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Making Connections – Church of Ireland Centre Primary Schools Conference

Sophie Ray, Anna Ovington, Sarah Richards and Rachel Harper who spoke of new developments at the Making Connections Conference.
Sophie Ray, Anna Ovington, Sarah Richards and Rachel Harper who spoke of new developments at the Making Connections Conference.

The ethos of Church of Ireland primary schools needs to be part of each school’s self–evaluation and stem from dialogue with the whole school community. This is according to Dr Jacqui Wilkinson of DCU’s Institute of Education who presented her research on Church of Ireland primary schools at the DCU Church of Ireland Centre’s ‘Making Connections’ conference recently. She said Church of Ireland schools needed to ask if they have rooted their ethos in their Christian identity and if they have a lived ethos, not simply one which is prescribed by the Patron.

The conference gathered personnel from Church of Ireland primary schools the All Hallows Campus of DCU. Apart from Dr Wilkinson’s research, participants heard from Jacinta Regan of the NCCA (National Council for Curriculum and Assessment) on developments in primary education. A panel discussion highlighted developments from three schools and one parish: Anna Ovington talked about Delgany NS’s smartphone policy, Rachel Harper outlined the It Takes a Village initiative in Greystones and Delgany, Sarah Richards spoke of the development of Whitechurch NS’s outdoor classroom, and 4th year B.Ed student Sophie Ray brought news of the Lighten our Darkness by Numbers initiative in Mullingar Union.

Dr Wilkinson has spent five years researching ethos in Church of Ireland schools. Her empirical study involved more than 3,200 students from 4th, 5th and 6th classes in 92 Church of Ireland primary schools exploring ethos.

She defined ethos as “the core shared values, beliefs, attitudes and practices of an educational community” (O’Brien DCU). In identifying what the Church of Ireland says about its schools, Dr Wilkinson found that they have certainty about their Christian identity, promote inclusion, regard parish–school links as important, value worship and religious education, and hold a set of core values with a foundation in Christianity.

Her findings on students’ attitudes towards their schools identified that students surveyed felt that assembly was important, God was important, school was a safe place, teachers cared for the students and the school, the school taught them to respect others, caring for others was important and school taught them to care for the environment. She said there was lots more work to do but that it was clear from the children’s answers that the Church of Ireland ethos was apparent in the schools.

Jacinta Regan of the NCCA outlined the function of the 26 member council which develops advice for the Minister of Education on the curriculum. She spoke about the ongoing work in redeveloping the primary school curriculum in particular the RSE (Relationships and Sexuality Education) course.

Outlining the key findings of the NCCA’s research based on surveys of students, teachers and parents, Ms Regan said that those who responded felt that RSE was important, it was too biological, called for content relevant to the children’s needs, and highlighted the importance of the teach and classroom climate. The survey also highlighted that students found information about RSE in the following order: internet, friends, teachers, parents. Feedback from parents suggested that the curriculum should include content around respect, relationships, consent, safety, social media awareness and diverse family types. A minority of parents said that there should be no talk of sex or LGBT issues on school grounds, she reported. The draft specification for the NCCA RSE programme will go to publication in Spring 2024 with the final specification to be published in September 2025, she said.

Revd Prof Anne Lodge, Jacinta O'Regan and Dr Jacqui Wilkinson at the Making Connections Conference in DCU.
Revd Prof Anne Lodge, Jacinta O'Regan and Dr Jacqui Wilkinson at the Making Connections Conference in DCU.

Anna Ovington outlined Delgany NS’s smartphone voluntary code. The school and parents worked together to develop the code four years ago when parents became concerned about the amount of smartphone ownership among primary school children in the broader community. “The perception is that everyone has a phone and that if your child doesn’t have one, they feel they are losing out,” Ms Ovington explained. “The parents’ association thought about how they could support parents … and considered adopting a voluntary code. The code is supported by the school and the board of management but it is led by the parents.” She said that the feedback from parents had been very positive with 95% of students now not owning smartphones. Anyone wishing to learn more can email SmartphoneVoluntaryCode@gmail.com

‘It Takes a Village’ is a community wide initiative involving eight local primary schools, dedicated to the wellbeing of the children of the area. Rachel Harper, principal of St Patrick’s NS in Greystones, explained that coming out of Covid she saw increased anxiety in children. A survey of parents, teachers, principals and SNAs in the eight local schools found that an overwhelming majority of responses saw increased anxiety levels in children and they decided to take action. It Takes a Village aims to fund two play therapists for the schools. But there are also workshops for parents and the schools work on monthly themes with their students. More information is available on https://www.ittakesavillagegreystones-delgany.com

Whitechurch NS’s new outdoor classroom was highlighted by principal Sarah Richards. She suggested that any school can use their outdoor environment by exploring it in their own contexts. Since establishing the outdoor classroom, Ms Richards said there had been many benefits in the areas of movement and exercise, multisensory, links to all areas of the curriculum, the whole school community was involved, developing environmental awareness and getting fresh air. The classroom is used as part of the school day and she reported that the students loved it.

In May of this year members of General Synod were moved by the presentation by the Lighten Our Darkness by Numbers initiative which highlights the critical importance of youth leadership in climate change. Sophie Ray explained that the initiative looks at climate change through the lens of faith and focuses on youth leadership in seeking to promote their faith and raise awareness of climate change while having a positive impact on the world around them. Lighten Our Darkness came about when the Rector of Mullingar, Canon Alistair Graham, saw an opportunity to bridge the gap between declining youth membership in the church and concern about climate change. Sophie explained that, through youth leadership, parishioners of all ages were encouraged to take steps to make changes in support of biodiversity and conservation. You can find more information on the Mullingar Union of Parishes website: https://mullingarunionofparishes.net

Report and photos by Lynn Glanville, Dublin & Glendalough Communications Officer

The Board of Education (Republic of Ireland) represents the Church of Ireland in all educational matters applying to the State, including as an education partner with the Department of Education and Skills and other educational bodies.  It also supports religious education in primary schools under Protestant management and provides support, training and advice to primary level patrons and boards of management.

Dr Ken Fennelly

Secretary, Board of Education (RI)
Church of Ireland House
Church Avenue
Dublin 6
D06 CF67
+353 (0)1 4125 609


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