Learning in Northern Ireland

Critical learning often occurs when you change your perspective and dig deeper into your chosen field. That’s what is happening now in  Northern Ireland, where, for the first time, 12 students from James Madison University’s College of Education are completing practicums. They are examining and learning about schools and practices in Newry, a town between Dublin and Belfast, along the River Clanrye. “So far,” write Hood Frazier and Tim Thomas, JMU professors who are traveling with the group during the month-long practicum, “they have welcomed us with a grand reception at the Newry High School with the director of education for the region, and where we received a plaque from the Deputy Major of the City of Newry.” The JMU group has also been featured in the local news.

Over the next few weeks, we’ll follow their experience and post more of their observations. In today’s post, students Sarah Simmons (’14) and Emily Vaughters (’15)  offer their initial impressions of Northern Ireland schools.

As an American student who is studying to become a teacher……

… the first difference that you will notice after walking into a Northern Ireland School is the variation in the age groupings within each school. In Northern Ireland, nursery schools, the equivalent of American preschools, are separate from any other schools. According to Richard Melaniphy, vice principal of Newry High School, primary schools hold students from P1 to P7, which is from the age of 5 (kindergarten) all the way to age 12, or sixth grade. These students then move directly to a high school instead of first attending a middle school. They have to attend the high school for five years, until they are sixteen. Once students reach this age, additional schooling is optional for students.

Students and faculty during a Gaelic football game in Newry, Northern Ireland

During a Gaelic football game, JMU practicum students and faculty are flanked on the right by Cormac McKinney, principal of St. Colman’s College, and Richard Melaniphy of Newry High (in black). On the left is Martin McAviney, president of the Ulster Gaelic Athletic Association, and Jariath Burns, the principal of St. Paul’s High School. Also pictured are Iestin Brown of Newry High School, 6th from the right. JMU professors Tim Thomas and Hood Frazier appear 4th and 7th from left, respectively.

There are also many different types of schools in Northern Ireland. One type is a controlled school. The Education Library Board, which is a board of local members whose goal is to guarantee the best education possible, monitors these controlled schools. These schools tend to be non-selective and have a strong Christian ethos though they have no official religious affiliation. There are also maintained schools, which are controlled by the Council for Catholic Maintained Schools (CCMS). These schools openly display Catholic values. Another difference is that there are also composite classes, where two or more age groups are combined into one classroom because enrollment is not high enough, likely due to the large number of schools in the area.

Another difference from many public schools in the United States is the strong emphasis on carrying out their mission statement. Because many schools in this area have strong religious ties, they may have a faith-based ethos, which is clearly reflected in the missions statements of each individual school. Most of their values are based around providing skills for their students to succeed in their future, whether they attend university or enter a vocation. Whereas, in the United States, there has been a strong focus on test scores and getting everyone to attend a university.

Untitled2Another huge difference is the aspect of choice. Though all the Northern Ireland schools are public, they are not organized by regional districts as they are in the U.S., and students don’t have to attend, based on the district in which they reside. Instead the students may apply to various schools, some selective and some not. Also according to Melaniphy, students rank their top five choices and attend the school they get into that is highest on the list. If they did not attain high test scores, some students may be forced to attend a school they didn’t rank highly.

Some schools, however, are non-selective and will take anyone. Some examples of this are Newry High School or St. Paul’s High School, where some of us are placed. According to Danielle Gallagher (’15) from Suffolk, Va., who is at Newry High school, the students at Newry can be compared to the students in public high schools in America. They display a mix of cultures, abilities and backgrounds. Many parents, however, chose for their children not to sit for the transfer tests (as they are optional) and will send their children to a non-selective school such as St. Paul’s or Newry High.

After coming up with some of the distinct differences, we asked some of our peers about the differences that they noticed in their first week of teaching in Northern Ireland.

Megan Makarowski (’14) from Fredericksburg, Va., said that she was shocked by how the Irish students had to choose their path in life by the age of 14. In Northern Ireland, a student takes General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE) exams. If they pass these, they are able to take that subject as an A-Level, which can be compared to the Advanced Placement level courses in the United States. This choice is solidified after this point and cannot be changed. Their choice at this stage affects what they can study in university because programs at university require A-Level experience. Megan also found that tracking was used in Northern Ireland even though teachers tend to disagree with the practice.

Twelve JMU practicum students welcomed to Northern Ireland

Twelve JMU practicum students welcomed to Northern Ireland

Jessica Humphries (’14) from Leesburg, Va., talked about the idea of religion and how, though it is not always stated so, it is clear with which religion a school associates. Many of the schools in Newry have values that come from the standards in the Catholic and Protestant religions, and these values define how things work. Although you don’t have to be a Catholic to attend that school, Catholic values play a significant role in the school’s ethos. These religious values define smaller aspects of the citizens lives. For instance, those in the Catholic community lean toward the GAA or Gaelic games, such as Gaelic football.

Finally, Rachel Berry (’15) from South Riding, Va., said that the atmospheres of the schools are much more relaxed in that they tend to move at a slower pace and have more frequent breaks. It seems that it is understood that both students and teachers need time to rest throughout the day, and that time is given through tea breaks and other small breaks throughout the day. This also shows how teachers are more appreciated and respected.

This first week has allowed for our knowledge of Northern Ireland schools to grow and we are certain that through the upcoming weeks we will learn more and discover key differences between the schools in the United States and these in Northern Ireland.

 If you’re curious about Newry High School, visit their website at http://www.newryhigh.com/index.htm

Or delve deeper in the school’s prospectus: http://www.newryhigh.com/downloads/prospectus/Prospectus%20pdf/2012-2013%20NHS%20Prospectus.pdf







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