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

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.

“There are no funding streams for opening new schools,” says Emer Nowlan, Educate Together’s chief operating officer. “To be fair, department officials say they know they have to be funded, the problem at the moment for them is they don’t know where to find the money.”

Rowe estimates the cost of establishing a new school in the first three years comes to about €95,000, just €10,000 of which comes from the Department of Education. “We open four new schools, we get €40,000 but we still have to find €340,000 to make up the balance,” he says.

First UK school
Generating sustainable funding is a constant challenge. Opening a primary school in Bristol in the UK will add greatly to the Educate Together network but it may also start an ability to branch out and make money from its years of experience. There is a huge demand internationally for resources such as its Learn Together ethical education curriculum, and the organisation is exploring that.

Another big development came last month with the announcement of the divestment of four schools to Educate Together. This is a significant step for parents in communities who want a choice of schools in their area. For Educate Together, it means opening three new schools in Trim, Co Meath, Tramore, Co Waterford and Malahide/Portmarnock, Co Dublin, and a handover of patronage in the fourth.

So far, the process has been undramatic. The schools in Trim and Tramore will open in temporary accommodation before moving into buildings made available by the Catholic Church. The school in Malahide would have done the same but was found to warrant a new school building because of the demographics in the area.

Munnelly is handling the fourth school. It’s an unusual situation where the school approached Educate Together with the proposal of a patronage reassignment. It’s a small, rural school under the patronage of the Church of Ireland and everyone, so far, is in agreement about the proposal. “We wouldn’t have it any other way,” says Munnelly. “We’re not evangelists.”

In two days’ time, Munnelly will be in Dublin meeting the principal of the Hansfield, Dublin 15, second-level school. That, along with the other two second-level schools, one in Lucan and one in Drogheda, is a huge challenge, especially for the ethos of Educate Together, which is founded on principles of child-centred education and a democratic approach to school operation and management.

“When you’re committed to a learner-centred approach to education, it is easy enough to achieve at primary level,” says Munnelly. “At second level, it’s a whole other challenge.”

Currently, everything is being examined, from school building design to timetable make-up. “We’re trying to decide what we’re looking for in teachers and how we’re going to advertise positions,” Munnelly says.

Everyone is interested to see what the schools will look like. “If a school is sticking to the charter and the principles, in some areas maybe that will look like fantastic Leaving Cert results,” Nowlan says. “It may be that in other areas with other challenges that won’t be the case but the school will be successful in other ways. I certainly think it will look like happy students. It will look like collaborative teachers. Beyond that, we’ll have to wait and see.”

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