Presbytery Tour: Education matters

6.10.2023 | Moderator, Church in Society, Presbytery Tour, Presbytery News, Education

Presbyterian Moderator, Right Reverend Dr Sam Mawhinney, has praised the ‘dedication, commitment, passion, and care’ of teachers and staff, when he visited two schools within the bounds of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland's (PCI)’s Presbytery of East Belfast, as part of a weeklong tour of the Presbytery. Dr Mawhinney, who was accompanied by his wife Karen, Rev Stuart McCrea, minister of First Holywood Presbyterian and Amy Hunter, First Holywood's Children, Youth & Family Worker, visited Priory Integrated College in Holywood and Mitchell House Special School in the east of Belfast.

While presbytery tours are primarily pastoral visits to encourage the local church on the ground, and in the Presbytery of East Belfast there are 23 congregations, engagements throughout the week have also included upwards of 20-plus civic, community and cultural visits.

“It has been a busy week and a fascinating one, with many different visits to a variety of places, including Priory Integrated College and Mitchell House School. Having gone to Ballycastle High and Queen’s many years ago, and having ministered and lived in the Republic of Ireland for the past 25 years, much has changed. It was good to get a greater understanding of the sectors they are part of, and the challenges that they face at the moment,” Dr Mawhinney said.

“I want to thank both of them for the warm welcome and time that they took to show my wife Karen and I around, which gave us just a glimpse of what daily life looks like for them, the teachers, children and young people. While they were different in many respects, the dedication, commitment, passion, professionalism and care that they, and their staff demonstrated, was palpable.

I really enjoyed the Q&A sessions that I during Priory’s Religious Studies class and the Year 12 Learning for Life and Work class, with some well thought out questions. It was also a privilege to take the Assembly in Mitchell House, where we were zoomed into the different classes around the school, due to the lack of space in the room itself. The singing and the attention was fantastic.”

During his Assembly talk, Dr Mawhinney talked about how we all have favourites - favourite football team, favourite sport, or sweet, but how God loves us all and has no favourites. During the Q&A session with the Year 12s at Priory College he was asked about a range of issued from same-sex marriage to why he became a minister, if PCI works with other churches, and what happens to you when you die.

Welcoming the visit to Priory College, Vice Principal Alison Watterson explained that Priory’s 700-plus students come from 23 feeder schools in a wide catchment area that extends from east Belfast to North Down and the Ards Peninsula, and as an Integrated College welcomes pupils of all religions, and none, is inclusive of all ethnic and socio-diverse range of academic profiles. She also said that GCSE and A Level outcomes were consistently above the Northern Ireland average for similar schools.

Built in the 1970s as Holywood High School, the all-ability co-educational post primary school changed its name when it became part of the Integrated Sector in 1997. There are currently 58 teaching staff and 36 classroom assistants in the College, “supported by an amazing ancillary team,” Alison Watterson said, who has been at the College for 30 years. The College motto, ‘Accomplishing More Together’ embodies the college’s Integrated ethos.

“It was a pleasure to host the Moderator, which provided an opportunity for our pupils to engage with him on different subjects and hear his answers from a Christian perspective and his own lived faith experiences as a minister. Pupils took the opportunity to quiz him on some controversial issues and his honesty and considered answers were much valued, as were his answers about his own faith journey and his call to be a minister,” she said.

“I also welcomed the opportunity to share with the Moderator what integration looks like in action at Priory, and how the pupils, staff, and wider community experience integration. Our integrated ethos permeates all we do. Ours is an inclusive community in which building positive relationships are key to developing the aptitudes and talents of all our pupils. I very much hope the Moderator enjoyed his visit.”

Two and a half miles from Priory College, on the edge of east Belfast, is Mitchell House School, which celebrated its 60th anniversary last year. An Education Authority Belfast Region co-educational special school for children with physical disabilities, it currently has 113 children and young people in nursery, primary and post primary settings, from 3 to 19 years of age, with 14 teachers and 45 classroom assistants.

While we are a relatively small school, as a regional special school we have children and young people coming as far away as Scarva and from the Ards Peninsula, with most of our students having an associated learning difficulty to some degree,” explained Miriam Donnan, Mitchell House’s principal.

“We greatly appreciated the time that Dr Mawhinney spent with us, and for his talk at our assembly, and for engaging with our pupils. For us, it was also a chance to show him around the school where he met teachers, assistants and students. As a former doctor he was interested in our holistic and multi-disciplinary approach, which also includes on site nurses, occupational therapy, speech and language and physiotherapy.

“As well as catering for our pupils in school, we talked about the outreach service we provide to mainstream schools, supporting staff working with pupils who have a physical disability. I hope that Dr Mawhinney found Mitchell House to be a welcoming place, where we challenge our children and young people to be the very best they can be. It was good to have him visit.” she said.

Photos (1) Alison Watterson, Principal of Holywood Integrated College shows the Moderator around the College (2) pictured in the foyer after the visit are, (left to right) Rev Stuart McCrea, minister of First Holywood Presbyterian, College Principal, Alison Watterson with  Senior Prefect Sophie McGregor and Lead Prefect, Alice Cummings, the Moderator, Deirdre Scarlett, Leader of Learning and Teaching, with Amy Hunter, First Holywood's Children, Youth & Family Worker (3) Dr Mawhinney taking morning assembly at Mitchell House School and (4) with (left to right) Principal Miriam Donnan, the Moderator, Rev Jonny Frazer, minister of Gillnahirk Presbyterian Church and Vice Principal of Mitchell House School, Ian Shanks.

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