Changemaker Schools

Spring is here! And so is our new #AIQ

With apologies for the radio silence... 

The first few months of 2017 have been busy in our office, with a lot of behind-the-scenes work on our Fellow nomination process. We are also getting ready to announce two new partnerships and a campaign later this year - so watch this space!

In the meantime, we are delighted to share our quarterly round-up of news from the Ashoka Ireland community, in our spring #AIQ newsletter, below. 

You can read about a system-changing collaboration between Fellows Neil McCabe and Mike Feerick, and learn about leading global Fellows in our #GlobalChangemakers campaign. Changemaker Schools got a big feature in The Irish Times this month. And we celebrate the work of Jacqueline Williamson, who is our first Fellow to join the network from Northern Ireland!

Read on at the link:

Highlights from the 2016 Changemaker Education Summit in Killarney, Co. Kerry

What is our definition of changemaker education? 

"Every young person becoming empowered in a learning ecosystem that is explicitly focused on providing experiences that equip and incline them to make a better world."

From 19th to 22nd of October, we welcomed over 150 changemakers and leaders in education to Killarney, Co. Kerry, for the 2016 Changemaker Education Summit. It was a unique opportunity for European members of the Ashoka Changemaker Schools network to come together with innovators from all over the world, to share ideas for the co-creation and reinvention of education in today's world.

The summit programme included keynote speeches by Dr. Daire Keogh (Deputy President of DCU), Miho Taguma (Senior Policy Analyst OECD), Prof. Tom Collins (Chair of the Governing Bodies of DIT and IT Blanchardstown) and Margret Rasfeld (Ashoka Fellow and founder of School on the Move).

Attendees toured St. Oliver's National School (a member of the Irish Changemaker Schools network) and observed a Roots of Empathy class, based on the ground-breaking method for empathy education developed by Ashoka Fellow Mary Gordon.

We would like to extend a warm thank you to all who attended, and a big thank you to Rory D'Arcy and the school community of St. Oliver's N.S. in Killarney for making everyone feel welcome.

See more photos from the summit on our Facebook Page.

Search the #ChangemakerED Hashtag on TwitTER to see live updates from the Summit.

'Meet the Changemaker Schools' - read Carl O'Brien's article about the Changemaker Schools network in The Irish Times.

Meditation practice brings tranquility and confidence to the school day

By Breda Murray, Principal of Our Lady Immaculate J.N.S.

As educators, it is part of our job to be sensitive and responsive to the needs of children who exhibit signs of stress or disruption. In 2010 we introduced a Meditation Project for the students of Our Lady Immaculate, aged between 4-8. We did this for a few reasons. There was a marked absence of any form of ritual or time where the children were offered an opportunity to sit in silence and contact something beyond the business and challenges of their daily lives. Our children were under a complete barrage of noise and activity with few opportunities to go inside and build the inner resources they so desperately needed. The impact of this was evident in their behaviour, concentration, levels of attention and focus, behavioural disturbances, depression, apathy and general wellbeing. Their emotional and mental resilience was not as robust as it could be as they had many obstacles to overcome and often very little support at home. 

Our school is situated in what is termed a 'DEIS band 1' area, which is a category devised by the Department of Education and Skills in 2005 that refers to areas of significant economic, social and educational disadvantage. Although proud of our community, we recognise that growing up in a challenging and sometimes unstable environment can be taxing for young children.

A drawing by a student of Our Lady Immaculate JNS, submitted as part of their meditation practice feedback

A drawing by a student of Our Lady Immaculate JNS, submitted as part of their meditation practice feedback

After researching different types of meditation, we obtained some practical guidelines and resources for both staff and students, and in time established a meditation room that we decorated with a beautiful mural and simple relaxing furniture. We began slowly with about 7 classes, but within 2 years the whole school was meditating on a regular basis. Classes were facilitated by Steve Gregory, who has been working in this area for over 30 years. He brought a sense of deep calm and focus to the children and school environment as he began to work with parents and children on a weekly basis. Steve would work each week with all class groups modelling the meditation practices that the teachers could then with their own class group as they wanted to.

Parents, care givers, and the wider school community were also offered a weekly class, and soon a variety of people regularly gathered in our parents’ room for meditation. There was also a class for the teachers after school, which we have now extended to teaching staff in all the neighbouring schools.

At the end of the first year, I collected feedback from our students in written, verbal and artistic expression. I wasn't prepared for the depth of response and understanding of meditation the children displayed. They had absorbed and understood the various practices, and were using them throughout their daily lives, not just at school. They used the practices to help them sleep or energise, to release negative feelings, or draw in positive ones. Some children spoke of how the meditation helped them to soothe and reassure their anxieties and stress. Some even referred to feeling the presence of deceased family members while meditating, or seeing colours and images.

Reflections on meditation practice

Reflections on meditation practice

It was a revelation to me and Steve to see how deeply they had related to the whole experience. The children's knowledge and understanding were evidence of their immense capacity to go within themselves and find a deeper sense of being. There were many amazing moments that I heard, read or saw in the feedback as well as during meditation classes I observed, but perhaps the most satisfying thing was the realisation that for these young people meditation was as much a part of their lives as P.E., Music or Reading classes. Meditation had become a practice they drew on when they needed it.

It can be challenging in life to develop a sense of connection or meaning to something other than the present situation - a journey inwards that satisfies and nurtures and is not dependent on anything other for a sense of completeness or joy. If our children contact that even once through this meditation project, it will all have been worth it, as that experiencecan make all the difference.

This blogpost was written by Breda Murray, Principal of Changemaker School Our Lady Immaculate J.N.S. in Darndale, Dublin 17. Visit their website to find out more:


Inclusive education & Renaissance thinking: A conversation with Rory D'Arcy

Rory D'Arcy knows a thing or two about nurturing communities. He has served as the Principal of St. Oliver's National School in Killarney, Co. Kerry, for the past 14 years, and in that time, has seen its student population grow from 410 to over 780. With 45 nationalities, an integrated special needs unit, and over 60 pupils from the Traveller community, it is one of Ireland’s most diverse primary schools, as well as one of the largest. True to its size and shape, St. Oliver’s is a hub for the larger Killarney community, with extracurricular activities filling the halls and buildings of the school every day of the week. A leader in inclusive, empathic education, it was selected as one of the first schools in Ireland to join the Ashoka Changemaker Schools network in 2014.

Rory D'Arcy has been the principal of St. Oliver's NS for 14 years.

Rory D'Arcy has been the principal of St. Oliver's NS for 14 years.

Rory also serves on the Board of Trustees of Muckross House, a historical and educational landmark situated in Killarney National Park, which will host the Changemaker Education European Summit in October 2016. We sat down with Rory in July to learn more about the history of this important institution, as well as his philosophy for the future of education in Killarney, Ireland, and beyond.

The following interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Can you explain a bit about the history of Muckross House and the National Park that surrounds it?

The early history of the house is somewhat dark. The Herbert family, who came from Wales to mine copper in Killarney, built Muckross House in the 1840s during the height of the Irish famine. At the time it must have been so far removed from the devastation that was happening all over the country, particularly in Kerry.

Decades later, William Bowers Bourn II, a wealthy American mining magnate who owned the Empire goldmine in California, bought Muckross House and 10,000 acres of land as a wedding present for his daughter Maud, in 1910. She and her husband arrived at the estate and they found it in a deplorable state, having been uninhabited for 30 or 40 years. Maud set about restoring the cottages; she was very popular [and known for] her kindness. She contracted pneumonia and died, leaving her family heartbroken. Her father, William, was a friend of American President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who had started the national parks movement in the United States. Bourn decided to gift the whole house and all of the estate to the Irish State for nothing, in 1932, in memory of Maud.

Muckross House is located in Killarney National Park, in County Kerry

Muckross House is located in Killarney National Park, in County Kerry

For 30 years, the State did nothing with Muckross House and it fell into disrepair. In 1962 a Board of Trustees came together and worked in partnership with the State to open it to the public. Currently, the estate of Muckross House, Gardens and Farms are run jointly by the State and by the Board of Trustees, of which I am a member. Today, there are several traditional businesses on the premises, such as the farms, woollen weavers, a bookbinder, a pottery shop and a library. The money that we raise is then reinvested back into Muckross and the Killarney National Park, which surrounds it. 

Tell us a bit about how it links to the community of Killarney and the upcoming European Changemaker Schools Summit.

It’s a very interesting year that the Changemaker Education Summit is coming to Muckross, because of the 100th anniversary of the [Easter Rising, a significant date in the celebration of Irish independence]. The people who led the Rising in general were involved in education on all levels. It’s only right the conference will be looking at what we are doing well and what can we learn from each other in terms of education. The fact that Muckross House was never harmed during [the period of political unrest in Northern Ireland, known as ‘the Troubles’] and it was never attacked speaks to the love that the people of Killarney have for the house.

Muckross can be used to not only enhance the educational lives of the children in Kerry but also on a broader European level. To have a summit like this come to us is really exciting because it fits in with the history. The last private owner, William Bourn, gave the estate away for nothing, because he wanted to see it used for the education of the people of Ireland. It is now being used to mould, shape and influence education across Europe, carrying on his legacy. There’s an old tradition of great thinking in places of great beauty. The Greeks did it always. Beauty should be used as an inspiration.

Killarney is special because has this concentrated spirit of Irishness that it proudly wears, while also showing this international face and changing global dynamic. How does it balance its strong Irish identity with this international movement?

I think there are three interesting things about people from Killarney that make this work. There’s a self confidence, a belief in their own abilities. That comes from producing a product of the highest standard in terms of tourism. The second thing is their practicality. During the 1930s in the last great recession, the people of Killarney built a golf club, a race course and a town hall. They have a can-do attitude. The third thing is they have a genuine interest in people. I think those three elements have made the integration of people from foreign backgrounds easier than it would be in some other rural towns. It would be hugely ironic if a town noted around the world for its welcome wasn’t welcoming to the very people living in the town.

The people who come here come to work. In hotels or factories, there is a practical reason why they are there. The vast majority of people who come to my school, their parents are working [in and around Killarney’s flourishing tourist industry.]

I’d love to hear a little bit about St. Oliver’s and your experience working in the school. Can you give us a sense of how it fits within the larger community of Killarney?

Our school, St. Oliver’s, is the largest of the 8 national schools in Killarney. We have 783 pupils, 54 teachers and 20 classroom assistants. The school is a mixed Catholic school, with children who come to us at the age of 4 or 5, staying with us up until the age of 12 or 13. We also have a community preschool with a further 66 children, so it’s a very busy place.

With 45 nationalities, St. Oliver's NS is one of Ireland's most diverse schools

With 45 nationalities, St. Oliver's NS is one of Ireland's most diverse schools

Our aim is to ensure each child who leaves us is different: each of the pupils we produce is special in their own way. One of my jobs is to make sure that happens. The children experience different forms of teaching, types of teachers with different interests, as they travel up through the school. We also have the largest concentration of children with special needs in the country, with 11 resource teachers employed in school.

People would say there are all types different nationalities represented at the school, but that is something we are quite proud of. I have always put forth the idea that if you come to our school, your child’s friends won’t all be named Sean and Mary, they will be Sari and Ahmed. People associate that with our school and we’re very proud of that. Last year we received a yellow flag for celebrating cultural diversity. We have all sorts of initiatives: music, art and drama days, intercultural days. Everyday when you open the newspaper, it becomes abundantly clear this is the way we should be educating our children.

St. Olivers has a large fish tank in the middle of the school with a different fish for every nationality represented in the school. The students did a gorgeous presentation where they had signs of every language spoken by students in the school. They were sharing stories and doing skits. It really came alive and you can see the changing demographics of Ireland.

There is a progressive agenda that likes to tout the "new face of Ireland” image, and we fit quite neatly into that. But I find that attitude almost prejudicial, because it reduces this rich diversity to a few token nationalities. The children don’t really care that there are 45 nationalities at the school. To them it’s as irrelevant as the color of your hair. Our attitude towards this has evolved. Children are moving ahead of us and we need to follow them in that league. My thinking is moving on in terms of how we perceive and define ourselves.

Students at St. Oliver's NS take part in the on-site farm

Students at St. Oliver's NS take part in the on-site farm

The farm is one of many initiatives to support the local community

The farm is one of many initiatives to support the local community

A teacher who had been teaching in the school for quite a long time came to me after there was a tragedy that had recently happened somewhere in the world. The teacher went in that morning asking the children to pray and three of them went over to the corner and knelt down at the window. Nobody said anything or even batted an eyelid. The teacher came to me and said, “Are we not a Catholic school? Is this allowed?” I said not only is this allowed, this is exactly what I want to see happen. Children’s faith and ethnicity are there to be celebrated, not as a mark of difference. The children really don’t see it.

Can you explain your practice of “educational bartering?”

Our school is open 7 days a week; [the buildings and rooms are occupied even when school isn’t in session.] I use a bartering system because I’m more interested in people’s services than their money. Everything from gymnastic coaches, CoderDojo, occupational therapists—no one gives me money for the use of the school. They give their services. The whole idea of educational barter is a very interesting one because you can get a lot more.

I feel that schools should not just be professionally based, with just children and teachers. We should think of the school as a campus, geographically based. I would like to see occupational therapists and speech therapists on site, community welfare officers, school completion programmes, all based around the school community. In developing such a campus, people get to know each other. A lot of problems can be solved by making connections with people.

Can you tell us about some of the other inclusive practices that you promote within your school?

In relation to people seeking asylum, the Direct Provision  model where we have people waiting for their applications to be processed for a length of time is always something I felt very strongly about. We’ve had people in the system there for up to 10 years waiting for their application to be processed. We’ve always tried to find ways we could support people in that provision as a school community.

Recently I was struck by the power of food. One of our intercultural days some years ago, people prepared food and I watched the way people interacted around food. They were more relaxed, happy, easy. I’m working with KASI, the Kerry Asylum Seekers Initiative, and we opened a restaurant staffed by volunteers and members of the community who are seeking asylum. The restaurant feeds 75 people a day, at 4 Euro for a meal. The menus are fantastic and it gives people an opportunity to meet the children, to be part of the school community.

At the summit, there will be lots of space for sharing ideas with other Changemaker Principals. This fits into a larger European conversation about how to integrate asylum seekers and refugees. That often comes up in conversations with Changemaker Schools Principals. They are dynamic thinkers who are never just satisfied with an innovative curriculum. They think beyond that to what the school could become.

Exactly. At the moment, in this country we are fascinated by business models being applied to schools, but the truth is that businesses could learn a lot from schools. It should be a symbiotic relationship where we learn from one another. It’s important to see the big picture and not be pigeonholed. I shouldn’t see myself as the principal of a school and just that. 

I am also very conscious of the wonderful work of our teachers in welcoming children and helping each child celebrate their unique talents, heritage and potential. I do believe there is a need for more Renaissance thinking among educators. I come from a generation where everybody is a something: “If you’re a teacher you teach, if you’re an artist, you’re an artist - but don’t confuse the two.” People are put in a box. By contrast, people like Ashoka Fellows are really Renaissance thinkers. They look at applying their skills to whatever area has a need.

Find out more about St. Oliver's on their website:

The Changemaker Schools network now includes over 250 schools in 32 countries! Meet the schools on the website:


Helping students find their voice

By Siobhán Fitzgerald, Principal of Eglish National School

Students take part in the 'LET's Stand' programme at Eglish NS

Students take part in the 'LET's Stand' programme at Eglish NS

Approximately 70% of our students come from the Travelling community and 30% of our students have been assessed as having a special education need. Very proud of the demographic make-up of our school, we actively foster and create a safe, supportive environment in which all of our students feel cherished, stimulated and proud to be the best version of themselves. For us, it's about mutual respect.

We see a huge opportunity, through nurturing all our students’ self-worth and self-confidence, to challenge any existing prejudices in society and move beyond them. We aim to empower our students to be ‘Changemakers’, role models for their brothers, sisters, cousins and neighbours. Through encouraging creativity, we help every child find their passion and interest and develop it. This year our students wrote, produced and acted in their own Irish play. By making and selling their own crafts at our annual ‘Bring and Buy’ Sale, entrepreneurial skills are developed.
We celebrate diversity in all its forms, always reinforcing that ‘We are all more alike than different.’ 

Through self-evaluation, oral language was identified as most in need of attention. With one third of students assessed as having a speech and language difficulty, another big dilemma was the apparent reticence of students from the Travelling community to share information about their backgrounds. We were concerned also about how much time many students seemed to spend passively on technology in their free time, to the apparent detriment of their communication skills. Here lay the challenge and here lay the opportunity.  

Students practice public speaking in the yard at Eglish NS

Students practice public speaking in the yard at Eglish NS

We are a small school with a big vision, a vision of all our children communicating clearly and confidently, expressing coherently their thoughts, feelings, hopes and dreams, listening empathically to one another, developing keen skills of evaluation. We believe in using technology as the tremendous tool that it is to enhance presentations but at the same time, not being mastered by technology. 
Using the ‘LET’s Stand’ (Listen, Evaluate, Talk, Stand) programme we encourage, enable and empower students to stand and present in front of an audience a minimum of 10 times a year, every year of their primary school education. Each child speaks on topics relevant to their lives, all the while developing, step-by-step specific public speaking skills. Peer and teacher feedback and evaluation is positive and specific. We get excited about topics that excite our students. 

‘LET’s Stand’ targets the development of children’s oral language, confidence and public speaking skills at a time when they themselves most want to talk. This also feeds into the development of positive mental health practices. History boasts plenty of examples of great orators who have changed the world by standing up and speaking out. We are creating confident, communicatively competent orators for the future. Positive, powerful and passionate advocates for themselves and their communities.

Students at Eglish NS

Students at Eglish NS

Encouraging our students to talk has been easy because they want to be heard. Creating the safe, supportive environment in which this can happen is slightly more difficult. By spending time initially on clearly outlining and explaining the simple, respectful rules for ‘Listening’, ‘Evaluating’ and ‘Speaking’, the rest more easily falls into place. Discrete oral language time can be used for student presentations while many projects are easily linked to other curriculum subjects. Assigning preparation of oral projects for homework is a great way of getting the parents and extended family involved, promoting further increased communication and sharing of stories and culture at home. It’s homework that is not confined to being completed around the table.

Our staff conscientiously model the skills we aim to develop in our students. We actively listen to them. Working as a team, individual members of staff take the lead in their preferred areas of interest and create real opportunities for students to do the same. We realise that not simply teaching, we are moulding the young minds of rural Ireland, cultivating confident, clearly communicating leaders who can and will change the world for the good of us all. 

Yardtime at GETNS: A change for the better

By John Farrell, Principal at Galway Educate Together National School, a Changemaker School

It niggled at me for over twenty years of teaching. The little voice whispering in the back of my mind, “The yard….the yard…what about the yard?” The voice would say, “Why do we work so hard every day to have happy, positive, supportive classrooms but when the bell rings it’s ‘Off you go now kids, and remember, play nicely!’?” 

Maybe it’s because most children play nicely most of the time that adults think the yard is just another one of life’s classrooms. “It toughened us up. It didn’t do us any harm. We can’t wrap them in cotton wool. Sure they’ll get over it, eventually.”

But will they?

What about that boy walking the kerb alone, looking at his feet? Or the girl on the bench glancing wishfully at the others skipping and chanting and laughing? Or the goalie in the soccer game – his team are winning – why does he look so sad? See the girl that’s “it” in the tag game? She’s so red in the face. She hasn’t caught anyone and everyone knows she won’t, including her. There’s ages left before the bell rings and her ordeal finishes, for today.

Ask any teacher and they’ll tell you the yard is where the big behaviour problems are. It’s the part of the school day when children get into trouble for doing things they would never dream of doing in class. Teachers will tell you the huge amount of time they spend sorting out the problems after yard. We had a name for it in our school – “Post Yard Trauma.” Children were upset for getting in trouble, being excluded, fighting with their friends and so on. What was meant to be a fun time for all was, for a significant number of children, anything but.

It was a troubling constant of school life and despite periodic attempts to change we were becoming resigned to living with it. Yard is yard we thought, we can only do our best.

Then the flyer came in the post!

In October 2013, Galway Education Centre offered training in something called Playworks. Playworks was founded in 1996 in the U.S.A. by Jill Vialet and now runs programmes in over 20 US states. Their aim is to create a place for every kid on the playground to feel included, be active, and build valuable social and emotional skills. 

The blurb described many of the yard issues and then four words leapt out at me “We can change this.” I immediately applied and thankfully our school was selected to have two Playworks trainers spend a week in the school introducing the programme to the staff and pupils. 

What a week that was! 

The trainers, David and Tara, arrived with not much more than some chalk, a stack of cones, a few balls and a seemingly endless store of fun, active, inclusive games. They had some nifty strategies for keeping children involved as well as bundles of the wonderful warm enthusiasm that Americans are so well known for. Within a couple of days you could see the difference. Teachers were reporting that Post Yard Trauma had practically disappeared. Children were coming back into class more ready to learn. Those children normally on the fringes were playing and laughing with their classmates. The atmosphere was changing before our eyes and not just in the yard but in the classrooms and throughout the school community.

The underlying principles of fun, positivity and inclusion create the atmosphere. With Playworks the yard goes from a chaotic free-for-all environment to one that is semi-structured. Simple “core games” run in the same place in the same way every day. The games are quick so there’s no hanging around waiting. Rules are basic and infringements are met with redirection rather than punishment and exclusion. Conflict is sorted by the simple game of Rock, Paper, Scissors. “Put-downs” or negative interactions are replaced with “High Fives” and positive ones. Junior Coaches (student volunteers) run the games, not as referees but rather as facilitators that keep the games focussed on the underlying principles. Adults in the yard go from passive supervisors to active role models, joining in the games, building rapport with the children and supporting the Junior Coaches. Many of the strategies can be used in classrooms throughout the school day, thereby supporting and growing the culture.

There were plenty of tough days, however. When David and Tara left we struggled to keep the momentum going. They had shown us the promised land but it was only a glimpse. Implementing the structure and organisation, the planning and development, the training and support required for Playworks to last was a big challenge for us. With the immense effort of a member of staff (Thank you Michelle!) and the goodwill of all the rest of the team we kept it going through that school year. In the summer of 2014 another Playworks trainer came from the US to give a summer in-service course for teachers and several of our staff attended. During the 2014/15 school year we dedicated a number of our staff meetings to figuring how to make it work for us. We defined roles, made staff teams and played the games together. Day by day the aspiration was becoming the reality.

By June 2015 we were confident enough to invite over 30 principals and teachers from all over Ireland to come and have a look at our yard. The feedback from those attending was incredible and several went away fired up to begin changing their own school yards. In November 2015 we ran an introduction course over three nights called “Yardtime @ GETNS” and 25 teachers attended. As most of these schools are in the Galway area we are now building a local network to give support to each other. In February 2016 we were invited to give an introduction to schools in Carlow and were amazed to see another 30 teachers from all over the Southeast out on a Saturday, geared up and enthused about transforming their yards. This term we plan to run a “Thank You Junior Coaches!” day where we invite all the schools who’ve made a start to bring the Junior Coaches together for a day of fun, friendship and figuring out how to make our yards even better. Our plan is to continue developing our own school programme while sharing our experience and offering our support to other interested schools. 

The possibilities for a Playworks yard are endless. More than anything it is a journey towards developing better human relationships through fun and play. To begin the only requirement is a willingness to look at your school and ask “What about the yard?”

Go to to see a short video on some of the elements of Yardtime @GETNS.