The Sunday Times Northern Ireland Secondary School of the Decade
When the wealthy Presbyterian merchant Hugh Rainey left an endowment in his will in 1707 to establish a non-denominational school to teach Christian values, he could hardly have imagined a legacy stretching from Magherafelt in Northern Ireland to India, China and Uganda.
More than 300 years later, his wish to help local children achieve their potential is benefiting young people across the world. For a decade, the outward-looking voluntary grammar school in the small rural town of Magherafelt has supported educational projects in the slums of New Delhi and built partnerships with educational institutions in China. It has just embarked on a long-term mission to build and support the Rainey Summit View Primary School in Ngora, eastern Uganda.
In the past 10 years, under former principal Mark McCullough and its new one, Neil McClements, the school has made impressive strides at home, too. Its 730 pupils feel they are part of a family, achieving great things academically and personally.
The Rainey’s 22-acre site, leased from the Worshipful Company of Salters, has been upgraded with a £10m investment in nine new classroom “pods”, a canteen, sixth form facilities and a four-court sports hall and fitness suite.
Academically, the selective school has risen steadily from just outside our top 100 to reach 50th place in our latest table, with more than 80% of A-levels graded A*-B and more than 60% of GCSEs achieving A*/A or 9-7. The Rainey’s steady academic improvement, plus its extraordinary efforts to develop students as caring, 21st century global citizens, make it The Sunday Times Northern Ireland Secondary School of the Decade.
Laura Stewart, who teaches French and Spanish, was one of five members of staff who travelled last year to Ngora, a six-hour bus ride from the Ugandan capital, Kampala, with builders from Henry Brothers and 28 children.
“The aim of the project is to carry on what Hugh Rainey set out [to do], that there would be education for children for generations to come,” says Mrs Stewart, herself a former Rainey pupil.
“When we arrived there was a run-down building with no roof, no windows; the younger children got taught under the mango tree. Every pupil got a notebook, pencil, rubber, and they all lined up to get them, some of them in tears.
“Our sixth form pupils said: ‘Whenever we come in September you give us all of our stationery free and we complain that our bags are too heavy.’ It was a really surreal experience.”
For two weeks, the team gave lessons and built a block of four classrooms. The aim is to return every other year, to build another block, toilets and a canteen – and, longer term, to sponsor the education of 29 children. Every tutor group at the Rainey is supporting one pupil in Uganda and every Rainey student is asked to donate £1 a month.
Mr McClements said the Ugandan project, organised through the Christian charity Abaana, “spoke” to the school, partly because it was on land given to the community by the local church. “We felt Hugh Rainey’s ethos was speaking to us: this was an opportunity to do what had happened locally in Magherafelt,” he says. “Our ethos is to get as many kids attending that school as possible.”
He is personally sponsoring Patricia, a bold six-year-old who wants to be a nurse. “One of the days we were there, I noticed, on the outskirts of the school perimeter, all of these kids just standing,” he recalls. “I asked the head: ‘Why are they standing around?’ He said: ‘Unfortunately, they can’t afford to come here.’ There was this wee girl, and she just kept on, about 10 metres away. She knew she wasn’t allowed but she just kept following me around. I now sponsor that child [to go to school], but there are so many others who still can’t.”
As part of its mission to produce successful learners, confident individuals and responsible citizens, the school is also building a partnership in China. The Rainey Kindergarten Hangzhou, in the eastern province of Zhejiang province, pays a small percentage of its fees to sustain the collaboration, offering a bilingual curriculum in Mandarin and English for pupils aged three to five. The Rainey hopes the affiliation will be the first of many.
“The exciting thing for us is that we get to share not just our branding and school name but get an input into their ethos and values,” says Naomi Thorogood, a music teacher involved in the partnership and the daughter of a former Rainey pupil. “The focus is to enable pupils in Hangzhou and Magherafelt to celebrate our rich, diverse, cultural heritage and ethnic diversity. It’s that global dimension it brings to our school, so that the pupils in Magherafelt aren’t just thinking about our little town, but of a global economic future for the 21st century.”
On home ground, more than half of the school’s sixth-formers volunteer with the Rainey Community Group, assisting with lessons in primary schools, helping at a local food bank, charity shop and the Milesian Manor care home. The majority of sixth-form pupils become “subject ambassadors” who give up some of their time in free periods to help pupils in lower years, for example practising a language in the run-up to exams. There is also a mentoring scheme so older pupils can be trained as “wellbeing ambassadors” to support younger ones. During Covid-19 restrictions, this caring side of the school has been prominent.
“One of the strengths of our pastoral system is that every child is known,” adds Mrs Thorogood, who is also a head of year. “We even produced a song to send out to children during lockdown. It was a bit of fun and I think it shows the relationships between staff and the strength of those.”
In a video clip of the song, Lean on Me, one member of staff is seen bottle-feeding a lamb.
The school has solidly rural roots but shows its students the way to wider horizons, sending students to Oxbridge and into local employment. A large proportion of the Rainey’s school leavers are the first in their family to go to university, says Mr McClements,
“It’s a rural community, very much a farming background,” says Mr McClements, who has been at the school for 13 years and was previously vice-principal.
“It’s our strapline, fulfilling the potential of those individuals, in the classroom and outside the classroom. Academia is very important and we will never lose sight of that but we’re a caring school, committed to excellence.”
In the past decade, he says, extracurricular activities have expanded to include more than 50 clubs and societies. Mr McClements has been banned from the cupcake baking group for eating too many of their creations.
Anyone who wants to start a club gets help and support from the school. Honor Graham, the head girl, has recently been selected for the Ulster U18 hockey team and says activities at school have been a great help. “This has enabled me to develop my fitness for hockey, helping me to progress to representative level,” she says.
English teacher Patricia Cooke sums up the school’s abiding strength: “The buildings have changed, leadership has changed, the curriculum offer has changed – but what hasn’t changed is the Rainey’s driven determination to view the future through the lens of the legacy of Hugh Rainey’s will … committed to making a better world now and for future generations.”