Our wish for 2022 is to have our own school, says Cork principal, students and staff

Cork Education Together Secondary School opened in 2016 - however, it still has no home to call its own, writes JENNIFER HORGAN, much to the frustration of school staff, parents and pupils
Our wish for 2022 is to have our own school, says Cork principal, students and staff

Cork Educate Together Secondary School has a growing population.

CORK Educate Together Secondary School describes itself as a school for the future: “Where students learn to solve problems, using 21st century skills.”

Opened in August, 2016, the innovative school initially ran from rented rooms in Nagle Community College, Mahon - a considerable distance from the Douglas site bought for them by the Department of Education. It was deemed a short-term measure.

Accommodation at Nagle was tight, staff working in a shared two-metre squared space with makeshift partitions. The move to a roomier Griffith College in 2018 was welcomed, but was soon followed by the disappointing news that An Bord Pleanála had upheld a planning refusal by Cork County Council.

Heading into 2022, the school’s 370 students continue to rely on buses to transport them to Griffith from their legally binding catchment area on the south side of the city. The Department of Education has spent approximately €2 million over the last four years on rent and transport whilst its bought site lies untouched in Douglas. Everyone is ready for the right kind of change to happen.

Colm O'Connor, Principal of Cork Educate Together Secondary School
Colm O'Connor, Principal of Cork Educate Together Secondary School

A Principal’s Wish

Six years into his role, principal Colm O’Connor shares his frustration at the school’s prolonged displacement.

“We’re keen to remind people that we’re not hypothetical – we’re a vibrant, a very real school community. But we’re eager to contribute to our wider community also,” he explains, “and having our own school site is a very important part of that. We’d like to put on exhibitions in our local shopping centre, let people know what we’re about.

“We’ve a right to our own school in our own place. The plans for our school are accompanied by a plan for a public park so, as long as we’re waiting, residents are missing out on that also.

Since the initial rejection, a new plan has yet to be submitted.

The school’s current sixth year students will complete their secondary education this summer without ever having had their own school.

Impressively, O’Connor’s frustration is matched by an unwavering positivity.

“There’s so much we want to do when we get our own site. We hope to open a sustainability centre on our new grounds, foregrounding the need for a just transition. We also want to include a cultural centre where we’ll host poetry readings and plays. We want to enrich our local community.”

Intended Catchment Area

The community to which O’Connor refers is inarguably in need of a new school. Residential building has continued since 2016, without any increase in school choice.

“There are no mixed secondary schools,” O’Connor explain, “even though there are numerous mixed primary schools. It’s a densely populated area. Ours is set to be the only secondary school south of the link between Rochestown and Bishopstown. As things stand, students get into cars and buses to access their secondary education. For environmental reasons alone, we should want to provide a better option for students and their families.”

Parents at the school feel let down by politicians like An Taoisech Micheal Martin and Minister Simon Coveney, who they feel have forgotten them. Liz McCullagh is a parent of two students in the school and echoes O’Connor’s frustrations.

“I chose Educate Together because I liked the ethos. I wanted my children to go to a co-educational school. I also wanted my kids to be able to cycle or walk to school. Four years later, they’re getting up at half-six, to get on the bus for half-seven to be in school for quarter to nine. It’s really disappointing.”

McCullagh also shares the school’s commitment to caring for the planet.

“I choose to cycle everywhere if I can. If the school was where it’s meant to be, my children could cycle too. We should all want fewer cars on the road – if we really want to cut our emissions and help our planet, we need to take it seriously, build schools appropriately, and provide a healthier environment for us all.”

Cork Educate Together Secondary School Principal Colm O Connor (2nd from right) meets President in 2016. Picture: Brendan Lyon/ImageBureau
Cork Educate Together Secondary School Principal Colm O Connor (2nd from right) meets President in 2016. Picture: Brendan Lyon/ImageBureau

Staff Concerns

Rúadhán Ó Deasmhúnaigh is a young teacher at Cork Educate Together Secondary School. He joined the community two years ago and recently took on the role of school campaign facilitator to highlight their acute need for better facilities.

“We’re constantly told that a new application is imminent but as far as we’re aware this hasn’t happened and so we’re left waiting,” he explains.

Ó Deasmhúnaigh sees some cause for hope in recent changes to the city bounds.

“They’ve changed since, and our school will now be applying to the city council and not the county council. We’re hopeful that new plans might go ahead in this new context.”

As an educator, he witnesses the significant impact of a six-year delay on his students.

“They have to get up an hour and a half earlier and they don’t arrive home until close to five o’clock. This erosion of their time affects their wellbeing, their academic endeavours, and their involvement in extra-curricular activities.”

He also sees the impact on school staff.

“We simply don’t have the space we need to do the job we want to do. I teach in the support space which, in our school plan, is a purpose-built area that includes a kitchen, sensory spaces and a large classroom. Currently, we’ve managed to create a facsimile of it. We’ve converted office spaces. It’s taken a huge amount of energy; it’s functional but we all know it’s far from optimal.”

Ó Deasmhúnaigh realises that most subjects are affected by their poor facilities.

“Science teachers are making the most out of two small rooms. Our PE department uses ping-pong tables and a hill at the back of the school to teach their curriculum. They also bring students to local amenities with adequate training spaces, but again, they lose time on travel and it’s a drain on everybody’s energy.”

Cork Educate Together Secondary School has a  commitment to an inclusive environment
Cork Educate Together Secondary School has a  commitment to an inclusive environment

Student Voice

Students at the school are contributing to the campaign for a new school, recently speaking on Cork’s 96fm about their need for a school.

One third year class keep a model of their dream school in their classroom, constructed out of junk material. Their suggestions seem reasonable enough: real science laboratories; adequate toilet facilities; a place to put on shows and to play music; a place to have their lunch when it’s raining.

Junior Cert student, Oscar Corcoran feels like proper school facilities would really make a difference to school life.

“I might not enjoy every subject, but at least in a normal school building I could say to myself that after this or that class I might get to do something I enjoy at lunchtime or whatever. That would really help me.”

The school believes in inclusivity. Students adorn their halls with colourful flags to promote LGBTQ rights. According to student Anna Gilroy, inclusion also means access to certain facilities.

“We want everyone to feel like they belong here but that can’t be achieved with words alone, we need action. We need more toilet facilities, options for everyone. We don’t have room for everything we need to represent the values of our community.”

This school community seems committed to a shared vision at a shared site. Here’s hoping 2022 brings them the school building that’s been such a long time coming.

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