Fiona McAlinden is a force to be reckoned with. She is full of energy and ideas, always looking for ways to bring new experiences to the girls of Our Lady’s Grammar School where she has been Principal for four years. The pandemic has given her challenges she never imagined she would have to face. At the start, all that time ago in March, she could never have foreseen what was to come.

“Initially, it didn’t seem real. I watched people in masks queuing outside shops in Italy on the news and it didn’t seem possible that the same could happen here. In mid-March, when schools took the decision to leave students at home, to allow teachers to begin planning for remote learning and teaching, and Arlene Foster warned that when lockdown began schools would be closing for sixteen weeks, it was surreal. But the reality of the situation kicked in. We realised that it was about keeping everybody safe. Our first move had to be getting the pupils off campus.”

Fiona McAlinden. Photograph: Columba O'Hare/
Fiona McAlinden. Photograph: Columba O'Hare/

There was a mad scramble to prepare remote learning. Our Lady’s had just won a Digital Schools Award so the ability to use the technology was there but this was about more than access.

“All the teachers were a great support. We shared ideas across departments and we were aware that some girls would find the whole situation upsetting. One mum told me her third year child cried going past the school because she missed her friends and school so much.’’

Fiona found strength and support in working with the other school principals in the area. “This started through trying to manage the closure of the school buildings and cancellation of school trips abroad in March, but has evolved into sharing ideas and looking after each other. It was a chance to exchange thoughts, to vent, even to laugh and there was a power in being united together. They were colleagues who have become friends and it’s great to have a strong network. I can lift the phone and have a chat with someone and they understand the issues that I am facing. When the Minister of Education came down to Newry recently, we all saw each other in person and it was hard to resist the temptation to hug them!”

The Newry and Kilkeel Grammar school principals led the way in amending their admission criteria and for the school year of 2020/21, they are not using the entrance assessment normally needed to get into the grammar schools, recognising that primary school children have not been able to complete a year’s work. Fiona says it was the right thing to do.

“The Newry schools are so pastorally focussed. And we were all in it together. In August and September, we will spend time talking with our new and current pupils about their experiences and helping them that way.”

For pupils leaving school, the end of the year was abrupt: “When the A Levels were cancelled, a lot of girls were worried about how they would be impacted by the change to generated grades but Queen’s University and the Ulster University changed their policy to make many conditional offers unconditional and that was such a brave move. As well as relieving the current stress on this cohort, it should ensure that our local students remain here to help with the recovery of the economy in the years ahead.”

The Upper Sixth girls didn’t get to say their goodbyes properly either. “They made a very touching Leavers’ video and produced a beautiful Year Book too. We had a morning where they could come in and collect their Leavers’ hoodies and water bottles and see each other briefly. It was all socially-distanced though and it just wasn’t the same. We plan to have a different form of A Level Prize-Giving in December when we will have some fun and games, dress up in fancy dress, have dinner and Mass.”

It sounds like Fiona has been busy. “It has been so intense. I have been working flat out. Harder than ever. I was working ten hours a day, on the computer, answering emails and on Zoom and telephone calls. I do worry about what is ahead. We have a finite number of classrooms and teachers and there are already so many pressures on our finances. With the help of the Department of Education, we were able to give laptops to a small number of next year’s Year 12 and Year 14 students who met certain criteria, but I know many families who didn’t benefit from this scheme and don’t have a laptop or have to share one between parents working at home and several siblings. Some families had no facilities to print out resources or might not have had strong enough broadband connection to stay online for live lessons.”

Fiona is Principal of Our Lady's Grammar School, Newry. Photograph: Columba O'Hare/
Fiona is Principal of Our Lady's Grammar School, Newry. Photograph: Columba O'Hare/

“Every house is different. How can we support those families where the parents are worried about the mortgage and their jobs? The girls are aware of those issues and will carry those worries into school so counselling is very important, that support is vital, but we don’t have the finances that we would like to have for it either. And there definitely needs to be more infrastructure investment in things like technology and broadband.”

Has Fiona had any time to relax? “I try to read as much as I can although that can be difficult. I have been cooking more meals from scratch. And I’ve started growing chilli plants – I am told they’re the easiest to cultivate, as I am not known for my green fingers! Maybe I can graduate onto something else from that.”

What has she learnt about herself and what does the future look like? “I think I’m more aware of my own moods now, more aware of my mental health. It can be hard to have to appear strong all the time. I’m grateful that the stigma attached to mental health is lifting and this allows people to share their experiences and open up.”

“The future is about resilience and keeping an eye on each other. It is about more than access to education for our children. Our Lady’s recently had interviews for the new Senior Council and the U6 girls have already been helping us to look at solutions to some of the issues we will face.”

“Our Lady’s was founded in 1887 and has seen a lot since then and survived and the school community is so strong. The most important thing is to keep everybody safe and well.”

Fiona has faith in young people and it’s true that so many have stepped up in this time. Plunged into this crisis, our schools and the teachers have been amazing given the lack of financial support they get. Our Lady’s Grammar School is a Newry institution and it has certainly changed with the times. However extraordinary this moment in history is, the girls, staff and principal of Our Lady’s give me hope for our future.

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