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A charming, gentle small school on the shores of Belfast Lough which feels like one big family, where ‘there is top down happiness from the headmaster and staff to the children and everyone seems to be smiling’. Children are encouraged to try new things like kayaking from Rockport’s own beach and sailing from Ballyholme Yacht Club - the school has produced four international sailors and half the Irish team...

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What The Good Schools Guide says

Headmaster

Since 2012, George Vance LLB BEd PQHNI (50s). He joined the school in 2007 as deputy head. His teacher training was at Stanmillis University College, part of Queen’s University Belfast, and he read law at the University of Ulster. His first teaching post was at Regent House School, where he would spend 25 years, 22 of them as head of DT. His two great ambitions when he became headmaster were for Rockport to join the Round Square group of schools and to open a sixth form, both now achieved. As a student teacher he read an article by Kurt Hahn which made a lasting impression, and one of the reasons he joined Rockport was because he felt it was a ‘Round Square school in waiting’.

‘He lives and breathes the school, is approachable and welcoming and is just right for the school,’ said a father. ‘Kids warm to him as a person but also respect him as the headmaster, and no parent or child would hesitate to knock on his door’. He wears a gown for official events, can be spotted bicycling round the grounds, and The Belfast Telegraph likened him to Mr Chips, but he will put his shoulder to anything – ‘he can be super smart,' said a pupil, 'but will also round up the chickens when they escape’.

A qualified mountain leader, he is passionate about the Morne Mountains and takes every child over the age of 8 hillwalking. He loves the outdoors and has been involved with the DofE for over 30 years. He keeps his hand in by teaching DT as cover. He lives on site with his wife, Susan, a special needs teacher at a local school, and they have three grown up children.

Academic matters

Not really selective and will accept all children who can access the curriculum. The environment is much more nurturing and supportive than at local grammars, and the breadth of ability means they can welcome whole families. It is not unusual for children to leave for the grammars and then come back. ‘The children are not pushed but gently supported’, said one mother, but another felt that perhaps they could be stretched a bit more. In 2018, 30 per cent A*-A/9-7 at GCSE - impressive in terms of value added with most pupils outperforming their predicted outcomes by at least two grades. The small year groups mean that the statistics are less meaningful than in a larger school. The sixth form opened in 2015 with the second cohort (nine pupils) sitting A levels in 2018: 23 per cent of grades were A*-B, eight per cent A*/A. Eighteen subjects offered at GCSE; options include media and business studies, Arabic and learning for life and work. Can accommodate a range of abilities within one class and the average size is 12, but there are sometimes as few as five in a GCSE class and three in an A level class. The choice of A levels at the moment is very much pupil driven and includes the popular moving image arts, sports studies, ICT, art and geography.

The headmaster had to have difficult conversations with some members of staff a few years ago and now has a dynamic team of teachers who are happy to go on courses and update their skills.

CAT tests for all pupils annually, and most improve on predicted grades – the school likes to call it the Rockport effect. Teaches separate sciences from year 8 in newly refurbished labs and uses the grounds and the beach as outdoor classrooms (as well as a bespoke forest classroom). Home economics (which can include child development) from year 8 is popular with boys and girls at GCSE. Well-equipped ICT suite – there are over 90 computers throughout the school.

SEN is housed in the cottage in the grounds with two full-time dyslexia specialists and part-time specialists in maths and dyspraxia, who all work closely with the teaching and boarding staff. Seven statemented children in the school, two with classroom assistants. Very supportive and inclusive and the school has a record of success with school refusers from elsewhere. EAL support teacher comes in once a week - usually one-to-one teaching but depends on the need. Will even take a child with no English.

Lower sixth required to do a week’s work experience – parents are very supportive and often offer work shadowing.

Games, options, the arts

Pupils have to take part in some sort of sport until they are 14, with rugby, hockey, football and netball being the main team sports. The school is probably too small to win any of the big rugby tournaments, but boys play with great enthusiasm and two are in the Ulster development squad. ‘The Astro is our new baby,’ said a pupil, 'and we can now host tennis and hockey matches.' The school also hosts a netball tournament and barbecue for 600 children, and the junior team recently won the Northern Ireland tournament – everyone is put forward for trials and ‘they push us beyond our boundaries,’ said a pupil.

Children are encouraged to try new things like kayaking from Rockport’s own beach and sailing from Ballyholme Yacht Club. The latter is offered from the age of 3, culminating in the annual Rockport Regatta – the school has produced four international sailors, half the Irish team and a Commonwealth Games team member who is now in the pre-Olympic squad for Tokyo. They have also set up the Rockport Golf Academy and everyone plays golf once a week from the age of 3. There are five affordable courses within a few minutes’ drive and school keen to spot talent and bring it on through development and elite squads – the junior girls’ team are Ulster and Irish champions and a boy has recently won the Junior Irish Open. 1970s sports hall also used for exams, tests and speech day, with swimming at the local leisure centre. Rockport runs its own Wimbledon tournament – all involved, no-one is left out and finals are held on the front lawn followed by a barbecue. Everything is a family affair and usually involves drinks and food for parents.

About 20 per cent learn an instrument, some up to grade 8, or take singing lessons. ‘Singing is massive,’ said a pupil, and there are two choirs run as clubs as well as a string quartet and a woodwind group – the school is not big enough for an orchestra. Pupils sing at Holywood music festival and everyone takes part in the summer concert, which is preceded by canapes and fizz on the lawn.

Art particularly strong, with A level art being the most popular subject – the visual arts programme is mentored by an artist and the children exhibit their work at the Belfast museum; ‘we love it when the artists come in’, said a pupil. We were particularly struck by the beautiful stained glass windows in the art department.

Energetic drama department with something going on most terms. Senior and junior drama societies and GCSE plays – very inclusive and we ‘pick children who would not necessarily volunteer’. Also have the opportunity to get involved with stage management and lighting is linked in with ICT.

Range of after-school clubs, many outdoors based, such as the fly fishing, angling clubs, orienteering and hillwalking clubs, most gain silver DofE and 12-15 take part in the Young Enterprise scheme – projects have included commissioning, branding, marketing and selling granite candlesticks, paperweights and pampered pet pouches. Outings include a visit to a potato crisp factory and a print workshop, theatre trips and a physics trip to Queen’s University, Belfast.

Boarders

Offers full, weekly and flexi boarding and can accommodate the occasional casual boarder, but doesn't have much space. Some 40 boarders from the age of 12, with about 20 in at weekends. No Saturday school but outings like swimming and ice skating are arranged and ‘we try to make it as much like home as possible,’ says the matron. Lots of investment in boarding areas and a cosy family feel – boys in single or double rooms, younger girls in small dorms and older girls have their own rooms. Comfortable sitting room with tartan sofas and a television and boarders can make toast and bring in food. Reward night on Thursdays - maybe go-karting, movie night or trampolining. Boarders have structured evenings with a supervised second prep with staff on hand to help; sixth formers are given more independence. International boarders often come for just a term and have a week of outings in the summer when everyone else is doing exams.

Background and atmosphere

The school was founded in 1906 by Geoffrey Bing with the aim of ‘preparing boys for the Public Schools and the Royal Naval College, Dartmouth.’ It was built as a private house in the 19th century and is set in 25 acres on the shores of Belfast Lough on Northern Ireland’s gold coast. It is the only fully independent school in Northern Ireland, has no church involvement and there are no clergy on the board of governors – unique in Northern Ireland. The school is not secular but has a light touch Christian ethos and has a long relationship with the parish church where the Remembrance Day and carol services are held, but mostly plays down religion and welcomes families from all faiths and none.

The sixth formers are delighted with their social and study area in a chalet in the grounds overlooking the lough. As the school is so small everyone has to mix between years and join in. Academic achievement is only part of the picture and there is a strong sense of community, but it’s not highly competitive - there are cups for everything but winning is not the be all and end all.

Attractive school uniform; the main school pupils wear a green kilt or grey trousers and green jumpers with blazers for best. There has been much consultation about the uniform for the sixth form and they have settled for grey trousers or a Black Watch skirt and navy blue jumpers.

The school became a global member of the Round Square in 2016 and the education at Rockport is underpinned by Kurt Hann’s six IDEALS of internationalism, democracy, environment, adventure, leadership and service, which fit well with its ethos. There are often exchanges with other Round Square schools, two pupils recently attended the global conference in Singapore and four sixth formers represented the school at the Cape Town conference. There are elections for everything and a strong culture of service. The junior choir sings in old people’s homes at Christmas and sixth formers volunteer in charity shops and at the Camphill Community for those with severe learning difficulties, and all get involved in the annual sponsored walk. Pupils are taught to think about what they can do for others and offer a helping hand. ‘Never give up, rise to the challenge, do what you enjoy and treat everyone equally wherever they come from.' ‘They don’t tell kids what they can’t do but what they can,’ said a parent.

Pastoral care, well-being and discipline

Children can talk to anyone and everyone if they are struggling, school contacts parents immediately if there is a problem and a full staff briefing every morning keeps everyone in the loop. ‘Everyone knows each other and there are no invisible children at Rockport’, said a parent. Children also have access to an external counsellor.

The usual social media issues, but zero tolerance of bullying: ‘it is nipped in the bud and we all look out for each other’, said a pupil. The school has a team of student anti-bullying ambassadors who attend a training session to become peer mentors, with particular focus on social media. There has not been a drugs issue in living memory.

The school hosts the Amazing Brains programme to help students cope with the stress of revision and exams. Two houses, Green House and White House, which compete against each other in the founders' day cross country-race, swimming gala and declamations.

All meals made from scratch and the food is ‘the best – even better than my mum’s’, said a pupil (not necessarily what a mother wants to hear).

Pupils and parents

Almost half are from local postcodes but a good train line means some from as far as 40 miles away – the local station is only a short walk. Combination of old money, professionals and self-made entrepreneurs with about a third receiving some financial assistance with the fees. Most children are from Northern Ireland but a growing international community in Belfast means that it is often the school of choice for expats. There is a large American contingent and the school now hosts a Thanksgiving dinner. Parents very engaged and generous with their time and money and the Parents' Association is involved with the planning of the numerous social gatherings and fundraising events such as the camping weekends and the quiz night, and are very welcoming to new parents. A parent described the children as ‘well rounded and confident, will stand up for themselves and speak out and are willing to swim against the shoal’. They have a strong sense of right and wrong and are very understanding of those who are not doing well.

Former pupils include rugby star, Paddy Wallace; the rock band, Snow Patrol; former Lord Mayor of London, Sir Peter Gadsden; and the leader of the House of Lords, Natalie Evans. The school promotes free thinking, says the headmaster, and has produced a number of MPs and life peers representing the full range of political opinion.

Parents kept informed via regular progress reports and regular meetings and the headmaster’s witty and informative Friday newsletter.

Entrance

Not hugely selective. Most children from the prep school move on to the senior school and there is a big intake from local state schools at 11.

Exit

School will prepare children for the transfer test to the grammars at 11+ as well as common entrance to independent schools on the mainland. About a quarter leaves after GCSEs for larger schools with a wider choice of A levels – Gordonstoun and Glenalmond are popular choices - but increasing numbers choosing to stay for the sixth form. Nearly all 2018 leavers off to do vocational degrees, ranging from animal management and dental nursing (Belfast Met) to airline management (University of West London) to business and Spanish (Manchester University).

Money matters

One third have some financial assistance including 5-10 per cent on full bursaries. Academic, music and golf scholarships worth up to 20 per cent of fees, which can be topped up to 100 per cent with a with a bursary.

Our view

A charming, gentle small school on the shores of Belfast Lough which feels like one big family, where ‘there is top down happiness from the headmaster and staff to the children and everyone seems to be smiling’.

Special Education Needs

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