IN 2003, Ballycraigy Primary was ‘failing’ and at risk of closure.
Hazel Edwards stepped forwards to take up the role of principal and help transform the fortunes of the school, but is now set to step down at the end of the academic year after 35 years in teaching.
Dr Edwards has presided over many changes and positive developments, with the help of staff and parents.
She had arrived from Oakfield in Carrickfergus with no vice-principal experience.
“I am very thankful to the Governors for their faith in me and for giving me the opportunity to take up the post.
“I hope I have done them proud and I feel I have brought the school as far as I can bring it, no someone else can take over and move it to the next level.”
Starting with a blank playground, the school has since developed a number of nature and fitness trails and has been a pioneer of the Forest School and Eco School initiatives.
Ballycraigy Primary became an Eco-School in 2005.
The school, situated in a socially deprived area, had experienced anti-social behaviour in the past.
The grounds of the school were also an uninspiring mixture of tarmac and hard surfaces.
From humble beginnings and driven by the dedication and determination of its staff, the program was slowly introduced into the consciousness of the local population.
The school rescued hens from intensive farming and nursed them back to health at the school.
Parents were approached for help to look after the hens during the weekends and schools holidays.
Pupils and parents together have worked over the years to develop a heritage garden, a vegetable garden, a polytunnel, a pond, an outdoor fitness trail, a wildlife trail, and wildflower areas.
Through funding applications and competition prizes the school has raised over £60,000 for their eco work and has scooped armfuls of awards.
Now every pupil in the school has access to outdoor learning and a greater understanding of the biodiversity and history of their area.
The school has worked with many community organizations and helped a local nursery develop their own outdoor areas.
A ‘Green Gym’ gardening club is available to parent groups using the school facilities.
As a result of this there is a much greater sense of community involvement in the school and anti-social problems are a thing of the past.
Ballycraigy was also one of the first four schools to go through the Nuture programme, which highlights the importance of social environments – who you’re with, and not who you’re born to – and its significant influence on social emotional skills, wellbeing and behaviour. The charity Nurtute UK said that the nurturing approach ‘offers a range of opportunities for children and young people to engage with missing early nurturing experiences, giving them the social and emotional skills to do well at school and with peers, develop their resilience and their capacity to deal more confidently with the trials and tribulations of life, for life’.
Dr Edwards said that she has seen huge improvements in inclusivity over the years.
“As well as the increasing mix of cultures in the town, 35 years ago, children with even moderate learning difficulties were educated in special schools.
“Now children at all levels are educated together, everyone learns together and learns from each other.”
She added that the most important thing about the school is the sense of community.
“I think because the school is not very big, it really is an extension of the families, there is a real community feel, we have a very strong Parent Teacher Association and we work very closely with the local community groups.
“Every P7 leavers year gets harder and harder, family lines are finishing off going through the school and I am now teaching the children of those I was teaching back in 2003!”
And that sense of family extends to the staff, too.
One of the main motivators for Hazel’s retirement is the opportunity to spend more time with husband Alastair, who suffered a haemorrhagic stroke himself in 2016, just four months after retiring himself as a technician at Queen’s University, aged just 57.
“Alastair had no chance of survival in 2016 and even when he started showing signs of recovery, I didn’t think I’d be able to go back to work.
“However the staff are so supportive and cohesive, we socialise as well as work together, they were able to give me five more years.
“I had hoped to work until I was 60, but Alastair needs me and I am so grateful that the staff at Ballycraigy allowed me to have those extra few years.”
Alastair spent more than nine months in hospital before returning home.
Dr Edwards said that she is also looking forward to being a full-time granny!
“I have three grandsons and I will be spending three days a week doing the school run.
“I am hoping that I can get Alastair into some local groups, which I can then volunteer with.”
The couple also has a caravan on the north coast and Hazel enjoys open water swimming.
The school has coped admirably during the pandemic, with 92% engagement, and she is looking forward to pupils re-building their relationships in the school setting.
Ballycraigy made sterling efforts to teach children of frontline workers as well as offering online provision.
Staff provided daily supervised learning for vulnerable children, and those with key worker parents.
Students also had access to the technology they need to engage fully with online activities.
Every child, whether safe at home or in school, was provided with a comprehensive paper pack weekly to complement the daily on line learning.
There were also movies and play activities as well as a healthy break.
Teachers also uploaded videos onto the school’s online learning platform daily.
And as her role was advertised this week, local people queued up to pay tribute to Dr Edwards.
Trish Weir said: “My goodness Hazel, what a well deserved retirement to look forward to!
“The end of an era for Ballycraigy Primary School and very big shoes to fill for someone.
“I hope the candidate will have the same passion and dedication that you have.”
Florence Walker said: “So that wee scrap of a lass who rolled down grassy hills, put up jumps, skipped, danced, walked her doll who was as tall as herself, took care of my daughter on her first days at school - my daughter had a plaster cast on her leg - to name but a few things, is now going to retire.
“Best wishes Hazel, I know you will never find time to be bored .
“You have set a high standard for your school to build on. “Congratulations and best wishes for the next stage.”
Susan Shepherd said: “My Dad still goes on about how much you helped me with my music.
“I nearly ditched my violin in P7 but 20years later I'm still playing.”
Heather McIntyre added: “Seems no time since you walked in our doors at Muckamore pre-school - enjoy your new chapter, it will be so exciting.”
Mandy Willis said: “The end of one amazing chapter and the start of a new exciting one!
“You have helped shape so many lives, never daunted by the challenges in your life, you are leaving a fantastic legacy. Enjoy!”
Thomas Brown added: “Think about how much you have contributed to children’s lives over that period.
“Now that is something to be thinking about.
“Well done, and now it’s time for you after a long dedication to others.
“Congratulations and well done chum.”
And Richard Benko said: “Firstly, I would like to congratulate!
“Secondly, I would like to express my appreciation and thank you for your service!
“Your chosen career is a very challenging and rewarding one I think. You shaped the future generation. I witnessed it.
“My children were excited to go to the school every day and explore the world on a way you presented for them.
“I am glad that we chose the school which was under your supervision.
“I truly believe that was the best decision we ever made.
“Not only children but us parents as well just could not wait to get engaged with the staff members and activities what your beloved school provided for us.
“I am sure it was a difficult decision to make but now a new chapter is about to start in your life.”
“We wish you a happy retirement and good health.”