Ulster and Ireland rugby captain Rory Best has joined Education Authority Chief Executive Gavin Boyd in paying glowing tribute to The Armstrong Primary School as he officially opened its enhanced and newly-refurbished facilities.
Local hero Rory was the special guest at a well-attended event to celebrate the completion of a major School Enhancement Programme project which has transformed facilities at Armstrong PS.
Addressing guests at the official opening, proud Principal David Dickson outlined the work which has been undertaken and how the project, which had construction costs of around £2million, will benefit the school in the time ahead.
Describing The Armstrong today as “effectively a new school within the old walls,” Mr Dickson reflected that “prior to the refurbishment and extension work completed over the past 18 months, the structure of the school building had changed little since 1931.
“There was an improvement scheme in 1972 which added four classrooms, indoor toilets and a new dining hall to the school. More recently, we had the provision of two additional classrooms in 2014.”
Reflecting on his school’s 86-year history, Mr Dickson spoke of how much the educational landscape has changed in that time and that “the fine, impressive buildings of The Armstrong no longer met modern specifications.
“Refurbishing and extending a school whilst it continues to operate on the same site is challenging but the inevitable disruption proved very worthwhile for, as you see today, we now have a school fit for the 21st century.
“With a number of new or refurbished classrooms, a resource suite, three internal resource areas, an outdoor play area, multi-purpose rooms, new offices, a new school entrance and more, we now have a teaching and learning environment which can be cherished by children and teachers alike.
“Furthermore, the refurbishment and extension serves as a tremendous vote of confidence in the sustainability of The Armstrong and the key role it will continue to play in education across Armagh and its rural hinterland,” said Mr Dickson.
In his speech, EA Chief Executive Mr Boyd echoed sporting star Rory Best in reiterating the conclusions of The Armstrong’s most recent inspection by describing it as an ‘outstanding’ school.
The special ceremony was also attended by Lord Mayor Gareth Wilson, Deputy Mayor Sam Nicholson, Controlled Schools Support Council Chief Executive Barry Mulholland and EA Education Director John Collings and key figures from the project team.
Guests were welcomed by Board of Governors Chairman Trevor Knipe followed by the school choir, with Irish rugby great Rory quipping afterwards that this was the only time he had enjoyed listening to traditional English rugby song ‘Swing Low, Sweet Chariot’, which was later balanced up by a harpist playing Ireland’s Call.
As a high-profile, well-regarded figure across the local community and much further afield and a great role model for young people who has close personal links with The Armstrong, Rory Best was the school’s choice to perform the official opening.
“It’s a real honour to be here today. The Armstrong is obviously a school I’m very familiar with. My wife Jodie has been a teacher here for more than a decade and my eldest two children attend the school,” Rory told the audience after a rapturous ovation.
“As the partner of an Armstrong teacher, I get to see the work that is put in above and beyond the school day by the staff to ensure the very best education is provided to all the children here.
“As a parent of Armstrong pupils, I get to see what is offered by this school and the great opportunities enjoyed by children fortunate enough to attend. It is easy to see why this school was adjudged outstanding by inspectors.
“It is an outstanding school, academically and pastorally, and now, thanks to this significant investment and all the work which has been carried out, it has outstanding facilities too.
“I always appreciate the warm welcome I get when I come here, be it as a parent, a teacher’s partner or a rugby coach, so it gives me great pleasure to have the honour of cutting the ribbon to officially open the new school,” concluded Rory.
In his speech, EA Chief Executive Mr Boyd described the successful delivery of this project as a tribute to all concerned “and the excellent spirit of co-operation and teamwork which balanced out the challenges and constraints.
“These included dealing with listed buildings and working on what is a fairly tight site while classes continued. The extensive work had to keep progressing without disrupting school life too much for the hundreds of pupils who attend here, their teachers and all the other staff.
“I was here for the sod-cutting early last year so I’m delighted to return today and see at first-hand how worthwhile this investment has been. The Armstrong was already an outstanding school and this investment in transforming facilities will allow you to maintain and build upon the high standards that have been set.”
Both Mr Dickson and Mr Boyd praised EA’s architect for the project, William Dunne, clerk of works Robin Sloane and project contractors Lowry Building & Civil Engineering, who were represented at the official opening by Ian Lowry and site foreman Philip Buchanan.
The speeches were followed by an impressive programme of entertainment by pupils featuring 12 items including music, poetry and dance before finishing with a rendition from the choir of the school song.
Rory Best was joined by his son Ben and daughter Penny to cut the special cake made for the occasion and he then presented the school with a British and Irish Lions shirt signed by his colleagues from this summer’s tour of New Zealand.
After the formalities concluded, invited guests and numerous parents participated in tours of the school and were greatly impressed by the fantastic facilities which The Armstrong’s staff and 560 pupils will benefit from in the years ahead.