AS Andrews Memorial Primary School celebrates its 50th anniversary, former principal, HUGH YEAMAN, who was the first head of the school, a position he retained until 1994, shares a personal reminiscence.

NEARLY all new schools opening today, have a shiny new school building, fully equipped and ready to receive its staff and pupils. This was not the case in the spring of 1973, when the body responsible for education in this area, the Down County Education Committee, decided that the town of Comber needed a second controlled primary school.

For several years prior there had been a debate as to whether a second controlled school was needed. The matter came to a head when it was realised the existing school, Comber Primary, had an enrolment of 760 pupils in a building designed originally for 400 pupils.

In haste, the Education Committee searched for a suitable site for the new school building. Some years earlier a site had been considered on the Newtownards Road, near the cemetery, but this was discarded as being too close to the existing school.

Attention then turned to the western side of the town and eventually a suitable site was identified at land beside the Andrews Memorial Hall. This land was owned by the Andrews family. After negotiations between the education authority and the Andrews family, it was agreed that the land beside the hall would be the site for the new school. It was also agreed that the Memorial Hall would become an integral part of the school and that the name of the school would be Andrews Memorial Primary.

This outcome did not rest easily with a section of Comber people, who felt that they were being denied the use of the hall. For several generations the hall had been available for hire for a multitude of activities, including dances, dog shows, boxing, political meetings, concerts, church functions, etc. In the 1960s, the use of the hall by the community had diminished due to local organisations, churches, etc, building their own modern halls and premises. The result being that it became more difficult to maintain the upkeep of the hall due to declining income.

Some in the community feared that the use of the hall by the new school would deny them hiring the premises. Such fears were allayed by the education authority who gave assurances that the hall would still be available for hire when not in use by the school on evenings and at the weekends.

Having settled on the site of the new school, the education authority – the Down County Education Committee – advertised for the position of principal in May 1973.

At that time, I was vice principal in Comber Primary and decided, with a score of others, to submit an application for the position. After local, preliminary interviews and following interview at the authority headquarters, I had the good fortune to be appointed principal of Andrews Memorial on June 29. I eagerly looked forward to the task ahead. Indeed, I had little idea at that time what that task would involve.

I was summoned to attend education headquarters early the following week, that is, in early July. There I was ushered into the Purchasing Officer’s office. All I could see was a desk piled high with nine or 10 very thick books. Suddenly, I could see the top of a head move behind the books. Then a man stood up making himself visible. It was the Purchasing Officer.

I recognised him from his occasional visits to Comber Primary. I remembered him as a very pleasant man, however, on this occasion his hearty greeting belied what was to follow. Using both hands, he gently pushed the multitude of books to my side of the desk.

“Here are your catalogues, Mr Yeaman. Get ordering your textbooks, stationery, art and craft equipment, etc.” He continued: “We have ordered some furniture, desks, chairs, tables, etc, to get you started, but it’s difficult to know how much to order until we are sure of your enrolment – you open on the third of September.”

To say I was shocked would have been an understatement. The realisation that I was to open a new school in less than eight weeks time without any school building, no books and equipment ordered, no staff appointed as yet, and an uncertain enrolment could have left me bewildered. One could have been forgiven for thinking that the authorities had never opened a school before.

It was estimated that the initial enrolment would be in the region of 130 pupils. This would allow for a teaching staff of a teaching principal and four assistant teachers. It had been agreed that the school would commence with classes ranging from P1 to P5 from an area west of the River Enler. This was to ensure that those pupils about to go into P6 and P7 in Comber Primary would not be disturbed in their final years in primary education.

As the number in Comber Primary would decrease with the opening of the new school, staff members there were asked to consider moving to the new school. Two members of staff willingly agreed to make the switch – Mrs Anne Bailie and Mrs Viola Thompson, and were appointed as permanent teachers.

As at least two other teachers were required, it was agreed that Mrs Patricia Wilson and Mrs Noreen Lynas, who had taught in Comber Primary, would be appointed in a temporary capacity for the time being until enrolment numbers were secure. In the case of Mrs Lynas, her appointment was temporary until the appointment of a vice principal.

It would be December before Mr John Reddick took up his position.

I was asked to conduct a house to house survey on foot of homes in the new catchment area to ascertain which children would be likely to attend the new school. This was completed during the month of July.

There was no compulsion for parents in this area to send their children to the new school. It was understandable that some parents were reluctant to send their children to an unknown school rather than the well-established Comber Primary. However, I was pleasantly surprised when the figures I obtained showed that 165 pupils were likely to attend on the first day.

This posed a dilemma as the figures showed that there was a large number of pupils in the P2 and P3 age range. This would mean the necessity to form an additional P2/P3 class. I requested permission from the education authority to employ an extra teacher – they refused saying that the likely enrolment number of 165 only merited a staffing of teaching principal plus four teachers. If I had 166 pupils, however, I would be entitled to an extra teacher.

Earlier, I had been told that there was a lady who ran a nursery school in Belfast, who was anxious to return to primary teaching. I had a telephone conversation with this lady and was impressed with what she had to say. However, I informed her that I could not offer her a position as the authorities had informed me that I needed one extra pupil.

The problem was solved when she offered to take her young son from his present school and bring him to Andrews. When the authorities were informed that the number of pupils was now 166, I was permitted to appoint Mrs Hazel Esler, initially in a temporary capacity.

The building contractors who were to erect two double temporary classrooms, commonly known as ‘huts’, arrived on site during the last week of July following the annual holiday period. They began preparing the ground at the rear and side of the hall, where the classrooms were to be sited.

Assurances were given that the rooms would be completed by September. I had my doubts. Electricity, water, toilets and heaters had to be installed. The heaters were to be run from bottled gas. It was understandable that the latter was a cause of concern among some parents. It took several years before this concern was resolved by the installation of electric radiators.

Two rooms downstairs in the hall were to be prepared for use as classrooms but these were not ready until several weeks after the opening. During this time, the P4 and P5 classes were to share the space in the hall upstairs, separated by a line of filing cabinets.

From mid-August, some of the ordered supplies started to arrive, some single desks and chairs, a few textbooks, stationery, etc, but the bulk of the orders still had to come.

It became obvious that it was likely that there would be insufficient supplies of desks and stationery to cater for the expected number of pupils.

To the rescue came the well-respected principal of Comber Primary School, Mr Norman Nevin. He offered me a number of old-style wooden and wrought iron double desks which he no longer needed, and a generous supply of stationery. This was a huge relief and proved to be a necessity as many supplies ordered did not arrive until late September.

In addition to teaching staff, I was given the task of finding ancillary staff – caretaker, cleaners and road crossing patrol. This was due to the lack of time to advertise for these positions prior to the opening of the school.

Mrs Mary Young agreed to be caretaker and Mr Henry Morrow, road crossing patrol, from September 1st. During the last week in August, Mrs Young helped me to place desks and chairs which had arrived, in the unfinished classrooms.

In spite of all the difficulties encountered in establishing Andrews Memorial, and its difficult birth, the school opened on Monday, September 3, 1973, at 9am. No one from the Down County Education Authority was in attendance.

I cannot speak highly enough of the support and attitude of both teaching and ancillary staff during those early days and that of my wife Rita and family. The entire staff worked hard in difficult circumstances to serve the pupils. They did this without complaint, though they had every reason to do so.

As a teaching principal, I had also to attend to the administrative and clerical aspects of the job. These duties were erased when after three years, Mrs Eileen Watt was appointed school secretary.

In time, the school enjoyed the support of a board of governors, under the chairmanship of Rev. WR Brown, a thriving and supportive Parent/Teacher Association, and the wider community.

The opening of the school came at a time of great unease in the community due to the ongoing ‘troubles’. Nevertheless, staff and pupils made their way to school each day in spite of the often difficulties in travel. The pupils were a pleasure to teach and a credit to their parents.

In defence of the Down County Education Authority, I should explain that a state of flux existed in mid-1973, as local government was about to be reorganised. As from October 1st that year, the authority became defunct and was superseded by the South Eastern Education and Library Board. This resulted in many of the education officers having to apply for their existing positions. Thus in many areas of responsibility for education, confusion reigned.

It was encouraging and rewarding to see the school grow and prosper year by year. After six years, in 1979, the construction of the new permanent school building on the adjoining site was finally completed and officially opened by Sir John and Lady Andrews.

The staff, pupils, parents and I had eagerly awaited this to enjoy the new facilities. Alas the building could not cope with the increasing enrolment and two classes, approximately 50 pupils, had to remain in temporary classrooms.

Over the years Andrews Memorial School became well established in the community, and after serving as principal for 21 years the enrolment stood at 530 pupils, more than three times the original number. The school had reached adulthood and it was time for me to move on – retirement beckoned. It had been my privilege and pleasure to have served Andrews Memorial.

Andrews Memorial has continued to serve several generations of pupils and their families over the last 50 years, under the leadership of Mr Derek Henderson, my successor, and principal Mr Ralph Magee. Now the school has a new leader in Mr Colin Fulton, following the retirement of Mr Magee.

I wish Andrews Memorial and the new principal continuing success and may the next 50 years be as rewarding to all involved as the previous.