Sunday Times Northern Ireland Secondary School of the Year Friends’ School, Lisburn By Sue Leonard
From taking part in national competitions to planning expedition routes for their Duke of Edinburgh’s gold award, discussing contemporary issues in the current affairs society or beating the opposition at rugby, pupils at Friends’ School in Lisburn do enjoy a challenge. “Pupils who are immersed in the life of the school achieve in many different ways,” says Elizabeth Dickson, head teacher of our Northern Ireland Secondary School of the Year. Evidence of this is clear in the coeducational voluntary grammar school’s longstanding reputation for academic excellence. This summer, 83.9% of A-level papers were awarded A* to B grades with three pupils achieving the highest exam marks in the province in art and design. Meanwhile, at GCSE, 67.5% of papers achieved an A* or A. These results, up from 79.4% and 60% respectively in 2010, moves Friends’ 21 places up our league table to rank 44th in the UK and second in Northern Ireland, behind only Lumen Christi College in Londonderry.
Of course, pupils are bright when they start. While the state-run transfer test was scrapped three years ago, an impasse over selection between the two main political parties means grammar schools such as Friends’ can and do operate their own entrance exam. The demand is clearly still there. Friends’, which caters for 40 feeder schools, is heavily oversubscribed. Last year, 260 children applied for the 140 places available and there is a waiting list to get into the school, one of nine Quaker schools in Britain and Ireland. “We have excellent pupils,” says Elizabeth Dickson, who has spent 30 years at Friends’, 10 of them as head. Success comes from not just being clever but from working hard and that requires dedication and commitment from pupils and teachers. “We monitor very closely the progress pupils make through school and work individually with pupils setting targets and discussing ways in which they can achieve,” adds Dickson. Expectations are high. Pupils take 10 GCSEs and a minimum of three A-levels, and for the past few years some sixth-formers have taken short Open University courses in subjects from nuclear physics to human genetics and health issues to increase their chances of getting places on competitive courses at university. An impressive 87% of the 129 upper sixth form pupils gained three A-levels at grades A-C this year and, while most choose universities in the UK, a number are now considering European alternatives in the light of the higher fees being charged next year. But pupils don’t just restrict themselves to this continent. One who left this summer is now studying film-making at the New York Film Academy in Hollywood. While there is a strong academic emphasis, the curriculum has been expanded in recent years to meet the Northern Ireland education department’s Entitlement Framework, which requires a broader range of vocational and technical subjects to be offered. As part of the Lisburn Area Learning Community initiative, options for pupils now include twilight (early evening) courses at the local further education college which include photography, engineering and motor vehicle studies at GCSE level. In addition, Friends’ offers its A-level courses in travel and tourism and electronics to pupils at a neighbouring high school, while its sixth-formers can also go there to study moving image arts. But Friends’ is not just about sitting at desks and doing well in exams, says Elizabeth Dickson, who teaches A-level English. “The school enjoys a reputation for academic excellence but also for giving pupils a huge range of opportunities,” she says. “We want to challenge the pupils beyond the classroom.” This it does. Last year, pupils were regional winners in the Toyota Technology Challenge, the UK Mathematics Trust team maths challenge national finals, and the Schools’ Analyst competition organised by the Royal Society of Chemistry. Almost 300 hockey and rugby players are involved in Saturday fixtures and a wide variety of other sport is on offer from netball, tennis and badminton to showjumping, athletics,
cricket and golf. For the less sporty there are plenty of opportunities to develop other talents with extracurricular clubs ranging from music, debating and the model United Nations Society to drama, Young Enterprise and charity fundraising.
“I really do not know how they balance so many different activities so successfully,” says Elizabeth Dickson, full of admiration. Founded in 1774, Friends’ has grown from a boarding school for 30 Quaker children to a thriving state school with 980 pupils in the senior school and 150 pupils in the preparatory department. While the school roll has expanded and it now welcomes pupils of any faith, Friends’ ethos, based on care for the individual, has remained unchanged. In their glowing 2006 report following a visit, school inspectors highlighted the excellent quality of pastoral care as well as the outstanding behaviour of pupils among the many strengths of the school. “We welcome pupils from all sections of the community and encourage our pupils to value diversity, to be open and tolerant,” says Elizabeth Dickson. “It is a school with a long tradition but it is also a forward-looking school,” she says. “We really want to equip our pupils to leave school and play a really important part in society, to make a contribution, to make a difference.” As a Quaker school, there is a strong emphasis on community service at Friends’ with
pupils helping out in local primary schools and residential homes and working in the summer with deprived children from north and west Belfast for whom they collect hampers at Christmas. Pupils support each other too. This year, 60 sixth-form students have volunteered to work alongside junior and middle school pupils to help them with homework, personal organisation, coursework or specific subjects identified as a priority. The school looks outwards not just locally but globally through its links with and visits to international Quaker schools, and also through the wide range of opportunities it offers for travel abroad â€“ from sports tours to destinations such as Canada and Austria to history and politics trips to America and languages exchanges to Spain, Germany and France. Friendsâ€™ has been recognised for its work in instilling a global dimension into the curriculum with an International School Award from the British Council. Set in 20 acres of land boasting a wildlife garden and pond, the school comprises an imposing main Victorian building alongside modern ones including a sports hall, a purpose-built greenhouse and potting shed. Among the facilities are five tennis courts, three hockey and three rugby pitches and an athletics track. The lovely, tree-lined drive and the sight of daffodils in spring are among the features that many pupils remember long after they have left. That and the community spirit of the school which brings a number of past students back to visit or prompts them to write.
When former pupil Roger McMorrow, who developed his love for adventure after taking part in the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award scheme at school, reached the summit of Mount Everest in 2007, he brought with him a flag made for him by pupils bearing the Friends’ motto – Quae sursum sunt quaerite – seek the things that are above. “There is a huge sense of belonging,” says Elizabeth Dickson. “I think it is that sense of belonging to school that breeds success.”