Spa woman’s delight with MBE

Spa woman’s delight with MBE

9 January 2019

MARY Roulston is one determined lady who has made her mark on integrated education. 

The former principal of Millennium Integrated Primary School between Saintfield and Carryduff, she was awarded a well-deserved MBE in the New Year Honours for her dedication and service to teaching Protestant and Catholic children alongside one another — as well as all others who believed in the Millennium ethos. 

While many teachers would have baulked at taking up their first principalship in a school without even a building and with just 10 pupils, the Spa woman merely rolled up her sleeves and got on with it.

Along with a group of equally determined and focused parents, she created a school which has since grown to educating 338 students with double enrolment in both the primary and nursery schools and total teaching staff is 49. 

“Those first ten parents were amazing as they took their very precious children into nothing really,” recalled Mrs Roulston.

“They didn’t know me so they had no idea about what I was going to be like as a principal and educator. There was no school reputation, no building, no funding, no resources. They were unbelievable and were really pioneering.”

Naturally delighted with the honour — the first in her family — Mrs Roulston says that she shares it with a lot of people.

“Throughout my career, I have worked alongside so many wonderful and dedicated people, committed to making a difference to the lives of the children and to ensuring that they received the very best possible education in the widest sense of the word — teachers, assistants, dinner ladies, caretakers, volunteer parents and members of the board of governors, etc,” she said.

“So, on the day that I receive my MBE, I will be paying honour to all the people I have known and worked with and all those from other schools and sectors who show dedication and commitment to the children in our schools.”

The little people who she had the pleasure of teaching until she retired in 2017 will always have a special place in 63 year-old Mrs Roulston’s heart.

“I would like to thank all the children, those I have taught and also those whom I had the pleasure of knowing for all that they have taught me, for the pleasure they have given me throughout my career, for all the funny things they said or did which brightened up my day, for their kindness to me in all the drawings and little hand-made crafts they made for me.”

Originally from outside Manchester, Mrs Roulston has lived and worked in the south Down area from the late 1970s after marrying her husband, Mervyn.

After teaching practice in England and teaching in two very different schools in France, Mrs Roulston taught for some years in Greyabbey and Portavogie Primary Schools, as well as the Rupert Steiner School in Belfast, before taking a career break while raising her three sons — John, Peter and Timothy — in Kircubbin.

“I did a lot of cross-community work at that time as chair of the parent and toddler group,” said Mrs Roulston.

“I also formed and chaired a community association and did a lot of work together cross community to get facilities for Kircubbin. It wasn’t a paid job but it was an important part of everything and I believe it’s where I first understood that cross-community work was so important.”

While working in Portaferry Primary School in the late 1990s, she was fascinated on learning about a group of parents in Carryduff campaigning for an integrated primary school.

“I was reading all about it in the local newspaper and it was very interesting to me, but it was hot and heavy as well as there was lot of objection to the school,” she said.

“I never dreamt that I would apply for it or have anything to do with it. But I did apply as it was a teaching principalship and it was working with both sides of the community as all the work I had done with cross-community work just kept saying to me, ‘This is really important work, this needs to be done to break down barriers’.”

The road to establishing Millennium was far from smooth, however, as the grandmother of three can testify.

“You just wouldn’t believe the terrible trouble we had and it’s hard to believe now what happened,” said Mrs Roulston.

“Days before we were due to open, I had 10 primary ones and no funding and no site as there was a lot of opposition to establishing the school where we had originally planned to in the Carryduff area.

“We ended up down at Breda Park, close to Forestside in Belfast in an old heath trust building. We initially rented it for six months but ended up staying for two years

“We were in a very derelict, vandalised, dirty building which we all very quickly had to work very hard get it up to scratch for the children. 

“We all had to break down barriers in many areas.”

Together with P1 classroom assistant, Mrs Marie Coiley, who still works at Millennium, they began to establish a school with an emphasis on total inclusiveness from the start.

“It was very important to me that the school would be child-centred and the children would have a voice,” explained Mrs Roulston.

“It would not only be integrated in the whole Catholic-Protestant area but integrated at every level and it would be highly inclusive and children of all abilities and backgrounds would be welcome.”

After difficult early years in the Breda Park site, she believed that the school finally turned a corner when it secured a site in Carryduff to build around mobile classrooms in its third year.

“I always knew it was going to work, I knew it was needed and I knew that I was determined and the others around me were also very determined,” said Mrs Roulston.

“I’ve always been a very determined person and I’ve alway never liked inequality or injustice of any kind.

“It was very important to me that it happened and I was surrounded by some amazing parents who eventually became the board of governors.”

She’s rightly proud of her achievements and adds: “I know I did good work.

“I must say there were days when myself and Mrs Coiley would often look around during assembly at all the children and all of the staff and wonder how did we get here.”

Now a director of the Integrated Education Fund, Mrs Roulston’s hope for the future is to see a planned integrated school.

“Integrated education is a growth area and I would like to see a situation the Department of Education and the Education Authority actually decide to plan an integrated school and not to be relying on parents having to fight for them.

“All our grant maintained integrated schools have had horrendous journeys to succeed.”