Mags Gargan visits a pioneering education project at the heart of a parish community
From the outside, the red brick building of St Ultans looks like any other primary school, nestled alongside the parish church in the heart of Cherry Orchard, West Dublin. However, inside these walls The Irish Catholic finds an impressive, pioneering approach to integrated education and child-care, which is the first of its kind in Ireland, supporting children from 0-18 years of age.
Taking a tour of St Ultans with Fr Gerry O’Connor, chairperson for care services, we find a bright, colourful school full of natural light and covered in children’s artwork and achievements. A Junior Infants class performs a song and dance in our honour, 5th class regale us with the highlights from the week’s football, and in the canteen we are greeted by the nutrition team busy preparing healthy dinners for 400 children.
But as well as the primary school, St Ultans also houses a nursery, an early education unit and an after school care facility for children up to Leaving Certificate giving a complete, holistic approach to education at all stages of a child’s development. The aim of the project is to break the cycle of educational failure that is all too familiar in disadvantaged areas, with intervention at the earliest stage of a child’s life to develop the social, emotional and learning skills necessary to succeed in school and in life in general.
Needed a heart
“Very often in areas where there is high unemployment or struggling families or disadvantaged areas people have not had a good experience of education preparing them for life or employment,” Fr Gerry says. “In Cherry Orchard 1,900 houses were built and no community facilities were put in. The people felt very strongly that the area needed a heart, a place that would gather people. They felt that there should be a school.”
Local school facilities
“People started calling meetings to try to call politicians’ attention to the need for local school facilities, and at these meetings people were clear they didn’t want a traditional school because their own experiences of school was not a happy one,” he explains.
“At the same time Marian Taggart and Fr Sean O’Caoimh, who was parish priest at the time, noticed a huge number of children were going home to families who were struggling or living in chaos and they couldn’t do their homework or didn’t get a nutritious meal or might not be able to take a bath or shower. They responded to that by opening up an after school service where children from fragile families could get help with their homework, a nutritious meal and social, psychological and loving support,” Fr Gerry says.
“So this was an after-school project that the community had respect for and felt it was meeting a need. So with the demand for a primary school and this after-school service, the community said we need a place at the heart of the community where children from 0-18 will be able to access services if they need them and this is where the dream for St Ultans came from – that we would have a one-stop shop when it came to the needs of children, a wrap-around service.”
St Ultans opened in 2006 and soon became a central focal point for the community. The nursery cares for “babies, waddlers and toddlers” who may stay part-time or full-time during the day depending on the needs of their families.
“A lot of the children who are here full-time would be children whose parents are returning to full-time education or training, some of them might have been referred by social services if they are in the care of grandparents or something like that. Those that are here part-time are just here to socialise with other children and get ready for school,” says Sandra Kilbride, the Pre-School Supervisor.
The babies each have their own sleeping, changing and quiet area and share more open play spaces inside and out in the garden. The toddlers, aged 2-3 years, engage in structured or free play in this bright and colourful area.
“The toddlers move from room to room throughout the day and each room has a theme – imaginary play, art & crafts, a snack room,” Sandra says. “The play area is full of nooks and crannies, a soft area, books, photographs. We work with photographs in a huge way, because they tell a lot and help us with our observations and documenting their learning, and when they see photographs of themselves and their families it helps them with their own identity and learning.”
The early childcare education unit is for children from age three to school enrolment, and is located between the toddlers and the junior infant classes to help the transition from pre-school to infants. This unit has been designed as three inter-related spaces – a free play area, a creative activity area and a quiet area, a type of miniature classroom where children are introduced to early literacy and numeric skills.
“They have an arts & crafts room, a junk room, you name it and they are exploring it. The interest area comes from the children’s interests – at the moment they have created an x-ray department because they are learning all about the body. It is just trying to make their learning as realistic as possible,” Sandra says.
From here the children progress through to the primary school curriculum and then move on to secondary school, but for children who need extra support Marian Taggart continues to operate an after-school unit at St Ultans as the Child Care Manager.
What began in a house in Cherry Orchard has now developed into a multi-faceted facility within the school building that offers both educational and social skills.
“I think this is the most unique part of the project,” Marian says. “It is opened every evening during school term and opens during the day in school holidays. It is for children aged 14-18 whose families are having difficulties and they come here to do their homework and to develop all kinds of social skills and activities until 6 or 6.30pm. We have children doing the Junior Cert, the Leaving Cert and they are from all different schools – it is for all the children of Cherry Orchard.”
There are three streams to the after school service; children who come there all through the year, children who just come to receive help with their homework, and children who are finding it difficult to make the transition from primary to secondary school.
“It is during that transition where a lot of young people can get into trouble,” Fr Gerry says. “They struggle, they feel lost, their families aren’t able to help them with their homework, they feel perhaps not as valued as others, and that can be when they start to make the wrong choices so we identified that as a group that needs particular attention or care.”
The children are referred by social services for different reasons, but to them it is their club and it feels like a family home. There is a kitchen where they are served a hot dinner, a homework room, a computer room and a lounge for relaxing, but there is also a laundry room where the children learn to wash and dry clothes, and washrooms where they can have showers and prepare their school uniform for morning.
“They need to learn all these skills that we take for granted, that our parents taught us, because that is not happening in their home. They are expected to fit into society and know all these skills but they don’t. So we teach them all the skills necessary for fitting into society,” Marian says.
Break the cycle
“I believe that education is hugely important and it is how we are going to break the cycle, but to keep a child in education – there is a lot of work in that.”
The after-school unit is like a home from home, and it is evident from the artwork on the walls that the children feel like they are part of a big family. Every academic achievement is marked, every birthday is celebrated and every child is made to feel special.
St Ultans is a unique place where many children, and maybe whole families, go through each stage of the school system, from a baby to adulthood, and they receive all the support and guidance they need to become a full and independent member of society.
Investing in children
Fr Gerry says he would love to see a resource like this available to every child in the country. “We need to start investing in children, especially in under sixs,” he says.
He would also like to see the Church offer more leadership in this area. “Archbishop Martin has been very supportive to us,” he says. “At a time when the Church’s reputation is bad – despite all the good work that is being done in child safeguarding – this is an example of a parish initiative that is trying to pioneer, trying to be a leader, trying to share all the experience that we are learning here with other children’s projects. I think it is very important that the Church doesn’t lose its confidence about working with children.”