Diversity & Tolerance: A BRA Tradition

An independent, academic institution. 

Founded in 1785 as the Belfast Academy and known since 1888 as Belfast Royal Academy, we are the oldest school in the city and proud of our independence and diversity. 

The first two principals of the Academy were Rev Dr James Crombie and Rev Dr William Bruce. These men had imbibed the spirit of the Scottish Enlightenment and were thus in the vanguard of the movement for political reform in late 18th century Belfast. Both insisted that educated people should not be oppressed by unjust governments and though neither supported violence, they were enthusiastic members of the Irish Volunteer Companies who pressed for reform of the Irish Parliament. 

A revolutionary spirit.

It is no surprise that a number of the school’s original subscribers supported the colonists in the American Revolution and the republicans in The French Revolution. The spirit of revolution was not limited to the subscribers, as the famous ‘barring out’ incident confirmed. 

On April 12, 1792, nine pupils barricaded themselves in the school’s mathematics room in protest at the principal’s decision to abolish the Easter holidays.  Although the principal and others tried to force their way in, the pupils who had acquired weapons as well as provisions, shot at them and compelled their retreat. A truce and treaty eventually ensued, though ultimately the revolutionaries were punished. 

A glass ceiling broken.

Breaking the glass ceiling

The Academy was among the first schools in N. Ireland to educate women beyond the preparatory stage. The Board of Masters had suggested as early as 1893 that girls be admitted but it was not until 1900 that the glass ceiling was broken on the Cliftonville Road and girls were admitted to the Upper School. However, with a nod to the strict moral code of that age, boys and girls were required to enter and leave school by separate entrances and the girls were not allowed to watch the boys playing cricket on a Saturday morning!

When Mr A. R. Foster became Headmaster in 1923, one of the many changes he introduced was to integrate boys and girls as they are today. Foster's daughter, Christine, later became Head Girl. In 2017, with girls just over half the school population, the Academy appointed its first female Principal, Mrs Hilary Woods.

A welcome for the Jewish Community.

Reading the Torah

Northern Ireland became more, rather than less segregated and sectarian after the partition of Ireland and as a result, non-denominational ‘state’ schools like the Academy ended up with a largely protestant student body while catholic children were educated by catholic religious schools. Despite this division, the Academy remained open to all and was sought out by minorities such as the Belfast Jewish community, most of whose members lived in north Belfast.

From the turn of the century, when Sir Otto Jaffe had served two terms as Lord Mayor of Belfast, to the 1940’s, the Jewish community had expanded to approximately 1400 members. This expansion was reflected by increasing numbers of Jewish children entering the Academy. In 1942, Louis Levi became the first Jewish pupil to become Head Boy and left school with a scholarship to Oxford University.

In the post war period, Rabbis Schachter and Carlebach were strongly supportive of the Academy, the latter sending both his daughters to the school. Mr Maurice Solomon donated land behind his home for the rugby pavilion at The Castle Grounds and the community as a whole, strongly led by Mr Joffre Hurwitz, generously supported the school's development fund. 

In the post war years, when the community reached its zenith, Old Boys included Judge Fox Q.C. CBE, who served on the Board of Governors and his son JG Fox Q.C. RM who in 1977 became warden. Although the size of community and its numbers at the Academy have diminished in recent years, many former pupils remain in contact with the school and its current President, Dr. Dennis Coppel, and its Chairman, Michael Black, are both alumni. 

The student body integrates despite ‘The Troubles’.

In the 1960’s, the Prime Minister of Northern Ireland, Captain Terence O'Neill, attempted to introduce a more tolerant political culture in the province. This attempt initiated a series of events which, paradoxically, resulted in a violent outbreak of sectarian conflict that was to last a generation. 

The Academy’s principal, J.W. Darbyshire, approved of O'Neill's "courage and goodwill" and invited him as the guest of honour at the 1964 Prize Distribution. This support was endorsed by influential former pupils such as Douglas Gageby, the editor of the Irish Times, Jack Kyle, Ireland's greatest rugby player and many others.

The continuing violence presented an enormous challenge to the Academy as it was in the centre of community violence in north Belfast. The billeting of troops in the Jackson Building in the summer of 1970 attested to the school's position in the front line of the disturbances and many after-school and evening activities in those times had to be temporarily curtailed.

Far from being intimidated by these events, the Academy’s staff and students demonstrated the spirit of enlightenment that had been a characteristic of its 18th century subscribers. Thus, in the early 1970’s, even as the sectarian tension in the city increased, the school introduced a General Studies course in the Irish Language, taught Mr Alex Tulluch, an Englishman with a Scottish name who had been appointed to teach Russian!

As the 1970’s continued, more and more Catholic pupils became enrolled in the Academy. To acknowledge and to foster that development, the principal, J.L. Lord, after consultation with the Board, conveyed to the Ministry of Education, a request that Mr Leo Forte, the Honorary Italian Consul, and Dr John Henry, a highly esteemed physician practicing on the Cliftonville Road, should be included among the Ministry's nominees to the Board of Governors. Both men, respected members of the Catholic community, had children at the school.  

As the 20th century concluded, the number of BRA pupils from a Catholic background steadily increased as did the school’s acknowledgement of Irish traditions. The school's folk band, with its repertoire of traditional Irish music and its dazzling performances at school concerts and at the annual Prize Distribution ceremony, proved as popular with parents as with pupils. The school also developed a joint citizenship programme with St. Malachy’s school to enable pupils to explore themes such as identity, diversity and shared personal and social responsibility.  

Tolerance and respect provide a welcome for all pupils regardless of race, religion or ethnicity.

Muslim and other faiths

Flowing from its participation in the European Union, Northern Ireland has benefitted from an influx of young people from all parts of Europe and the Middle East. The School has been a popular choice for such families because the Enlightenment values of tolerance and respect - the views of the 18th century founders of the Academy - remain the values of the school.

The ethnic and religious profile of the student body today is distinctly multi-cultural. The Academy is home to pupils from Chinese, Indian, Asian and European backgrounds.  These include pupils of Moslem, Buddhist and Hindu religions as well by those who choose not to be identified by any religious affiliation.

Staff have developed the British Council's Connecting Classrooms Project, initially sponsoring school visits from teachers and students from the Lebanese Shia, Sunni and Maronite Christian communities. More recently, Arabic has been offered as an enrichment option to pupils at KS4 and KS5, not only to prepare them for future business careers, but more importantly, to raise their consciousness of different cultural traditions.

The Academy's first teacher of Arabic is Mrs Ashgar Essa, who is Egyptian. Meanwhile, the Art Department has established an important relationship with the Ulster Museum which enables Academy pupils to better explore the world of Islamic art and civilisation. This important development, working with the grain of the Academy's earlier attachment to religious toleration and gender equality, has been welcomed by the Qatar Foundation International which has designated the Academy's programme its premier project.

Finally, the Study Buddy Project is perhaps the school’s most important cross-cultural program. This brings together pupil volunteers from the Academy and refugee children from Syria, Afghanistan and Somalia in order to help them with their studies across a range of subjects. This is social interaction with practical assistance at its core, complementing the established programmes of diversity and understanding through language and art. 

Conclusion.

Today, under the leadership of Hilary Woods, The Academy rises to meet the challenges of a diverse student body. Its equal treatment for children of intelligence and ability means that no matter what ethnic, religious or cultural background a child possesses, the Academy provides a tolerant environment and a equal pathway to a better future.