A Sudbury school is set to open in Cork

A school that offers an alternative model of education is planned for West Cork. CAMMY HARLEY talks to some of the parents who are driving plans to set up a Sudbury School in the county by 2020
A Sudbury school is set to open in Cork
West Cork Sudbury School Committee Jessica Mason - Catherine Scroope - Becky Firmage and Tracy Wall.

EVERY year around state exam time, a cartoon circulates on Facebook depicting an adjudicator stating to an audience of a monkey, an elephant, a goldfish, a penguin and a seal: ‘For a fair selection, everybody has to climb that tree’.

Needless to say, only the monkey looks happy about the prospect, and it is obviously unfair on the others to be measured by that particular ability.

Could the same argument be made about our state exams? If so, a new type of education may be needed.

This cartoon circulates around state exam time every year.
This cartoon circulates around state exam time every year.

The Sudbury School model is gaining momentum in Ireland, with schools attaining a waiting list the day they open their doors.

Sudbury Schools have been inspired by dozens of preceding alternative schools and generations of educationalists, who have proven the value of helping children grow up happily by staying in touch with what uniquely motivates them.

Sudbury Schools cater for five to 18 year olds and give equal importance to academics, arts and practical skills.

West Cork’s First Sudbury School

Jessica Mason, of Bantry, who is currently doing a masters in Learning for Sustainability and has had experience working with both Steiner and Agile Learning schools, was intrigued by the Sudbury school model and what it has to offer.

“We went to an information evening in Clonakilty last year and a teenage boy who attends the Wicklow Sudbury School gave a talk on his experience of the school,” said Jessica.

“After hearing him speak, I thought, yes, this is what I want for my children. I want them to know who they are and to feel confident about themselves.”

After an informal information evening in Bantry last October, Jess then formed a competent committee who are now spearheading West Cork’s First Sudbury School, which hopes to open its doors to its first students as early as September, 2020.

“Three of us went to a founder’s course in Wicklow in March to find out how to set up the school,” Jessica added.

“It made us realise how far along the path we are because we have been meeting regularly since last November.

“There are already three Sudbury Schools running successfully in Ireland — they are based in Wicklow, Galway and Sligo. There are a few more still in the process of doing the groundwork to start up.’

What is a Sudbury School?

A Sudbury School is a democratic school which has deep roots in a holistic approach to education.

Each member of the school, including students and staff, have an equal and respected vote in the running of the school.

The model of a Sudbury school is that each child has the ability to flourish and become effective adults in their own right — starting by encouraging the freedom of self-directed learning.

There is no fixed curriculum and no teachers as in the traditional hierarchical model of schooling — rather, appointed adults act as facilitators and focus their efforts on creating the ideal environment to inspire learning through creativity and self-exploration and expression.

According to the Wicklow Sudbury School website, the ideal learning environment should be ‘Rich and Inspirational with art and craft materials, books, music, drama, science and gym equipment, computers, plenty of outdoor space with room for big games, sport, den building, gardening, indoor nooks for quiet reading, common room for conversation, kitchen for cooking, all of which will create fertile ground for great ideas and exploration.’

Jessica says; “We are living in a world with accelerated change and so it’s very hard to educate now for jobs in ten years’ time.

“Initiative, responsibility, communication and interpersonal skills will be key skills that employers will be looking for.”

Coupled with that, graduates of a Sudbury school will be competent, critical thinkers who are curious about learning and confident in their abilities, making them ideal candidates for college and the wider world.

How does the education work?

Some parents may be alarmed at the thought of a curriculum free school and wonder what their children would do all day, or whether their children could progress onto college.

“The child basically tailors their own learning — it’s very much empowering for the child that they can follow things they are interested in and all the research shows that children learn much better and faster when they are doing something they enjoy and are truly interested in,” says Jessica.

Studies have shown that students who have attended Sudbury schools are well prepared for college as they are self-driven, articulate, and confident and are well versed in self advocacy.

A recent study showed that over 85% of the original Sudbury Valley School students attended college while others pursued interesting vocations in a variety of ways.

Another interesting aspect of Sudbury, is that the students are not segregated by age as in conventional schools, but rather are allowed to mix freely across the age spectrum of 5-18. This is considered to be a more natural and beneficial approach as it promotes informal mentoring between older and younger students.

Benefits of a holistic education

The benefits of a holistic education have a long-reaching impact on a child’s life. Each child will have had their unique needs and skills met and acknowledged, which will in turn prepare them for a well-rounded adulthood.

Not only will they have learned to use their vote (and thereby their voice) for their education, they will also have reaped the rewards of learning in a non-compartmentalised way.

Our current educational model of learning for standardised measured testing does not encompass psychological, social or emotional growth. Instead it focuses purely on academic recall which does not suit or fairly measure the ‘average’ of most.

Jessica says; “It will be important to have an admissions policy and interview to make sure that the Sudbury model suits the prospective student and the parent. That way, everyone gets the most out of it.”

She gave a very balanced overview and explained that “mainstream schooling does suit a lot of people and there are many who do very well in that model, but we would just like to be able to offer the option of a different approach for those seeking an alternative”.

Jessica believes that the Sudbury model boosts a love of lifelong learning, and that is something she hopes to inspire in her own children.

Parents thinking of using the school

Becky Firmage, of Bantry, is a parent who is very supportive of the idea of a Sudbury school.

“I would love my child to be in an environment that gives him the time to delve into subjects of interest that ignite his fire.”

Becky is also one of the members of the founding committee and says: “The more I looked into it [Sudbury], the more passion I felt for the model. I do feel that it is the way forward and it’s great to be able to offer an alternative. There are plenty of children out there who are falling through the cracks as mainstream education is not suiting them. They may be labelled a ‘problem child’ in that model but may thrive in a Sudbury model.”

Becky went on to explain that the original Sudbury school in America has been running for over 50 years and was founded by a professor in Framingham, Massachusetts.

“Lots of the original parents came from legal backgrounds which is why there is such a strong structure to the parameters of the school. So, although there is great freedom within the school, there is still structure.”

Democratic schools have a long history, with Leo Tolstoy opening a school for peasant children in the 18th century based on democratic principles. He said that “a student could come to school or not, choose to listen to the teacher or not, and the teacher had the right to admit the student to his class or choose not to.”

Further back in history, in the 15th and 16th centuries both John Locke and Jean- Jacques Rousseau proposed some of the basic principles of democratic education. Locke wrote that ‘learning should never be a burden and that if one were to force a child to play with a toy at the same time every day, for a prescribed period, they would soon grow tired of playing, so imagine how tired they would be of being forced to learn.’

Rousseau was passionate that ‘tutors should not impart knowledge, but rather allow the student to discover for himself.’

Today, Summerhill School, which is a democratic boarding school in England founded in 1921, is still operating and has served as an inspiration to many democratic schools which have subsequently opened.

Becky likes the fact that the “most basic rule is that everyone is free from harassment and entitled to respect.

“That is the most basic premise of the school and from there you lay the rules and groundwork of your own school.”

Becky adds that “no schooling system is right or wrong, but it is nice to have an alternative to mainstream on offer for those who wish to seek it.”

The practicalities of

starting a school

The committee have worked hard to put together a mission statement which offers a nurturing, moral and democratic schooling community. The committee would like to establish a strong base for the school from where powerful roots can be laid down to allow for growth and expansion.

Their core principles which accompany their mission statement acknowledge the importance of play, the value of different types of intelligence and the trust of intuition and personal autonomy.

Given the environmental background of many members of the committee, environmental matters are also highly regarded in the core ethos of the school, which will highlight the necessity of green spaces and connecting with nature.

The group is aware of ecological pressures and the need to develop sustainability as a community practice, which will build resilience for the future.

Many children of the Sudbury movement are involved with the Fridays For Future climate strike movement and are proof of how a child who has learned to use their voice in daily life can use it powerfully in an adult arena to make positive and effectual change.

For more information, contact the West Cork Sudbury School on Facebook or email westcorksudburyschool@gmail.com

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