that focused on tidying up the remaining loose ends from the academic year that had just ended.

“I took a couple of weeks away from school to recharge the batteries, spend some time with my family and do a bit of travelling.

“I was also putting the finishing touches to some work that I was doing for the BBC Bitesize revision website. Most of August was spent working with the Management Team and other colleagues to get things ready for the new school year.

“So, that’s where the summer went; but at all times I had - somewhere in my head - thoughts of the way in which I saw St Columb’s changing and developing in the coming years. These thoughts are now coming to fruition.”

So where does he see his school fitting into an education system in such a state of flux? “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 primary and post-primary schools locally.

“At the same time, the legislation to establish an Education and Skills Authority (ESA) is currently going through the Assembly; that will, undoubtedly, have a significant impact on the educational context within which we operate. Whatever the challenges, I see St Columb’s always being at the forefront of the drive for educational excellence.

“The question is, how do we deal with the challenges that confront us, both those that are immediately obvious and those still to reveal themselves? There are no quick fixes for those problems and I am not intending to provide glib solutions.

“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.”

Mr. Madden says planned changes to the GCSE system in England and Wales will undoubtedly have an impact on thinking and planning here in Northern Ireland.

“It comes as absolutely no surprise that [Education Minister] John O’Dowd has just announced his own review into our GCSE system.

“Two fundamentals seem to me to present themselves in this situation; firstly, the absolute importance of ensuring that the examination system that we operate is ‘fit for purpose’ and, secondly, ensuring that whatever examination system operates here both now and in the future allows our students to compete on equal terms - for both jobs and further education places - with their peers throughout the British Isles.”

Turning, to the ongoing debate surrounding the future of education provision in Derry, Finbar Madden says it’s crucial it takes into consideration what he describes as the “broader challenges” of providing the “high quality educational experience demanded by the Entitlement Framework within a city that continues to experience unacceptably high levels of social and economic dislocation.”

He adds: “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 - and will continue to do so.”