It’s a damp, cold day and the children of John Scottus primary school are tramping through a forest in their wellies, hats and muddy overalls to an outdoor class.
This rolling 14-acre campus in leafy Rathmichael, Co Dublin – not far from the M50 – is the setting for one of Ireland's newest private primary schools.
The educational approach, says head teacher Elizabeth Dempsey, is about emphasising qualities such as fearlessness and resilience, while building strong relationships between teachers and pupils.
It helps that class numbers are small – there are no more than 15 pupils – compared with the regular national school system, where numbers can be more than twice that.
“A recurring theme that’s coming from prospective parents who want to send their children here is that pupils are stressed out,” says Dempsey. “They’re anxious, they’re pressured, they’re competing and comparing. So with this setting, it’s all about letting your light shine and recognising how everyone’s is different. And, to be honest, it’s a joy and a privilege to be in this setting.”
It all comes at a cost, however. Tuition fees at the school are €4,500 a year. Orla Kelly sends two of her children to the school – Anna (9) and Grace (8) – and hopes her youngest son, Luke, will begin next year. It's a financial sacrifice, she says, but it's worth it.
“We’ve found that this is the education that we want to give our children. It’s a priority in our house,” says Kelly. “Other things like the fancy cars and the holidays and whatever else – that’s not as important as their education.”
John Scottus is one of a growing number of private primary schools in Ireland, which exist outside the regular education system.
There are now 38 independent primary schools, up from 29 a decade ago. They do not receive State funding and are not inspected by the Department of Education. Instead they are funded by tuition fees, which range from about €3,000 to €11,000.
These schools say their rising popularity is down to their greater freedom to provide smaller class sizes, provide “wrap-around” care for busy parents and adjust the educational approach based on children’s individual needs. They generally also offer more in terms of extracurricular activities.
Some place a big focus on the outdoors. At Headfort School in Co Meath, for example, children can stable their ponies at the school, which has 60 acres of grounds and a cross-country course and are encouraged to play in the fields and climb trees under supervision. Kildare Steiner School, on the other hand, places a strong emphasis on music and arts and crafts.
Many private primary schools also offer “wrap-around” childcare facilities from 8am to 6pm to assist working parents.
At the Georgian Montessori Primary School, pupils can avail of breakfast, dinner and an afternoon snack, and take part in extracurricular activities such as swimming, French-language classes, music and speech and drama.
Other private primaries are affiliated with private secondary schools, and feed many pupils directly from one into the other, such as Alexandra College Junior School and St Michael's College Junior School in Dublin and St Gerard's Junior School in Wicklow.
Then there are primary schools that subscribe to a particular style of teaching – such as the Wicklow Montessori Primary School and Kildare Steiner Waldorf School – or that offer immersive learning through European languages, such as Lycée Français d'Irlande and St Kilian's Deutsche Schule in Dublin's Clonskeagh.
Headfort School is the last remaining private primary school with a boarding element; it has 51 day pupils and just 10 boarders at present.
A key attraction to Headfort is freedom for children, says headmaster Kevin Allwright.
While the school features longer days, sports and exploring the grounds of the school are incorporated into each day.
Because of these longer days, Allwright believes they “can develop themes much more easily. We don’t have to stick to the set curriculum. We do of course cover it, but we also do more.”
While some may gasp as school fees of €17,925 for boarders and up to €7,729 for day pupils, Allwright points out that all students have their lunch provided for them, and there is a matron on duty 24 hours a day to cater to day and boarding students. The school doesn’t receive State funding, and pays its own teachers – unlike most private secondary schools.
For Elizabeth Dempsey at John Scottus, one of the main attractions for parents is the idea that children are in a setting where there is greater flexibility to meet their needs.
“Here, the children are kind of in charge of their learning,” she says. “So, instead of being vacant and waiting for constant instruction, there’s a spark that’s ignited in them and they all want to do their best and challenge themselves. It’s a lovely, supportive learning environment.”