EDUCATION PROFILE:Sister Bernadette Sweeney, principal of St Agnes Primary School in Crumlin and star of RTE's Music Changes Lives, hits all the right notes in her approach to education, writes LOUISE HOLDEN
‘I’M NOT a nun. That word isn’t big enough to define a person. I’m a woman of the universe.” Sister Bernadette Sweeney makes her way through life without the friction of frustration and resentment. People don’t annoy her, she says. She is in love with life.
The principal of St Agnes Primary School in Crumlin was raised in a small house in Walkinstown with her parents and nine siblings. Bernadette learned music from an early age; piano, guitar, drums and violin. Music has shaped her religious and educational life since – three principalships, her travels in the US and her work with the National Children’s Choir. Bernadette was ready to move on from schools and into another field of educational leadership when she was asked by her order to take on a disadvantaged school in transition in Dublin.
“I couldn’t resist the challenge,” she recalls. “The school was in the middle of a difficult amalgamation and the pupils were coming from one of the poorest areas of the city. I knew it would keep me busy.”
Over the last 11 years Bernadette has moulded the school into the happy, loving environment it is today. Viewers of RTÉ's Music Changes Livesseries will have seen how the pupils, parents and staff of St Agnes have bonded over an ambitious music programme that has transformed the life of the school. Bernadette explains how, in a few short years, St Agnes pupils have formed a violin collective in an area where classical music performance is not mainstream.
“Kids in Foxrock play the violin, not Crumlin,” says Bernadette. “I was teaching a small group of Suzuki violinists when I started here. I remember the little ones peeping around the door. There was always a few, floating around the corridors, not quite involved in anything. I knew that music could make a difference to them.”
In a fit of inspiration (with little idea of how to make it happen) Bernadette went around the classrooms and asked any children who reallywanted to learn violin to put up their hands. "I only got a couple of takers at first – I know that many others were afraid to put up their hands because they thought their parents might have to pay."
Drawing in voluntary and paid tutors from the local community and fundraising for instruments, Bernadette found ways to meet the demand. She now has a full-time voluntary orchestra co-ordinator, Joanna Crooks, as well as a team of paid tutors. The pupils don’t pay a penny. The initiative has changed the life of the school.
“Before now, there wasn’t a culture of extra-curricular activity at this school,” says Bernadette. “Now the parents and pupils are much more involved, much more open to coming here. We have a 60-strong orchestra here in St Agnes. Sixteen of our musicians have been accepted into the Dublin Youth Orchestra, and six more going for audition. This is a new departure for Crumlin.”
The initiative has been such a success that Bernadette and her team have decided to invite the parents to learn as well. They have had 37 applications to date. Sitting behind a pile of letters and application forms, Bernadette’s eyes fill with tears.
“You would not believe the reaction we are having to this programme,” she says. “I get very emotional when I read some of these letters. Here is a note from a local pensioner who wants to know how much he needs to save to buy our school a violin. We will have nearly 40 parents and grandparents from the local area coming in to join an orchestra this month. Many are getting a chance they never had before. They won’t be charged even a euro because sometimes a euro is all it takes to keep the very neediest out in the cold.”
Violins and tuition don’t come cheap, however, and St Agnes is not coming down with resources. Her order, the Sisters of Charity, has been generous, but Bernadette admits that the school has had to be creative to get the music programme up and running.
“We knew that if we thought too much about the money, we wouldn’t do it. You need to start with the vision – damn it and do it. The rest will follow, and it has.”
At the recent Irish Primary Principal’s Network conference in Dublin, Bernadette found herself riding a wave of enthusiasm – dozens of school leaders wanted to take the St Agnes model back to their own schools. Bernadette is determined to empower as many schools as possible to open their schools up to the arts.
“It’s not just about the music. It’s about team spirit, discipline, equality and expression,” says Bernadette. “The education system is very rigid. It doesn’t offer all children the chance to shine. You have to find what a child loves and let him express it. What do parents want for their children on leaving school? They want them to be happy, confident and positive. They want them to remember school as a good place.”
There are tough teenagers, troubled people in Crumlin who have never been offered what they really need, says Bernadette. “Disadvantage is not about a lack of material things. Disadvantaged people have never been given the chance to find their inner power.”
Bernadette sees the expression of “inner power” in parents and little children as they leave the school, proudly carrying a violin that they can play. She has now extended the programme to singers, establishing a gospel choir with the help of a local pianist who has volunteered her time to the school.
The response to the Music Changes Livesprogramme on RTÉ has been overwhelming, says Bernadette, fighting back the emotion in her voice. "Irish people are so capable, so generous and so loving, when they are given a positive direction for their strengths," she says. "There's such a concentration on bad news in Ireland at the moment, we're very hard on ourselves. But if you could read the letters we're getting, measure the goodwill that's coming in to and out of this school, you would take a different view of what's possible in Ireland and in education."
The Music Changes Livesseries on RTÉ showed the nation how a school like St Agnes's in Crumlin can bring music tuition to communities with few resources. Principals around the country have contacted St Agnes principal Sister Bernadette Sweeney to find out how to create their own orchestras. Here's a DIY guide.
Great leadership: Sister Bernadette Sweeney believes that true leaders don't try to claw their way to the top, but bounce back into the community and lead quietly from within. "Leadership is not about getting power for yourself, it's about helping other people to find their power and use it. There is great strength in gentleness."
Great vision: "We didn't think about the money," says Sister Sweeney. "We decided what we wanted for the school and set about making it happen. The money followed."
Great help: Volunteers like musician Joanna Crooks, former general manager of the National Youth Orchestra, have given their time to help realise Sister Bernadette's vision for the school. She truly believes that the programme could be replicated in any school if the will is strong. "If the vision is right the volunteers will come," she says. "We have lots of help – not just all from musicians either. It takes a team effort to make this happen."
Great patrons: The St Agnes music programme has attracted some stellar patronage like Prof James Cavanagh of the Royal Irish Academy of Music; renowned vocal coach Dr Veronica Dunne; Prof Harry White of UCD; Prof Gerard Gillen of NUI Maynooth; and Dr Sean Cramer of the National Children's Choir.
Great community support:The music programme at St Agnes is not just for the children. Teachers and parents have been invited to take part as well and almost 40 parents will gather for the first parents' orchestra at St Agnes this month. "From the local doctor's surgery to the shop down the road, people are supporting what we do," says Sister Sweeney. "This is something Crumlin people are very proud of."