As part of his recent pastoral tour of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland’s Presbytery of Newry, the Church’s Moderator, the Right Reverend Dr John Kirkpatrick, visited three schools: Kingsmills Primary, Newry High and Kilkeel High Schools.
The Presbytery of Newry is one PCI’s 19 regional presbyteries and during their year in office Moderators undertake individual weeklong tours of four of them. On each one education always plays an important part as Moderators are keen to meet and encourage the principals, teachers and governors and hear from, and engage with, the pupils.
“Just before Christmas last year, ahead of the end of term, I wrote on behalf of the Church to the principals of controlled schools across Northern Ireland. I wanted to express our heartfelt thanks to all staff and governors for their dedication and commitment to the education of children and young people, particularly during what has been challenging times,” Dr Kirkpatrick said.
“My visits to Kingsmills Primary, Newry High and Kilkeel High Schools have given me an opportunity to reiterate those sentiments personally, and see first-hand the great work that is being done, especially within the values and principles of a Christian ethos, which is at the heart of Northern Ireland’s controlled schools. It has also been an opportunity to hear of the day-to-day challenges that schools face, in particular supporting those pupils with increased mental health issues.
Dr Kirkpatrick continued, “As a Church we have supported and invested in education for over a century and that will continue as it is part of our denomination’s DNA, along with our ongoing desire to see children and young people learn and flourish together within those important and precious values.”
Since he became Moderator in June of last year Dr Kirkpatrick has visited around 10 schools and the final one on his Presbytery Tour itinerary was Kilkeel High School, where he spent time with the senior staff, the chair and members of the Board of Governors. He also attended the senior Scripture Union meeting and answered questions during GCSE and A-Level Religious Studies classes.
Owing to a clash of diaries, Victor Coert, Kilkeel High School’s principal, was at an educational conference in Birmingham for the visit, but said that it was an honour have Dr Kirkpatrick and his colleagues visit the school. “We have been offering high quality education based on Christian principles since 1953 and we are looking forward to celebrating our 70th anniversary this coming September,” Mr Coert said.
Talking about the school, which he has led since 2013, he continued, “Our numbers have increased by 100 to over 740-plus during the last decade, along with our results, and we are also very proud of our partnership with St Louis’ Grammar School through the Shared Education Programme, a relationship that we have enjoyed for the past 15 years. This mutually beneficial partnership has been pivotal to school life and our growth in so many ways. It has also enriched the experience of our young people,” he continued.
“For example, one of the benefits of the relationship is that the study of A ‘Level subjects isn’t limited to what we teach at Kilkeel High, as our students can study various subjects at St Louis, while St Louis students can come here to study those subjects that aren’t taught there. This broadens curricula choice and other opportunities. There is a tremendous respect between the schools and it is something that works really well for both of us.”
Talking about the school’s Christian ethos, Mr Coert said, “Seventy years ago the school was established on Christian principles that are found in scripture. Today that special ethos continues to be at the heart of our identity and the way we treat one another from the classroom to the playground, and the sports pitches when we play other schools. We have a vibrant Scripture Union and regular assemblies and it is something we highlight during the transfer year, as parents look at schools for their children. We believe our commitment to our Christian ethos is another reason for our growth, with our pupils coming from as far as Newcastle and Clough.”
During his weeklong tour Dr Kirkpatrick met with local ministers, preached in local congregations, visited farmers and members of the local fishing community, senior healthcare staff and chaplains at Daisy Hill Hospital and the Southern Area Hospice. “It has been a privilege to spend time at each of the schools, hearing the challenges that they face, especially the imminent closure of Kingsmills Primary for example, while getting to know and appreciate the deep commitment each has to enabling their pupils to flourish,” Dr Kirkpatrick said.
“As with my visit to Ballycastle High School in November, I saw again the real value of the Shared Education Programme. I have also seen the depth and appreciation of the Christian ethos and principles that emanate from that across so many schools. During my visits I have had an opportunity to meet many governors, teachers and pupils and really appreciated the time that everyone has taken and the welcome shown to us. I would encourage everyone to pray for all our schools and the work that they do for today’s generation, and the issues that they face.”