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.


What is it?Most parents are familiar with the idea of Montessori education for pre-school children but it doesn’t have to stop at the age of five. However, the high teacher-pupil ratio and extent of materials required means this approach to education, in its purest form, is not viable within the State sector.

“From concrete into abstract” is the philosophy underpinning the Montessori method, devised by the Italian educator Maria Montessori. Children are provided with hands-on learning materials for everything they do, to help them better understand concepts.

The focus is on building children’s own interests and giving them freedom to choose what they want to do. Another key feature of Montessori schools is multi-age classrooms.

Older children reinforce their own learning by helping younger children; it also fosters a spirit of co-operation rather than competition.

Where is it available?St Nicholas Montessori School in Dún Laoghaire, Co Dublin, opened in 1980 and shares facilities with the Montessori teacher training college of the same name. It is divided into the traditional age groupings of: three-six (two classes), six-nine (one class) and nine-12 (one class), with a teacher-pupil ratio of one to nine. The fees are €3,350 a year for ages four to 12.

Other Montessori primary schools include: The Children’s House in Stillorgan, Co Dublin; Wicklow Montessori in Ballyguile; and The Glebe in Celbridge, Co Kildare.

A teacher says:The Montessori system is tailored to suit the child, and children work individually at their own pace – some slower, some faster, explains Noreen Tierney, principal of St Nicholas school. “There is no ‘all open page 84’.”

The school’s Montessori curriculum “embraces” the State’s primary school curriculum. The children also all do French.

A parent’s view: Gary Holohan’s two sons, aged 10 and seven, have been in St Nicholas since they were three. Montessori education is a great way for kids to learn, he says. “It is teaching them to learn rather than teaching them facts.”

The teacher’s role is to give the children a structure in which to learn and provide them with materials to do that. By coaching and supporting children, teachers bring out the best in each child. Quoting WB Yeats, “Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.” Holohan says that he sees how the Montessori method does this with his sons. “It sparks their interest and they love to learn.”

What about the transition to secondary level?Tierney says that the system gives children self-confidence and, because they are used to working independently, they have no problem making the transition.

Holohan knows his sons will have to adapt to a new way of learning at secondary school but he is heartened by proposed changes in the Junior Cert and Leaving Cert to more continuous assessment, which is more aligned with the Montessori way of doing things.

“I don’t think the transition will be as difficult as maybe I thought it was going to be when they started.”


What is it?The international baccalaureate (IB) is a worldwide programme of education from the age of three to 19. The curriculum is inquiry-based, driven by concepts rather than content.

Its diploma programme was first developed in Switzerland in the 1960s as a standardised way of educating and assessing pupils aged 16-19 across different countries; the middle-years and primary years programmes followed.

Where is it available?The International School Dublin (ISD) in Blackrock is the only place in Ireland to offer IB at primary level. (St Andrew’s College in Booterstown offers the diploma programme.) It has 55 students aged three to 12. Its integrated curriculum knits the standard primary school subjects together into themes. Fees are €8,200 a year.

A teacher says:It not only gives children an international perspective to their education but also focuses on how to be a learner. ISD principal Sarah Pepper explains: “I am not delivering them facts but how they will best learn what they want to know.”

As well as ex-pat families looking for an IB school, the school is also chosen by Irish parents who are either disillusioned with the standard school system or who have international connections – or at least an international outlook.

“They perceive that by the time their children are leaving school it will be more than likely that they will be moving abroad for a job or working with people from other countries,” says Pepper.

A parent’s view:The first choice of primary school for Hazel Cullen’s daughter, now aged seven, was an Educate Together school.

“We had her name down but missed the boat.” As agnostic parents they did not want their daughter going to a Catholic school and settled on the International School Dublin as somewhere that would give her “a big picture” education.

She sees how her daughter has developed inquiry skills, “so she can continually learn about how her decisions and behaviour affects her group, her community and the world”. And they like the warm family vibe about the school.

It is a “huge struggle” to pay the fees, Cullen adds, but “we are willing to take the hit because she is very happy there and we are happy with it”.

What about the transition to secondary level?Children move on to secondary schools both here and abroad without any problem, says Pepper. Irish history and culture are taught at the school.

“They are not living in an ex-pat bubble,” she stresses.

The second language in the school is Spanish but it offers additional classes in Irish.


What is it?Under the Constitution, parents have a right to educate their children at home. They must register with the National Educational Welfare Board, which will send out an assessor to make sure they are providing “a certain minimum education” for their child. Some home-schooling families follow set hours and a curriculum, others favour a more informal fostering of a child’s interests and talents.

Why choose it for a child?Parents who home-school from the outset are those who want to take responsibility for everything to do with raising their child, says Ciara Webster of the Home Education Network (Hen).

Others decide to do it only after their children have had difficulties with the school system.

“For them it is the biggest struggle because they would have always seen school as the way to go,” she says. “It is a difficult choice in many ways because it can be quite fear-filled and society is quite judgmental.”

Where is it available?In your own home – provided you have the time and energy to commit to your child’s education. Hen ( heneire.org) is a supportive, social network for home-schoolers.

A parent’s view:Neither of Webster’s daughters, Clara (13) and Aoibh (9), have been to school, although Clara attended a pre-school.

One of the reasons Webster chose to educate them at home in Taghmon, Co Wexford, was because of her experience helping her nephew with his homework, which would take one or two hours. “I just remember feeling very frustrated and thinking that if I had this time with him to do whatever we wanted . . . what we could have done, instead of wading through this quagmire of stuff.”

She and her daughters don’t follow a structured day. “We have a few things that I really try to get them to do most days, which would be maths, Spanish and they do their instruments – Aoibh plays the piano and violin, Clara does piano and cello.”

She doesn’t see the role of tutor and parent as separate but admits that when Clara went through a phase of really hating maths, “I remember thinking it would be much better if she hated her teacher.”

Her daughters go to outside classes, such as drama and Irish dancing, where they make friends, and they also socialise with other home-educated families.

Like every parent, Webster says she has moments when she wonders, is she doing the best for her children? “Are they going to come back to me and say ‘what did you do that for?’ You have those fears no matter what you do.”

What about the transition to secondary level?When Clara reached secondary school age they reviewed the situation but decided to continue at home.

“At the moment we are still thinking of sending her in for fifth and sixth year, to do her Leaving, and she is interested in that. But a lot of home-schooled children don’t do their Leaving.” Do her children feel different to other children? “I think they do,” says Webster, before passing that question on to her daughters.

“In a good way, depending on the person,” says Clara, adding that some school kids she likes and others she doesn’t.

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