: Matt Fisher
: SciFest (Shelia & George Porter)
and Patrícia Carvalho
Marie is a leader whose actions speak for her louder than words can. Originally from Muff, Donegal, which is to the north of Derry / Londonderry in Northern Ireland, she has dedicated her working life to education. She studied science, graduating from the University of Ulster in Coleraine BSc in Biochemistry before doing an MSc in Education Management. In 1985, she went to Belfast to study for a Post Graduate Certificate in Education at St Mary’s College in Belfast and in 1995 she was awarded a Professional Qualification for Headship (PQH).
In 1985, Marie started her career teaching science at St. Mary’s College in Derry. St Mary’s College was founded in September 1959 by the Sisters of Mercy and was Derry’s first all-girls secondary school in Creggan, a large working class housing estate with high levels of social deprivation and unemployment. The school catered for almost 900 girls aged 11 to 15 who were deemed unsuitable for a grammar school – in other words “academic” – education.
Although there have been many changes over the years, and the school relocated to a brand new premises in 2010, St Mary’s still largely serves children from disadvantaged areas and around 60% of the pupils are entitled to free school meals, an indicator that their families are living below the poverty line. (According to a 2017 British government report, the Foyle region – named after the river that flows through the city – has the third highest school lunch claimant rate in the UK.) In addition, almost 30% of pupils at St Mary’s College are on the Special Education Needs register and are identified as requiring additional educational support.
Many pupils’ families face incredibly complex barriers to learning due to the poor economic conditions and, in part, the challenges of rebuilding a society after 30 years of conflict. In 2015, Derry and Strabane District Council had the highest rate of unemployment (claimant count) in Northern Ireland at 8%. Seven of the wards in the school’s catchment area have rates of unemployment in excess of 14%. In some cases, parents and grandparents never had employment. So, while many families value education as a path to a brighter future for others, education is not a priority and large efforts are required to persuading pupils to attend class regularly and to complete GCSEs and A level exams.
Marie was appointed Staff Development Co-ordinator in 1994. In that role, she led the school to numerous Staff Development accolades obtaining the Investors in People (IIP) standard in 1995 – making St. Mary’s the first organisation in Northern Ireland and the first public sector organisation in the UK to achieve it – and UK Millennium Excellence Award for Excellence in Professional Development (2000). It has since won the Irish News ‘Workplace Excellence’ Award which on 3 occasions (2013, 2014 and 2017) and has has retained its IIP status for 22 years – in 2016 it was re-accredited Investors in People “Gold status” for a record 8th time.
Marie joined the Senior Management Team at St Mary’s in 1998 with responsibility for Quality Assurance. The Principal at the time, Dame Geraldine Keegan, knew Marie was sceptical about the implementation of “industrial practices” within education but knew that, if she could convince a sceptic of the benefits, the other staff would also embrace the change.
When Dame Keegan retired as Principal in 2006, Marie was appointed her successor. To say Marie was successful in the role would be something of an understatement. Despite the high levels of deprivation, drastic budget cuts and the ever increasing social pressures young people face, St Mary’s has enjoyed year on year improvement in examination performance over a 25 year period. Since Marie’s appointment in 2006, the examination performance at 5+GCSEs Grades A*-C has increased from 56% (in 2007) to 95% (in 2017) and the percentage achieving 5+ Grades A*-C in 5 subjects including English and Maths has increased from 25% (in 2007) to 60% (in 2016-17). The improvement at 3 + grades A*-C at A’ level is equally impressive increasing from 21% (in 2007) to 72% (in 2017).
Under Maire’s guidance, St Mary’s has also gone on to be one of the most highly recognised entities within the European business excellence community, winning the Northern Ireland Quality Award 4 times (1998, 2001, 2006 and 2012), the inaugural Ireland Excellence Award in 2013, the British Quality Award in 2000, and the EFQM Excellence Award (European Quality Award) in 2001 and 2006.
Business excellence awards recognise the achievement of sustained, outstanding results. In order to achieve such results – and as a by-product to have any chance of winning an excellence award – you must first achieve excellence in every aspect of how you manage your organisation. Since she was appointed Principal, Marie has ensured that St Mary’s indisputable track record of success in both turning strategy into action and bringing about continuous improvement has been sustained.
In 2006, St Mary’s became one of only two schools in Northern Ireland to be named by the British Department of Education as a Specialist School for Science along with top ranking grammar school, Lumen Christi College. In the years that followed, the number of girls following STEM (Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics) pathways increased dramatically and, for the first time, St Mary’s girls were going off to study Civil Engineering, Mechanical Engineering, Computing, Architecture and a range of courses allied to the medical profession.
In 2007, St Mary’s pupil earned a place in the UK’s top five students in Applied Science in A Level exams (the UK’s advanced school leaving exams) and another pupil was ranked in the top 5 students for GCSE Mathematics (the equivalent to the former O levels, the UK’s school leaving exam). In 2008, a pupil earned the top result in Northern Ireland for Applied Business Studies in her GCSE and another pupil ranked in the top three in Northern Ireland in GCSE Engineering. The following year, two pupils shared joint top marks in the UK’s Council for Curriculum, Examinations and Assessment’s CCEA Applied Double Art Award, the UK’s school leaving exam.
In 2013, St Mary’s won an EFQM Excellence award for Sustaining Excellent Results. The results of its pupils have also been sustained and 2013 also saw the first pupil from the school to earn a place to study pharmacy in university (at Queen’s University College, Belfast) while another pupil became first to secure a place at Oxford University, where she studied English Literature.
The success of St Mary’s students has continued to the present day with a pupil achieving 2nd highest in Northern Ireland in A-level Applied Business Studies and a Year 12 pupil achieving 4th in GCSE Applied Business Studies in 2017, while two pupils achieved full marks in their GCSE English Literature exams and two pupils also achieved full marks in their GCSE Art. Another A level pupil had her exam pieces selected for the True Colours Art exhibition in the Ulster Museum, a showcase of ‘the best of the best’ exam pieces. (2017 was the 5th year in a row that pupils’ work was selected). While it is not possible for every pupil to win accolades, the number and consistency with which St Mary’s pupils achieve these is testament to the calibre of their cohorts.
St Marys was the top performing “all ability” urban school in Northern Ireland based on GCSE exam results, and in 2015 and 2016, was the top performing “all ability” all-girls School Northern Ireland.
The school has been the focus of numerous best practice studies by the UK Department of Education and also by a cross-border “all island” studies including one in 2015 which looked at St. Mary’s approach to improving Literacy. It has also welcomed educationalists and businesses from all over Ireland, the UK, Europe, North America, and beyond to look at their approach to raising standards and improving outcomes for young people.
Apart from academic success for its students in examinations. St Mary’s has a formidable record in terms of Music and Art. Marie introduced a ”Music Promise” in 2006 a program under which every pupil that shows any flair or talent for music is provided with an instrument and tuition or voice coaching free of charge. As a result, St Mary’s now has a full orchestra, a popular traditional music group, and a choir that has enjoyed success at local, regional and national level. In 2014, the choir was invited to support English jazz-pop singer Jamie Cullum when he headlined the Jazz Festival in Derry that year. The school’s most recent innovation, that has attracted interest at regional and national level, was the introduction in 2015 of a Tri-Swim Academy, the first school on the island of Ireland to do this.
A key principle of business excellence is building win-win partnerships. As far back as 1993, St Mary’s College worked in partnership with another local secondary school, Lisneal College, through extra-curricular activities including Saturday School and Summer school. Marie’s appointment as Principal in 2006 coincided with the first formal Shared Education Programme (SEP1) where the St Mary’s – Lisneal partnership developed to include shared timetabled classes for Junior classes. The partnership with Lisneal continues to the present day and has been extended to include a third school, St Cecilia’s College.
2006 also saw the introduction of the Foyle Learning Communities – a partnership with 10 post-primary schools the North West Regional College and the Verba Arts Centre – designed to give pupils access to a greater range of course options and share expertise between institutions. It enables pupils in St Mary’s to take one their courses in a nearby school and pupils from other schools can to take a course in St Mary’s. The Shared Education partnership, supported by Queens University, now includes partnerships with schools in Los Angeles and Jerusalem.
Since 2014, St Mary’s has been a Microsoft Showcase School – one of a global community of schools engaged in digital transformation to improve teaching and learning – having become a Pathfinder School in 2010, and Mentor School in 2011. It is one of only 3 Showcase Schools on the island of Ireland.
The success of St Mary’s has obviously not gone unnoticed within the education sector and Marie has been actively involved in a number of groups working to further improve standards and share the insights and knowledge she has gained. She represented the Post Primary Principals on the local Higher Education working group in Northern Ireland and was a member of the Sir Graeme Davies Steering Committee for the review of the Higher Education Strategy for Northern Ireland (2010-2012), contributing to the new strategy “Graduating to Success”.
Marie was a board member of EFQM (in Brussels) and participated in the development of the EFQM 2010 and 2013 Excellence Models, representing the public sector. She is currently Chair of the Foyle Learning Community and a board member of the Northern Ireland’s Shared Education Learning Forum (SELF), of School Employer Connections (SEC), and a Trustee of the Walled City Music Trust. Marie is also a member of Derry and Strabane District Council’s Education and Skills Group.
In 2016, Marie was named as Principal of the Year at the Foyle Blackboard Awards Ceremony. Over the years she has gained the trust and respect of her colleagues, peers, pupils and their parents. But, more importantly, she has made an outstanding contribution to her community, unlocking the potential in thousands of young people and giving them a chance to make a real difference themselves.
Marie married Collie Lindsay in 1991 and they have five children who are now fully grown.