What Irish schools are really like
“So what were Irish Schools like?” is a question I always hear when people find out that our family spent four years in Ireland. It’s a subject I wrote about a few times while in Dublin. I am attaching my early thoughts, written during our first year (2002):
Where are the schools, anyway?
The principal of our local Lexington school, Barbara Manfredi, took an Irish holiday a couple years back. As a by-product, she was interested in getting a general feel for the Irish educational system. After several days of casually but unsuccessfully searching for schools, Barbara started asking, “Where are they?”
I can understand her puzzlement. Whether in city or country, Irish schools seem to be deliberately hidden. They often lack all typical identifying characteristics: a sign, playground equipment, open space, and big buildings. Even the large and sprawling ancient schools with huge Gothic and Victorian buildings look like monasteries rather than schools due to the lack of signage and playground gear. The only consistent exception to this are the “Gael Scoil”, or the all-Irish speaking schools. They constitute maybe 15% of the total and I’ve noticed that they usually have a very prominent large school name painted on their building. Of course, to a non-Irish speaker these signs are still pretty opaque, but their existence is remarkable nonetheless. I wonder if the effort that goes into painting and maintaining these signs reflects the pride and, perhaps, sheer will of the administrators of the Irish-speaking schools. It is very difficult to swim against the tide with Irish flippers in an English speaking country.
Fourth grader Gray goes to Sandford Parish National School. It’s a small public school, though in a typical Irish way, it is closely affiliated with a church parish. Consistent with Barbara’s experience, you would never know that this institution is a school. It is located off the main street in Ranelagh, our “village.” The access road is called Sandford Close, a very appropriate title because it is so narrow as to be, for all intents and purposes, closed. Two passing cars need to be highly attentive so as to not wipe out each other’s side mirrors. Creeping up on the footpath (sidewalk) to avoid a collision (the usual Dublin technique) is not an option because that 3 foot wide bit of concrete, hard up against a stone wall, holds a considerable volume of pedestrian traffic travelling to Gray’s school as well as to a college and a large boy’s secondary school.
Gray’s home away from home is considered to be “brand new” as its current facility was built only 14 years ago. At the approach to Sandford National is the “school cottage” a charming little older residential building wrapped in yellow stucco with curly woodwork and a slate roof– very Goldilocks. Its function is unknown to me but Gray says that sometimes people live there. The flowers in the window boxes are kept up year round so I wonder if it is a source of income for the school. More likely, in this land of controlled commercial opportunism, it is used for visitors to the parish.
Just past the school cottage is one of the three school “yards.” Its six-foot high brick enclosure is interrupted by a broad iron gate that provides the main welcome to the school. This entrance yard is also the designated outdoor play area for the oldest grades (3-6). It’s an irregularly shaped piece of tarmac, on which you could park perhaps 15 cars if they were packed in tightly, as in a container ship. It’s tiny, bumpy, and it looked distinctly unpromising the first time we visited. Had Gray known this was to be his future daily playground, he would have said “I’m supposed to play soccer and hide-and-seek on THIS?” (I have seen more developed rooftop play areas in desperately poor inner city schools.) Playgrounds are just not part of the Irish scene. I read a shocking statistic that outside of Dublin, the other Irish counties have one or less playgrounds. The total number of public playgrounds in the country is under 10.
The school itself has no sign and since the yard has absolutely no physical evidence of children, when looking at it from the outside, the building could be pretty much anything. (So much for iconographic school architecture–newly built schools we see going up in Maine use blatant American school symbols–bell towers, clocks, baseball diamonds. I’m not sure there is such a common visual language in Ireland.). Sandford Parish consists of 7 spacious and bright classrooms, holding about 200 children. Since there are not enough rooms for all eight classes (Junior Infants, Senior Infants, 1st to 6th form), the grades are mixed together. Gray’s teacher, Miss Patton, teaches 19 fourth form kids and 9 from fifth. The principal is also a full-time teacher; there is a part-time secretary, and one Special Ed consultant who comes to the school a couple of mornings a week. This is considered to be quite a huge commitment to special educational needs. One of the classroom teachers provides music education. The only other “specialist” is the woman who comes to teach the Roman Catholic children religion on Tuesdays, as the school parish is technically Protestant, though the majority of the children are Catholic. Gray’s teacher is responsible for what little art they study, as well as gym class. There is a lovely hall, which is used as a gym as well as for school functions.
The school is widely considered to be one of the very best in all of Ireland. Its staff is young and energetic and its facilities are seen as superb because of the newness of the building and the fact that it has a tiny combo library/computer room. That particular room is a third the size of a classroom and has a few shelves of books. There are about 10 computers, funded by a grant. There are no computers in the classrooms.
Physically, Dane and Carl’s school, though larger, would be a step down in physical facilities but a step up in physical charm. St. Conleth’s College was started about 60 years ago as a fee-paying Catholic boy’s school. It originated out of a tall and imposing red brick Victorian mansion and grew haphazardly from there, into the two or three adjoining house lots. It’s located in the toniest section of Dublin–a leafy area called Ballsbridge where most of the embassies are found.
The classrooms are miniscule and shabby. I was standing in Carl’s room one day and a 50-ish looking man poked his head in and said, “Hasn’t changed a bit since I was a pupil here. Even the same cobwebs.” The senior school desks, with their flat wooden double benches, are so ancient that Dane’s class, in a highly surprising fit of collective organization, recently forwarded a petition to me. As parent rep, they were asking me to promote their request for new seats since theirs are so uncomfortable. Dane says that if he shows up late it wrecks his day since he has to sit in a tipping seat which makes him grip the floor all day to prevent sliding off or into the boy next to him. (The boys stay in the same room all day and the teachers come to them.) The St. Conleth bathrooms are dreadful and the tiny side entrance I use to access Carl’s room smells pungently of generations of boys who missed the mark on their visit to the toilet.
The titular headmaster is the second husband of the founder of the school. A lovely, somewhat doddering old man (his daughter is the “real” headmistress), Mr. Kelleher gave me my original tour of the school. At the top of our meeting, Mr. Kelleher proudly told me of the school’s new gym. Later, during the tour, as we stood in a functional nothing-special battered gym, I said, “So where’s the new gym?” Thank God Mr. Kelleher is hard of hearing because at that moment, he happily pointed around the room telling me that this “beautiful facility” was just put in service the prior academic year.
There is a small computer lab and a tiny former cafeteria, which serves as the after-school art and music room. There is no library; there are no science labs, or any of the usual special features of an American secondary school facility. The “new” cafeteria is just a bit bigger than our dining room–no exaggeration, and the school must rely on extremely tight scheduling to get grades 1 to 12 through there in a couple of hours. As with Gray’s school, there are no playing fields on the grounds but St. Conleth’s is nearly next to a large public park with soccer pitches and tennis courts, which are actively employed by the school.
The total population of the students is 350, and about 10 girls are admitted for the final two years of secondary school. I am told that members of this tender minority are never without a boyfriend or two at hand.
Driving by the building with a native Dubliner, I waved my hand towards St. Conleth’s, indicating that two of my boys attended that school. The reply “Oh, I never knew that was a school.” Yet St. Conleth’s does feature it name “prominently” (3″ high) on its black metal gates whose ironwork details are meticulously painted green and yellow, including the school’s crest. This is where all St. Conleth’s First Communion portraits are taken (in an on-loan green school blazer) and where I will have to grab a couple of snaps of the boys before we go.
Beyond the physical differences, there are wide gulfs of difference in curriculum, parent involvement, and discipline in these schools vs. our American ones.
Discipline (or… beware of Mr. Murphy)
Before school started, I advised all the boys to watch classroom behavior carefully. I warned, “I think the kids will be quieter and have to do things like stand up and say ‘Good Morning Miss’. Whatever happens, just do what they do.” Gray came back after his first week and said “These kids aren’t quieter. They’re just as loud as American kids are. The difference is that they don’t ever get out of hand and no one gets special treatment.” For instance, the standard response to bad behavior is to assign “lines” (writing, like in the beginning of The Simpsons). If a kid acts up repeatedly, the behavior is rarely overlooked–he just gets more lines. Notes going home to parents about infractions are pretty frequent. Gray and his buddies William and Marcus recently got one for talking during assembly. It was written by the principal and said “Gray will report to you what he was doing during today’s assembly.” Although he was chagrined to get this note, on balance, Gray likes being in a place where the rules are clear and fairly enforced.
At St. Conleth’s, the senior school has a Dean of Discipline. Most mornings, (especially in the fall) this short, truculent Mr. McCormick stood in the entry hallway of the school growling things like “Seamus, tuck in that shirt. Cillian, you’re late. Conor, what are you doing with those trainers on your feet?” My first silent, grumbling reaction to his performance was a fairly snippy “Don’t you have some papers to grade or something better to do with your time?” I wondered if his presence was for the benefit of the parents. However since I rarely saw another parent in that part of the building, and also since I found out that Mr.McCormick is Dane’s favorite teacher (Geography), I decided I should give him a second look. What I have found is that he is a lovely man, keenly dedicated to his profession and students and that his discipline “duties” are widely shared by all staff members. (Though I would not be alone in asserting that his bulldog-in-the-entryway contributions are archaic and disrespectful. I heard an earful of complaints about that yesterday at another raucous parent luncheon.) No teacher, canteen worker, or school secretary would hesitate to gently but firmly admonish any student for a misdemeanor (a cheeky response, not looking an adult in the eye, not holding a door open for another person.) Since the rules are fairly clear (basically adult standards of polite society), and the school is small and personal no one seems to feel singled out, and the boys take all the behavioral and appearance expectations with a grain of salt.
Interestingly, the parents seem more cowed (and put off) by the school staff. As example, I routinely stand around with other parents waiting to collect our kids. As the boys dribble out, some of the younger siblings waiting for the exodus might get rambunctious and do something slightly untoward (climb a wall, throw things at each other). Instead of directly correcting his or her child, a parent is far more likely to say “Don’t you let Mr. Murphy catch you doing that.” Or, “Miss Kelly would be very unhappy to see you up on that wall.” In a similar vein, my friend Janice, as a fairly typical American, directly pursues her questions and complaints with school staff at her daughter’s school. She has gained a reputation among the other parents as being very brave and one mother even said to her “Now, when you’re next in talking to Miss O’Neill, could you please mention that my Brendan is having a problem with….”
On the flip side of all the discipline and authority, there is an enormous tolerance for “boys will be boys” and standing aside to let them have their fun. The most prominent example of this is the drop off period in the morning. Carl’s first/second class students are expected to report directly to the classroom, which is open by 7:30 am to facilitate working parents on their way to the office. The teacher reports for duty at 9:00 am. Prior to Miss Kelly’s appearance, mass pandemonium reigns in the classroom and all I can imagine is a sharp-edged desk swiftly meeting a boy’s head. (One 6 year old’s nose has already been broken but that was during a PE class soccer match.) The staff room is directly at the bottom of the stairs leading to this “attic” classroom but as far as I can tell, no intervention tends to come forth. Another parent (a Dutch woman) and I spoke about how much we disliked this unsupervised chaos and we put it to the principal and our fellow parent reps at the next Parent Association meeting. Our concerns were roundly shut down by the Irish parents on the basis of “Why that’s the best time of the day for the young lads. My boy loves it! You put an adult in there and you’ll take away all their fun!” From the principal, a kindly but confident; “I appreciate your concerns but in 60 years we’ve never had a problem with this situation. Mr. Kelleher is in the building (he lives there) in case of a real emergency.” Birthday parties take on the same wild free-for-all and this kind of thing is generally seen as just a bit of good craic (fun). I’m dreading Carl’s fete at our house later this month–good thing it’s a rental.
At the same Parent Association meeting we discussed truancy and the fact that the school has no policy for following up on a child’s absence–another area where my attempts to “systematize” or “safeguard” fell to deaf ears. One parent said “I would have a heart attack if the school rang me up.” Although frustrating, the conversation yielded a funny, and true, story. An outraged woman from the local community had rung up Mr. Kelleher to complain about two Conleth’s boys she saw on the DART commuter train.
Woman (after ascertaining that Mr. Kelleher was the St. Conleth’s headmaster): “I saw two of your senior school boys in maroon and blue striped ties and navy blue jumpers on the DART in the middle of a weekday morning.” [You already see how difficult it is to anonymously skip school in Dublin, perhaps explaining the seeming lack of concern by school administration.]
Mr. Kelleher: “I’m sorry madam, are you sure about the color of those ties? Our boys wear green and blue striped ties.”
Woman: “Well I may be mistaken about the color of the tie but what I am really giving out about is that those boys were drinking white wine in broad daylight on the train car.”
Mr. Kelleher: “Oh madam, now I am certain that you must be mistaken. Conleth boys would only drink champagne at that hour of the morning.”
At a conference with Dane’s (American) Latin teacher, Mr. Latvis succinctly described the major differences between American and Irish schools. He said “Here in Ireland they don’t really have a ‘whole child’ educational approach, there aren’t many projects assigned, and there is no such thing as continual assessment.” Each of those three points of departure has an enormous impact on our experience of the schools.
The most profound difference is the emphasis on end of semester/year testing. An Irish child’s educational progress is exclusively assessed by tests, culminating in the biggest one in the final year of secondary school–the Leaving Certificate. The student chooses a variety of subjects for his or her test and he spends the whole last two years of school cramming for them. The points scored are the sole factor in determining University admission. Even before the student takes the test, he declares his top three University choices as well as his future course of study, and he is obligated to attend whichever school he gets into, based on his test scores. While the system seems highly pressurized to me, it does relieve the child of the increasingly insane competition of the American college admissions game, which seems to sap the fun out of high school as well.
Our boys are still a long way off from the Leaving Cert but its influence trickles down very strongly into their classrooms. To begin, there is a national curriculum for every subject. So little Carl has the same load of books (or similar) to every other 6 year old in the Republic. He has weekly tests and his December grades were based solely on his “Christmas” tests, at which he spent a full week’s class time! On one hand, it makes it very easy for foreign parents like us to help our kids learn the system. From day one we could see exactly where each subject was headed just by opening a book. On the other hand, cramming in all of this standardized knowledge is terribly restrictive on the teacher and the kids. Carl’s teacher just decided last week that they will henceforth spend their mornings on their “work” and their afternoons are dedicated to more free-flowing exploration in areas such a science, art and cookery. This is a very unusual move and I wonder if some of the parents will object that the kids “aren’t doing anything” in the afternoon.
Carl’s teacher can “get away” with this bold action because she is teaching such young kids. At Dane’s age, the curriculum vise is very strong. One reason Dane likes his Geography class so much was illuminated by Mr. McCormick’s opening statements in our conference, “I like teaching this subject because the Junior Cert test on Geography (a pre-test version of the Leaving Cert, taken in the equivalent of 9th grade) is so easy that I can fit in all the requirements in just a third of our time. The rest of the year I can do what I want. So, for instance, we will spend much of the winter charting Herbert Park.” Dane enjoys this because his entire education in Lexington has been experiential, led by incredibly committed and creative teachers. So, while the Irish kids in his math class can whip out division facts a whole lot faster than he can, his teacher says he has a more profound understanding of the mathematical concepts than many of those speedier kids.
Since the start of school Gray and Dane have each had one or two “projects.”, but other than that the boys have a daily grind of many short homework assignments in each subject. There is strict monitoring of the assignments’ completion and each night Des or I have to sign a homework journal. Irish parents are quite vigilant in this area. If they slip up, their kids pay the price the next day in terms of an admonishment. Parents also limit playdates to Fridays, to avoid homework conflicts.
The testing method of assessment becomes rather extreme in the secondary schools and universities. There is no grading on a curve and absolutely no grade inflation. Many times Dane has come home with an abysmal looking test score of, say 60, only to tell us that this is “what all the kids got.” After our eyes pop back into our heads, we usually do find the very low class average written somewhere on the exam. The upshot is that the high flier who scores say, a 75, is still going to get a barely passing grade. The times Dane scores in the 80’s or 90’s are truly outstanding but if he gets a 60 on his end of term grade he will still get a “D” even if all of his other tests and assignments were graded as “A’s”.
In Northern Ireland, which has an entirely different and very stratified school system there is a debate about the 11-plus exam, taken at that age to determine the level of further education available. (Germany is the only other EU country with such a system.). The former head of the civil service, Sir Kenneth Bloomfield is an outspoken advocate of the test. Northern Ireland being a separate country, it is dangerous to mix it into this discussion. But I share his comments because I think its sentiment could be shared by some on the southern part of this island: “Schools are meant to prepare children for life and life is a test. The idea that every child can succeed is pie in the sky.” Sadly, Sir Bloomfield’s outrageous-to-my-ears statement seems to be supported by the number of Irish adults I meet who tell me they were “hopeless at school.”
Although St. Conleth’s has a sterling record of high test scores on the Leaving Cert., there is a strong ethos of supporting students of mixed abilities. The headmistress told the Parent Association, “At St. Conleth’s we are as proud of the person who gets 6 D’s as the person who gets 6 A’s.” However, from what we have heard, there is virtually no such person who gets straight A’s. This is just not acceptable in Irish schools–if it happened too often the school would simply notch up the expectations. The Irish ethic of preventing swollen heads at all costs is in direct opposition to Lexington and Lake Woebegone, where all children are “above average.”
Reflecting on our experience of Lexington schools, I’d say the values held highest by Lexington staff and parents are: self-actualization (helping each kid do the best/be the best he could be), creativity and problem solving (making education an interesting adventure), and achievement (but we still have to get into Yale). It’s not apples-to-apples to compare this list to national Irish standards but I will anyway. I am only guessing, but I would say that the top Irish educational values are: equal access to a good education (all kids need and deserve a proper education), standardization of outcomes (Ireland’s current strength depends on having a highly educated populace), and maintaining traditional values (not religion, but basic common decency).
While volunteerism for social causes is very prominent in Irish society, the buck (and the volunteer hours) seem to stop at the school door. There is virtually no role for parents in the schools: no library workers, room parents, classroom helpers, field trip chaperones, book fair organizers. When the other American mother and I helped plan the Thanksgiving feast for Carl’s class, it was clear that the teacher had never had a parent in her classroom during the school day. She loved it! She was absolutely stunned that we were comfortable creating activities and directing the boys. She nearly dropped dead to find me holding forth with the class about the Pilgrims and Wampanoags when she came back from a tea break. (Carl became an instant celebrity when the boys learned that his granny lives “right by Plymouth Rock.”) This experience of having a bit of help emboldened Miss Kelly to send a note home asking for other classroom volunteers (none surfaced, but I am certain that some parents would love to help if asked directly and personally), and we have since done a couple of other activities in the classroom. Tiny stuff for Cindy and myself, huge for the teacher.
The same goes at Gray’s school. When my school principal aunt was visiting at Christmas, I wrote a quick note to Gray’s teacher asking if it would be OK if Aunt Sally stopped in for a little visit to her classroom. I received a typed response, saying that the request had been forwarded to the principal, Mr. Murray. After a couple of days another typed note from Mr. Murray arrived, prescribing the precise time of the visit and its duration. All very formal, but the actual visit was lovely. The teacher was very welcoming and Mr. Murray stepped out of his own classroom twice in half an hour to chat with my aunt. I think Mr. Murray and Miss Patton were both stunned by the request, probably a little nervous, and reassured in the end that there was no hidden agenda.
Parents are still very aware of their own childhood experience of authoritarian and punitive schoolteachers and administrators. Both the schools and parents want to change this relationship but are still finding their way. At both of our boys’ schools the Parent Associations are quite young (around 3 years old) and they have a very tentative relationship with the school administration. There is no such thing as an open PTA meeting, other than a tradition of having a single school-wide meeting in the fall, with plenty of wine and good cheer flowing. After the “Annual General Meeting” both the parents and the Parent Association recede to their respective corners. The parents do some considerable private whinging when they dislike something, but rarely bring it forward. In another report I will describe the Parent Association meetings (I participate in two of them now). The short description is that they accomplish nearly nothing. For myself, I vacillate between small efforts to “shake things up” with some new ideas, and complacency. I am watching and learning the ropes before and IF I make any bold moves. I always remember that I have a self-conscious 13-year-old who would not be pleased to have his mother acting like a pushy American in his new school. (It didn’t bother him in Lexington, where I was in very good company.)
Beyond the classroom, there is less parental direction of kids’ lives here than in the States. Although I know a few frantic “Taxi-Moms” whose kids participate in an impossibly long list of extracurricular activities, they would be the exception. The cynical side of me says that this very real upper-middle class American phenomenon is mostly a product of college application expectations in the US and, as revealed above, that demand doesn’t exist in Ireland. Another “calming” factor would be the relatively recent affluence in Ireland. During the Reagan/Thatcher ’80’s, Ireland was still in an economic abyss. So things like summer camps, art classes, and studying multiple instruments would be ’90’s luxuries for most Irish people. And the largest factor of all is that Irish parents have a better ability to separate their own identity from that of their child (on average) and also seem to have a higher trust in their own children’s ability to manage life. I have yet to meet a “Helicopter Mom” who swoops in at the slightest problem, saving Johnny from the dire consequences of a bad teacher placement, or an inattentive swim instructor, or a math curriculum which doesn’t meet his needs. Parents would be far more attentive to issues of overall fairness for the school/class, and the sometimes-beneficial lessons given in the College of Hard Knocks. This is not to say that the parents don’t do plenty of running around for their children. And certainly, Irish parents share largely the same aspirations for their children of those in America. It is their expression of them–a more laid back and realistic set of expectations–which creates the difference.
5 Responses to “What Irish schools are really like”
I have been searching for a report such as this to share with my Chinese students and you have hit the nail on the head. This is an excellent insight on Irish schools. Thanks for the post
Aisling–so nice to hear that this can help you out with your students. It’s a subject I spent a great deal of time thinking about, since I had three kids in Irish schools, and I was very involved in an educational non-profit in the US.
This is a very interesting article. Eleven years later, how have your kids fared college wise and how good or bad was the Irish school experience for them?
Hi Pauline, what a cool question. The Irish school experience was overall good–for some subjects the system even worked much better for one or two of my sons. I.e. the more rote and sequential teaching, rather than experiential. I also loved how the boys got out of the American competitive rat race where every kid is supposed to be good at *everything.* They saw a system where differences in abilities were embraced and accepted, as opposed to the respect/inclusion “varnish” that does not extend to all aspects of kids in affluent US schools.
It was a little bumpy to plug my oldest son back into a competitive US public school as a junior. We put him in one class that was too easy and one for which he was not prepared, in his Irish precursor course. That was a blip. It was also hard to navigate applying to colleges for the oldest since we did not know the ropes. We got a college counselor to help us understand how to translate his grades etc. for US admissions purposes and for setting our expectations.
They all graduated: Carnegie Mellon, Virginia Tech, Northwestern and are all off the family payroll in jobs they love and for which they were well-prepared. That is the biggest success of all: they are productive, solid citizens with a more global view and maturity that was gained because of their expat experiences. We all look at our time in Ireland as a true highlight of our family life.
Thank you so much for that very informed response. We are from Ireland but have been gone nearly 30 years… yikes.
We have 9 and 6 year old boys and are contemplating a return to Ireland. For the rest of their school life anyway – where they go to college could be open (probably depends on funds at the time!).
We are worried about the flip from one system to the other. We can see the benefits of both ourselves but worried about the boys navigating it. More so the 9 year old as he is very well settled into his life here – personally, academically and sports wise.
Your experience is really comforting to read and gives us a lot of optimism. I think what is most obvious from your blog and comments is that you are clearly a very involved parent and you were willing and able to help your kids adapt to very different experiences.
Thanks again so much. I’ll keep reading!