Families flocking to new school where children teach themselves

By Louise Walsh

Families are migrating to Co. Sligo where 20 children have already been enrolled in a new school of self-directed learning, due to open in September.

Students from 5-18 years of age will have complete independence in their own education in the Sudbury School, which places students and staff on an equal footing in a direct democracy.

Julie Meehan with daughter Clariana Coen who will attend the Sudbury School. Pics: Seamus Farrelly

The ethos that students decide themselves what to do with their time means that they can spend the day climbing trees, reading or on their tablets - it is purely their own choice.

The community-based project will have flexible starting hours, where students can arrive anytime between 8.30-10.30am and leave anytime between 2.30-4.30pm.

In addition to local children who have been enlisted so far, a number of families are relocating from Dublin, Meath and Kerry as well as moving home from Australia and America to ensure their kids experience this type of education.

One such family is Julie Meehan and her husband Nigel from Slane, Co. Meath who have decided to make the life-changing move so that their children, aged 7 and 4, can access the self-directed education.

The clinical psychologist who has lived in Slane for the last ten years had been looking at alternative education models for a while.

"I think children should be given the space to realise their own modality of learning and the trust to explore it," she said.

Under the system, each student develops their own interests at their own ability and pace, with the help of staff, fellow students, and visiting tutors.

The school is being established by Maura Duignan and Gayle Nagle.

Both mothers had been homeschooling their own children but liked the idea of a more social setting for their kids to meet others while continuing to follow their own pursuits.

"Maura and I met through the home-education network. We had both been homeschooling for a number of years but liked the idea of allowing children the freedom to educate in their own way and pace in a setting with other students.

Maura Duignan and Gayle Nagle established the Sudbury School in Sligo

"Sometimes access to other children can be an issue when homeschooling.

"I have a background in Education and while we are not against the current system at all, we just feel that mainstream education is successful for some children but not for others.

"I think someone once said that in mainstream education, 30% thrive, 30% survive and 30% fail. Sometimes the one size fits all just doesn't work and we felt that there is an alternative out there.

"This Sudbury School is very much inspired by children and by passionate adults who are there to help on request. It's founded on freedom, trust, respect and responsibility."

There will be no imposed curriculum for the students but Gayle stresses there will be a number of rules to be observed.

The rules will be formed by the community as a whole through the democratic process.

"One law is that all members of the community have the right to go about their day in a peaceful way," she says.

Regular school meeting will involve all children who use their vote on various issues they would like to see changed or employed.

Children can read all day if they want, but you'll find that different groups will all go and play together for a few hours, then maybe make something to eat and then do another activity. They learn at their own pace, in their own time and in their own way.

Gayle explained that external tutors may be employed as needed for specific subject areas if these skills are not available among the staff.

"You can't live a day without using Maths in some form but if, for example, a child needs a specific thing like algebra for a project and wants additional support with it, then yes, we will get a tutor in for them."

Students at the Sudbury School will also thrive at third-level colleges, having a high internal motivation to study their already nurtured interest, Gayle believes.

"Students have only known self-learning through the Sudbury model so are already disciplined to study at third-level. At that stage, they have also honed in on their interests so often their course choice reflects perfectly on this."

The Sudbury School will set up home in the former national school at Calry, which will be leased to them by a private benefactor.

The school will start in September and are currently running monthly information mornings on Saturdays. More information can be obtained at www.sligosudburyschool.com.

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