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:


Change Leader Interview: Dr. Steve Collins

According to the World Bank & the World Health Organisation (WHO), chronic malnutrition is both the greatest source of poverty and the greatest cause of child mortality in the world. Overall, chronic malnutrition is irreversibly damaging 200 million people worldwide.

Dr Steve Collins worked in many of the worst famines of the 1990s as a medical doctor, during which time he pioneered new methods for treating and preventing malnutrition. His community-based treatment model has been endorsed as best practice by UNICEF, the WHO and World Food Programme, and has been rolled out into 65 countries across the developing world. A social entrepreneur, Collins is the founder of Valid International and Valid Nutrition, helping spread his treatment models on a global scale. He received an MBE for services to humanitarianism in 2001, and was elected as a senior Ashoka Fellow in 2009.

He spoke to us about the challenges of innovating in the humanitarian sector, and shared some lessons learned along the way.


How would you frame the problem that Valid Nutrition is working to solve? 

Chronic malnutrition affects millions of children globally, and if it’s not prevented by the age of 2, it leads to irreversible physical and mental damage. This means that children grow up with sub-optimal cognitive and physical abilities, leading to shorter, less productive lives, filled with more ill health.  

The disease is preventable but the scale of the problem means that to date, the public sector and social sector solutions have not been able to make any impact at real scale. At Valid Nutrition & Valid International, we aim to generate evidence on how public/private partnerships can impact on chronic malnutrition on a global level.


Can you tell us a bit about the origin story? 

During my medical studies, I became involved in the famine response to the Ethiopian/Sudanese famine of 1984-86. While observing inefficiencies in the international aid model, I realised that the most effective solutions for treating disease involve the community: so-called demand-driven solutions.

After I qualified as a medical doctor, I worked in the Somali famine in 1992. A key thing I observed was that there was no data being gathered by the programme staff because they were too busy supplying services. This struck me as a major limitation, so I began collecting data on all the adults we treated. A couple of months into the study, I changed the patients’ diets to incorporate recently published international recommendations. Mortality rates in the Somali camps dropped from 75% to 20% almost overnight. 

I started Valid International in 1999 specifically as a platform from which to test and refine community-based demand-driven solutions to severe starvation. After several years of successful research, I started looking at retail-based public/private solutions to malnutrition, which led to the founding of Valid Nutrition, in 2005.


Valid International and Valid Nutrition are separate organisations working in the same field. How are they different and how did the models evolve?

Valid International’s business model is to provide research & consultancy to improve the programmatic aspects of nutritional delivery and care. We work with a wide range of national governments, donors, UN organisations NGOs and commercial businesses.  

Valid Nutrition (2005) is a social business, designed to manufacture and sell Ready-to-Use-Food (RUTF) products – calorie-dense oil-based pastes with essential nutrients to treat malnutrition. The organisation is a charity but it operates as a fully-fledged commercial business, manufacturing, selling and generating revenue, with the only difference being that all the profits generated are reinvested into expanding the mission. 

My developmental philosophy is not to import solutions into the developing world, but to add value to local industry wherever possible, and to that end we only set up manufacturing plants in countries affected by malnutrition and wherever possible try to use ingredients grown in those countries.


What are some of the challenges you faced in your early years? Can you share any lessons learned from addressing these challenges? 

Three key lessons stand out in my memory:

Lesson #1: the power of data

In the social sector there is a lot of talk about innovation, but innovation has to come with a scientific, data-driven evidence base, especially because the traditional aid and development sector can be quite conservative.

When we first started Valid International, we came into conflict with the UN and the medical establishment, who didn’t like the idea of taking treatment authority away from doctors and instead putting it with the patients. The only way to overcome resistance was with high quality operational research and evidence. So Valid’s team developed a database of 25,000 cases that we shared with the UN, and which proved to be instrumental in changing their policy.

Lesson #2: reinvention of the funding model

The process of change and innovation is a messy one: mistakes can happen, and in the medical world, when mistakes happen, people die.

Charities are set up to actively promote social good, and as a result, their funding streams heavily reliant on being seen to do good. The difference is subtle but absolutely fundamental. The problem is that this restricts innovation, because it does not allow agencies to be open and transparent about making mistakes.  

In a true social business, revenue streams are 100% aligned with social impact. In this model image is less important than actual impact, removing the fundamental contradiction inherent in the charity model. 

Lesson #3: size matters

People feel comfortable giving to large, well-known agencies or charities. This results in a few big players calling most of the shots, and because these same players invest hugely in image and profile, it’s quite difficult for small organisations to break into accessing significant funding. For an organisation like us, which is turning over €3-4 million, we require larger grants or investments to expand but we find it difficult to compete with the professional fundraising and grant-chasing machinery set up by the larger NGOs.

I am hopeful that the new breed of social investors, who are purportedly looking at impact rather than profile, will fill a very important gap in allowing smaller, innovative organisations to get revenue. So far, at Valid, we haven’t had much success in this area, which has been frustrating.


What’s ahead for Valid? How are you trying to scale globally?

Three elements are ahead for us:

#1 – We have unfinished business in the treatment of starvation, particularly with India. 40% of the world’s malnourished children live in India, and they are the only major country that has not yet adopted our treatment model. We have been working with stakeholders for several years now and are at the point of a breakthrough: governments in Odisha and Bihar states have now agreed to pilot our treatment approach. The initial data is very encouraging and we are hopeful that once this data is published there should be a large and rapidly increasing demand for these programmes across the country.

#2 – We need evidence to demonstrate that a public/private collaboration selling complementary foods through retail channels can improve health whilst generating a financial return for investors. The 3 dimensions of the evidence we need are: (1) Can we generate demand among low-income consumers to actually part with their cash for our products? (2) Will this have a positive impact on lowering chronic malnutrition? (3) Is it profitable? If we can show that these three are possible, then we have a real game-changer – if you can make money by improving people’s lives then why on earth would you not do so?!  

#3 – We have been investing Valid’s own resources in developing new surveying and mapping techniques. At the moment, standard Demographic and Health Surveys (DHS) produce aggregated data that cannot be disaggregated down below district (1 million plus people) level.  

We are developing new surveying instruments, generating heat maps that actually will illustrate what’s happening down to a village level form a national survey. Already countries such as Sudan and Sierra Leone and some of the UN organisations are adopting these tools, and we think they will help plan more effective interventions – from both a public and private sector side. So we can identify where demand is, and where best to invest.


Read Dr Collins’s contribution to UNICEF’s flagship research publication "The State of the World's Children 2015" published in November 2014.

This article originally appeared in the online edition of Business & Leadership in July 2015.

Change Leader Interview: Mairead Healy

For young people in Ireland, obtaining a third-level degree has arguably never been more important. According to the National Youth Council of Ireland, during the recession Ireland had one of the highest youth unemployment rates in the EU. Even as the economy improves, shrunken retail and construction sectors mean that non-degree holders are the first to be left behind in a competitive job market.

Recent statistics from the Department of Education are hopeful, with over 90% of students sitting their Leaving Cert in 2013 and 2014. However, students from the lowest socio-economic backgrounds still lag behind their peers in this measure: In Ireland’s DEIS schools, 2 out of 10 students still fail to complete their final year.

Future Voices is an award-winning youth empowerment programme working with young people from disadvantaged schools, in the years leading up to their Leaving Cert. Students attend workshops to build their skills and confidence, and are paired with mentors working in areas of law, policy and business, to help them build a network of support.

Social entrepreneur Mairead Healy founded Future Voices in 2012. As her team gets ready to launch a new programme, Youth:Elect, this March, Mairead explains what motivates her to advocate on behalf of young people.


What is the problem that Future Voices is seeking to solve?

The problem we are trying to solve is that young people growing up in some of the most deprived and marginalized communities in Ireland often struggle to reach their potential. At Future Voices, we want to give them a voice and an opportunity to build up their self-esteem.


How do you address this problem? What is the Future Voices model?

We hand-select the DEIS schools with the lowest test scores and percentages going on to college, and we work with these students to give them a new sense of confidence, so that they might become leaders in their communities.

The programme is currently built around a 3-year model, so the 3 years of secondary school leading up to the Leaving Cert. The ‘Flagship’ project is about building up the students’ confidence through workshops and coaching sessions to build their skills – we cover everything from research, public speaking and presentations.

Following this, the ‘Step Up to the Mark’ programme is really about them taking charge, becoming advocates for their communities by learning about the legislation that affects them. Step Up includes a Central Project piece – for example, this year our students are organizing a TEDx conference.

Throughout the 3-year programme, students are paired with mentors who are working in the fields of law, policy or the government.They also have interactions with high level influencers in Ireland through our workshops and events, such as Chief Commissioner of the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission Emily Logan and Supreme Court Justice Frank Clarke.

The reason for this is twofold: we engage the high level mentors in order to give the students a realistic shot at actually achieving their goals and being able to flourish – because the reality is that students have better chances in the job market if they have access to the right networks.

But it’s not just about changing the mindsets of our students – it’s about inspiring the leaders and mentors as well. It’s about them thinking twice next time they’re going to hire someone or help someone on their way. We can’t break down old, elite and exclusive networks, but what we can do is create new ones that will be more accessible and inclusive.


FV is very young – you founded it in July 2012 and launched in 2013. What were some of the biggest challenges to you in the first two years?

Interestingly enough, the hardest step in setting up Future Voices was reaching the young people themselves. We were targeting only the most troubled schools with the lowest scores, but the teachers and administrators were often acting as gatekeepers, not returning my calls or agreeing to speak to me.

I think that perhaps the teachers were skeptical – very few people go on to college in these schools and I think maybe they didn’t want me giving the kids false hope.  I remember that a month before we were due to launch, we had hardly any kids signed up at all! Somehow it all came together in the end, once schools started letting me speak to kids in person, and they signed up in droves.

After the first year it was easier, because we had received some positive media attention and the word had spread among schools.


Have you made any major changes to the FV model? Have you had to change any part of that, either from feedback from students or others?

At first we were intending just to do the one-year programme. But by the end of that first year, everyone – I had teachers, pupils, parents – everyone was reaching out saying “Mairead, you have to bring these kids back.” So we expanded into a 3-year programme. Now we still have the Flagship programme, with new intake every year, followed by two years of ‘Step Up to the Mark.’


At the moment, FV is concentrated in Dublin and you haven’t expanded beyond that. Do you have any plans to and scale up?

I definitely want us to expand. I’d really like to make it all-Ireland. Because I’m from the North, I know how deprived it is in terms of unemployment, and opportunities, so setting up in Belfast would be a dream.

We also want to expand the programme offerings. The first cohort of Future Voices are now in their Leaving Cert year at school, so we are designing a follow-on programme for when they go on to third level education. One of the challenges about working with students from this background is that the dropout rate is very high when they go on university. The new programme will pair up senior partners from law firms to be there for our students throughout university, to meet with them every term, to be on the end of a call or an email.

It’s very important that we don’t leave them now. We have brought them this far and now we want to follow through.


Find out more on the Future Voices website and Twitter page.

This article first appeared in the online edition of Business & Leadership in February 2015.