‘Silly and immature’ - sound qualities for a BBC political correspondent

Members of the platform party at the Ballymena Academy annual prize day. Included are: (seated from left) Emma Kernohan (Head Girl), Stephen Black (Principal), Stephen Walker (guest speaker) and Tom Alexander (Head Boy). Back row from left: Jane Allen, James McKervill (Chairman Board of Governors) and Dr. Karen Johnston (Vice-chair Board of Governors).
Members of the platform party at the Ballymena Academy annual prize day. Included are: (seated from left) Emma Kernohan (Head Girl), Stephen Black (Principal), Stephen Walker (guest speaker) and Tom Alexander (Head Boy). Back row from left: Jane Allen, James McKervill (Chairman Board of Governors) and Dr. Karen Johnston (Vice-chair Board of Governors).

BBC Northern Ireland’s political reporter Stephen Walker was back at his old school last week to undertake the duties of prize day speaker.

And, apparently the silver haired sleuth of the corridors of power proved to be a top of the class hit with pupils, staff and parents when he took to the podium at Ballymena Academy’s prize distribution..

Thanks to the wonderful staff at the Academy, we’ve got his speech in full. Enjoy some wonderful observations on school life.

One liners come thick and fast - in fact he’s funnier than four editions of ‘The Blame Game’ rolled into one.

Governors, Mr Black, Distinguished guests, parents and pupils.

Thank you for inviting me here today. It is nice to be back. This is the first time in 33 years that I have been in the school and I have to say the place looks well.

Things have changed - I have just had a wonderful lunch. I don’t remember school dinners being like that in my day.

I can remember my last day here - In 1981 I walked down the drive after my ‘O’ levels and never returned.

I spent 12 years here. I was at the Prep school for seven and a further five in what we referred to as the big school.

For some of you - a day like today may be a novel experience. You probably don’t know what to expect.

And it is all new to me as well because I have never been to an Academy Prize day before.

And there is a reason for that - I was never awarded a prize.

My academic record here is not a particularly good one so I was slightly puzzled when I was invited to speak today.

My two brothers Matthew and Geoff also came here and they performed well.So I do hope that Mr Black hasn’t invited the wrong Walker boy.

I did warn him that if he glanced into the school archives and looked at my exam results he might change his mind.

My school reports do make interesting reading.

My Dad, who I am delighted is with me today, kept them all. Thanks Dad! - and a few years ago he gave them to me

Would you like me to read you some of them?

Ok .. lets go to June 1974 ... Arithmetic 63 per cent ... it states .. Stephen has worked fairly well this year.

Ok what about Reading ... it says Stephen reads fairly well.

And how about my writing skills - a crucial skill for any reporter.

Well it states my writing is improving but my letter formation is still rather erratic.

Fast forward to 1976 and I am eleven. So are there any signs that I could be a future journalist?

According to this report my work is still untidy at times but it has improved.

But here is the punch line - my stories lack imagination.. now that was a killer blow!

That criticism hurt - but - just wait to hear what they said about me in big school.

It is 1979 and I am days away from my 14th birthday when this stinker of a report lands on the doormat of Grange Road.

It states my work is slow and poor and my effort is weak.

But this is the best bit ...Stephen’s progress is very limited and his approach to things is very immature.

At times Stephen is positively silly. Positively silly – me?

Two months later and my end of year report concluded on a familiar theme....

English - effort not consistent.

Maths ...weak

Latin - very weak far too complacent.

Chemistry ...He makes a fair effort but finds many aspects of this subject beyond his comprehension.

And so it goes on, until we get to the overall assessment which states.

Stephen’s work generally is sub standard.

Stephen never really concentrates on anything, he fidgets and his whole approach is rather childish.

So you get the picture – I did not put much effort in, very little motivated me and my poor Mum and Dad were worried about what to do with me.

Although many of the subjects did not really interest me, some did catch my attention.

I wasn’t bad at English Literature and English Language and was encouraged by Miss McCrea, Mrs Suthers and Mrs McClean.

I liked Geography and History and R.E. I enjoyed drama, thanks to the enthusiasm of Mr Kelly and I even got a part in ‘My Fair Lady’ – on this very stage! I also played rugby – occasionally for the As but mostly for the Bs.

The Bs were much more fun than the As – The As used to make you do strange things – like training! We didn’t want to train we just turned up on a Saturday and had a laugh.

Sport has always been part of my life – when I was your age I was obsessed with football – and the two great Uniteds – yes, you guessed it …Manchester United and Ballymena United – and I still come down to Ballymena to watch the mighty Sky Blues.

The Academy also gave me a love of rugby.

Today I go to see my two sons play and I also go to watch Ulster play at Ravenhill – and yes it will always be Ravenhill!

The place where I too played and scored a try – yes I know you look impressed – It was mini rugby and I was aged 10 but we will skip over that bit.

Ravenhill was where I witnessed two of the Academy’s cup triumphs and I look forward to seeing the first fifteen back there soon.

As well as a love of rugby the Academy has provided me with lifelong friendships.

People I have known for over 40 years – schoolmates who walked with me along these corridors and sat in this very hall.

Friends like Alastair Martin, Patrick and Hilary Caithness and Richard McDowell. Who all roared with laughter when they heard I was invited to speak here!

Then there are the Governors who were my year at school.

Jane Allen (née King) who does such sterling work for the school and who persuaded to come here today – so it is her fault.

Then there is Doctor David Johnston who spends most of his days promoting the Academy and making Gracehill look so well - so I am surprised he has any time to see his patients.

And not forgetting Jimmy Henry - another Governor, although to be politically correct I should refer to him officially as Councillor Henry.

My crunch year at the Academy was 1981 when I secured the grand total of four ‘O’ levels. You needed five GCSE’s to get into Lower Sixth and after a conversation between my parents and the headmaster - well how can I put this - it was decided my future lay elsewhere.

Life took me to Ballymena Tech and it was there that the penny finally dropped when I realised that there is a direct link between studying and getting on in life.

Exams and qualifications are the stepping stone to other things.

But all of you have worked that out already. You are high achievers and I congratulate you on your fantastic results which you and your family should be rightly proud of.

Enjoy today – this is what it is all about – you have made sacrifices, now you should savour your success.

I appreciate that my experiences of this school are probably very different from yours but can I make some observations.

Ballymena Academy of 2014 is a different place to the school I attended – attitudes, teaching methods and aspirations have changed.

You have more opportunities than ever before, yet I know, as a parent, the expectations and the pressures on you are huge.

You have more distractions than my generation ever had which makes your achievement today even more remarkable.

Whatever career path you choose, many of you are already showing that you have the talent, the commitment and the ability to succeed.

But it would be remiss of me if I did not refer to those who are not in this hall today.

Those who are struggling with a particular subject, those who find school difficult and those confused about the next step.

I too spent much time worried about how the future would unfold and sometimes it takes a little time before things become clear.

After leaving the Academy I did an Ordinary National Diploma in Business Studies at Ballymena Tech and then I did a higher Business Diploma in England.

I got involved in the student newspaper and then went and trained to be a journalist.

Twenty five years ago I joined the BBC and in that time I have been a documentary maker for ‘Spotlight’.

I have worked as a Television and Radio news Reporter and have written a couple of non-fiction books about historical events. So those days in history class weren’t completely wasted.

And for the past five years I have been working as a political correspondent at Stormont and Westminster. But please don’t hold that against me.

I first walked into this building 45 years ago and began a journey which today has come full circle.

To all Academy pupils I hope the friends you have today – who are sitting beside you in this hall, are your mates in decades to come.

I hope you seize the opportunities that will present themselves in the months ahead.

You might be offered a part in the school play, a chance to shine on the sports field, the opportunity to go on a school trip. You might consider work experience, helping a charity or learning a new skill. Please think about what is on offer, talk about it with your parents – and go out and make your own mark.

My story began here. The Academy nudged me along the road, educated me, and showed me the power of friendship.

Although I have to say, had I told my Academy mates 33 years ago that one day I would return to speak at Prize Day - they would have questioned my sanity.

To my old teachers – I hope it is not too late to say sorry – but I can promise you I have changed …..my letter formation has improved.

I can listen without fidgeting and I try very hard to put more imagination into my stories.

As for being silly, childish and immature - well some things will never change!

So parents, pupils, distinguished guests, and governors enjoy today.

This occasion is a celebration of achievement and a reminder of what good teaching and hard work can produce.

I am proud to say I went to Ballymena Academy and even prouder that you asked me back.

Thank You very much.