Marie O'Shea, Principal of St John the Baptist PS - Speech at Shared Education Celebration Event, Lough Erne Resort 10th June 2015

The Future is bright…the future is Shared!

‘Sharing’ is a life skill we encourage in our children from an early age. We advocate the positive outcomes of working with others against going it alone.

Yet for generations schools have stood alone content to protect their own individuality and in an era of ‘open enrolment’ often in clear competition with each other for the ever precious pupil numbers.

The key success in the Fermanagh area of the shared education programme was to try and break these ’silos’ apart and create a network of collaborative working relationships between schools on a cross sectoral and/or a cross border basis. The programme though funded by Atlantic Philanthropies and the International Fund for Ireland was led for the most part in Fermanagh by a community based group, Fermanagh Trust. Lauri, Catherine and the team became advocates for us in the wider education community.

In the Belleek area, for us, an initial partnership was developed with Belleek Controlled Primary School, Corry and St John the Baptist PS, Roscor. This was by no means a new arrangement as for many years previously the schools had enjoyed a strong working relationship through the EMU and Schools Community Relations programme. Over the course of the four years of the programme though, our partnership grew to take in St Martin’s PS, Garrison and St Davog’s PS, Belleek and to become the ‘Erne West Learning Community’. I pay tribute to my colleagues Esdille, Brian and Marie for their various roles within this work.

From the outset though this programme was different. The Staff were fully involved from the beginning in the planning of the programme to meet their schools’ particular needs. The ‘shared hours’ commitment meant that unlike previous links the need was created to bring the pupils together on a more regular basis often creating a weekly session in which pupils would work together at each other’s schools. This was our ‘norm’. Each school open and welcoming to pupils, staff, parents and Governors.

We felt that as small rural schools we needed to develop the programme further. We started working in the first year with just the KS2 P6/7 pupils but as the year progressed we felt it was important to start the process at the beginning levels of school and build friendships from Foundation Stage right the way through school. This could significantly impact on the curricular provision within both schools. So our work began on an Outdoor Play programme for KS1 and a Shared History and Culture project for KS2.

We make a point of using all community facilities available to us, this includes the use of the local GAA playing fields and Centre for Sports Day, something which would have been unthinkable in the past for Belleek PS. The local post primary at St Mary’s Brollagh is use for ICT and is now considered an option for children from Belleek PS instead of the travel to Enniskillen.

As the programme evolved all pupils from all classes across each school became involved. Given that the schools range from 1 mile to 5 miles apart the logistics of moving the children around became one of the main areas for coordination within the programme. We managed it….if there’s one thing primary teachers are good at its problem solving and creative thinking, and that’s what we needed.

The key difference for us was the allocation of time for teachers to get together on a professional basis to plan and support each other through the process. We created a professional network for ourselves which encourages teachers to be in contact with each other to gain advice, support, share resources, share good practice and experience openly amongst this bigger school community.
Or to put in that emergency phone call to Mr Beattie, the ICT Whizz at Belleek PS, when the computer just won’t connect to the whiteboard on the morning of the inspection!

We included time for monthly staff meetings and governor briefings as part of our partnership building.
The Staff regularly coordinates School Development dates for shared training and opportunities for coordinators in key school areas to work together on areas of School Development plan action plans.
Personally participating in the Masters programme at Queens University in Collaborative Leadership brought me valuable knowledge and skills which I have used throughout my work with other schools.

To include families and the wider community we organised a range of joint parental workshops to support the various programmes and a series of celebration events that everyone was welcome to attend. All of these elements have strengthened the idea and ethos behind ‘Shared education’ within our schools.

As a local person it became the ‘norm’ for me to be stopped by children, parents, grandparents, community members, from any school, and have a chat about what was going on between the schools, grandparents in particular were especially keen to see the work develop a more positive future for the children within our communities.
We have joint choirs for carols at Christmas, open invitations to all school events and shared awards at Leavers Assembly.

In the programme we have released teachers from within the partner schools as ‘Shared Teachers’ to work across a wider cluster of schools to share expertise and quality specialist teaching through ICT, SEN support and Music. We know and acknowledge the expertise existing within our own schools and the need to share good practice amongst a greater number of school communities.

The climate for change has increased the pace of work we are following now. As a result of the Sustainable Schools Policy, Common Formula Funding Review, the Area Planning Process and the Ministerial Advisory Groups recommendations on Shared education our school community found itself seriously considering a shared model of education for the future. Members of the partnership have visited a joint faith school in Liverpool supported by Fermanagh Trust to explore this model of school organisation and governance. We continue to look for opportunities to explore options in this area.

With the guidance of Fermanagh Trust, we had opportunities to present to a wider stage at conferences at Queens University Belfast, make representation to the Department of Education and discuss our progress with the Education Committee. We feel we have contributed to the development of the policies which are currently at place within DE.
• Mainstreaming of Shared Education – making it the ‘norm’ for all
• Drafting of a Shared Education Policy/Bill
• Inclusion of Shared Education in the Peace 4 Programme
• Piloting of new innovative models/shared schools.

The pathfinders are here in Fermanagh….let us show you what we can do!

So for us a local area solution lies in developing a shared school structure, we are currently working to produce an application to the Signature Project for Shared Education. We hope the focus here too will be the collaboration and shared learning opportunities and not caught up in endless paper trails or the ticking of boxes.
We need the Area Planning process to move forward to meet our needs.

For us Shared education is much more than fitting into a box somewhere, it is the ‘norm’ by which our school operates. When not engaged with this work we feel something is missing, it is not an add on to us….it’s the way we want to work and we welcome the support and opportunity to do so.

So I take this opportunity on behalf of all our colleagues in the county to thank you Lauri, Catherina and the Fermanagh Trust team for believing in all of us and the work we do in the Fermanagh Schools.

Thank you for being advocates for the children of Fermanagh and encouraging funders to continue to invest in this worthwhile work.

In conclusion for the ‘Erne West Learning Community’ the future is bright… For the schools of Fermanagh the future is Shared!