Life is cool for these teens at the school with no rules . . .
Published 28/04/2010 | 05:00
It is one of the most radical ventures in Irish education. In the building of an old vocational college in Trim, Co Meath, Liz Lavery runs a school where there are virtually no rules.
The students play a role in the choice of the teachers. Before they can take a job, new teachers are interviewed by the pupils.
Rather than being told what they have to learn, pupils choose what they want to study, based on their own interests. They make decisions on school policy and attend staff meetings. There is no code of discipline.
"I suppose you could say that we do have three rules,'' says Liz Lavery, who boasts the title of co-ordinator rather than principal. "If I shout fire, everyone must leave the building. If someone is violent, they will have to be educated separately. And we do not permit drugs."
Everything is designed to counter the image of the traditional old-fashioned school. The pupils do not sit in classrooms, but in "learning spaces''.
The teacher does not sit at the head of a class, but among the students. In the unlikely event that they suffer stress, the students can retreat to a "chill-out area''.
The Trim establishment is the first Irish William Glasser Quality School, a model of education developed by a psychiatrist from Cleveland, Ohio.
William Glasser, the author of several bestselling books, believes that the priority for schools should be the development of good relationships between teachers and students.
Most good teachers probably live according to this principle.
But at the Trim school it is an article of faith.
"We operate our service based on kindness and caring, and believe if quality relationships are created academic achievement will follow,'' says Liz Lavery.
"We provide the students with an opportunity to develop a love of learning, gain recognised qualifications and reach their full potential.''
The Trim school is run by the Meath VEC as part of Youthreach, the government service aimed at young people, aged between 15 and 20, who have left mainstream schools early.
The atmosphere in the school is quite unlike that in most traditional schools. There is an easy, informal atmosphere between the teachers and the pupils.
Discussing their progress in the yard during a break the students, most of whom could not handle life in an ordinary school, are overwhelmingly positive.
17-year-old Bernard Murphy* dropped out of school after the Junior Cert, but finds it a lot less stressful at the Trim centre.
"It is a very different experience to school, because you learn at your own pace, and there is not the same pressure to pass exams.''
The school offers FETAC (Further Education and Training Awards Council) qualifications that are equivalent to the Junior and Leaving certs. The qualifications are based on continuous assessment rather than exams.
The ideas of Glasser may seem off-the-wall and utopian to traditional educators, but the desperate plight of students who drop out of ordinary schools probably calls for desperate measures.
A recent report by ESRI showed that 9,000 young people leave school early each year. The social background of the pupils obviously plays a key role in this, but the study shows that the relationship between teachers and pupils is also crucial.
"The school climate, that is, the quality of relations between teachers and students, emerges as a key factor in school engagement and retention," the ESRI report says.
Most of the young early school leavers interviewed by ESRI researchers told of negative interaction with their teachers.
They felt that they were not listened to, did not receive the help and support they needed, and were negatively labelled as 'weak' or 'troublesome'.
A key principle of the William Glasser approach is that teachers are not there to control pupils. "The whole idea is that the only person you can control is yourself,'' says Liz Lavery. "We are only here to give information.
"There will always be a certain number of pupils who do not fit in to a traditional school.
"In this system you have to be creative. If something is not working with a student you have to try something different. One of our advantages is that we are very small (only 35 students). So that gives us a lot of flexibility.''
Most teachers would baulk at the idea that pupils could play a role in appointing them. But that is the way it works at the Trim school.
'In our most recent appointment, the students got to interview the teacher,'' says Liz Lavery. "Of course they are not the only ones interviewing them and we follow the proper procedures.''
The students also play a role in devising the timetables and choosing the subjects offered.
"This makes a lot of sense because the type of young person coming here can change from year to year, and we need to reflect that.''
William Glasser believes that pupils tend to drop out of schools because they are not satisfying their needs.
He argues that students resist this unsatisfying experience of school, and this resistance is perceived as a discipline problem.
According to the psychiatrist's view, school administrators then fall into the trap of thinking that discipline problems, not unsatisfying education, are the cause of low achievement.
If Glasser's unorthodox model of education proves successful in Trim it is likely to be copied elsewhere.
* Name has been changed