Ireland’s education system is a paradox. Abroad, international schools are slurping up our highly-trained teachers for both primary and secondary level; here, entry points for teacher-training colleges are relatively high and the profession is regarded with prestige.
But the system – especially at second-level – can be conservative and resistant to change: witness the entrenched opposition among the teacher unions to reforming the junior cycle. Policy-makers expect Leaving Cert reform to be an even harder sell.
And yet there are many examples of schools who have taken whatever opportunity they can to innovate. Here, we take a look at just some of them.
All projects have been chosen because they could potentially be replicated in other schools.
Mahon Educate Together secondary school, Cork
When Colm O'Connor taught at an international school in Brussels, he saw the power of doing away with traditional subjects and teaching through a single issue or idea.
“What it means is that we move away from content and facts and consider topics from different angles,” he says.
“For a few weeks a year, someone suggests a project and it has to be cross-curricular and based on a real-world phenomenon which, so far, have included sustainability, democracy, evolution and the Atlantic.”
He says topics are explored through different angles such as literature, arts, culture, science, history and so on. Students also get to develop research skills, group work, time management, digital literacy, presentation skills and more.
It's a practice being shared in other secondary schools such as North Wicklow Educate Together and Bremore Community College.
Embracing the arts
Trinity Comprehensive School, Ballymun, Dublin
Music or art tends to be an afterthought in most schools. At Trinity Comprehensive, it’s at the heart of what they do.
All students are given options to experience music or art. They create art for community projects, take part in creative writing and poetry workshops with authors and poets, and all get a chance to learn a musical instrument. Drama is also a core part of the curriculum.
This is the guarantee the school gives to all its students. The secondary school, based in Ballymun, finds it is a proven way of engaging students in an area where students face greater obstacles in progressing to third-level.
The "arts guarantee" was the brainchild of school librarian Joe Kelly – who also expects all students to have a book borrowed at all times – following a visit to Vimmerby in Sweden.
School principal Frances Neary says the guarantee has seen arts embedded across the curriculum with, for example, experimental art and archaeology finding its way into the history curriculum.
Eglish National School, Ahascragh, Galway
As a member of Toastmasters, principal Siobhán Fitzgerald saw the transformational power of public speaking among adults.
“At the time, I was teaching fourth, fifth and sixth classes and I saw the benefit that our children could get from it,” says Fitzgerald.
“There was a new curriculum with more emphasis on oral language and I was disappointed that it was teaching children what to say and not how to say it, which is where the real power lies.”
The Let’s Stand programme was born. It has benefitted students in unexpected ways, says Fitzgerald.
“They are becoming better listeners, they can evaluate one another, they can give positive feedback to one another and they are becoming more confident and assertive,” she says.
The school has since been selected as one of social entrepreneurs network Ashoka’s “changemaker” schools, which are taking innovative approaches to education.
About 70 per cent of the children at Eglish come from Traveller families, where there is a rich history of oral heritage and language.
"The topics they talk about are linked to the curriculum and are cross-curricular too," says Fitzgerald. "We've had students act as tour guides at Clonmacnoise, others did a eulogy at the grave of Constance Markievicz. The children takes turns to lead the assembly."
Learning musical instruments
St Joseph’s school, Ballymun, Dublin
A pioneering music programme at this primary school ensures all children learn an instrument.
The programme is a way of giving students more than academic reasons to be in school. It includes guitar, drums, piano, flute, trombone and many others.
Most students go on to Trinity Comprehensive. It means by the time they reach there, they have already had significant exposure to the arts.
Ron Cooney, who developed the programme, features in the acclaimed documentary Ballymun Lullaby, which shows how he tutors young musicians for their performances and how music impacts on their life.
Axis, the local arts and community resource centre, has played a vital role in facilitating arts access for St Joseph’s.
There are few if any places in Ireland with such an integrated approach to arts. The impact in the school and the wider community is visible. Gradually, Ballymun is emerging as a cultural powerhouse.
Corpus Christi school in Moyross, Limerick
Empathy is integral to most people’s lives – and yet the modern world makes it easy to lose sight of the feelings of others.
This school has partnered with the Irish Horse Welfare Trust on a learning programme which helps to foster these qualities using art therapy, mindfulness and other approaches.
The school is part of the Roots of Empathy programme, supported by Barnardos. One approach involves a mother who comes to the school with her baby over a nine-month period during which the children observe the baby’s development and to label the baby’s feelings.
International studies show the programme works well to develop empathy in young people.
Tiernan O’Neill, school principal, says social and emotional competencies form the basis of academic abilities. “The key to mental health is early intervention and it works better than firefighting and trying to get children into mental-health programmes at the age of 15,” he says.
The school has close connections with Leopardstown Race Course which has helped many young people from the school go on to become jockeys. Recently, a video of the school choir singing Rise Up at Thomond Park went viral.
New forms of assessment
St Andrew’s, Dublin
The south Co Dublin school was the first to introduce the International Baccalaureate (IB) as an option.
This is a globally-recognised alternative to the Leaving Cert and is accepted as an entry route into higher education worldwide.
Its advocates say it places a much bigger focus on high-level skills such as critical thinking. It also allows students to focus on fewer subjects and in greater depth.
IB diploma students take six subjects, which must include a mix of science and humanities, plus three other elements: theory of knowledge, which looks at how we know what we know; creativity, activity, service – which involves artistic, sporting and voluntary work – and an extended essay.
Of the six subjects, three are at higher level (equivalent to first-year university level) and three are at standard level (slightly below higher level in the Leaving).
Taking control of learning Coláiste Bhaile Chláir, Claregalway, Co Galway
Out with the textbooks, in with innovation. At Coláiste Bhaile Chláir in Claregalway, Co Galway, teachers use technology to create their own resources – including textbooks, magazines, and interactive methods such as games and animation.
School principal Alan Mongey says it has encouraged students and staff to really engage with how they learn and to take control of the process instead of consuming information passively.
When it opened in 2013, the school had the chance to do things differently, says Mongey. “Students can add or draw from the resources as they need. If there’s a really good diagram made by a student of, for instance, a volcano, it can be added to the notes. We’ve seen that this is making students into active learners.”
The school has also developed a STEM (science, technology, engineering andmaths) short course, delivered for one hour a week over junior cycle, with a focus on the methods of science. Its students have won several prizes at the BT Young Scientist Awards.
Do you know of other innovative schools? Drop us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org