Sullivan Lower School (equivalent to a primary school in modern terminology) was founded in 1862 by Robert Sullivan. After Sullivan's death in 1868, part of his estate was used to establish the upper school. Originally the two schools were based in Holywood's High Street, The lower school has been moved to a site beside the upper school and is now called Sullivan Prep which is a private school and the upper school has moved to a site on the edge of the town. The original building is now occupied by the town's public library.
On 17 June 1994, Garnet Bell, a former pupil, entered the School Hall during an A Level exam carrying an improvised flame thrower, containing petrol and paraffin. Bell discharged the device, burning six pupils, three of them seriously. He was subsequently found guilty of three cases of attempted murder and three of grievous bodily harm, receiving six life sentences. Bell died in prison of cancer in 1997.
The school is opposed to the government's plans for the reform of education based on the Costello Report. These reforms will remove academic selection in Northern Ireland, which some observers think will effectively destroy the country's grammar schools. In opinion polls over 60 percent of parents in Northern Ireland are opposed to the changes.
A letter recently went out to Pupils in every year, directly from the headmaster, Mr Stevenson, raising the issue that the ethos and academic achievement of Sullivan would be changed irreparably by the post primary selection changes.
In the 2007–2008 Board of Governors' report it is stated that the school will use Common Entrance Assessments as academic selection for admission to year 8 in 2010.
The future role of academic selection in the educational system is also controversial given that there has been no agreement at Assembly or Executive level about the way forward. In managing this disturbing situation the Board of Governors has decided that Sullivan Upper will use Common Entrance Assessments as developed by the Association for Quality Education for admission to year 8 in 2010.
2007-2008 Board of Governors' Report
Sullivan Upper participates in various sports, including rugby, hockey, golf, volleyball, badminton, tennis, and chess.
The school won the rugby Medallion Shield in 2001 and 2011, and the 2nd XV cup in 2009, beating Royal School, Armagh 14-12. Notable former players include David Erskine, a former senior Ireland international lock, and current Ulster and Ireland centre Darren Cave. In 2017 the school suffered a 29-7 defeat against Campbell College, leaving them waiting another year for a chance at their first School's Cup.
In hockey, Sullivan won the 1993 Burney Cup, beating Banbridge Academy after sudden death penalty strokes. In 2006 they reached the final again, losing 4–2. Former team members include Irish senior international player Mark Raphael. In 2009 they also reached the McCullough Cup final for the first time in the school's history. In 2010, the team reached the semi-final of the Burney Cup but lost to Campbell College. Chris Archibald accidentally scored a goal for the enigmatic 2nd XI team of the same year. The team, composed of pragmatic mavericks and vagabonds, was known not just for its talent, but lack of effort on the pitch.
In cricket, the school reached the Schools Cup final for the first time in their history in 2009, but ended up losing by nine wickets to Foyle and Londonderry College. One notable player was Mark Adair
Sullivan have a golf team competing in various competitions. One notable previous member is Rory McIlroy.
The school involves a wide range of musical talent which is represented in the many musical groups held throughout the week. These include Orchestra, Jazz band, Junior Choir, Traditional group, Brass band and Sullivan Singers. there are also several small groups of musicians playing at many events inside and outside school, these include a jazz quartet "Jazz Inc.", string quartets, wind ensembles and pop bands, including the rock and roll band Velvet Brick.
The school is divided into four houses: Praeger (red), Grant (green), McAlester (blue), Speers (yellow). Two of the houses, Grant and Speers, were named after ex-headmasters of the school, whereas Praeger was named after the sculptress Rosamond Praeger and her brother Robert. McAlester was named after the Rev. McAlester who sat on the Committee of Sullivan Schools in the 1800s when the school was founded. The school's Preparatory Department, however, only contains three of the four houses - Grant house, which was established in the 1974-75 school year, only exists in the main body of the school. Regular inter-house competitions are held to cultivate house pride, including the House Photography Competition, House Music Competition and Sports Day.
In 2016, the school launched an alumni directory program to establish a database of past pupils, staff, and governors to allow former pupils and personnel to reconnect.Prof David E. Logan - Coulson Professor of Theoretical Chemistry, University of Oxford
Robert Lloyd Praeger - naturalist and historian
Alan Smith - UNESCO academic
Prof Ian McAllister - Distinguished Professor of Political Science, The Australian National University
Dr Catherine MacKenzie - Dean of Degrees, Green Templeton College, University of Oxford
Garth Ennis - comics writer
Dan Gordon - actor (Give My Head Peace)
Colin Harper - music journalist, writer and charity entrepreneur
Maurice Jay - DJ on radio station U105, composer, actor and broadcaster
Alan Johnston - Marketing Guru
Andrew Smyth - Baker and finalist on BBC's Great British Bake Off 2016
Bobby Kildea - guitarist (Belle & Sebastian)
George Lowden - guitar-maker
Mark McClelland - bass guitarist (Little Doses, formerly for alternative rock band Snow Patrol)
Gareth McLearnon - musician
John McCrea - comic artist
Reuben Vandercruyssen - Playwright
Dermot Murnaghan - Sky News news reader and television personality
Rosamund Praeger - artist
Mark Simpson - BBC News Ireland reporter
Peter Wilson - musician (Duke Special)
Jonathan Bell - DUP MLA
Thomas Loftus Cole - Unionist politician
Chris Lyttle - Alliance Party MLA for East Belfast
Darren Cave - rugby player
David Erskine - rugby player
David Jeffrey - Linfield F.C. manager
Katie Kirk - London 2012 Olympic ceremony torch carrier and flame lighter
Derek Lawther - footballer, coach (American Olympic, etc.)
Rory McIlroy - golfer
Aimee Fuller - Snowboarder (Olympics, Sochi 2014)
Ken Clarke - Anglican bishop
Willie Anderson - rugby coach
James Hawthorne - BBC controller