New school premises for Educate Together

By Peter McNamara

Principal Paula Mulhall is pictured with Minister Eoghan Murphy and Educate Together staff. Pictures courtesy of Educate Together.

Educate Together secondary school has moved into its new premises at the Roslyn Park Centre on Sandymount Road. It is a welcome addition to the locality, offering parents another option for the education of their children.

Here, the school enjoys rolling green spaces and a pleasant sea-front location. This new location is also the site of the impressive Gandon Villa, a stately house built in 1790 by the architect responsible for the neo-classical Four Courts.

This September, the school had an intake of 31 first-year students. They are the first to avail of the new premises. At Roslyn Park, the Educate Together secondary school has set-up a network of sturdy prefabricated-type buildings. There are bright and spacious classrooms, office spaces, and hallways.

According to Paula Mulhall, the principal, starting from scratch with a new premises poses challenges, but also huge opportunities. “A new school is like a blank slate. It’s somewhere that’s best suited to new ideas, to shake up the outdated education methods of the past. Our teachers are hand-picked and ready to adapt to more modern approaches.”

Like all Educate Together schools, this one is co-educational and multi-denominational. Pupils don’t wear uniforms, and they address their teachers using first names. Mulhall explains that this promotes openness and mutual respect.

“Everything is centred around the student,” she says. “There are three main things we work to achieve here. We want to create positive relationships between students, staff, and parents. We want to help pupils find their individual voice. And we strive for excellence in teaching and in learning.”

These are high ambitions. But Mulhall and rest of the staff at the Educate Together school are committed to realising their aims.

“As far as our relationship with parents is concerned,” says the principal, “there is an open-door policy. At primary level, parents are more comfortable playing a closer role to their children’s schooling. This isn’t so much the case when it comes to secondary. I’d like to change that.”

Mulhall is passionate about respecting the students at the school. At every turn, students are encouraged to ask questions, to ask “why?” They are never given direction without explanation, and are included in every decision.

“The effect this can have is amazing,” she says. “At the start of the year students were surveyed about what language classes they’d like to take, and what extra-curricular activities they might enjoy. “When you do little things like that the atmosphere really changes. Students have a greater sense of belonging. They’re more interested and engaged.”

As concerned as she is with creating positive relationships at the school, and empowering the individual student, Mulhall knows well that at the end of the year education comes down to a grade. The importance of exam results is something she returns to again and again in our interview. “Parents are rightly concerned with the results we get,” she says. “And I’m glad to say they’re excellent.”

The style of learning practiced at Educate Together is a more inclusive means to the same exam-based end. The student-to-teacher ratio at the school is remarkable. Students get much care and attention. And, aside from the classic ‘chalk-and-talk’ format, the staff at Educate Together is branching out to newer methods of teaching. Apple iPads form part of the day-to-day schooling.

“With the iPads,” says Mulhall, “students are encouraged to take ownership of their studies. The digital medium helps activate their creativity. There is more scope for group work and collaboration, and videos and other interactive platforms help bring a subject to life.”

The iPads need to be supplied by parents, but many are available at a reasonable cost second-hand. They get regular use at the school, but are not intended to replace copybooks and biros.

“The bulk of class work will be done in written form,” says Mulhall. Students might use the iPad for a few classes one day, and then might leave it home altogether for the next. “They’re just another string in the bow.”

At the Educate Together school in Sandymount there is also a class for children with learning difficulties. Running such a class is something that Mulhall evidently feels strongly about. “We want to demonstrate our commitment to helping every kind of child.” She hopes to expand from two pupils to the legislated maximum of six for any class.

This latest school is one of the hundreds which are part of the growing network of Educate Together schools in Ireland. Educate Together is an independent NGO that was set up over 35 years ago, with the Dalkey School Project, founded in 1978. Each individual school operates under its patronage, and under the Educate Together Charter, which pledges to “guarantee equality of access and esteem to children, irrespective of their social, cultural, or religious background.” With racism and xenophobia on the rise globally, such a pledge is especially important.

Mulhall has big ambitions for the school. At primary-level, Educate Together is well established as an institution in Ireland. The organisation is only beginning to make its mark on second-level teaching.

“There’s so much we want to achieve. We aim to get to 1,000 pupils eventually.” There are encouraging examples to follow. The secondary school in Cork has over 500 students, and has been running for many years with great results. At Roslyn Park, the school is capping its 2019 intake at seventy-two or so. “And when we get our permanent buildings in place,” adds Mulhall, “we’ll get up to 180 pupils.”

To that end the school is engaged in a fast-track planning process. Once permission has been granted the permanent buildings should be up in a year or so.

As our interview wraps up, Mulhall makes a point of thanking the parents coming for enrolling their children in the school’s first term. “They’ve taken a leap of faith. They’re trusting us to do a good job, and we won’t let them down.”

Educate Together are hoping to attract as many local children as possible. Newcomers are always welcome. Their catchment area covers Dublin 2, 4, 6, and 8.