Educate meets Niamh Howlett, headteacher at Bellerive FCJ, to talk science, success and why the ethos of the school was the perfect fit.
by Christine Toner
They say teaching is a vocation. But it’s not necessarily one that hits you straight away. At least, it wasn’t for Niamh Howlett, the recently appointed headteacher at Bellerive Catholic College. Indeed, Niamh had already carved out a successful career before finding her calling into education. And her previous career has inspired her to help her students to reach their goals.
Before entering the education sector, Niamh worked as a research chemist in London for the Cancer Research Campaign. Being a teacher was never her plan but when her agronomist husband took a job with the Falkland Islands government and the pair moved she found a role as a primary school and radio teacher.
“The young people lived very far away from settlements and villages,” she said. “They would live on farms that would be quite a distance away, and there were no roads at that time so they would have lessons from a teacher over CB radio. That would be supplemented with visits from a travelling teacher, so I would liaise with the travelling teacher over the work I was doing and then teach the children via the radio at an allocated time every day. This was as well as having primary age children in the classroom.”
Niamh and her husband lived on West Falkland for five years before moving back to Liverpool in 1994. Having well and truly caught the teaching bug by this point she enrolled at Liverpool University to complete her PGCE and, as a newly qualified teacher took a job at St Anselm’s College in Birkenhead.
“I was at St Anselm’s College for 22 years,” she explains. “I started there in 1995 as an NQT. I was then made head of chemistry and later head of year seven, and I held both of those roles for some time before I was made acting head of Key stage 3 and then promoted to deputy head in 2006.
Niamh served as deputy head at St Anselm’s for 11 years before successfully applying for the top job at Bellerive, which she took on in September last year.
“I felt extremely proud to be appointed as headteacher, as well as realising what a big role it was,” she said. “My daughters attended Upton Hall School FCJ (Faithful Companions of Jesus) so I already respected the ethos of an FCJ education, and I come from a Catholic school, so I recognise the importance of a faith-based education for young people.”
Niamh’s appointment followed the retirement of Sister Brigid Halligan, who was at the school for 38 years (24 as headteacher) and was awarded an OBE for services to education and she says it was a privilege to follow in her footsteps. But while Sister Brigid had her own vision for Bellerive (and she “definitely achieved it!” says Niamh), a new headteacher offers the chance for new ideas and a fresh start and I wondered what Niamh hoped to bring to the role.
“I wanted the opportunity to work with everyone here, the governors, the staff, to bring my vision for the education of young people to fruition,” she said. “Bellerive takes a very holistic view of education, looking at the whole person, academically, spiritually, emotionally and instilling young people with a very strong moral purpose in life. That’s definitely my vision and what I want to do.”
That holistic attitude toward student development is backed up by the school’s mission statement: Making the most of every given ability. And Niamh says a bespoke approach is taken with each student to ensure they fulfill their potential.
“We have an individualised programme for each child,” she said. “We recognise the talents of each child, and we provide a range of extracurricular activities for them from Duke of Edinburgh programmes, drama and school productions to our initiatives such as The Brilliant Club, and our mentoring programmes.
“We provide a huge range of opportunities for our pupils so whatever their ability and wherever their talents lie we can help them to develop those and in doing so boost their self-esteem and their confidence and help them to make the most of their God-given talents.”
The aforementioned Brilliant Club exposes students to the university experience, particularly Russell Group universities. Students undertake a project with a university which is at a higher level than they are working at in school, helping them to develop study skills and encouraging them to become independent learners.
“The feedback from the students and the universities has been incredibly positive,” said Niamh. “Students see themselves as ‘going to university’ because they’ve experienced it. They know it’s achievable.”
Bellerive is also working with Shaping Futures, a collaborative outreach programme led by the University of Liverpool which seeks to give students more exposure to higher education.
While giving students a huge choice regarding extra-curricular activities, the school has never lost its focus on academic achievement. Indeed, last year it was among the top five performing schools in Liverpool for GCSE results. Niamh said the school’s success in this area is down to a “range of different things rather than one magic bullet.”
“I’m so impressed by the commitment of the staff,” she said. “The way they’re prepared to give up time at lunchtime and after school to support the students. There are excellent relationships within the school between staff and students – the students feel that they are looked after. They trust the staff.
“We also employ a very good behaviour management policy which means children can learn in the classroom. That is backed up by a consistent application of procedures in schools which the girls know about and which the parents have bought into.
“And of course there is our religious ethos. We’re a Catholic school; we don’t give up on our children. We support them all. And we have the support of the FCJ trustees all the way through.”
Niamh said one of the key aims for the school is to prepare the children for the world of work and their future careers. Given her own career history, I wonder whether she is particularly passionate about ensuring the girls in the school believe they can be successful in any career.
“Absolutely,” she said. “We work constantly with our girls (and boys in the sixth form) at building their self-confidence and self-esteem to show them what they can achieve and that it is possible to achieve anything if they put their mind to it.
“We invite women in industry into school to talk to our students so that they have role models and we’re involved with the Girls Network where individual students are matched up with mentors who are in business. Our students can speak to women who have achieved so they can see all of this is absolutely possible. We’re continually letting children know they can achieve anything.”