Friday 18 January 2019

New school gives pupils a vote

The country's second only 'democratic school' opens its doors in Dunally this coming Thursday

Pupils and staff getting their school ready for opening on Thursday
Pupils and staff getting their school ready for opening on Thursday

Sorcha Crowley

The sounds of children playing will ring out once again at Dunally former National School this week.

It has been transformed over the summer into the North West's first Democratic school, to be known as Sligo Sudbury School, where children self-direct their own learning, at their own pace.

A staff of six, including founders Gayle Nagle and Maura Duignan, will welcome their first 17 pupils this Thursday morning.

The children are aged from 5 years up to 17 years and are coming from both traditional schools within the Irish education system, home schooling and for three little ones it will be their first taste of school.

Sligo Sudbury School is no ordinary school however. All decisions are put to a vote with both the children and adults placed on an equal democratic footing. The term times are roughly the same as traditional school semesters but the hours are flexible. Children can start anytime between 8.30-10.30am and leave between 2.30-4.30pm.

It's the result of over 18 months planning and fundraising by Gayle, Maura and several volunteers.

They are busy brushing, painting and weeding as workmen complete snag lists.

"Everything is going well, the building is nearly finished and we're just putting on the final touches, putting down some floors and doing up the gardens," said Gayle.

The original school was built in 1885 on land donated by the wealthy Wynnes of Hazelwood House and the stone was donated by the Parkes' of Dunally House. The school closed in 1989 but was used by the HSE as an Alzheimer Unit until a few years ago.

It was bought by Sligo Sudbury School this June and Felix McHugh of Cornacloy Construction moved his team on site in July. They've since cleared overgrowth, laid down a new car park, paving, re-wired, re-plumbed and brought the entire building up to current fire safety codes and disability codes. There are three large multi-purpose rooms and five smaller rooms which will be used for art, music, cooking, science and cooking.

"We've had a lot of lovely feedback from people who went to the original school here," said Maura.

"There's great affection for this space as a school and we've had a lot of positive feedback from people saying they're thrilled that it is returning to be a school again," she said.

"The community have been very nice and supportive about it being a school again. There's a lot of goodwill there," added Gayle.

Half of the children are from local families while the other half are families that have moved to Sligo. The future pupils have a wide range of interests: "The one thing that struck us from the enrolment interview is that they're all very clear about what they're interested in," said Maura.

They will be enrolling children periodically throughout the year, at the start of terms so children can integrate more smoothly into the community.

Outside in the garden where Maura and volunteers are busy weeding, there are mature apple and plum trees, pathways and potential for vegetable patches: "There's plenty of space for little children to go exploring," said Maura.

In the past year they have gained charity status, found a site and bought it. The charity status means they can now fundraise.

The school will be financed by donations, fundraising and fees of €1,300 per term per student with an optional sibling reduction of €1,000 per annum.

This Thursday is "just the beginning":

"I'm looking forward to seeing the kids come in and evolving into this space and seeing what they start to explore and learn about what their passions are," said Gayle.

"It'll just be really exciting to see the children develop and see them put their stamp on things and make connections with each other and form the community.

"I'm really looking forward to that," said Maura. The democratic process as well, we haven't worked in a democratic school and there's an awful lot involved in the democratic process, school meetings and the committees that are there to keep everybody safe and to keep the community a positive and resilient place," said Gayle.

"That'll be interesting to see all that happen.School meetings are going to be fun I think!"


Sligo Champion