Inclusive education & Renaissance thinking: A conversation with Rory D'Arcy

Rory D'Arcy knows a thing or two about nurturing communities. He has served as the Principal of St. Oliver's National School in Killarney, Co. Kerry, for the past 14 years, and in that time, has seen its student population grow from 410 to over 780. With 45 nationalities, an integrated special needs unit, and over 60 pupils from the Traveller community, it is one of Ireland’s most diverse primary schools, as well as one of the largest. True to its size and shape, St. Oliver’s is a hub for the larger Killarney community, with extracurricular activities filling the halls and buildings of the school every day of the week. A leader in inclusive, empathic education, it was selected as one of the first schools in Ireland to join the Ashoka Changemaker Schools network in 2014.

Rory D'Arcy has been the principal of St. Oliver's NS for 14 years.

Rory D'Arcy has been the principal of St. Oliver's NS for 14 years.

Rory also serves on the Board of Trustees of Muckross House, a historical and educational landmark situated in Killarney National Park, which will host the Changemaker Education European Summit in October 2016. We sat down with Rory in July to learn more about the history of this important institution, as well as his philosophy for the future of education in Killarney, Ireland, and beyond.

The following interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Can you explain a bit about the history of Muckross House and the National Park that surrounds it?

The early history of the house is somewhat dark. The Herbert family, who came from Wales to mine copper in Killarney, built Muckross House in the 1840s during the height of the Irish famine. At the time it must have been so far removed from the devastation that was happening all over the country, particularly in Kerry.

Decades later, William Bowers Bourn II, a wealthy American mining magnate who owned the Empire goldmine in California, bought Muckross House and 10,000 acres of land as a wedding present for his daughter Maud, in 1910. She and her husband arrived at the estate and they found it in a deplorable state, having been uninhabited for 30 or 40 years. Maud set about restoring the cottages; she was very popular [and known for] her kindness. She contracted pneumonia and died, leaving her family heartbroken. Her father, William, was a friend of American President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who had started the national parks movement in the United States. Bourn decided to gift the whole house and all of the estate to the Irish State for nothing, in 1932, in memory of Maud.

Muckross House is located in Killarney National Park, in County Kerry

Muckross House is located in Killarney National Park, in County Kerry

For 30 years, the State did nothing with Muckross House and it fell into disrepair. In 1962 a Board of Trustees came together and worked in partnership with the State to open it to the public. Currently, the estate of Muckross House, Gardens and Farms are run jointly by the State and by the Board of Trustees, of which I am a member. Today, there are several traditional businesses on the premises, such as the farms, woollen weavers, a bookbinder, a pottery shop and a library. The money that we raise is then reinvested back into Muckross and the Killarney National Park, which surrounds it. 

Tell us a bit about how it links to the community of Killarney and the upcoming European Changemaker Schools Summit.

It’s a very interesting year that the Changemaker Education Summit is coming to Muckross, because of the 100th anniversary of the [Easter Rising, a significant date in the celebration of Irish independence]. The people who led the Rising in general were involved in education on all levels. It’s only right the conference will be looking at what we are doing well and what can we learn from each other in terms of education. The fact that Muckross House was never harmed during [the period of political unrest in Northern Ireland, known as ‘the Troubles’] and it was never attacked speaks to the love that the people of Killarney have for the house.

Muckross can be used to not only enhance the educational lives of the children in Kerry but also on a broader European level. To have a summit like this come to us is really exciting because it fits in with the history. The last private owner, William Bourn, gave the estate away for nothing, because he wanted to see it used for the education of the people of Ireland. It is now being used to mould, shape and influence education across Europe, carrying on his legacy. There’s an old tradition of great thinking in places of great beauty. The Greeks did it always. Beauty should be used as an inspiration.

Killarney is special because has this concentrated spirit of Irishness that it proudly wears, while also showing this international face and changing global dynamic. How does it balance its strong Irish identity with this international movement?

I think there are three interesting things about people from Killarney that make this work. There’s a self confidence, a belief in their own abilities. That comes from producing a product of the highest standard in terms of tourism. The second thing is their practicality. During the 1930s in the last great recession, the people of Killarney built a golf club, a race course and a town hall. They have a can-do attitude. The third thing is they have a genuine interest in people. I think those three elements have made the integration of people from foreign backgrounds easier than it would be in some other rural towns. It would be hugely ironic if a town noted around the world for its welcome wasn’t welcoming to the very people living in the town.

The people who come here come to work. In hotels or factories, there is a practical reason why they are there. The vast majority of people who come to my school, their parents are working [in and around Killarney’s flourishing tourist industry.]

I’d love to hear a little bit about St. Oliver’s and your experience working in the school. Can you give us a sense of how it fits within the larger community of Killarney?

Our school, St. Oliver’s, is the largest of the 8 national schools in Killarney. We have 783 pupils, 54 teachers and 20 classroom assistants. The school is a mixed Catholic school, with children who come to us at the age of 4 or 5, staying with us up until the age of 12 or 13. We also have a community preschool with a further 66 children, so it’s a very busy place.

With 45 nationalities, St. Oliver's NS is one of Ireland's most diverse schools

With 45 nationalities, St. Oliver's NS is one of Ireland's most diverse schools

Our aim is to ensure each child who leaves us is different: each of the pupils we produce is special in their own way. One of my jobs is to make sure that happens. The children experience different forms of teaching, types of teachers with different interests, as they travel up through the school. We also have the largest concentration of children with special needs in the country, with 11 resource teachers employed in school.

People would say there are all types different nationalities represented at the school, but that is something we are quite proud of. I have always put forth the idea that if you come to our school, your child’s friends won’t all be named Sean and Mary, they will be Sari and Ahmed. People associate that with our school and we’re very proud of that. Last year we received a yellow flag for celebrating cultural diversity. We have all sorts of initiatives: music, art and drama days, intercultural days. Everyday when you open the newspaper, it becomes abundantly clear this is the way we should be educating our children.

St. Olivers has a large fish tank in the middle of the school with a different fish for every nationality represented in the school. The students did a gorgeous presentation where they had signs of every language spoken by students in the school. They were sharing stories and doing skits. It really came alive and you can see the changing demographics of Ireland.

There is a progressive agenda that likes to tout the "new face of Ireland” image, and we fit quite neatly into that. But I find that attitude almost prejudicial, because it reduces this rich diversity to a few token nationalities. The children don’t really care that there are 45 nationalities at the school. To them it’s as irrelevant as the color of your hair. Our attitude towards this has evolved. Children are moving ahead of us and we need to follow them in that league. My thinking is moving on in terms of how we perceive and define ourselves.

Students at St. Oliver's NS take part in the on-site farm

Students at St. Oliver's NS take part in the on-site farm

The farm is one of many initiatives to support the local community

The farm is one of many initiatives to support the local community

A teacher who had been teaching in the school for quite a long time came to me after there was a tragedy that had recently happened somewhere in the world. The teacher went in that morning asking the children to pray and three of them went over to the corner and knelt down at the window. Nobody said anything or even batted an eyelid. The teacher came to me and said, “Are we not a Catholic school? Is this allowed?” I said not only is this allowed, this is exactly what I want to see happen. Children’s faith and ethnicity are there to be celebrated, not as a mark of difference. The children really don’t see it.

Can you explain your practice of “educational bartering?”

Our school is open 7 days a week; [the buildings and rooms are occupied even when school isn’t in session.] I use a bartering system because I’m more interested in people’s services than their money. Everything from gymnastic coaches, CoderDojo, occupational therapists—no one gives me money for the use of the school. They give their services. The whole idea of educational barter is a very interesting one because you can get a lot more.

I feel that schools should not just be professionally based, with just children and teachers. We should think of the school as a campus, geographically based. I would like to see occupational therapists and speech therapists on site, community welfare officers, school completion programmes, all based around the school community. In developing such a campus, people get to know each other. A lot of problems can be solved by making connections with people.

Can you tell us about some of the other inclusive practices that you promote within your school?

In relation to people seeking asylum, the Direct Provision  model where we have people waiting for their applications to be processed for a length of time is always something I felt very strongly about. We’ve had people in the system there for up to 10 years waiting for their application to be processed. We’ve always tried to find ways we could support people in that provision as a school community.

Recently I was struck by the power of food. One of our intercultural days some years ago, people prepared food and I watched the way people interacted around food. They were more relaxed, happy, easy. I’m working with KASI, the Kerry Asylum Seekers Initiative, and we opened a restaurant staffed by volunteers and members of the community who are seeking asylum. The restaurant feeds 75 people a day, at 4 Euro for a meal. The menus are fantastic and it gives people an opportunity to meet the children, to be part of the school community.

At the summit, there will be lots of space for sharing ideas with other Changemaker Principals. This fits into a larger European conversation about how to integrate asylum seekers and refugees. That often comes up in conversations with Changemaker Schools Principals. They are dynamic thinkers who are never just satisfied with an innovative curriculum. They think beyond that to what the school could become.

Exactly. At the moment, in this country we are fascinated by business models being applied to schools, but the truth is that businesses could learn a lot from schools. It should be a symbiotic relationship where we learn from one another. It’s important to see the big picture and not be pigeonholed. I shouldn’t see myself as the principal of a school and just that. 

I am also very conscious of the wonderful work of our teachers in welcoming children and helping each child celebrate their unique talents, heritage and potential. I do believe there is a need for more Renaissance thinking among educators. I come from a generation where everybody is a something: “If you’re a teacher you teach, if you’re an artist, you’re an artist - but don’t confuse the two.” People are put in a box. By contrast, people like Ashoka Fellows are really Renaissance thinkers. They look at applying their skills to whatever area has a need.

Find out more about St. Oliver's on their website: www.stoliversns.ie

The Changemaker Schools network now includes over 250 schools in 32 countries! Meet the schools on the website: www.changemakerschools.org