Douglas, Co. Cork

In Brief

With both an attached facility for deaf children and a large number of hearing impaired children in the school’s mainstream, every child and teacher in St. Columba’s learns sign language. Where dictation is impossible, communication extends beyond the verbal and comes to life. As a result, the school is naturally and uniquely interactive and experiential, with many outdoor learning spaces designed to let the pupils speak and learn through their actions.


St Columba’s Girls National School with Facility for Deaf Children is located on almost 10 acres of land in Douglas, Cork. There are 500 girls in St Columba’s with 37 deaf children in the facility attached to the school and a large number of deaf children in the school’s mainstream.

The Biggest Idea

With a long history catering for deaf and hearing impaired children, every child and teacher in St.Columba’s learns sign language. Where absorbing knowledge from dictation alone is impossible, communication extends beyond the verbal and into the physical. As a result, the school is naturally and uniquely interactive, where the girls can’t help but be involved and in charge of their learning.

Life at St. Columba’s

In St. Columba’s, sign language is not indicative of a disability, and is considered an equal language to English. Unsurprisingly, this culture of appreciating differences extends beyond those with hearing impairments. Children with other disabilities are integrated seamlessly, as are those from all 39 nationalities represented in the school. The children are also closely connected with the elderly community, engaging in several creative activities together. Most strikingly, this holistic approach creates a unique atmosphere of co-operation and calmness - turning what some could consider a major communication challenge into a perfect learning environment.

This environment is as likely to be seen outdoors as inside. With a specially constructed outdoor classroom, a bog garden, vegetable beds, hens and walking trails, St. Columba’s use their unusual amount of space to great effect. Given the responsibility of planting and maintaining their learning landscape, the children do more than speak with their hands. Exploration and adventure go hand in hand with the outdoor learning experience, with a huge outdoor climbing frame recently constructed to help children work together and build courage and confidence.

The pupils are no less creative indoors, with a particularly strong focus on art and music, all with the added intention of improving performance in the traditional core skills of reading, writing and arithmetic. In particular, the staff recently adopted and adapted a cognitive acceleration programme, using maths to increase creative problem-solving. Emanating from their unique form of communication, the culture of the school spirals out into real-life problem-solving that comes back to benefit standardised test scores. Indeed, these score have increased since sign language became their native tongue. Changing young girls from attentive listeners to proactive leaders of their own education has become the trademark of St. Columba’s.

The Leadership

After 35 years of teaching, Michelle Cashman has recently retired as principal, but her legacy of innovation is carried throughout the school. A Cambridge graduate with a passion for learning through music, Michelle was also inspired by experiences in Norwegian schools to bring outdoor education to St. Columba’s.