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New principal at Knockbreda introduces ethos of creativity and democracy

Putting ‘pupil power’ at centre of the school community

By Paul Ainsworth

PUPILS at Knockbreda High are entering 2012 under new Principal Julie Taggart, who is overseeing exciting new initiatives for the South Belfast school.

Ms Taggart came on board as principal last September, and is steering staff, pupils and parents into a new era of education, where creativity and pupil democracy are taking centre stage alongside good old-fashioned learning.

In an interview with the South Belfast News about her role and the year ahead for Knockbreda, she revealed plans for, among other things, a new pupil election system, where the student council are voted into ‘power’ in a manner which also teaches them ‘citizenship skills’.

Before becoming head at the beginning of the academic year, Ms Taggart worked as a School Improvement Officer for the South Eastern Education and Library Board. However, her role as principal is not her first stint at Knockbreda, as she previously headed the school’s History department.

Now she is back behind the big desk, she has found herself confronted with a set of new challenges, not least of which is refereeing first year football games.

“In my previous role with the Library Board, I would have advised post-primary schools on democracy and active participation for the pupils,” she explained.

“Getting pupils involved with the running of the school can manifest itself in many ways, for instance, we have tasked some of the girls here to design a new school cardigan.

“However, our main method of engaging with them is to have them represented on the student council and for this we are holding full elections later in the term. Everything about this process will be based on real elections, right down to being on the electoral register, and not being able to cast a vote if you don’t have your polling card.

“Candidates will produce manifestos, campaign throughout the school, and we will hold the vote on a first past the post system. It allows our pupils to really get a grasp of what politics is all about, and in my previous experience of holding school elections, boosts interest in politics outside of the classroom and prepares them for taking part in real elections.”

She explained, however, that ‘pupil power’ wisely has its limits, making sure unrealistic requests are not forced through.

Classroom politics aside, the principal is also using her Library Board diplomacy skills in helping the wider community access the subjects they desire to learn at GCSE level – a list that is continually growing and keeping pace with technology and the skills future employers will be keen to utilise.

“The Department of Education are keen to see schools offer wider class access, and that means some schools sharing subjects to teach pupils who aren’t actually students at the school,” she added.

“We currently offer 26 subjects, and so we have opened our doors for pupils from other schools to study particular courses previously unavailable to them. Of course, such an initiative can have teething problems, but we deal with them as they arise, and in general it’s a very successful scheme that benefits the pupils enormously, and, after a while, seeing different uniforms in the corridors is something the children get used to.”

Also, keeping apace with the realities of the job market forces the school to offer an alternative to traditional “study-based” qualifications.

“Vocational subjects are becoming ever more popular, for instance in areas where the economic downturn has had less impact, such as in travel and tourism. However, at the end of the day, whether our pupils decide to go onto higher education, or into the world of work, one of the things the staff here are all focused on is making sure they don’t just look good ‘on paper’.

“They have to be able to deliver, whether that’s for an employer or in the university application process, and building their confidence is key to that.”

Whether it’s through exciting school elections, or fun projects such as the recent ‘Knockbreda’s Got Talent’ show put on by enthusiastic pupils, confidence is something students at Knockbreda have every access to, and will continue to have throughout future terms.

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