Notre Dame's History

Bill Connelly - Notre Dame's first Head Teacher in 1972In 1993 we produced a brochure to celebrate our 21st anniversary. This also coincided with our move from Peat Road to Dunlop Street. As part of this brochure, Mr Brennan, who was our Principal Teacher of History at the time, wrote a chapter detailing our first two decades as Notre Dame High School:

NOTRE DAME: The First Two Decades

By Martin Brennan

In June 1972, the late, well-loved Fr Moloney distributed rosary beads to the very last boys to leave St Mary’s Patrick Street and to the very last girls to leave the Loreto building in Dalrymple Street. Two months later, in the August of the same year, Head Teacher, Bill Connelly led his staff and pupils to their new school in the former St Columba’s building, high above the Clyde. The school was now Greenock’s only six year Catholic comprehensive. To establish its new identity, the school changed its name to Notre Dame High School.
Notre Dame’s first Head Teacher was Bill Connelly, a native of Glasgow. Mr Connelly was a highly civilised and humane individual with interests varying from social anthropology to professional boxing. Married with six children, he had taught in St. Columba’s, St John’s, Port Glasgow and was firstly depute in St Mary’s, Greenock before becoming Head Teacher in the same school in 1968.

Bill Connelly was patient, genial and shrewd. He was to need all these qualities in the early years of Notre Dame High School. When the school opened in August 1972, it did not have a single Modern Languages teacher. At one time, Robert Williams was the only qualified Maths teacher for a school of over 1200 pupils. Staff shortages made early dismissals inevitable. Parents expressed their anxiety at public meetings. Notre Dame was not playing on an even pitch. There wasn’t even an official opening! Despite that, despite everything, the vast majority of parents kept the faith. They knew there was nothing wrong the with teachers: there just weren’t enough of them. This school still owes a real debt of gratitude to the early P.T.A. and their early presidents like John McKernan. They fought Notre Dame’s corner much more effectively than the teaching staff could.

Even in those very difficult early days, there was one area of real excellence within the school – the Technical Department. Led by Mr Bill Climie, the department continued a tradition of quality which had its origins in St. Mary’s.

Going Places
Meanwhile, in the World beyond Peat Road, there was a massive hike in Middle East oil prices; U.K. inflation went through the roof and the money went funny. When the I.M.F. came in to sort out the mess, they told Dennis Healy to slash spending on schools.

Ironically, at Notre Dame, things were just beginning to get better by the mid 70’s. The School could hold its own in competition with others for the first time. The mood was that of a school going places.

The newly created post of Assistant Head Teacher resulted in several excellent appointments at Notre Dame. There was the scholarly Irish Teacher and journalist, Mrs Mary Vaughan, who died tragically in post; the very able and energetic Mr Stephen McPartlin who later became Depute at Notre Dame and is now Head Teacher of St Bride’s, East Kilbride. The original Depute Head was the very talented Mr Jim Gorman.
Mr Philip Docherty, like Mr Gorman, is a local man; he had taught in St Mungo’s and St Columba’s before his appointment, firstly as Principal Teacher of English at St Mary’s and subsequently as Assistant Head at Notre Dame. The professionalism of Mr Docherty and his AHT colleagues did much to advance the public reputation of Notre Dame in the 70’s and 80’s.

The Right Stuff?
As Margaret Thatcher’s era began in Britain, Mr Connelly’s drew to a close in Notre Dame. His successor was Mr John Irvine. A native of Ayrshire, Mr Irvine spent his early days teaching Maths and Physics in, what is now, Dunbarton Division, before becoming Head Teacher first at St Mirren’s Paisley and finally at Notre Dame. John remains committed to the comprehensive ideal. He ensured Notre Dame was ready to meet the challenges of the eighties.

In 1980, only the top thirty per cent of the ability range had any real prospect of success in SCE exams: the new Standard Grade courses changed this. They provided certification for all. By the beginning of the eighties, the schools were out of touch with the needs of industry: TVEI and later Compact began to address this deficiency. More pupils stayed on past the age of 16: the new SCOTVEC modules meant meaningful courses for them and worthwhile certificates. Every school had to get its curricular show on the road. Accountability, value for money and cost benefit were the educational buzz words for the eighties. The schools were swallowing vast sums of public money and the politicians were looking at them long and hard. Failure to attract consumers could put a school’s very existence at risk. Meanwhile, a demographic time bomb was ticking away: there were too many schools and not enough pupils. School closures were a reality by the end of that decade.

Notre Dame rose to the challenge. Its teachers were in the vanguard of Standard Grade developments, whether as staff tutors or as lecturers. Others became prominent in the TVEI structure, e.g. Mr McPartlin, who was TVEI advisor for Scotland. However, it was the developments within the school which were of most interest to pupils and parents.

In the field of computer assisted learning, Notre Dame has a remarkable tale to tell. The school was plugged in, wired up and switched on before any other in the area. The credit for this is shared among a number of people, notable Robert Watt, now Principal Teacher of computing in Cleveden Secondary , Glasgow.

A whole series of sponsored “Marches for Marvin” raised the necessary finance for a fully equipped computer room. With military precision, Mr Irvine would lead the entire school out of the Peat Road gate and, with a technique Sherpa Tensing might envy, he climbed towards the “Cut”. At Cornalees, it was the PTA to the rescue: Mrs Petrie and Mrs Quigley would minister to the lame and the halt and ply them with lemonade and buns to raise more cash.

The school is always confident that, if the cause is good, the parents will back it with hard cash. Notre Dame parents put a high premium on their children’s education and they give this practical expression with their support for school events like the show, the pantomime and the PTA fetes of 1982 and 1992.

Notre Dame’s benefactors also include St Lawrence’s, St Mary’s, St Mungo’s and St Patrick’s Parishes. Without their largesse, it simply would not have been possible to equip our R.E. Department to the standard required at Notre Dame. Notre Dame parents cast a massive vote of confidence in the school every day by sending their children there.

A Catholic School
The religious life of the school is of fundamental importance. Without it, the school has no real reason for being. Notre Dame hopes that it is in every sense a Catholic school, not just a school for Catholics. Beginning with Fr Neil Sharp in the seventies, the school has had a series of active, vigorous chaplains. Fr McNellis, the present Chaplain, has overall responsibility for daily masses in the school, counselling for those who wish it, retreats and seminars. Over the years there have been several missions to the school and there is an annual spiritual retreat at St Vincent’s, Langbank. The Chaplain fosters pupil and staff involvement in the “Justice and Peace” and “Pro Life” groups. Staff, Chaplains and parents must be doing something right – two former pupils celebrated Mass recently in the Oratory and another four are currently studying for the Priesthood.

In the early months of 1982, staff and pupils of Notre Dame feared the worse: the Papal visit would be cancelled. The Falklands War, it seemed, had ruled out John Paul’s historic mission to Scotland. We now know that the visit went ahead and the school was represented. A bus load of Notre Dame Staff and pupils went through to Murryfield for the Youth Mass. The following day, the Pope celebrated Mass at Bellahouston in glorious spring sunshine. Several of the girls in the choir that day were from Notre Dame. Mrs Maureen Houston, their Music Teacher, was with them.

The Oratory was a milestone in the school’s progress. It involved the complete refurbishment of a former classroom and its dedication as a place of worship and prayer for the school community. In session 1986-87, parents, pupils and staff taxed their ingenuity to the limit as they devised even more fund raising enterprises to finance the Oratory. The unstinting generosity of parents and friends of the school, like John Bryceland, Charles Cannon, Jim Carroll, Liz Nicol and Marie Petrie translated this particular dream into reality. Fr Jim Byers, broadcaster, mountaineer and not least, the then school Chaplain, was another major player in this project – advising, encouraging and participating.

In 1987, Bishop John Mone and clergy from Notre Dame’s associated Parishes dedicated the Oratory and celebrated its inaugural Mass. Since then, Bishop John has visited the school at least once every year. Chris Flood, Principal Teacher of R.E. has also played a big part in the religious life of the school since his appointment in 1986.

Dangers and Opportunities
Until the mid-seventies, Catholic education, in particular, suffered from teacher shortages and inadequate building provision. By the late eighties, things had turned full circle: there weren’t enough pupils and there were too many schools. This was a time of real danger for Notre Dame. The threat of closure hung over the school. The condition of the Peat Road building was appalling and Strathclyde Region could have made substantial saving by dispatching half of Notre Dame’s pupils to St Stephen’s and the other half to St Columba’s. Happily for the school, the Region paid more heed to the educationists than it did to the accountants.
Not only did the school survive, but the Region and the Scottish Office pledged themselves to refurbish the former Cowdenknowes Building for Notre Dame. Notre Dame was to get a school fit for the 21st Century. This came as a considerable relief to the pupils and staff who had been learning and teaching in a building unfit for the 19th Century!

Ever since Strathclyde gave its undertaking, the School Board at Notre Dame kept a watching brief on developments. This was Notre Dame’s first School Board and they had to learn fast. Inexperienced as they were initially, the board members became involved in a frantic round of public and private meetings with architects, educational officers, local authorities, etc. They did all this in addition to their day jobs and in addition to the routine duties any School Board performs. Brian Blacklaw and his board did a first class job negotiating the best possible deal for the pupils.

The new Dunlop Street site has a “state of the art” games hall and a very expensive football pitch in addition to the two main school buildings. The architects call it “A Year 2000 Campus”. The refurbished buildings have custom built classrooms, a library/resource centre, a fitness suite, Apple Macintosh computers, etc. The Oratory is functioning as normal and the school is up and running.

There have been big changes in the staff. Gone is Stephen McPartlin. Retired are Philip Docherty, Kay Quigley, Bill Sinclair and many others. The present Senior Management Team comprises, with the exception of John Irvine, a number of relatively recent appointments. It is Frances Gilpin, Terry Brannigan, Tony Watt and Jack Nellaney who now help direct and shape the school’s future.

There are abundant grounds for optimism about the school’s future. By whatever benchmark – Scottish Office, School League Tables, Strathclyde’s own performance indicators, leagues devised by the press – Notre Dame has always done well, whether the comparison is local or national. Of course, that is not all that this school is about. A school is a place where a child should be safe, happy and well. The school and the home should also try to ensure that their children become well informed, condiment, participative citizens. A school should provide each child with opportunities to develop and grow: the school ethos should inform the child’s social and morale conscience, both in school and in later life. Of course there are largely aspirations: Notre Dame may not have achieved all of them as yet, but they remain the school’s signposts for the future.

Finally, Notre Dame remains what it always was: a truly comprehensive school and a school pledged to deliver a quality education to all its children.

I apologise to the large number of parents, clergy, pupils and members of staff of Notre Dame and its associated primaries who have made significant contributions to the success of the school, but who are not mentioned in this article. It is to them that this article is dedicated.

Martin Brennan was the Principal Teacher of History at Notre Dame. He held this post from 1976 until his retirement in 2008.

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