AS IT WAS IN THE BEGINNING....
by Br. Declan Duffy
Tallaght in 1971 was a small village, on the edge of the Dublin sprawl. It had a small vocational school, and a primary school. The local authorities had plans for the development of Tallaght but the early seventies was a time of economic decline and nobody believed that the development of Tallaght would come very soon. However the Archbishop of Dublin Dr J.C. McQuaid did not share that view. He invited the Holy Faith Sisters and the Marist Brothers to build and open two single sex voluntary secondary schools on a site yet to be developed. He had already failed to interest the Christian Brothers in this project. Only an optimist could believe at the time that such a development was viable.
However things changed rapidly when the Minister for Education Mr Padraic Faulkner released a document on a new project called a community school. It had two objectives: First to provide post primary education in newly developing areas, and secondly to provide a new formula for the amalgamation of non-viable secondary and vocational schools. The actual document was merely three pages in all and raised all kinds of questions. It received mixed reactions.
The VEC understandably reacted negatively. In Tallaght they felt the solution was the extension of their VCE school. A national debate followed. Coolmine was later identified as a potential site for a Greenfield school and later Ardee, Co. Louth, in the constituency of the Minister for Education, as a location for an amalgamated community school.
Many religious Orders opposed the scheme as being outside their experience and because they doubted if a very large multi-denominational school would satisfy the parental expectations in newly developing area. The VEC opposed it because they felt their schools were multi-denominational already, they had served the country well, and their democratic and local authority mandate allowed them to be sensitive to local needs and expectations.
The Archbishop of Dublin was deeply concerned that new schools should be built on the community school model which he supported. He was anxious that the educational needs of Tallaght and Blanchardstown should be addressed without delay. The Tallaght situation was complicated by the fact that the Marist Brothers and the Holy Faith Sisters had already responded to a request from the Archbishop to open a boys’ and a girls’ secondary school in Tallaght, and both Orders had briefed their architects who had drawn up outline plans for these schools, in the Tymon North area of Tallaght.
Shortly after this, the Minister for Education announced his plans to build community schools in newly developing areas. The Archbishop of Dublin was among the first to support the Minister’s proposal for community schools. He asked the two Orders already committed to Tallaght, if they would change plans and support the community school idea there.
Both Orders had international education experience which told them that there were many educational models, and that a community based school had many attractions for parents and teachers, for management and funding. There was considerable friction locally about the proposal, especially among the VEC who understandably argued that there was a valued dimension of local management and local autonomy in their traditional vocational schools. Eventually the VEC came on board and joined the two religious orders in making a start.
The new community school was initially housed in the then Vocational school at Main Road (later to become the new VEC offices for County Dublin). Mr Padraic Heeran, a member of the staff of Templeogue School was chosen as Principal with Sr Aileen of the Holy Faith Order as Deputy Principal. Sr Aileen was an experienced educator with teaching and leadership service in Ireland and in the U.S. A Marist Brother - Brother Colman- a guidance teacher - was appointed to the staff, to join Sr Una Collins who was there already. The staff of the VEC school was transferred to the new community school.
Meantime the plans for the new community school were forging ahead. The Department of Education favoured a model which could be replicated elsewhere. The architect had instructions to design a model which could be widely used and thus obviate excessive design costs. In retrospect it would be said that the design suffered from many short- comings which later resulted in ongoing expensive repair work
There are some facts about the Tallaght community school which are not well known. When it was built it was intended to be a junior post primary school for 1000 pupils. There was to be a senior school for 500 pupils on the same campus. In fact most of the furniture supplied to the school at the beginning, such as desks and chairs, were meant for smaller students. However the public debate pursued in the 70s on school size eventually veered away from the idea of the large impersonal school of 1500, and finally 700-900 became the normal maximum size for Departmental approval.
Simultaneously the Board of Management was set up. It comprised representatives of the two religious orders, the VEC and elected parents. Some debate followed on the method by which religious sought and obtained continuity posts in the school, but these issues were eventually resolved when it was better understood that religious could only serve if they had a viable community of members in their Tallaght houses. This device also had the advantage that it re-assured parents that the educational traditions of religious orders would be continued in the new school set-up.
In a complimentary article in the Irish Times March 31, 1976 the late educational correspondent Christina Murphy wrote:
“……Tallaght was the first of the community schools in Ireland, established among a ballyhoo of publicity and controversy, and a level of acrimonious debate seldom before witnessed in the educational field. Now, three years later, Tallaght is a thriving community school in the middle of a sprawling satellite town of 40,000 people. To go to Tallaght community school on a Thursday night is to witness what community education is all about. Hundreds of cars jam the car park and driveways, football teams play under footlights, the gym is crowded, workers from a local factory splash around in the swimming pool, a residents’ association is meeting in a classroom, 45 primary teachers have just completed a PE training class, and many people are coming and going to adult education classes on management, cooking, public speaking, hobbies and half a dozen other subjects. There’s a real busy-bee atmosphere, and you get the feeling that here is a school which is really serving the community."
Thirty years on, it is useful to look back on what has been achieved in this Community school. Tallaght has successfully pioneered a new type of co-ed multi-denominational school, a school situated at the heart of the local community — a community school which shares with the students a swimming pool complex and sports facilities. It is proud to have a professional, energetic and dedicated staff which is ably led and which promotes the highest standards in education, and a respect and equality among all students. This is a proud record of performance and achievement in the first thirty years of the first community school.
Gura fada buan i!