Teaching to learn outside the box
It takes the courage of your convictions to follow a less-travelled path with your children, especially when it comes to something as fundamental as primary education.
Traditionally, children in Ireland have gone to their nearest national school – the vast majority run by the Catholic Church, some by the minority churches.
In the 1970s, when a group of parents in south Dublin were determined to set up an alternative to denominational schools, the ground-breaking Dalkey School Project was opened after much fundraising. This was a fore-runner in the Educate Together movement, which has been a significant force in the ongoing diversification of patronage among the State’s 3,300 national schools.
But outside the national school system, what other options are there for primary age children and why would parents choose them? After all, independence comes at a high price for primary schools because, unlike their private secondary counterparts, they get no funding at all, so the fees for parents are significant.
Aside from “prep” schools and junior sections of big private schools, we look at some more unusual choices and ask parents why they want a different system of learning for their children.
What is it?The aim of Steiner-Waldorf education is to educate the whole child, “head, heart and hands”, and to produce creative thinkers who have a love of learning.
The Steiner curriculum is designed according to age and balances artistic and physical activities with the academic side. A lot of learning is done outdoors, observing plants, animals and landscape.
The big difference from the State system is that learning to read is deferred until the age of six. Not pushing children to read early, Steiner advocates argue, helps to avoid problems such as dyslexia.
Where is it available?The independent Kildare Steiner School in Dunlavin has 16 pupils in its primary school and another 16 in its kindergarten (ages three to six). Two Steiner schools in Co Clare, Mol an Óige in Ennistymon and Raheen Wood, have been recognised as national schools in September 2008 and are now State funded. Both take a “Steiner approach” to the national primary curriculum.
The Kildare school watched this development with interest but has not applied to join the State system. “We don’t want to compromise our ethos or our values,” says teacher Gale Pullen. There are also practical problems, such as the fact that their teachers’ international Steiner qualifications would not be recognised.
Fees at the Kildare school are €3,780 a year for class three and €4,500 for classes four to six.
A teacher says:We are not interested in filling children with facts, explains Gale Pullen. The emphasis is on drawing out of the child, an individual, creative response to information received.
Her colleague in Kildare, Dorly O’Sullivan, says they get some children for whom conventional schooling has not worked. “When those children come here, they breathe out and blossom.”
A parent’s view:Mark Reid and his wife, Cliona Kelliher, moved house so that their children could attend a Steiner school. Their eldest daughter, Síomha, now aged 17, started at a Steiner kindergarten, Springhall, in Tallaght but if she was to continue this system into primary school, the nearest option was in Co Kildare.
“We had no home – myself and Síomha actually lived in campervan for six months while our house was being built.”
His wife and their younger daughter, Iseult, now aged 11 and in fifth class at the Kildare Steiner school, remained in Dublin until their new home was ready.
The positivity of the Steiner system is what appealed to Reid, a librarian, when choosing it. “Education is sometimes seen as a punishment and in Steiner schools they don’t see it like that, they see it as something to enjoy.”
What about the transition to secondary level?This is a question everybody asks, says Reid, whose eldest daughter is now in Cross Passion College in Kilcullen, Co Kildare. He believes Steiner children are better equipped than many of their peers to make the transition. “They are interactive learners and used to doing project work,” he points out. “And they love learning.”
O’Sullivan says the one thing that can be difficult initially is going from a small to a big school but that would apply to many national schools. Steiner pupils are very well liked by secondary-level teachers, she adds, and the pupils themselves have not reported any difficulty adjusting to the academic side.