Principal recalls 40 years of achievement privilege and fun

Soon to retire after 20 years as a headmaster, two of them spent at Banbridge High School and 18 at Dromore High School, John Wilkinson is a man whose sense of commitment stands up to close scrutiny.

A man committed go God, to family, to his hometown of Dromore and its community, he is perhaps most widely known for his dedication to education in general and to his beloved Dromore High School in particular.

He looks back on 40 years all-told at Dromore High School with an eye for achievement, certainly, but equally with fond memories of fun, something he believes to be of vital importance in schools.

Among his own and Dromore High’s achievements over the years, of which there are many, Mr Wilkinson treasures most the privilege of being able to positively influence the lives of so many students,

“When it comes to significant achievements or magic moments,” he said, “you can’t go beyond the young people; the impact we have on the lives of so many amazing young poeple is what it boils down to.”

There was privilege too, he said, in helping young people and families facing enormous problems.

Born and raised in Dromore, John Wilkinson attended Dromore Central Primary School and Banbridge Academy, later studying at Belfast’s Queen’s University before undertaking his teacher-training at Stranmillis.

His first teaching post, in 1975, wasn’t too far from home, at Ballynahinch High School, where for two years he taught Geography, English and History.

In 1977 be began his long association with Dromore High School, as its head of Geography, while for a decade devoting many of his nights to supporting the work of the associated Pinnacle Youth Club.

From 1979 to 1983 he undertook still more responsibilities, forging home/school links, developing drama, leading the Less-able Fourth and Fifth-year Programme and serving as 11-16s Co-ordinator, all while part of the school’s senior management team. In 1985 he was appointed vice-principal.

Circumstances were such that in 1993 Mr Wilkinson was appointed principal of Banbridge High School, but by 1996 he had returned to take up the reins as principal at Dromore High, succeeding his close friend and revered colleague, Rex Russell.

During his 18-year tenure as principal, his work at Dromore High has won wider acclaim and fostered additional responsibilities, with the Council for the Curriculuam, Exams and Assessment, C2K (Curriculum 2000), the Southern Education and Library Board, Department of Education and Centre of Educational Management, among others.

“It was an enormous privilege,” he said, “to share the good practise in which our school was engaged.

“Of particular significance with regard to Dromore High School was the school’s desire to move towards excellence. “All the staff were, and continue to be, more than willing to engage with the concept of continuous improvement and I counted it a privilege to head up a school with so many professionals; through them the school has moved forward continuously and our parents too have been particularly supportive and have remained faithful and loyal.”

With the process of selecting a new principal due to get underway this week, with a view to a mid-November appointment - Mr Wilkinson fervently hopes his successor receives the same sort of support he has received over the last 40 years.

“It’s critical that the community rallies behind this person,” he said.

Pressed as to his personal highlights over the past four decades, Mr Wilkinson singled out the redesign of the school curriculum on three separate occasions dating back to 1977, the introduction of a signifcant counselling system after an educational visit he paid to the USA; the 1989 introduction of a wide range of GCSE programmes and the development of a revised curriculum programme and a new assessment system with Dromore High as a pilot school.

Of equal significance was Dromore High’s status as one of the first schools to achieve Investors in People, something it has sustained over the last 10 years, its inclusion as a Specialist School for Science and, of course, the development and introduction of its post-16 programme, a move of major significance for the school, said Mr Wilkinson, and one which enjoyed “remarkable” support from staff and community.

Somewhere along the line, almost as an afterthought, Mr Wilkinson modestly, though keenly appreciative of the honour, notes his own recognition with an OBE in the Queen’s Honours List.

So too he was quick to acknowledge those he collectively termed the “many, significant people” who had helped and influenced him on his journey.

“Many people influenced me in a positive way,” he said, “but without the influence of my family I wouldn’t have been in a position to do anything and of most significance was the impact of God upon my life; through His direction and compassion I have been able to do things which otherwise would not have been possible.

“He saw me through tough and arduous times as well as all those enjoyable, fun occasions with young people, staff and parents.”

Of the fact that he will not now supervise the move to a new school, Mr Wilkinson was philosophical.

“There comes a time,” he said, “when you do have to think of the school and of yourself with regard to the future, and while I would like to see it through to conclusion, really there never will be a time when you could say ‘that is a job done’; there will always be something to do and I recognise there is still plenty of work to do, and that’s exciting.”