TALLAGHT COMMUNITY SCHOOL - EARLY YEARS
by Padraig Heeran
“Truly the pilgrim people who came to Tallaght were a wise and loving
people. We were indeed lucky to have them. "
This poetic image comes from "Tallaght a Living Town" published by South Dublin County Council in 1997, and it gives me what, I hope, will be the central theme in this account of the early years of Tallaght Community School, and that is, a celebration of the people who, for thirty years, have worked, taught, learned, played and, in a myriad of ways, have made this school a place that I am proud and privileged to have been associated with. It is firstly a celebration of all the pupils who have come to the school [in thirty years well over 5000!!]. It is also a celebration of all the staff who have worked there in all their different roles; a celebration of the parents who sent their children to us; a celebration of the members of the Board of Management who gave their time and skills to the school.
While I intend to keep this theme of celebration as my main focus I will also look at some of the difficulties that made the early years frustrating, demanding, exciting, never boring, and, in retrospect, very rewarding. I must be clear that this is a personal account, and does not pretend to be a definitive history of these years. I will leave that to a more objective study by some one not so closely associated with the school.
In October 1970 the Irish Times published a document that outlined the basic principles of the Community School. This was a “leaked “document, which was to be the blueprint for the provision of post primary education for many years to come. These schools would offer, a comprehensive curriculum, would be co-educational, non selective and would make their facilities available to the local community outside of school hours. These schools would bring together the Vocational and Secondary systems under one roof and would remove duplication of buildings, teachers and equipment.
The Minister for Education Mr. Padraig Faulkner was obliged to make a series of statements to the Dail further outlining the plans for these schools. Some years ago I asked him if the leak caused him some difficulty. He agreed that it did some damage initially, but, because he was confidant that the basic idea was good, he went on to implement the policy. What followed was unprecedented in my experience. The volume of objections, accusations, rumours, public meetings, protest marches makes interesting reading today. Throughout the sixties there had been a number of important initiatives which gave rise to a certain amount of public discussion and even controversy; Comprehensive schools 1963; O’Malley free education 1966; O! Connor article in Studies; 1968, Intermediate and Leaving Certificates extended to Vocational schools 1969.
All of these plans were fuelled by the O.E.C.D. report Investment in Education, and it should have been clear to all of us in education at that time that the State would have to become more and more involved in the direct provision of Post Primary education .I have used the first person in this because I was actively involved in a number of organisations during these years, and my implied criticism is made with that wonderful gift of hindsight. Indeed the Minister Mr. Colley in January 1996 in a letter to the Authorities of Secondary and Vocational schools said " Let me add that I do not anticipate that the number of public comprehensive schools will be very great “ A mere 4 years down the line the plans had changed dramatically.
I will offer one further comment on this short history of a period when change was inevitable, and essential to meet the needs of a new structure where Ireland would be a partner in a European Union, and the systems that had served us well would no longer be adequate The one major gap in all this outpouring of ideas, plans, policy statements, and discussion was, that there was no evidence of a coherent set of aims and objectives to meet these new circumstances. Major change was on the way yet nobody had any plans on how this change was to be implemented.
It was into this vacuum that the proposal for Community Schools was dropped, and very soon the controversy started. A perusal of the newspapers of 1971 reveals an amazing range of “experts " who were ready to offer theirs opinions on this as yet unborn infant of our education system. The Churches were early on the scene and the late Cardinal Conway was not supportive of the concept of the community school. Equally the Protestant churches were expressing their reservations too.
The papers show little evidence of the input of the teacher unions in the discussions it was from the numerous “experts " that the most varied; inaccurate, and, at times, the most destructive comments came. Here are some quotes just to give a flavour. These are all taken from the Irish Times letters and articles during 1971 "It would be an act of political lunacy for us as a nation to pursue any further this proposal", "the most gigantic act of religious sectarianism", "The allegation of sectarianism is beneath contempt", “ We would not go in to any school that was not completely Catholic". Around this time a pamphlet was published entitled "The snakes are back" whose author was "Concerned parents", and this was a mishmash of conspiracy theories concerning the funding from the World Bank, the machinations of the Department and others who were determined to establish "pagan schools" in Ireland.
There is one final quote from The Times July 1971 “The grand design of the community schools, the national blueprint, is now as dead as a pork chop “I have had considerable difficulty in resisting the temptation to identify the author of that one. Such was the nature of the “debate “, and this was almost inevitable in the absence of any precise information.
The result was that the Department had to go on the offensive, and three officials were sent to a series of public meetings in various communities to explain the reality behind the proposals. This was a new role for any civil servant and it must have seemed like being thrown to the lions.
The first of these took place in Ardee, a significant choice, since it was in the Diocese of Cardinal Conway. It is interesting to note that the leader of that trio of public servants was the late Paddy Moloney the father of Declan who is now Deputy Principal of this school. In a comment after one of these meetings Paddy Moloney said "The Department was told on the one hand that it had given too much, and, on the other hand, that it had given too little ". On July 30th 1971 the Department announced the intention to establish two community schools, one in Blanchardstown, and one in Tallaght. The decision was taken, and that was the end of all the problems!!
Now came the reaction of the local community who, with justification, felt that they were not consulted on this most important provision for the new community which was growing fast, and in which the residents felt that their wishes and their needs did not count in any plans. Up to this time the history of the development of Tallaght was one of broken promises; residents wishes ignored, and a neglect that was unforgivable. There was an ever-increasing population who had been moved from close-knit communities to an area that had none of the facilities that make family life possible.
Now they saw a new type of school being imposed on them; a school which was already controversial, and which would replace a school that was held in great affection by parents and pupils. The Principal and staff were not given any guarantee that their jobs would be secure, in fact it was indicated that they would have to apply for posts in the new school A case study by Pacelli O! Rourke in 1994 gives a good account of the details of the controversy. I will add that the reverberations of this left a legacy of suspicion that made life difficult for the Board of Management and the administration for a number of years.
In the midst of all this the Board of Management was formed in early summer 1972, and proceeded to appoint a Principal and the staff for the coming year .The composition of the Board had been the subject of some controversy, but it was composed of one member each of the Holy Faith Sisters and the Marist Brothers, two representatives of Co. Dublin V.E.C. and two parents who were selected in the first instance .At a later stage two teachers were elected to the Board which was a welcome support to me .I was notified that I was being offered the Principalship which was quite a shock to me. It took me some time to decide to accept, and when I met the Board for the first time the main concern was the selection of staff for the coming year .8 of the teachers in the Vocational school, St. Macerates, had opted to join the staff and they were appointed without interview, as were 4 members of the two religious orders who were on the Board. This latter arrangement caused controversy in the early days, but it did not present any major problem.
Advertisements were placed in the papers and the selection process began. 18 new teachers were appointed and the new experiment was under way. It is of interest, that in deciding on the number of staff, the Board did not seek the approval of the Department. This showed that the Board was going to manage this school in the way it thought best for the school and the community. This independence caused a lot of debate and some difficult meetings with the Department. The Board took the line that this school was proposed by the Department, that many promises were made to “sell" these schools, and that the Board was only following these guidelines. I must record here that from the very first time I met the Board until I retired 16 years later, I had their total support... This support was there at times when I know that individual members would not have agreed with what I was doing. Without that support a difficult job would have become almost impossible.
So it was that we all assembled in September 1972 in the old Vocational school in the village, a group that was meeting each other for the first time, the core of which was the 8 who had opted to stay in the new system, and the rest were, to a great extent, in their first year of teaching .We had an enrolment of 145 first years and a total enrolment of 383. By any research findings this start of a completely new type of school was doomed to fail, and it is a matter of celebration and pride that not only did it not fail, it went from strength to strength. A number of those early teachers were still in the school 25 years later and some are still there today 30 years on. A feature of the early years was the number of teachers who left on promotion to some of the new Community Schools. I claimed that we were the Mother House to a number of the new schools, in particular St. Marks to whom we provided the first Principal and Vice-Principal, and two other members of staff (of course they would be reluctant to admit this) There was no time for any detailed planning -we had a school to run, we were in buildings that were obsolete, but we were promised a new building by the following year.
Because of the local controversy the opening of the school attracted a lot of media attention and I had reason to be thankful for my experience in the teacher union in dealing with the press and television. This also made me have some coherent philosophy to present to the reporters, and almost unknown to myself I was enunciating policy.
This first year was a mixture of excitement and frustration with buildings, which were well beyond their usefulness and a community, which was not fully convinced that the school would succeed. It was somewhat disconcerting to hear a pupil in second year say, “My mother says that this school will never last". It was a matter of urgency to “sell “the school to ensure its success. There were 3 main areas of concern to us
1. To attract the whole ability range of pupils
2. To achieve an even ratio of girls to boys
3. To persuade as many pupils as possible to stay on to Leaving Cert and to go on to further education
We also realised that there would be a significant number of pupils with a variety of learning problems, and these would need a special level of care and attention if they were to have any level of success in the future. As well as the day to day running of the school which was a matter for the whole staff I was expected to establish a good working relationship with the Department, to have regular contact with the local Primary schools, to liase with local community groups to explain the philosophy of the school, to answer their questions, and, if needed, to defend the school. This last part of my work with the local representatives was demanding, at times exciting even if some of the meetings were “lively " when many of the earlier controversies were raised.
Through the commitment of the two Religious Orders we had a full counselling service from the beginning, we appointed the first Year Head, and these structures would form the kernel of the pastoral care system of the school for the future. The school also had the services of a fulltime Chaplain which was provided by the Dominican Order. This Order had a long history of service to Tallaght, and their presence in the school was a great vote of confidence in us. I would like to record that, in my opinion, Tallaght owes a great debt of gratitude to the Dominicans who through their work in the parishes, and their success in bringing the community together harnessed the energies of this " Pilgrim People "and with the residents confounded the prophets of doom who said that Tallaght would be a disaster.
The Department of Education presented us with some early problems, and I would like to think that we also gave them an interesting understanding of this new venture that they had asked us to undertake, Historically this was the first time in the history of the State that the Department had to carry out every single stage of providing a school, from the acquisition of the site to the final stick of chalk. At an early stage in that first year the Chairman of the Board and myself were called in to the Department to be given a severe telling off for some of the systems that we had put in place. These included the role of the Year Head, the maximum teaching hours assigned to teachers and some of the structures we had put in place for the weaker pupils. When the officials had exhausted their complaints and were awaiting our act of repentance and our promise of good behaviour in the future we reminded them with some forcefulness that all we were doing was keeping the promises they had made during the previous two years. We suggested that if there had been a change in this policy they should come to Tallaght and explain the new arrangements.
The memories of the long hot meetings of 71-72 were still too fresh, and we were allowed to continue as we started. The reality was that nobody knew what rules applied to us due to the lack of coherent planning that I have already mentioned, If they quoted Memo .V. 7 we replied that we were not a V. E. C. school, and if they sought solace in the rules for secondary schools we pointed out that we were not a secondary school. So with the work of the Department and a considerable input from us we proceeded to work out a way of running these schools. I would be unfair to many very fine officials both women and men in the Department who shared our vision for this new venture if I gave the impression that they were all obstructive.
There was a great level of trust and understanding between us and many of them were ingenious at finding their way around the more petty rules that made no sense in the new system. I remember one particular decision taken in that first year which was never recorded in writing. Over 10 years later when we needed evidence that we had got that concession the official who had moved on was prepared to agree with us and the concession stood. That first year was saddened by the sudden death of Isaac Hanlon the caretaker. I found him collapsed in the woodwork room when I arrived at the school one morning. He was a hardworking and kindly man who had served the school for many years. RIP.
In September 1973 we moved to our new building in Balrothery. We had appointed a second Vice Principal and another Year Head, and a number of new teachers. The building was not fully finished, and many of the facilities were not available to us. We held P.E. classes in the malls and had to put in alternatives for other subjects. Because of an industrial dispute in England we were missing most the equipment for the practical subjects, this start demanded a lot of patience from the teachers and pupils and it gave ammunition to the "I told you so brigade". With sustained pressure we persuaded the Department to allow us to source the equipment directly and a, lot of it arrived in the teachers cars.
The structures were settling in and we were already looking at a series of curriculum initiatives that would be needed in such a diverse school .It was a time of excitement, enthusiasm, frustration, but never dull. The intake of that year eventually gave us the “lift” that we needed when a significant number went on to 3rd level and a number came back to the school as H. Dip students. This was but a first step in the direction we wanted to go in, but other problems remained, mainly our concern for the pupils who were disadvantaged. These took a lot longer to solve and demanded a lot of patience and commitment from all the staff.
Looking back at the distance of 30 years I have to record my admiration for the generosity of teachers who gave far beyond their strict duties to help these pupils. From my visits and contacts since I retired I know that the same dedication is still there, and in many cases from teachers who were there at the beginning. I may be permitted a personal memory. Remember the first 3 R, who had come in to the school with a variety of learning difficulties. They were persuaded to stay on to Leaving Cert and they finished with 5 passes in a restricted range of subjects. I gave one boy his results and when he stopped cheering and laughing he turned to me and said “I’ll get the ------ maths next year ". To all the teachers who encouraged them, cajoled them, gave out to them, stayed with them I can only say “Well done"
In May 1974 the school was officially opened by the Minister Mr. Dick Burke with the official blessing by the Catholic and Church of Ireland Archbishops of Dublin. There had been a change of government and the new Minister was not very enthusiastic about the community dimension of the school He stated "A school is a school is a school". Fortunately for us the momentum was such that it was impossible to halt it, and, each year, new community schools were opening in various parts of the country.
Soon the full community element of the school was under way with adult education classes and the use of the facilities of the sports complex by local groups. In the school success soon came in a wide variety of sports, we made our first steps in stage productions There were always problems to be solved and there were differences of opinion among us - sometimes sharp - always open to solution.
For me it has been a rare privilege to have been associated with this school. I can only thank all who worked with me on this undertaking Board, teaching colleagues, office and caretaking staff, parents and above all the pupils. You, the pupils, are the school. I am happy that we have in some way helped you on in life, and to those whom we did not always succeed in helping I say “do not think too unkindly of us".
Recently I came on a poetic image of the teacher. The teacher is the gatekeeper at the gate of knowledge who can close or open that gate for the pupils. The teachers of Tallaght Community School have opened an infinity of gates over the last 30 years for the children of that “Pilgrim People".