Well of saints and scholars: The model school without a waiting list


Synge Street school in Dublin's south inner city enjoys a proud history, a strong academic record and a great location. One of its students was the overall winner in the BT Young Scientist competition. And the pupil to teacher ratio is one of the lowest in the State. So, why is enrolment falling? Louise Holdenreports.

Its students excel at the Young Scientist Exhibition and play soccer at international level. They complete the Leaving Cert at rates of over 90 per cent and one in 10 students is a member of the Pioneers. It has a fabulous location in Dublin's south inner city and a past-pupil roll that includes former Taoisigh and Uachtairain. So why are their no waiting lists for Synge Street CBS?

For a microcosm of Dublin's changing character you couldn't do much better than Synge Street. Over the course of its 150-year history the school has been acutely sensitive to the ebb and flow of cultural life in Dublin and has been the hothouse for many of Ireland's towering personalities, including Liam Cosgrove and Gay Byrne.

However, enrolment at the school is a third of what it was at its peak. Since the mid-1990s student numbers have fallen steadily from 750 to 282, following a pattern that is reflected in State schools right across the city. Department of Education figures show that more than 20,000 places in the free second-level school sector in Dublin are left empty. As increasingly affluent parents turn to private and grind schools in the hope of securing for their children the top spots in Ireland's universities, many State schools in Dublin are overlooked.

However, some of these schools now have lower pupil-teacher ratios as a result, and are better equipped to serve their communities of students. Synge Street CBS has a radically different student profile than it once had, but continues to produce success stories such as Abu Salam Abu Bakar, this year's winner of the Young Scientist Exhibition.

Like the city it inhabits, Synge Street has a growing population of students from all over the world. Lithuanians, Romanians, Germans, Chinese, Somalians, Kenyans, Kosovars, English, Indians and Pakistanis mingle in the corridors with Dublin-born students. Synge Street staff have implemented their own language support programme to integrate new non-national students as smoothly and effectively as possible. Many of the teachers provide this support voluntarily - a creative response to resource pressures typical of many inner-city schools.

As a Christian Brothers school, how has the ethos of Synge Street been affected by dwindling student numbers and the arrival of Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Greek Orthodox, atheists and a host of others with different belief systems? Principal Michael Minnock claims that Synge Street has always served a diversity of students.

"Synge Street welcomed many Jewish children in the 1800s during the Pogroms, and we still receive financial contributions from the Jewish community to this day," says Minnock, a former accountant who took up the position in 2005. "This is a miraculous environment to work in - what goes on in the school never ceases to amaze me."

Despite the unique pressures of operating an inner-city school with a radically diverse student population, Synge Street has a 90 per cent completion rate and has enjoyed national acclaim for its students' successes in the Young Scientist Competition. The school has a strong and dedicated staff - and not just in the science department. Thanks to exemplary teachers Synge Street students excel in sport, too, especially judo and soccer. The school also has a very successful language initiation programme run by the teachers on a largely voluntary basis.

When asked why Synge Street does not appear on media league tables, Minnock laughs.

"Our students get very good points in the Leaving Cert, and our Leaving Certificate completion rates are above the national average, at over 90 per cent. We don't have high transfer rates to university because many of the students who have the points to go to college make different choices. On our doorstep we have a large financial services centre from where companies actively recruit our students into work and training. Many more go into apprenticeships, retail and family businesses. In any inner-city school students enjoy a network of contacts which they use after school to take them to the next level."

Why, then is the school taking such a battering on enrolments?

"Students used to travel to Synge Street and other inner-city schools from all over the county, but with the opening of new community colleges in the suburbs, that's no longer necessary," Minnock explains. "We have fine facilities on offer and excellent staff, but it's difficult to envisage our numbers rising."

As is the case with other inner-city schools, there is no transition year on offer - despite healthy completion rates at the school there is still a fear that transition year might drive some students out of school and into the workplace. Keeping a rein on adolescent boys is a challenge in any setting.

"Nobody can ever say that teaching in an inner-city school is likely to be easy," Minnock concedes, and he admits that Synge Street, too, has experienced the kind of discipline problems that were so dramatically described at last year's teacher conferences. There are joys when a students achieves, but occasionally a teacher will have to ask herself or himself why they do the job.

"Indiscipline is a broader societal issue - it's impossible to believe that what goes on the street will not translate to the classroom. We have our moments when we all feel that strong action has to be taken. Maybe that moment has arrived."

Outside agencies such as the National Education Welfare Board (NEWB) will only provide meaningful support when they are properly staffed, Minnock says. "In our opinion the NEWB is completely underresourced to fulfil its targets. We rely on our own system of tracking school students - a combination of persistent calling, home visits and co-operation with local services." Once again, this system, critical to the welfare of students, is reliant on the goodwill of the staff in the absence of sufficient support from the State.

Minnock is Synge Street's third principal in five years, so the 21st century has been an unsettled period for the school. However, after nearly 150 years in the capital, the school is going strong.

"Synge Street has come full circle," says Minnock. "It was set up in 1864 to serve the local community. Over the years the student body grew to embrace students from all over the county. Now they have their own schools and we are back to looking after the students who live in the city. Throughout our history the ethos of the school has never changed. We still follow the Edmund Rice model - 'promoting personal and social development in caring Christian communities'."

There appears to be little conflict between this ethos and the school's growing multicultural student body. In places the divergent values dovetail - many members of the Synge Street branch of the Pioneers are Muslim students.

"There's nothing older than us around here. Even though our numbers are smaller, this continues to be a very viable school. You can really feel the pulse of Dublin in Synge Street."