Creating time and space for a revolution in our schools
The Educate Together model is bringing a new approach to teaching and learning to second-level, writes Katherine Donnelly
Amid all the excitement of moving up to second-level, the 70 first years at the new Hansfield Educate Together secondary school may be unaware that they are the frontline of an Irish education revolution.
Although over 30 years in the primary sector, that Educate Together won its campaign for recognition as a patron second-level school was, in itself, a bookmark in history.
But it is what this may mean for transforming the teaching of, and learning among Irish teenagers, where the real potential for radical change lies.
Hansfield Educate Together Secondary, in the Ongar area of west Dublin, is the first of three second-level schools to open under Educate Together patronage this year.
The others, Kishoge Community College, Lucan, Co Dublin, and Ballymakenny College, Drogheda, Co Louth, share patronage with the local education and training boards (the bodies that have taken over from the VECs). Hansfield is under the sole banner of Educate Together. The school's principal, Bernie Judge, is conscious of the responsibility on her shoulders, not only as school leader, but in putting flesh on Educate Together's idea of what should be happening in second-level schools.
Key to that vision are schools where the focus is not so much exams, such as the Junior Cert, but on nurturing a love of learning and deep engagement by students by, among other things, breaking down the traditional boundaries between subjects.
When it launched its blueprint in 2009, Educate Together's notion that students should not sit Junior Cert exams may have seemed fanciful, but the establishment has caught up with that thinking.
Issues remain with teacher unions about how Junior Cert reform can work and while that debate rages, Hansfield and the two other Educate Together-partnered schools are presenting a more immediate challenge to the education order.
They call it the Integrated Project and what that means is that as well as learning individual subjects, pupils will study them in groups, exploring how they relate to, and overlap with, each other.
The Department of Education and National Council and Assessment (NCCA) are watching with keen interest to see what lessons can be learned
Judge explains: "We want to model a different approach. Instead of students always experiencing science as science, with the Integrated Project and using, for instance, art, home economics and technology, that they would begin to see the relationship between them".
As a former home economics teacher, she is all too aware that "there is a lot of science in home economics but students don't always make the connections".
She believes the shape and structure of the Integrated Project will evolve over time and that ultimately it is the teachers who will direct it.
But for the purpose of kicking it off, science, home economics, art and technology will be combined into what she calls the "techie group" because they all have a science base.
Another example is the cultural group, blending languages and music, while history, geography and ethical studies will be part of another.
Judge says the Integrated Project will create space for students to be more active in their learning, and for teachers to work collaboratively, and to work to best of their skills.
"Different teachers will manage different methodologies differently and students will get a better learning experience".
Judge sat down with friend Mary Friel, former principal of Margaret Aylward Community College, Whitehall, Dublin, to see how the Integrated Project could be woven successfully into the timetable.
She had listened to different ideas about how it might work, such as doing it in a single block and suspending the timetable for, say, a four-week period: "We could have done that, but then everyone forgets about it."
In order to bed down the concept, she went for a weekly approach, and one where all teachers would be free together.
So, every Monday afternoon, everyone in Hansfield will give over the last two class periods to the project. In Hansfield, where classes are 60 minutes long rather than the more traditional 40 minutes, this will be for two hours.
Different things will happen. "One week three teachers might work with a group, but the following week only two of those might do something with the group and the other might be planning or thinking, or at training," says Judge.
She herself will suspend other work to devote the period to the Integrated Project, possibly using it as an opportunity to reflect with students and/or teachers on how it is working.
"We want to make a space for the students to talk".
Dr Carmel Mulcahy, a former Head of Education Studies at DCU and chair of the board of management at Hansfield Secondary School, is optimistic about how the new approach will be good, not only for students, but also for teachers.
"I often use the term that teachers are balkanised: you go into the classroom and shut the door behind you and there is always the fear that if something is going wrong, you are not going to talk about it simply because it is perceived a failure.
"What we are doing here is very much giving an opportunity for team work, for people to work in teams, with support available to them.
"So, while we are asking teachers to go the extra mile in terms of our approach, I think in the longer term, because of model we are trying to build, it is going to helpful and supportive to teachers.
"Because they will have strong teams and will have an understanding of what, for instance, someone is doing in art and someone else in music, it may take a lot of additional pressure off them," she says.
The new approach does take more time, and the Department of Education has provided additional resources to the school.