Educate Together schools go mainstream

Educate Together has been around for 30 years but never before has its presence loomed so large. With the divestment of schools and a move into second level, it looks like the one-time outsiders are very much in

Educate Together: 5th-class students taking part in the philosophy, ‘thinking time’ session at Balbriggan Educate Together NS, Balbriggan. Photographer: Dara Mac Dónaill

Educate Together: 5th-class students taking part in the philosophy, ‘thinking time’ session at Balbriggan Educate Together NS, Balbriggan. Photographer: Dara Mac Dónaill

Tue, Apr 8, 2014, 02:00

It’s a Thursday evening in a Galway hotel and a small group of parents (two fathers, five mothers) are discussing how the temporary accommodation that has just been assigned to their new school can be modified into a friendlier, more natural educational space for their children. Shouts of “Amen” from a prayer service in the room next door punctuate their suggestions of knocked walls to make bigger spaces and planter boxes to make the outdoor area more appealing.

This is parent power and these are the people who will be on the Knocknacarra Educate Together National School’s management committee. Next week, the principal will be recruited and the parents and teachers will prepare the school for opening in September.

Jarlath Munnelly, Educate Together’s regional development officer for Ireland West, is steering proceedings. He is one of four officers who travel all over the country providing support for schools and parent groups such as this. Next week’s jobs include hiring a principal for this school, attending a meeting about the second-level school in Dublin 15 due to open in September, and further discussions about Newtownwhite National School outside Ballina, Co Mayo whose patronage is being reassigned from the Church of Ireland to Educate Together.

This is a big year for Educate Together. Ten new schools are opening in September, and while it has opened more in previous years (12 in 2008), this year sees the opening of the first three Educate Together secondary schools. Six national schools are opening, four of those as part of the schools divestment process. Demand is such that one of the new schools, Shellybanks in Dublin 4, is exploring whether it needs to introduce a third class stream to meet demand. As well as all that, the organisation will open its first school in the UK.

There has been a shift in the educational landscape and Educate Together, while still a small network, is gaining ground. When the Department of Education decides an area needs a new school and asks for patrons to apply, Educate Together is the choice in almost every school whose patronage it contests. After more than 30 years of being outsiders, the organisation has confirmed its place in the mainstream.

Paul Rowe, CEO of Educate Together, looks mildly horrified when this is put to him. “We only make up two per cent of schools,” he says. “How can that be mainstream?” He does concede, however, that something profound has changed in the education landscape.

“Out of the 26 areas we contested for patronage, we won 25,” Rowe says. “It is now recognised in the political environment that the Ireland of the 21st century has to have a diverse education provision and cannot continue to compel parents to send their children to Catholic schools because there is no choice.”

Educate Together’s head office, beside the somewhat appropriately named Harmony Row in Dublin’s south city, is a busy but surprisingly small operation. Seventeen staff members, including four regional development officers, manage everything from support for the 68 existing schools, to school set-up, second-level planning, teacher-training and education, fundraising; there are too many things to list here.

A rapidly growing school network presents unique challenges in Ireland where the education system is designed with the needs of a declining school population in mind – even though population is increasing.

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