Meet the changemaker schools

St Oliver’s national school in Killarney is part of a network of schools challenging teaching conventions

There is a large fish-tank in the library of St Oliver's national school in Killarney, Co Kerry. There are 47 fish in all. Each one represents a different nationality at the school.

"Wouldn't it be boring if we were all the same?" says Rory Darcy, the school's tall, talkative and inspirational principal. "You'll notice, by the way, there's no Nemo there – they're too expensive."

The school’s diversity isn’t just down to the fact that many of its pupils’ parents are foreign nationals who came to work in the town’s tourism industry.

St Oliver’s cherishes difference as a badge of honour: it welcomes children with special needs (it has one of the highest concentrations of resource hours for any school), Travellers who have fallen out of education and young asylum seekers stuck in the direct provision system.


With more than 750 pupils, it is one of the largest and most diverse primary schools in the country. And, for all these potential obstacles, it is delivering impressive results.

“Schools are places of incredible hope,” says Darcy, who has been the school principal for 14 years. “If you rely on your view of the world from the media, it would be a very negative place…”

St Oliver’s is a hub of innovation and challenging many of the conventions of the teaching world.

It has transformed the school building into a resource for the entire community by staying open outside school hours seven days a week; it is based on a bartering system they use with groups to provide classes for students.

“Gymnastics, coding, therapy – no one gives me money for the use of the school, but we use their skills and experience,” says Darcy.

There is also a working farm to help engage students with poor attendance and give them a chance to hone their practical skills.

“We’re the only national school with a herd number, to the best of my knowledge – and we managed to halve the attendance problem,” he says.

It is enhancing learning supports with a team of speech and occupational therapists based on-site.

“It’s part of the idea of a school as a campus, geographically based,” Darcy says. “People get to know each other. A lot of problems can be solved by making connections with people.”


St Oliver’s is now sharing these ideas and connecting with other innovative schools from around the world as part of the “Changemaker School” programme.

It is an initiative is run by Ashoka, a global not-for-profit network of social entrepreneurs and numbers more than 200 schools in more than 30 countries.

Later this week, the Changemaker School network will host a major summit at Muckross House in Killarney, attended by leading innovators and educators from across Europe. The aim is to ignite conversations and create ideas for the future of education.

Among the schools taking part in a high-achieving Berlin secondary school where there are no grades until students turn 15, no timetables and no lecture-style instructions.

Instead, pupils decide which subjects they want to study for each lesson and when they want to take an exam.

Unifying theme

If there is a unifying theme to many of these innovative schools, say the organisers, it is that they are working to foster 21st-century skills – empathy, creativity, teamwork and leadership – in students.

“The pace of technological change and globalisation along with significant social, environmental and economic challenges means young people today will need to be ever more adaptable, innovative and empathetic,” says a spokesperson for Ashoka Changemaker Schools.

“We believe every young person should be given the opportunity to develop a skillset that will empower them to unleash the full potential in themselves and be active in changing their world for the better.”

Darcy’s hopeful theme is in sharp contrast with much of the negative narrative around Irish education such as overcrowding, spending cuts, strike threats and stymied reform.

That’s not to say his school is free of problems. St Oliver’s , for instance, has to ask for voluntary contributions from parents to help make ends meet.

But Darcy insists that real change can come with simply changing the mindset of a school.

“A little boy – Riain – came up to me a while back and said: ‘Mr Darcy, it strikes me that schools are far too important to be left to adults to run.’”

Darcy laughs. “And he’s right. We’re not talking about kids running the school on their own and give out free ice-cream and cancelling homework.

“It’s about seeing school from their point of view. They are way ahead of us. We can assume things – but you have to see it from their level… Somehow, schools manage to kill that creativity by the age of 13 or 14. ”

He goes back to the fish tank. While there are 47 different nationalities, the children don’t notice.

He says one of the teachers came into a class after a recent tragedy and asked the children to pray in their own way for the survivors.

“Most children prayed at their desks. Two of the students went over towards the window, knelt down and prayed. No one batted an eyelid. Isn’t that fantastic?

“At a time of such division and mistrust, that two kids can do that and no one notices. It should be a very powerful message to the rest of us.”

Making a difference: three other Irish changemaker schools:

‘Teaching stressed children to self-regulate’

Little Angels school, Letterkenny, Co Donegal

The school has about 100 students with moderate to profound learning disabilities. Many students have sensory issues, get easily stressed and can have behavioural issues. To tackle this, the school began yoga and mindfulness programmes and added sensory rooms to each classroom.

'Using the great outdoor as a classroom'

St Columba’s girls national school, Douglas, Co Cork

There are 500 girls in St Columba’s which has a long history of catering to the deaf community, as well as the wider population. Communication extends beyond the verbal and into the physical. The school is located on almost 10 acres of land in suburban Douglas, Co Cork, with onsite vegetable gardens, chicken pens and a small forest providing a rich environment for outdoor learning.

‘Making sure no child is an outsider’

Donabate-Portrane Educate Together national school in Co Dublin It works under a simple vision: "No child an outsider." Everyone takes responsibility – older pupils team up with their younger peers. Any conflicts or bullying are resolve with the assistance of sixth class "peer mediators".