Ashfield Girls' High School
Challenging girls today, creating women of value for the future
History of Ashfield
Ashfield Girls' School was built in 1948 in a prefabricated style by Short Brothers and Harland. It was opened initially as a grammar school but in 1952 it became both a grammar and secondary school each having its own Staff and Principal. By 1958, with almost 1000 pupils, the building had become overcrowded and so the grammar departments moved to what became known as Carolan Grammar School. It later amalgamated with its neighbouring Boys’ school to become Wellington College.
In the background of many photographs taken in the 1950s one can clearly see the familiar Ashfield Girls' front entrance steps and the prefabricated building with its long corridors. By the 1960s the new school library appeared in the photographs and records reveal that senior pupils were achieving considerable academic success in 'O' and 'A' levels and 'Commercial' subjects as well as participating in a wide range of extra-curricular activities such as the Duke of Edinburgh Award Scheme to Gold standard, Drama, Music and Sport.
During the 1970s outward changes in the school could be observed by passers-by on the Holywood Road. Three new red brick buildings were erected - the Courtney Wing opened by Mrs Kathleen Courtney (Headmistress 1952-1976) to accommodate Business Studies, Art, Music and Audio-visual resources, the Chestnutt Wing by Rev Dr William Chestnutt (Chair of Management Committee) for Home Economics and the Semple Hall by Mrs Vi Semple (Headmistress 1976-1980) for Physical Education.
The affluence of the 1970s was all too soon superseded by dramatically reduced expenditure on Education in the 1980s. In spite of repeated submissions to BELB and DENI the plans for the final phase of building to replace the blue prefabricated Administration Block, classrooms, library, Science laboratories and canteen remained unfulfilled and sadly, to add to the accommodation problems, in the Summer term 1987, Classrooms 1-13 and the Examinations Office disappeared overnight in a fire together with a whole collection of photographs and memorabilia of that decade. Thankfully, although its brass handle had melted off, the safe containing GCSE examination papers remained standing in the midst of the burnt out shell of the Examinations Office! An expert was called in. The papers were retrieved, smoky but intact, and the candidates were sitting their exams on schedule two days later!
Five months later “After the fire came the Flood!" On the day following Prize Distribution, as Staff and pupils emerged from the Assembly Hall after the Harvest Service they were met by gentle waves of water lapping the sides of the corridor from Room 24 to Room 14 and the Staff Room. The combination of torrential rain, a high tide and drains blocked by debris after the demolition of Rooms 1-13 had resulted in a build up of water behind the main corridor which overflowed into the classrooms. Once again the tremendous team spirit of Ashfield Teaching and Ancillary staff was evident and, although it had to be closed for the rest of that day, thanks to the mammoth effort made by the caretakers school was operating normally next morning.
The blue prefabricated buildings may not have looked very impressive, however, as we all know, judgements should not be based on outward appearances and records of the 1990s reveal that, counter to the demographic trend in Belfast and threats of amalgamation, the commitment of staff and pupils ensured that Ashfield Girls' High School retained its independence and continued to grow from strength to strength. While there was still no finance from DENI for a complete new building programme, 1998 saw the opening of the Reid Design and Technology Suite (Miss Heather Reid-Headmistress1980-2001) opening up new career opportunities for the girls. As the School entered the new Millennium in 2000-2001 it was over-subscribed with more than 600 pupils on roll. It was DENI's use of PFI (Private Finance Initiative) arrangements which, after twenty years of appeals by successive Ashfield Management Committees and Boards of Governors , made possible the building of the state of the art new school in the first decade of the new Millennium.
Throughout its history Ashfield Girls' School has maintained its position as a front runner in Curriculum Development- from the time of ROSLA (Raising of the school leaving age) in 1970s with the School's own Academic and Personal and Social Development Programmes to participation in the DENI' 11-16' Curriculum Development Pilot Scheme in1980s, to facing the changes when the National Curriculum was thrust upon NI Schools, to pioneering the introduction of a Secretarial Studies Certificate Course and then CPVE in 1988 followed by GNVQs in 1990s ,the Staff met the challenges and worked through them. While they had some reservations about certain elements of the1988 DENI Reform proposals they were encouraged by the fact that the Ashfield 1988-9 curriculum, which they had developed to meet their pupils' needs, was not significantly different from that which would be required by legislation in the future.
Staff have always been committed to providing the most up to date education for their pupils. In the early 1980s an arrangement with Strathearn Girls' School allowed Ashfield girls to take additional "A" level Subjects while the Strathearn girls took Business Studies and Keyboarding. In 1990s a number of pupils from Ashfield Boys' came to the Girls' School for Business Studies and Home Economics and some 'A' level and GNVQ courses were shared. In the 1980s the school had been among the first in NI to provide a Computer Studies Courses and it was invited to be in the first cohort of Belfast schools to adapt to the CLASS (Computerised Local Administration System for Schools) programmes.
In September1991, after an in-depth visit by Educationalists from GB which included interviews with the Headmistress, teachers, parents and pupils, Ashfield Girls' High School was one of only three Northern Ireland schools included in Ebury Press 'Good State Schools Guide' and featured in The Guardian Newspaper's Education Supplement- the other schools being in Co.Antrim and Co. Londonderry.
An excellent Careers Education and Work Experience programme has always been one of the many strengths of the school. Individual advice to pupils was supplemented by participation in a range of programmes in the 1980s and1990s. The school was honoured when the Directors of Esso Petroleum Ltd. selected Ashfield Girls' as one of only three Northern Ireland schools to receive a generous gift to use for the benefit of Senior pupils in the development of Schools -Industry links. BP also supported the work of the Business Studies department and Bombardier that of the Design and Technology department.
Pupils in years11-13 were involved at the beginning of 'Belfast Compact' and the 'Belfast Business Education Partnership' which provided valuable Career preparation and enabled groups to travel to Amsterdam and Teruel in Spain on 'Insight into Business' visits. For many years Sixth formers ran their own Mini Companies as part of the Young Enterprise Programme and took part in YE competitions and Trade Fairs at local venues. At the Young Enterprise International Trade Fair in Cork Ashfield Girls' had to face stiff competition from sixty other European Companies to scoop one of the top prizes. 'World of Wood', using the facilities in the Technology Department, had produced a range of executive games, all manufactured from old Science desks! Clearly a company with a conscience, World of Wood donated a portion of their profits to a tree conservation project! Profits from the companies often went to local Charities along with funds raised by individual Forms and Year Groups for their chosen good cause- whether it was Guide dogs for the Blind, CLIC Sargent for children with cancer or other charities with personal links with the girls.
In 1995 in recognition of all these entrepreneurial activities the School was presented with the Ulster Bank 'Enterprising School ' Award.
Participation in The European Studies Programme of the 1990s facilitated visits by pupils and Staff to Belgium and France and the overall programme of activities at home and abroad resulted in the school receiving a "European Curriculum Award'.
An important part of preparation for life is meeting people outside one's normal circle of contacts. Many girls throughout their school careers enjoyed such opportunities under the auspices of the RUC at Top of the Form quizzes, Netball Competitions and Rambles. Some qualified for Summer residential Courses and the Kielder Challenge while others participated in the Duke of Edinburgh Award Scheme and Outward Bound Courses.
From the 1970s onwards many Ashfield girls continued their studies at Further Education Colleges, Teacher Training Colleges and Universities both in Northern Ireland and in other parts of the United Kingdom. Today they hold senior positions in Business, Banking, Insurance, Teaching, Nursing and associated Therapies, Civil Service, Travel Companies etc as well as being the Mothers and Grandmothers of the present generation of pupils! In 1999-2000 a small group of Sixth formers had opportunity to sample life at Queen's University at a Summer School. Those who completed two summer courses received a 'Certificate in Discovering Queens' and were in good positions to make informed choices about their future careers.
In the 1980s, under the auspices of DENI "EMU" programme, 6th form pupils engaged in cross-community activities with five other Secondary, Maintained and Voluntary Grammar Schools on the eastern side of the city enjoying a wide range of educational, cultural social occasions. The strong Netball Teams of the1980s brought home several trophies from their Northern Ireland-wide cross community competitions.
Education experiences for the girls were not restricted to those in the classroom. Regular field trips to The Ulster Folk Museum, the American Folk Park, the Somme Centre, Carrickfergus Castle, Peatlands Park, the Lagan lookout, etc. were supplemented by residential visits to Ardglass and Drumalla House at Carnlough. Some ventured further afield on a Mediterranean Cruise, a Ski Trip to Italy or a French trip to Normandy. Individual pupils won American Field scholarships to spend time with American families.
The girls were well prepared for future life through their experiences in the Home Economics Department. Many developed their culinary skills to a level which allowed them to compete in both local and nationwide Cookery competitions with considerable success, as well as practicing their hostess skills preparing for and serving at important occasions such as Prize Day. A 'Food for Thought ' Seminar aimed to "change eating and drinking habits for health, figure and looks'.
The Mother and Toddlers Group, held initially in the original School Flat and later in the Coffee lounge of the Semple Hall, provided valuable training for the future, too!
One award which deserved more publicity than it received was the 'Ulster Women Unionists' Public Speaking Award' for the greatest contribution to the two days of the Competition. It was awarded for the overall high standard of the participants' speeches, their attitude, their manner, their appearance and their behaviour. Ashfield representatives had many successes in the individual classes and in both1987 and 1988 the team were joint winners with two very prestigious Grammar Schools! Also connected with Public Speaking each year one of the Sixth formers was invited to take part in the East Belfast Rotary Club competition.This link also brought an invitation for the school choir to perform for the rotary Club at a special celebration at Stormont,
In the words of one of the actresses "Being part of a team for a school play is an experience not to be missed and at the end of it you achieve something called 'Confidence'!" Throughout the years this confidence was evident in the polished performances of many of the young actresses as they took part in a variety of dramatic and musical productions- Charles Dickens "A Christmas Carol", 'Titanic', 'My Fair Lady' to name but a few. In 1990s as very successful participants in the first Northern Ireland Global Rock Challenge and in the UK Challenge in Portsmouth a tradition was established for succeeding generations of Ashfield girls to develop and showcase their talents in the world of creative drama, dance, music, stage management and costume design- areas in which they continue to excel.
From the earliest years of Ashfield Girls Secondary' School new ideas /policies have been implemented by the Staff often at personal cost in terms of personal time and energy but always with the best interests of the pupils paramount. Ashfield Staff have always shown professionalism and dedication to their work and also have been ever grateful to those parents who have given 100% support in the Schools' endeavours to ensure that their daughters reach their full potential. In the Book of Proverbs we read "Train a child in the way he(she) should go and when he(she) is old he (she ) will not turn from it." Hopefully the high standards set for Ashfield girls as they have participated in wide range of curricular and extra- curricular activities have become part of them and will remain their standards for future life.