Northern Ireland Secondary School of the Year: St Dominic’s Grammar School for Girls

On Belfast’s former frontline and with almost half its girls qualifying for educational maintenance grants, the achievements of St Dominic’s are remarkable.

You don’t have to be located in the leafy suburbs to get the best exam results, as St Dominic’s Grammar School for Girls in Belfast can testify. The Catholic secondary on the Falls Road, on the former frontline, is in one of the most deprived areas of the UK, yet has become the best-performing school in Northern Ireland following an outstanding set of exam results.

This summer an extraordinary 86.7% of A-level papers achieved grades A*-B, while 69.9% of GCSE exams gained an A* or A – or the new 9, 8 or 7 grades – eclipsing Lumen Christi College in Derry, which has ranked number one in Northern Ireland for all bar one of the past 15 years. St Dominic’s, which is still surrounded by the iconography of the Troubles, ranks 23rd overall in the UK this year, its highest ever position.

Although it is selective, St Dominic’s takes students from a wider ability range than most grammar schools and, reflecting its location, more than a quarter of the 1,021 girls are entitled to free school meals. Half of this year’s leavers also qualified for an education maintenance allowance (47.6%), again well above the norm for this type of school.

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The voluntary grammar instils in its pupils the belief that they can achieve anything they want to if they work hard enough. St Dominic’s wins our Northern Ireland Secondary School of the Year title for a second time, having last taken the accolade in 2013.

“The teachers are very committed to the children,” says Carol McCann, the principal, who started as a pupil here 50 years ago just as the conflict was beginning. She is not alone in having a personal connection to the school. About a fifth of staff are former students.

“It makes a difference in that we have a great conviction about the children who come into the school,” says McCann, who – like many of her students – was the first in her family to go to grammar school and to university.

“We have a great belief in them. If they have managed to get over the barrier of transfer to come here we certainly believe they can achieve very, very highly. It really doesn’t matter about your background if you have the right determination, the right commitment and the right belief in yourself,” she says.

Of course, there has to be some structure and a bit of nudging here and there, even for those who come in with A grades. Although it is more selective than it was five years ago, McCann says that even those who win a place with strong natural ability may need help if they are struggling with other issues. Pupils are tracked closely and receive support and mentoring if the school feels they are not reaching their potential.

St Dominic’s stays open until 9pm every Monday and Tuesday and five times a week, including Sundays, during exam time to encourage pupils to study.

“Many of the girls like the camaraderie of studying together and it removes the temptations of social media,” says McCann. She introduced the sessions not long after she took over 12 years ago, following a 27-year stint at a boys’ boarding school in Newry where she was latterly second-in-command.

Booster camps for maths and science have also led to exponential improvements in attainment in Stem (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) subjects, which are very popular.

“There is very much a culture of accountability in the school by the head of departments,” says McCann, who studied Celtic studies and French at Queen’s University Belfast. “At the end of the day no leader can lead if you haven’t got good leaders behind you.”

Aspirations are high. Pupils study at least nine – and up to 12 – GCSE subjects. Most sixth-formers take three A-levels, while some choose four. Irish, drama and art are particular strengths.

University is the next destination for 95% of the sixth form. Three of this year’s leavers won JP McManus All Ireland Scholarships worth about £6,000 a year (€6,750) for the duration of their course, and another scooped a Rank Foundation scholarship worth £4,000 a year.

“I just love the children and I get excited by just how wonderful they are – and there is a fabulous staff here as well,” says McCann. You don’t get these kinds of results unless you have got a really good staff.”

The majority of pupils come from the local area, although some travel up to 20 miles, such is the school’s reputation among parents. Past pupils include Mary McAleese, the former President of Ireland, and Anna Carragher, who was controller of BBC Northern Ireland from 2000-6. Last year 205 applicants competed for 141 places at the popular grammar.

A small but growing number of pupils with English as a foreign language and from Muslim and Hindu faiths bring some diversity to the school. Current pupils speak languages including Arabic, Spanish, Filipino and Malayalam, spoken in southern India.

Pupils study at least nine – and up to 12 – GCSE subjects

While it is proud of its academic record, St Dominic’s is about much more than excelling in exams. Just as important is the development of character, sincerity and goodness, in line with its motto Veritas (truth), which embodies the ethos of the Dominican trustees and founders of the school, established in 1870.

“What we would drum into them is integrity and kindness,” says McCann, “because at the end of the day it doesn’t matter if they have great A-levels, if they are not kind to other people nothing else really matters.”

Consequently pupils are encouraged to help those less fortunate than themselves through a range of volunteering programmes and fundraising. Last year the girls collected more than £16,300 for causes including Lepra, the leprosy charity, Trócaire, the official overseas development agency of the Catholic Church in Ireland, and Habitat for Humanity, a cross-community project building local houses in east Belfast.

Year 12 pupil Anna McCaffrey was recently selected as an #iWill Youth Ambassador, one of just five outstanding volunteers chosen from Northern Ireland, for her work mentoring and managing players at her local Gaelic football club, and for coaching camogie at school. Senior pupils are also involved in mentoring younger pupils and run art workshops for pupils from Glenveagh Special School.

Reflecting the history of the province, there is a focus on developing links with non-Catholic schools and St Dominic’s is involved in a shared education project with last year’s Northern Ireland Secondary School of the Year, Friends’ School, Lisburn, across a wide range of subjects and initiatives, including a Politics in Action group.

St Dominic’s, which was awarded special status in humanities in 2009, provides plenty of opportunities for students to develop their talents. The girls polish their public speaking and poetry reading and hold mock trials, as well as performing in West Side Story, the recent biennial school musical.

Sports include water polo, basketball and Gaelic football, in which pupils are the reigning Ulster champions. The school also offers choirs and an annual concert at St Anne’s Cathedral. There is also the chance to enjoy parent-and-daughter cookery workshops, needlecraft or African drumming.

St Dominic’s is part of an Erasmus programme with schools in Romania and Germany, funded by the European Union, and pupils broaden their horizons on a wide range of trips, recently exploring in France, Spain and Poland.

Following their visit in October, inspectors praised the outstanding leadership and management, and outcomes for learners, commenting: “The life chances of the pupils are significantly increased through the provision of a wealth of high-quality educational experiences.”

McCann has only fond memories of her time as a pupil here despite the turmoil of the time. “This school has always been a sanctuary,” she says. “Once you came in the gates of the school this was a safe haven and that is very much what we say to the girls as well.”

Today they face different difficulties, she says. “The whole time I was at school here it was a time of civil unrest. Where we don’t have that any more, there are new challenges for children like mental health issues, more breakdown in families.”

McCann remains grateful for the education she received at St Dominic’s. “I considered it a golden nugget. I knew I was very lucky when I got a place here,” says the principal, who is looking forward to catching up with her old classmates at a school reunion in March.

Schools Guide 2019
Identifying the 2,000 highest-achieving schools in the UK, our fully-searchable database allows you to find the top schools near to where you live


By Sue Leonard