Our Northern Ireland correspondent Stephen McBrearty sings the praises of St Louise's Catholic Comprehensive in West Belfast, recent winner of the Jerwood Foundation Award for
St Louise's Comprehensive College, sited as it is on the Falls Road, is the largest single sex school in western Europe with a roll of 2508 girls between the ages of 11 and 18: 583 of these girls form the Open Sixth Form.
Situated in one of Europe's most deprived areas Falls, Ballymurphy, Turf Lodge, Andersonstown and surrounded by housing and social amenities the condition of which are of a very low standard, St Louisc's stands as a bastion of hope! In this particular part of the province where 65 per cent of the female workers are unemployed and in some of these districts unemployment among the male households exceeds 80 per cent, it is the highest compliment that could ever be passed on any school to even be considered for the Jerwood Foundation Award, let alone win it!
So how did such a school come to the attention of Dr Michael Hooker, Director of New Awards for Educational Achievements Scheme Jerwood Foundation? The answer lies in the history of St Louise's. Originally established as a secondary intermediate school serving the parishes of St Peter's and St Mary's in West Belfast in January 1958, the Sisters of Charity the "Education Sisters" developed a policy in which the needs of all its students would be met.
Even in those early years the Sisters were innovative, for theirs was one of the first secondary intermediate schools at that time to create a sixth form. This school served the needs of the area for 12 years, establishing job contacts and educational development programmes for those who were educationally capable in the exam sense, but also, and very importantly, serving the needs of the less capable by instilling within all their girls a sense of worth and purpose.
This was accomplished by both curricular and extra-curricular programmes which not only inspired confidence, but also fostered an ability to succeed at job interviews whilst at the same time fostering within pupils a caring attitude to the local community both inside and outside of the school.
So, from its earliest days under the leadership of Sr Genevieve in the early sixties this Catholic girls school established a reputation throughout the Belfast area for excellence. In the early seventies, as a result of population growth in the area, a new school has to be planned to meet the needs of girls throughout the West Belfast area. The province at this time was steeped in sectarian and political violence. Amidst riots, social and political unrest, and the collapse of communities, St Louise's Comprehensive offered a refuge for educational and social development under the most difficult circumstances.
When representatives of the Jerwood Foundation came to St Louise's with the purpose of assessing the school's academic record they were impressed not least by the brand of leadership provided by Sr Genevieve now carried on by Sr Rosaleen MacMahon and the Vice Principal, Ms Mairead O'Halloran.
At a time when Catholic schools throughout the British Isles are being strongly criticised. on the basis of their Christian ethics and because of their desire to maintain a Christian ethos, St Louise's Comprehensive can be held up as an excellent example of the relevance of Catholic principles in contemporary society.
The Catholic school in Northern Ireland should never be seen as representing exclusively the aims and values done side of the sectarian divide. Rather such schools strive to maintain broadly Christian values within an all embracing religious culture, which in turn seeks to unite all sections of the community in the pursuit of good education and worthy Christian standards.
One should never forget that the religious divide which exists in Northern Ireland was never created by a separate school system, but by political polarisation. What is needed in Northern Ireland today is more schools like St Louise's schools dedicated to the service of the overall community.