Turning education on its head: Cork school where an alternative way of teaching is catching on

John Bohane speaks with Jessica Mason-Little about the West Cork Sudbury School, where there is no prescribed curriculum or homework and where pupils have a say
Turning education on its head: Cork school where an alternative way of teaching is catching on

Jessica Mason-Little and her daughter Tallulah in The Library at West Cork Sudbury School in Glengarriff, County Cork. Photo: Don MacMonagle

THOUGH it only opened last September, the West Cork Sudbury School has a waiting list ahead of the new academic term.

The school, in Glengarriff, caters for five- to 18-year-olds and is an alternative model of education. It gives equal importance to academics, arts, and practical skills.

The Sudbury School is democratic and has an holistic approach to education, while students and staff have an equal and respected vote in the running of the school.

There is no fixed curriculum and appointed adults act as facilitators to create an environment to inspire learning through creativity and expression.

Jessica Mason-Little, one of the founders of the West Cork Sudbury School, is thrilled with their first year.

“It has been a challenge, but it has gone really well,” Ms Mason-Little says. “I think that is a testament to how vital it is to have that choice. We have 16 students and eight facilitators. We have nine pupils starting in September and we have a waiting list after that.”

Ms Mason-Little, who remains a committee member, played an integral role, alongside other volunteers, in setting up the West Cork Sudbury School.

The success of similar Sudbury Schools, in Co Sligo and Co Wicklow, was an example.

“When I first called a public meeting to look into setting it up,” Ms Mason-Little says, “I was homeschooling my children, but I wanted to give them more community. Homeschooling is great, but it can be very isolating.

“I know a few people involved in both the Wicklow and Sligo Sudbury Schools. It was after hearing one of the teenagers from the Wicklow Sudbury School speak, when I knew this was the education I wanted for my children. A group of us wanted to set up and run the school as we envisaged the school working.

“It is based very much on democratic principles and sharing the workload. I think the right combination of people came together at the same time. We have a great mix of skills and that has helped it move forward.”

Getting the project off the ground required a lot of hard work, with a lack of funding a huge obstacle.

Ms Mason-Little paid tribute to both the staff and the parents for their support in enabling the ambitious project.

“There was a lot of work behind the scenes and that is still ongoing,” Ms Mason-Little says. “One of our biggest challenges is if you don’t teach the curriculum, you don’t get any government funding. We had to self-fund the school. So much of it has been done on voluntary hours. A lot of goodwill has helped us pull it off this year. We have very supportive parents.

“We became registered as a charity in December, 2020. A lot of the work involves lobbying for options in education. Ireland is unique, as the parent is recognised as the primary educator in the Constitution. You are entitled to choose how to educate your child, but it is not financially supported, unless you go a specific route, so that is a big challenge,” she says.

The original Sudbury School opened in the U.S over 50 years ago and the West Cork school remains true to its origins.

Hannah Keane and Elva Marshall, Pupils at West Cork Sudbury School in Glengarriff, County Cork making pancakes on Friday. Photo: Don MacMonagle.
Hannah Keane and Elva Marshall, Pupils at West Cork Sudbury School in Glengarriff, County Cork making pancakes on Friday. Photo: Don MacMonagle.

“It is a democratic school,” Ms Mason-Little says. “The students and staff have equal say in the running of the school and that is done through a weekly school meeting, where anything can be brought to that meeting, such as requests for finance or looking at policies. The other part of it is self-directed learning. There is no prescribed curriculum at the school. The students can choose how to spend their time and what they want to do.

“Another part of the Sudbury model is the free age mixing. There are no classes or separation by age.

“With teenagers, it can really help to moderate behaviour, as they are in a position to be a role model, which you don’t have at secondary schools.

“They can also learn from the younger students and vice-versa,” Ms Mason-Little says. “There is no homework. The timetable we have has come from student requests. We have a French club, maths club, philosophy and science club. The work is set with an agreement between the facilitator and the student.”

The West Cork Sudbury School recently had its first graduate.

Students can still advance to third level, despite no formal examinations being held in the school. This student is now following her ‘life path’.

“We took away the pressure of her feeling she had to do the Leaving Certificate, as it wasn’t doing her any favours,” Ms Mason-Little says. “She has been doing an online course in equine psychology and she is now following her life path.

“We can’t offer any qualifications, but if anybody wants to do exams, we can support them to do it. A lot of Colleges of Further Education don’t require a Leaving Certificate. Our students can do a QQI [Quality and Qualifications Ireland] and then access third level from there, if they wish.”

The school, which caters for students from all over West Cork, will be moving to new premises, in Coomhola, in September, as it continues to expand. Ms Mason-Little, who is also a facilitator, says their alternative school model is “turning education on its head”.

“We see a lot more confidence in our students,” Ms Mason-Little says. “Seeing an eight-year-old speak out in a school meeting is amazing.

“They might not have been able to do that at the start of the school year. We have a wide catchment area, as we are the only alternative non-denominational school in the area. We have also had two families relocate to this area to join the school. People want this choice for their children.

Pupils at West Cork Sudbury School in Glengarriffe, County Cork include, Alfie Carchrae, Moss Keane, Hannah Keane, Elva Ra Marshall, Mars Harrington, Tallulah Little, Archer Little and Noah Hayes with Facilitators, Jessica Mason-Little, Kathrin Bierwirth and Catherine Scroope. Photo: Don MacMonagle
Pupils at West Cork Sudbury School in Glengarriffe, County Cork include, Alfie Carchrae, Moss Keane, Hannah Keane, Elva Ra Marshall, Mars Harrington, Tallulah Little, Archer Little and Noah Hayes with Facilitators, Jessica Mason-Little, Kathrin Bierwirth and Catherine Scroope. Photo: Don MacMonagle

“It is turning education on its head. Rather than going to school to learn loads of stuff, you go to school to learn who you are and you work out what stuff you want to learn. They are learning by doing. The students get different skills in critical thinking and empowerment, which are so prominent in today’s workplace,” she says.

Ms Mason-Little is convinced their alternative model of education will grow.

“The school has a bright future,” Ms Mason-Little says. “We want to do it slowly and organically. I can see us continuing to grow, as the kids are thriving.”

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