Academically, we are well ahead of the average but for me the most important element is the children are happy in their place of learning

Academically, we are well ahead of the average but for me the most important element is the children are happy in their place of learning

5 June 2024

A LOCAL secondary school principal insists no educational pathways are withheld from children because they did not attend a grammar school.

The rebranding and reconfiguration of The High School Ballynahinch – now under the leadership of Mr Paul Marks –  is a true success story for the district.

Established in 1955, the school began to stagnate both in reputation and academic results, with conjecture about whether or not it would have a future.

However, under the leadership of Mr Marks who became principal seven years ago, the school has gone from strength to strength and worked closely with other local schools as part of the Ballynahinch Learning Community.

In an interview with the Down Recorder, Mr Marks focuses on the ethos of the school, the importance of revising its academic and pastoral care systems and his pride in the school community.

“I’ve worked at The High School Ballynahinch for 11 years and been principal for seven and I absolutely love it,” Mr Marks said.

“I’m a Science and Mathematics teacher and still teach students a couple of hours a week which I am so thankful I have the opportunity to do. It allows them to get to know me and me them and it’s a couple of hours I look forward to every week.

“The ethos of our school is that we put the happiness of the children first,” Mr Marks continued.

“I am a great believer that if children can’t be happy, then they are not going to learn. For me, it’s really important that they feel safe, they’re having fun and are cared for by all our staff. If you don’t have all that, then they can’t academically learn.

“Academically, our students perform very well – we are well ahead of the Northern Ireland average but for me the most important element is that the children are happy in their place of learning.”

The school has a proud link with families in Ballynahinch, with former students opting to send their children to where they were educated.

Mr Marks continued:  “I’m at an age now where I am teaching the kids of pupils that I have taught myself which really shows my age, but it makes me proud because I realise that they had a good experience here and are happy to send their children to the school as well which is always a good marker.

“It means we have a connection with the parents of some of the children and it makes it easier for us to address concerns we may have about the students.

“The community knows we put the interests of pupils first. I have an open door policy, which means parents or students can come and see me at any time and talk to me about their worries. We are a school and a community who look after one another.”

While the Ballynahinch school is considered to be one of the best performing in the district, this was not always the case.

The school has a capacity of 420 students, but just over 10 years ago, continued stagnations of academic results saw that number reach a low of 157.

“When I became principal, I felt that we needed more energy and a clean slate,” Mr Marks explained.

“We got a new uniform and a new badge, but while that was more of a cosmetic change, we made several internal changes along with it.

“We needed a jolt. We had been doing too many things the same for too long and sometimes you need change to stimulate growth. When you have a school that has a shortage of 200 students, it brings in doubt about the future and sustainability of the school.

“For too long, I felt that we did pastoral care but we never thought about it,” he said.


“I wanted to change how we teach and emphasise a greater caring nature towards the children because I felt if they felt that we cared, they could come to us with their difficulties, whether it was personal or struggles with a certain subject, then the academic results would follow.

“We also created stronger links with our local primary schools so they could see the changes we made and the difference in how we approached education.”

The High School Ballynahinch has also been a pioneer in specialist provision in mainstream education with its Autism unit.

It comprises classes of eight students who, from Year 8 to Year 10, are nurtured in their own classrooms before being fully integrated with the rest of the school at Year 11.

“The unit has been a fantastic success and it’s something parents of the children really appreciate,” Mr Marks said.

“It allows teachers to give them more intention and help them settle into the school environment. Change can be very daunting for children coming to a new school, so I think the unit gives them an opportunity to ease into their new school life.

“By the time Year 11 comes around, they are in the same classes with the rest of their peers and are fully integrated.”

Mr Marks said his ambition is to expand the school to cater to students wishing to do A Levels because he feels like those with complex needs aren’t always ready to go to a new school and  change can sometimes disturb progress.

“We operate in a building that was built in 1955 and while that doesn’t bother me necessarily because we still deliver a good quality education, it does mean our capacity is stretched each year, especially during exam season when we need to give people rooms to sit their exams.

The principal also highlighted the school’s “fantastic links” with neighbouring schools.

He continued: “The Ballynahinch Learning Community has been brilliant because although some our students leave for St Colman’s, we still have strong links with those schools and still remain in touch with those students; they will always be a part of our family.”

Mr Marks also credits the Ballynahinch Learning Community with improving stronger cross-community links which has benefited the town tremendously.

“Years ago, I would have said anti-social behaviour in Ballynahinch was quite a regular occurrence, especially amongst young people, but that isn’t the case anymore,” he said.

“The kids from each school know each other, because some of them would sit in the same GCSE classes. It’s a fantastic way for people to get to know each other and it is something that is very valued amongst everyone in the community.”

Mr Marks also spoke about the commentary and comparisons between grammar and secondary schools. 

For years, there has been an orthodoxy that grammar schools offer a better education than secondary schools, but Mr Marks dispels that notion.

“I went to a non-selective school, St Malachy’s in Castlewellan and we were always taught there that this school is as good as any other school,” he said. “We were taught that if you work hard, you’ll get to do whatever you want to do and that’s the same message I give to my students at assembly.

“If you work hard, study, be courteous and kind to others then you will succeed. There is nothing stopping you or being withheld from you at this school to achieve what you want to achieve.

“Education is just barometer of success and I don’t think an 11+ transfer test is an indication to the capabilities of any child.”

Mr Marks said High School students have gone on to study at Oxford, have become brilliant physicians and doctors but, above all else, went onto become decent people.

“In my book that is more important,” he said.

“We deliver excellent education, have been nominated and won School of the Year in Northern Ireland previously and I know that my students will make a difference to society.”