Creating ‘change makers’ in the Irish school system
Schools that teach children how to cope with life as well as how to learn have been honoured for their work
Learning: practising sign language at St Columba’s Girls’ National School
Ireland often claims to have one of the most highly educated youth populations in the world. But does the education system teach children how to grow into versatile, compassionate human beings? Many aspire to create a better learning environment that encourages children to explore their full range of abilities and opportunities. Some Irish educators who have made these changes were honoured recently at the Changemaker Schools awards at Google Docks in Dublin.
Fiona Collins, the principal of Francis Street CBS in the Liberties, decided four years ago to develop a teaching programme that would help to build emotional resilience. “No real education can happen unless social and emotional needs are met,” says Collins. “I felt that our children needed to learn skills that would not only work in school but also when faced with situations of conflict and stresses in their everyday lives.”
Ashoka Ireland, an international network of social entrepreneurs, named Francis St CBS a change-maker school last month for its innovative approach to primary education. It joins four other schools welcomed by Ashoka into the change-maker network: Donabate-Portrane Educate Together national school in Dublin; St Oliver’s National School in Killarney; St Columba’s Girls’ National School in Cork; and Our Lady’s and St Mochua’s Primary School in Co Armagh.
This global community supports innovative educators who focus on teaching skills in empathy, creativity and teamwork.
The Francis St CBS ethos emphasises the importance of social and emotional learning, problem-solving and leadership, says Collins. The boys are taught mindfulness meditation and yoga.
They are encouraged to deal with conflict using restorative practices. “The kids sit in a circle and talk about it,” says Collins. “My whole approach is building empathy; standing in other people’s shoes.” She says her goal is to show students how to create change in their own communities so they can become “leaders” and “change makers”.
The school is in the inner city. “It’s such a historic part of Dublin, steeped in amazing history,” says Collins. “Our kids live in high-rise apartments and are surrounded by buildings and noise. We teach them to take time out and breathe.”
The school also places huge emphasis on positive mental health. “Children as young as nine are presenting with symptoms not far off anxiety and early onset of mental health problems, where they need a coping strategy. We give them the tools to deal with these emotions.”
Collins says changes in education must begin at the grassroots. “We can’t expect the Department of Education to make change for us; we have to do it for ourselves.”
Dublin City University president Brian MacCraith says such schools are creating “a framework of opportunity” where young people can excel. He says the change- maker school ethos is driven by the message laid out by President Michael D Higgins in his inauguration speech, which called for “active, inclusive citizenship-based on participation, equality, respect for all”.
“The message is that each individual can make a difference and a change maker can start at any age,” he says. “This about drawing students out and allowing them to fulfil their potential.”
Michelle Cashman, former principal of St Columba’s Girls National School in Douglas, Co Cork, says language skills are the key to this inclusive, non-judgmental educational environment.
Cashman, who retired in September, says the attached facility for deaf children means every child and teacher at St Columba’s must learn sign language. This shows children that deafness isn’t a disability, it’s just a means of communication, she says.
Standardised test scores have jumped since the amalgamation of the deaf facility with the national school, she says. “It’s had a huge impact on learning and has revolutionised my view on education.
“When children grow up with a mix of children, they don’t see any difference; they just see other children,” says Cashman, adding that there are 39 nationalities in the school. “Our approach to integration has encouraged them to be more empathetic and opens them up so they don’t categorise people.”
She says the pupils pick up sign language quickly. “It’s novel to be able to use their hands. The brain becomes more agile when the hands are involved in learning.”
Serena Mizzoni, director of Ashoka Ireland, says Irish change-maker schools are creating an awareness of children’s “social and emotional intelligence”. She has already noticed a shift in what Irish parents expect from their children’s education.
“They don’t want their kids sitting there and being taught at,” says Mizzoni. “They should be encouraged to ask questions, work together and learn about other communities. It’s about knowing how to work relationships, not just read books. The key question is: are kids passive recipients or active in their learning?”