A Belfast breakfast gets its moment of glory

Paul McGill

Tullycarnet primary school, serving housing estates a few miles from Belfast, had a brief spell of fame last week. On Thursday it had two radio cars in the playground and television crews and press photographers inside following reports that it offered free breakfast and school uniforms to pupils.

The reports were almost accurate. About 30 pupils each day take a subsidised breakfast because the wages of staff coming in to supervise it are paid through the Making Belfast Work initiative. The pupils get cereal,juice, toast and a banana for about 40 pence.

Uniforms consist of a sweatshirt and pupils get one free when they register. The money comes from the school's normal budget, a clever investment if it attracts a few more pupils because each one brings in funding of more than Pounds 1,000.

"It's a case of being famous for 53 seconds," said Gerry Brown, the headteacher. "One result was almost to double the number of pupils taking breakfast on Friday because they all wanted to be on TV."

For Mr Brown and his colleagues, however, it has been a 10-year struggle to build up the school and offer first-class education to pupils from the working-class estates of Tullycarnet and Ballybeen in Dundonald.

Northern Ireland is a patchwork of Catholic and Protestant communities, but also of working-class and middle-class estates. In Tullycarnet primary, 47 per cent of pupils are entitled to free meals; in Dundonald primary, by contrast, the figure is only 7 per cent.

Tullycarnet's original shabby building was thrown up in six months in the late 1960s to serve families from the terraced houses of East Belfast's redevelopment areas.

At one stage it had 700 pupils, but many moved back to Belfast as new houses were built; when Gerry Brown took over 11 years ago there were about 330 pupils.

About a fifth were from owner-occupied houses, but they moved elsewhere when open enrolment made it possible to apply to more middle-class schools.

Mr Brown was determined to prevent further erosion, to turn around the school and to offer the education his pupils needed. "Breakfast and free uniforms are only a small part of what I'm trying to do."

A recent inspection report found an important key to success when it noted that the principal has worked vigorously to build up the school's resources.

The main change was the investment by the South Eastern Education and Library Board of Pounds 500,000 to build a new school, a process that took several years because it was done block by block while teaching continued in the rest of the building.

Another was a large fence round the grounds.

"We have had four broken windows in the four years since we put up the fence. Before that it might have been 40 windows after the school holidays," said the headteacher. "We have also been able to improve the grounds by planting trees and putting in flower beds, which the pupils look after."

Even more important has been funding from Making Belfast Work for two full-time Reading Recovery teachers and two half-time special needs teachers to work with 90 pupils in reading and numeracy.

Tullycarnet's biggest class is 25 and half have fewer than 21 pupils. "Small classes are vital no matter what the Government says because children get more teacher time, but we can only do it because of outside funding," said Gerry Brown.

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