Fergal McCann, Principal of St Mary’s PS Tempo and Marie O’Shea, Principal of St John the Baptist PS Belleek have recently graduated from a Masters degree in Collaborative Leadership from Queen’s University, through the Shared Education Programme. For the last four years they have been actively involved in shared education, administered by the Fermanagh Trust, working closely and building relationships with their neighbouring schools.
Both principals found the degree extremely worthwhile and interesting not only in terms of professional development but also in hearing the experiences of others and how they do things. Marie explained “It wasn’t just the principals leading the programme; it was very much the school as a whole, teachers, parents, classroom assistants etc. Certainly some of the collaborative leadership we learnt in the initial modules allowed us to nurture that within the rest of the staff and encouraged them to see the role they have to play. It’s important to know the good work is retained in the school for the future.” Fergal added “The course gave me fantastic affirmation that shared education has worked, is working and needs to continue to work. It is one of the greatest contributes to community cohesion in Fermanagh. I would be confident in saying shared education has brought schools and communities further in four years than anything in the past thirty years”.
Marie and Fergal’s dissertations focussed on the attitudes and experiences of those participating in the Shared Education Programme in Fermanagh’s small rural schools and in particular the challenges compared to more urban areas. Findings from both pieces of research were strongly in favour of the shared education programme, developed and implemented by the Fermanagh Trust. Surveys were carried out with a number of schools, principals were interviewed and of course they were able to draw upon their own personal involvement in the programme. Regarding collaboration for reconciliation, 100% of the teachers within Marie’s study indicated that they were supportive of the cross-sectoral aspect. One principal in particular acknowledged that reconciliation would be a slow process but it can happen if schools provide a link and indeed an example to the wider community. “All of the respondents recognise the many benefits of sharing and there is a clear desire to see the programme continue”.
The increased level of sharing and collaboration has enabled greater networking between Fermanagh’s schools. Fergal found that they have not only shared resources and facilities but also developed ideas and changed attitudes. “The dedication, innovation and commitment of parents and teachers were some of the most important things to make it work”. All of his study’s participants have adopted a truly collegial approach to their work, which has enabled teachers and school leaders to develop and maintain relationships that have undoubtedly contributed in many ways to the schools involved.
Both studies highlight a challenge for policy makers to provide a structure and adequate funding for collaboration to build on the work already achieved by these small schools. Marie stated “We now have a system where schools realise that collaboration and sharing is the way forward for community relations, sustainability etc. It’s part of the language of communities and very much in the DNA of Fermanagh schools. The Fermanagh Trust and Fermanagh schools have led the way in showing communities how to do it”.