Powerscourt: new thinking, old package

 

Powerscourt National School in Enniskerry, Co Wicklow, doesn't look like the oldest primary school in Ireland. The bright yellow walls and pink roof which face onto the idyllic town centre are in perfect condition.

The gates surrounding the school building and the school yard look as though they have been painted not too long ago. And the young children racing around the grounds and playing games during break-time certainly give the school a youthful and lively appearance. Yet the size and charm of this school are a give-away: it was built at a time before modernisation and the drive to be bigger and better. There is only one classroom in the main building and a prefab at the back of the grounds houses the only other classroom.

Like the other buildings in Enniskerry, the school is compact, just two stories high and no double-glazing in sight.

The school was built in 1818 by Lord Powerscourt, and though it is now a run by the Church of Ireland it was originally used as school for Catholic and Protestant children from the village.

The principal of the school, Sadie Honner, has just begun her third year as head of the school. Both she and the other teacher, Hetta Sherwood-Smith, started together at the school.

"We didn't know anything about what had been going on at the school," Honner explains. "This had its advantages and disadvantages because we had a clean slate and it was super for us in a way, but we had no idea of the school traditions."

Powerscourt was also Honner's first job as a school principal and she says she found the transition from teacher to principal very different. "You have responsibility for everything - picking up litter in the morning, checking the heating. The safety aspect is also huge."

Although she was not sent on a course to teach her how to be a principal, she found the parents and the board of management of the school "incredibly supportive". "Everybody has given us free rein," she says.

The school has 47 pupils this year which, according to the Honner, is about as many as they can take. The pupils are mostly from Church of Ireland families, from inter-church marriages and other Protestant faiths. It provides education to children from the ages of four to 12 years and, with only two classrooms, the teachers must juggle the classes to teach them all.

Honner and Sherwood-Smith both teach four classes in the one classroom. This they do by rotating the time spent with each class. When she comes in in the morning, Honner begins by teaching the junior infants. The other classes know that they have to wait patiently for their teacher to get around to them and will put their homework on the blackboard. Does this type of teaching leave everyone confused? Honner certainly does not think so. "Every child should experience multi-classes, because it teaches independence," she says. "They have to have good listening skills because they can't come up and say `Do I do this? Do I do that?' It would be so disruptive you would get nothing done. They are taught responsibility from a very early age."

Although the size of the school means the children don't have a lot of space to play in, Honner suggests small schools should be set up all over the countryside. Smaller schools, where children are taught by the same teacher for a number of years, mean children never get "lost", says Honner.

"If somebody comes in to me with a problem in junior infants I have to sort out that problem because it's not going to go away in September to someone else. It's going to be staring me in the face." The close-knit nature of life at Powerscourt National School and the small number of pupils creates a family atmosphere. The parents are heavily involved in the school and are given the names and addresses of all the other parents whose children attend the school.

A school newsletter which the pupils are also involved in compiling is sent around to parents to keep them up to date on school activities.

THE PARENTS also have a hand in decision-making. It was they who decided not to have uniforms brought in - an agreeable decision for the school principal. "Wealthy or poor, they are all the same, and a label on your clothing is not a big deal," she says. Although Honner and Sherwood-Smith are the only two full-time teachers, they get help from others. Two people on a Community Employment scheme help out at the school with administration and classroom work. Honner says life has greatly changed for the better since they got a secretary to help out. A remedial teacher who also teaches at two other schools comes in regularly and one of the parents teaches some French classes. But the school remains tiny. There are no electronic bells going off mechanically, no shrieks and cries from hundreds of children and no depersonalised atmosphere of people passing each other in corridors.

Sherwood-Smith knows this all too well - she also attended the primary school as a girl. "Nothing has changed," she says. "I remember everything as it was - the shelves with the books, the layout of the classroom." And if principal Sadie Honner has anything to do with it, Powerscourt National School will stay as it is for some years to come.