Former BHS teacher is new union president

AS president of Northern Ireland’s only locally-based teaching union, Leigh McKay has fond memories of her time in Banbridge.
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The former Banbridge High School teacher is the newly-appointed president of the 7,000-strong Ulster Teachers’ Union.

Leigh’s stepping into the role at arguably one of her profession’s most challenging times, on the back of strike action – the first time in the UTU’s 105-year history that members have taken such drastic steps.

This mum-of-two, though, loves nothing better than a challenge and has never been afraid to move outside her comfort zone, but she’d be the first to admit that teaching wasn’t always on her radar.

​The Ulster Teachers' Union has appointed former Banbridge High teacher Leigh McKay as its new president.​The Ulster Teachers' Union has appointed former Banbridge High teacher Leigh McKay as its new president.
​The Ulster Teachers' Union has appointed former Banbridge High teacher Leigh McKay as its new president.

“I didn’t have this massive vocation to teach. To be honest, I didn’t even bother going to school for my A-level results because I wasn’t expecting university grades!” says Leigh.

“At school I wouldn’t have been the most studious student but I loved art and drama.”

However, when the A-level results opened up a chance at university, Leigh jumped at it and enrolled in Ulster University studying English, drama and media studies initially, before concentrating on English.

“Teaching wasn’t something I’d considered but I thought let’s give it a go and I loved it!”

Her first position was in Banbridge High School and, there, she met Head of English Arlene McCullough, who became a mentor, inspiration and friend.

“It was Arlene who got me into the union; she was just someone you looked at and said, that’s why I want to do this,” says Leigh who, although happy, was looking for a new challenge.

“I’d the forms all filled in to move to Australia when Arlene announced she was retiring and encouraged me to apply for her post... and I got the job!

“It was a massive opportunity for someone my age, so Australia was put on hold and instead I threw myself into my new role where I really felt I found my feet.”

When a move to Ballygalley made her daily commute to Banbridge near impossible, she decided it was time for a move.

“That’s when I got the job at Ballyclare Secondary School, 23 years ago, as subject development officer for media studies and I loved it!” she enthused.

Commenting on her new UTU role, Leigh outlined the current challenges facing education: “Our schools are crumbling, teachers are paying for their own resources, our special needs sector is in crisis and we don’t have the money to update our technology which is absolutely pivotal in this digital world.

“We now have a pay offer which will bring NI teachers’ pay in line with their GB counterparts for, until now, teaching graduates here have started on £8,000 less so why would they want to work here?”

Despite the hurdles, she’s looking forward to her presidential role. “This has been a momentous year for UTU.

"I believe if we stand together, stand up and be counted, we can get the education system our children deserve.”