Preparing children for life in the real world

Shane O’Connell, principal of Galway’s first Steiner National School: “Children learn for themselves – the teacher’s role is to guide them,” he says. Photo: Joe O'Shaughnessy.
Shane O’Connell, principal of Galway’s first Steiner National School: “Children learn for themselves – the teacher’s role is to guide them,” he says. Photo: Joe O'Shaughnessy.

Lifestyle –  Judy Murphy meets Shane O’Connell, principal of Galway’s first Steiner National School which will open this September

Given Galway’s City’s reputation for arts and culture, it’s amazing that it has taken until now for the child-centred Steiner system of education to establish a foothold here.

Finally it has, and the principal of Galway’s first Steiner National School, which will open this September in Knocknacarra, is Tipperary-born Shane O’Connell.

The Steiner method of teaching, which places a huge value on arts, nature and imagination, was developed in Austria nearly 100 years ago by academic and mystic Rudolf Steiner. It caters for children’s physical, emotional and spiritual needs as well as their academic requirements. Its ethos is co-educational and non-religious.

“It’s about fostering the child’s imagination,” says Shane who describes it as “experiential learning” rather than learning by rote.

The Steiner emphasis on hands-on education, and learning in the outdoors tallies with Shane’s approach, which he has honed by teaching in national schools in West Cork, including in Leap where he was vice-principal and in the International School of Havana, Cuba. He previously worked in Kenya as a volunteer after graduating from college.

Shane had initially qualified as an actuary, which set him up for a career in finance, assessing and managing risk. Instead, he opted to go to Kenya with the Volunteer Missionary Movement where he worked with a Catholic diocese in a region about the size of Ireland, helping to secure funds for schools which were passing from church to state ownership.

That experience led him to return to college and train as a primary teacher. Despite the fact that it’s a far less lucrative career financially than actuarial work, it was the right decision as teaching is his passion.  It’s a bit of a family passion – three of his four sisters are primary teachers, he says with a laugh.

“Steiner was something I was interested in and coming back from Cuba was the perfect time,” he says of his appointment to the Galway position.

He hopes the school will have 15 pupils when it opens, as this would entitle it to two teachers.

Starting off with Junior Infants it will grow by one class a year to have a full complement by the time this year’s intake has reached sixth class.

The school’s current location, on the Western Distributor Road, is temporary, and the plan is to move further out towards Barna, to be closer to woods and to the sea.

In preparation for his role as principal of the Knocknacarra school, Shane has spent time in two Steiner Schools in Co Clare. Raheen Woods in Tuamgraney was set up in the mid 1980s, while Mol an Óige in Ennistymon is 10 years old.

The children in both schools “have overalls and Wellingtons and out they go, whatever the weather” to learn outside.

“Children learn for themselves – the teacher’s role is to guide them,” explains Shane. “Steiner is very much about finding where a child is and letting them develop at their own stage.”

Traditionally, the Irish education system, even at primary level, was based on a child being passive rather than active, with rote learning being a cornerstone. Early reading was another linchpin – children began in Junior Infants at the age of four.

That State approach meant a system like Steiner, where children led the way was regarded with deep suspicion by the Department of Education.

For more, read this week’s Connacht Tribune.