New principal at Knockevin Special School

New principal at Knockevin Special School

5 December 2018

THE new principal at Knockevin Special School in Downpatrick is looking forward to her new role with relish.

While Sara Liddell has been acting principal since the start of the new school term, her appointment as Mrs Anne Cooper’s successor was only confirmed 

recently and she says she is delighted to be at the helm of a school which has a special place in the heart of the community.

Sara always wanted to work in special education and feels privileged to head up a school where work on a much-needed new extension is expected to start next September.

The former Down High School student worked at Tor Bank Special School in Dundonald before moving to Knockevin, where she was a teacher and vice-principal for four years before taking over as principal.

From Downpatrick, the new principal has a close link with Knockevin as her brother Jamie was educated at the school.

“I always wanted to work in special education and wanted to be here in Knockevin because it really is such a special place,” said Sara. “While I was studying at Stranmillis I did my teaching practice here which was lovely for me.

“There is such warmth in the community for the school which has such a lovely, family feel about it. I obviously knew the school because Jamie came here and know how special it is. I wanted to work in special education because I saw what Jamie was able to achieve.

“Jamie came through Knockevin and while he has his challenges, he was able to leave school and secure a job a few days a week which is great. My brother learned so much because he was educated here.

“There is so much warmth about this place and I am fortunate to work with a wonderful staff team. Everyone, including pupils and families were so supportive to my family when Jamie was a pupil here. That sparked my interest in special education and was why I always wanted to work in this field,” Sara explained.

Knockevin is split across two sites, with an Early Years centre in Dundrum catering for 35 children and 107 pupils based in Downpatrick with a 20- strong teaching staff across both locations.

“We are the only special school for a wide geographical area and have pupils coming from as far away as Kilkeel and Newry, with others closer to home coming from the Downpatrick, Ardglass, Strangford, Crossgar and Killinchy areas,” the new principal continued.

“I am looking forward to my new role and already knowing the staff, pupils and families has been a big help. Knowing I have their genuine support is really wonderful.”

Given that it is the only special school in the local area, Knockevin is oversubscribed, with Sara explaining her appointment coincides with what she described as a “challenging time”.

She continued: “We have a good reputation which has been enhanced with the new early years centre in Dundrum which is a real centre of excellence and we have huge numbers coming through,” she continued.

“We are pushed for space in Downpatrick, but Knockevin is in the school enhancement programme and work on a new extension will hopefully start next September, replacing mobile classrooms with a new permanent structure and it is a really exciting time to be part of this.”

Tendering documents are currently being prepared ahead of the start of building work which is expected to take 36 months to complete to meet what the new principal described as a “huge need in the area”.

As Sara settles into her new role, she admits the fact she was vice-principal for four years has made the transition a smooth process.

“There is so much love and warmth for the school across the community and local people are fantastic. May aim moving forward is to harness that warmth to give our pupils lots of new opportunities,” she explained.

“We already have a fantastic work experience programme where seniors go out and so many businesses have been so supportive. This is something I really want to build on, strengthening our school links.

“We have been involved in a few projects with the Assumption Grammar in Ballynahinch and St Patrick’s Grammar in Downpatrick which produced benefits for everyone involved. As a former Down High student I have been able to establish a link with its student council which is really beneficial.”

Sara believes that linking Knockevin with other schools is important as it provides young people with an insight into what a special school is “demystifying the issues” around it. She is also pleased her students can attend other schools to use a range of specialist facilities which provide access to art and drama, science and technology in particular.

“It is amazing how other schools have opened up to us. We are delighted with their support which I believe says a lot about this area. Our staff and parents are also very committed and we are involved in a shared education project with Sacred Heart Primary in Dundrum.”

Sara added: “Our neighbours at St Colmcille’s Primary School are also supporting us with the P7 pupils selecting Knockevin as their chosen charity and when some of the pupils visited us recently they used makaton signing to communicate with some of our students.

“I am lucky to be the principal of a school which enjoys the warmth and support of so many people. We have a great staff team and Knockevin has many, many family connections with the area which is so lovely.”