Inner city innovation

thumb-large-5 Scoil an Droichid in South Belfast is working creatively to improve the quality of life for its families. Peter Cheney finds out more.

A small site and growing pupil numbers is making an inner city Belfast school think outside the box about how to help its children meet their potential.

Scoil an Droichid is the only Irish medium school in South and East Belfast and has been operating at Cooke Street – off the Lower Ormeau Road – since 1998. Principal (príomhoide) Fionnguala McCotter is delighted that it will move from mobile classrooms into a new school building, hopefully in two years’ time. The school currently has 155 pupils and aims to enrol 169 next year.

“I absolutely love the job,” Ms McCotter remarks. “The children and families are unbelievable, fantastic.” Scoil an Droichid’s catchment area reaches as far as North Belfast and Carryduff. The intake is mainly from Catholic families but also includes increasing numbers of Protestants, Muslims and people with no religious affiliation.

The diversity of the school’s population is something she views as very positive: “It can only benefit all our children’s life experience and educational experience.” The full curriculum is taught through the medium of Irish, from nursery to P7, and teachers try to engage with parents when their children are at a very early age. Many families are not fluent in Irish but some who frequently use the language are now coming forward.

The increasing number of children coming through the system with special educational needs is an additional challenge with a shortage of assistance for the Irish medium sector in general and the school in particular.

“My job is that we educate the children to our highest ability,” she remarks, adding with emphasis that “we may be letting some of our children and families down” if the right resources are not available.

Ideally, Scoil an Droichid will have a ‘nurture unit’ in its new building which would encourage families to become involved in their child’s education – a constant request from teachers in inner city schools – and also help them to work through the difficulties that they face.

The school works with Botanic Primary School to provide for its nursery age children. It also works intensively on literacy and numeracy with its Key Stage 2 pupils, to prepare them for post-primary education.

Space is limited at Cooke Street so the school works with external organisations who can widen the children’s education. The Lower Ormeau Residents Action Group provides extra-curricular sports activities at the nearby Shaftesbury Community and Recreation Centre.

The school has just started work on a Families and Schools Together (FAST) programme with Save the Children – the only one currently taking place in an Irish medium school.

FAST reaches out, in a structured way, to 15 families with nursery children with the help of eight co-ordinators. Part of this involves helping parents to interact with their children. One of the families prepares a meal which is then shared with the whole group half way through each session. “The main focus is for the children,” Ms McCotter explains, “to make their experience in school more positive and the parents are engaging in their children’s education.”

Other innovations include making a documentary with the Ulster Wildlife Trust, which has been entered for the Queen’s Film Festival.

Pupils have visited FabLab – a 3D printing workshop in North Belfast – and the IT training company Studio One. As part of its work in the community, Aquinas Diocesan Grammar School places lower sixth form students in Scoil an Droichid to help teachers once a week.

Sólás, a local charity working with children with special needs or disabilities, runs a retired teachers’ programme. Four retired teachers volunteer for half a day per week to work with individual children. In addition, the Kidz Support Den helps children with their homework at a one-to-one level and an art therapist works for a day and a half each week in the school.

Staff expect that the new build will attract more families.

The School of Planning, Architecture and Civil Engineering at Queen’s University will help the school to run a children’s consultation to find out how what they would like to see in the building.

“Our facilities can’t accommodate everything that we would like to do,” she says of the present situation. “We then make the extra step and will go out and meet and work with people in their centres.” As for the future: “The new school will just make the learning experience here fantastic.”

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