As an ex-pupil of the Dickson Plan and a former grammar school teacher, the new principal of City of Armagh High School has, by his own admission, moved out of his comfort zone.
Former Lurgan College student David Cunningham (38) has left his position as maths teacher and head of the sixth form at Armagh Royal, where he taught for 13 years, and has assumed responsibility for the all-ability, 11-16 year school in the city.
But, one month into the job, he is embracing the challenge and finding there are similarities too, namely, “fantastic, motivated staff and pleasant, well-mannered pupils”.
His new job does present a particular difficulty, however. In recent years, like many schools across the province, City of Armagh has suffered from falling pupil numbers - dropping from around 700 at its height to 263 today - and is, consequently, in a weak financial position.
However, the school is part of the Armagh Educational Village Plan, which proposes eight schools in the area, from the maintained and controlled sectors, coming together to share resources.
Under the proposal, City of Armagh would move from its present location to a new site beside the Royal School. Said Mr Cunningham, “Each school would retain its own identity but it would give us a much better opportunity to share facilities and courses. It would also be a better location for us and would be a fantastic boost for the controlled education sector in the city.”
In the immediate term, the Donacloney man is focusing on building up relationships with his staff and pupils and providing more extra-curricular activities.
He has introduced the Duke of Edinburgh Award scheme and has had an enthusiastic response. Mr Cunningham, who was a qualified outdoor instructor before becoming a teacher, was in charge of the scheme at The Royal School and is passionate about “taking young people out of their comfort zone and challenging them”.
He is also developing the inter-house competition structure and encouraging more participation in local leagues and competitions.
He explained, “We want to give every child the opportunity to have an activity they can take part in. We are trying to educate the whole person, to give pupils the chance to develop socially and emotionally.
“I have no doubt they will get a good educational opportunity at City of Armagh; what we are trying to do is develop these other aspects of the school.”
A former pupil of Lurgan JHS and Lurgan College, Mr Cunningham has been following the Dickson Plan debate with interest.
He said, “I grew up with the Dickson Plan and I was very happy at school but I would choose the 11-18 model over the Dickson Plan as I think it provides more continuity rather than changing schools at 14.
“I think it would be a shame if Portadown and Lurgan were to lose their grammar schools. A grammar school from 11-18 and a separate high school would be my preference.”
Mr Cunningham and his wife Kathryn have four children - Joshua (11), Sam (9), Annie (7) and Joni (6) - and when he’s not at school he’s busy being a hands-on dad and taking the Boys’ Brigade in Waringstown where he is an officer.
He also likes to pursue his hobbies of climbing and hill walking as well as spending time on the family farm in Donacloney where his mum and dad, Jim and Ruth, still live.