Choosing a Primary School in Ireland
Who would have thought that it would be so hard? We moved back to Ireland last August, back to the home that I grew up in. Naively, we looked at three schools only before we moved back, and a fourth upon our return. I thought that we had covered all options - the local Roman Catholic national school, the local community national school (non-denominational or all denominational), the local Church of Ireland national school and the local private fee paying school.
Needless to say. the fee paying school was fantastic with wonderful facilities and educational ethos, small class sizes and lots of extra curricular activities. Troubling for us was that there was no children at all in one particular class, so one of our children would have no peer group and frankly, we would be broke. I quite like the idea of the parents with holes in their clothes putting all of their money into the education of their children, but I think the reality would suit me a little less. The school explained their lack of numbers in certain classes has been caused by the recession in Ireland, when they considered closing the school altogether. Now however, they have ridden the storm and numbers are slowly growing again, just not in every class yet.
The Church of Ireland national school, also, was plagued by small numbers. Some classes have 8 or 10 students, while some have only 2 or 3. This has less to do with the recession and more to do with the religious split in Ireland overall (according to the 2016 census, 78.3% Roman Catholic, 2.65% Church of Ireland).
The Roman Catholic national school seems to have a good balance of decent class sizes and good facilities with a motivated principal. The drama lies in your religious beliefs, it's their way or no way. However, since our return I have looked at several other national schools some of which have huge populations and some where it felt like there was no money to turn on the heating.
All of the schools (with the exception of the fee paying school, where the children work to their own abilities), are taught according to the national curriculum and as we have discovered, has little provision for children that are above the academic level of their peers. Most principals gave the advice that it would depend on their class teacher in each particular year as to what areas of study would be emphasized. In effect, it depends on the interests and knowledge of the teacher - some teachers have fantastic music ability or literature. The children in those year groups would be encouraged to join a school band or publish a book. Some class teachers are struggling with large class sizes of 30 + students, which will include some students with special needs. In these instances I imagine it is a challenge just to meet the curricular requirements.
Our own particular dilemma was that our children have come from a primary school in one country where they spoke only French and then an international school in the Caribbean where they benefited from teachers from all over the world and a subject based curriculum - they have their class teacher for English, Maths, Geography, History, Science and Social Studies but they move classroom several times in the day to their dedicated Spanish, Art, Music, Library and PE lessons with subject specific teachers. Additionally they were streamed within their own classroom according to their abilities in English and Maths. This is an ethos that is matched in the fee paying schools here in Ireland.
Something that I became acutely aware of in the international school was the national pride of the island that we were living on that was instilled in the children. From Kindergarten, they were taught the national anthem which was sung proudly before assembly each week. Famous Caribbean people featured heavily in the lessons and there were regular talks from Antiguans that had achieved celebrated status in their particular fields, for example the men that rowed across the Atlantic, the lawyer fighting for civil rights, the musicians that have made it on the global scene. Imagine a rapper coming to school on a Friday morning and the whole school dancing and singing along.
My experience here in Ireland so far, is that the assembly is more religion based than that of national pride. I am wondering if and when the children will learn the Irish national anthem? Part of our reason to come back to Ireland was to give the children a sense of belonging to a country, the country of their passport preferably. Instead, they still believe in a sense of pride in a tiny Caribbean island nation where great things really do happen, and could happen to them too.
The French speaking school that the children went to in Switzerland also gave a different education, as the emphasis was not on reading and writing until they were 7 years old. Also we lived in a predominantly Catholic area of Switzerland but it had no bearing on the schools. Indeed this is the first time that religion has been a factor of education and my husband (from New Zealand) cannot understand the reasoning behind it all. Speaking to friends that have also recently returned to live in Ireland from abroad, we are united in agreement that religion was never a 'thing' until we came home. (see articles in the Irish Times 2017 here and here)
Learning Gaeilge has been a challenge. Currently an exemption to Gaeilge only occurs if you arrive in Ireland after the child turns 11. We came back a little early, so have to play a game of catch up, especially as it is a compulsory pass in the Leaving Cert still. I tell my children a little of the history of Ireland and why everybody learns the language so that our culture won't be forgotten. It is an important debate for me. On the one hand, I got a C in Honours Leaving Cert Irish and subsequently forgot it almost entirely. Even at the time of my Leaving Cert I could never understand what they said on the Nuacht. I appreciated this interesting article in the Irish Times in April last year which indicates that I am not alone. As I went abroad and didn't look back, it was a language that never cropped up in my life until we moved back. Now I struggle to help my children with their homework at primary level.
President Michael D. Higgins talked openly about this on a recent state visit to New Zealand and eloquently said that students should be encouraged to speak ancient languages rather than forced to do so.
Enough of my personal rant about Gaeilge, except to say that it would be really great if it was an optional subject at secondary school. Back to the schools, and the community national school which has a refreshingly modern look at religion and hence a range of students with different ethical backgrounds. Those students that want to make their communion take extra lessons after school, and the school is generally able to fill the religious education slots with different subjects. The approach is that of 'all faiths' rather than an inclusive / exclusive philosophy.
Since our return, I have spent a great deal of time visiting schools in all of the neighbouring towns to try and find one that will open the children's minds, ensure their happiness to go to school each day and inspire them with worldly knowledge and a discovery of the creativity within.
The issue with getting the choice of schools wrong in the first instance is that an attempt to give the children security and a sense of home can be quickly overridden by the subsequent changes of venue.
We have not yet broached the subject of secondary school as it is a few years away, but it seems that getting the junior school correct will feed to the secondary school and so the hamster wheel turns (reference Irish Times Dec 2017).
Ultimately the selection of a school will depend on your location, salary and expectations. When you move back home to Ireland you will have your own reasons. There are the 'big 3' things to work out - job, house, school. The order that these materialise for you will be different for everyone, perhaps you came home because you had a job offer, in which case the other 2 will evolve around that. Perhaps you came home for reasons of nostalgia and are living near family but still need to find the job and the school. Ultimately, your children may go to the school that you went to as a child. The difference is that, unlike you, they did not grow up in Ireland and they have a worldly view about education and the options that have been available to them in various different places. They will have learnt different subjects to different levels and it will take time to slot into a new learning environment. Peers will have been in the same class group since junior infants, unlike international environments where children come and go all of the time, and that may be another hurdle to leap. It is fun being a novelty for a while though, we just have to remove the 'In Antigua, I did such and such' sentence from our vocabulary, because that certainly wears thin after a very short while and is a speedy way to alienate the parents and the children alike.
Although this has been a big issue in our lives since our return, I have discovered through talking with other parents that have been here all time, that these concerns are not just for returning emigrants but are shared amongst all parents. Ultimately we all want to do what is best for our children and selecting a school will be just one of those unique decisions.