St. Paul’s Primary School is a senior boys’ school located in Portlaoise, Co. Laois with over 400 pupils, one quarter of whom were born outside of Ireland. Due to the diversity in its student profile,the school undertook an Erasmus+ KA1 project on the theme of Inclusive Education. The aim of the project was to educate staff and develop an increased awareness of cultural diversity so that school practices would ensure all children would have equal educational opportunities. Kieran Brosnan, Assistant Principal and Project Co-Ordinator, outlines what activities were undertaken in the Erasmus+ project and how the whole school is now benefiting from the experience.
"Our Erasmus+ experience was just an amazing and exciting learning journey where staff members got the opportunity to travel to Europe to undertake professional development opportunities. A positive aspect of Erasmus+ is that the school could source and select the activities that would best meet the needs identified in its European Development Plan. The first stop was Riga, Latvia to attend a course for one week on “European Diversity Education”. This course concentrated on the themes of language diversity and special needs education. The importance of encouraging the use of other languages besides the mother tongue was highlighted, and visits to two special needs schools in Riga gave us a deep understanding of the need to ensure all children have equal access to education.
The next stop on the Erasmus+ journey was Madrid to attend a course on co-operative learning. This hands-on course provided an opportunity to up-skill teachers on teaching strategies and learn many ways of using co-operative learning techniques in the classroom: techniques that foster an inclusive learning style. This was followed by two school visits where one week was spent each school, one in Maribor, Slovenia and the other in Zonguldak, Turkey. The purpose of these visits was to observe, job-shadow and share best practice between the school partners and bring home ideas and strategies that could be implemented in our own school to improve the quality of inclusive education.
So, how has our school, its teachers and students benefited from this 12-month project? First, the teachers who took part in the 'mobility' activities found the European visits to be a most inspiring and wonderful experience which have left lasting impressions on them. The one benefit that all the participants speak of is how it has benefited them personally, in that they have developed empathy and understanding of the cultural background and individual needs of each child. This is something that they are now very conscious of in day-to-day life in the classroom. On a professional level, the teachers have received an excellent professional development opportunity in which their skill sets have been enhanced. Meeting with teachers from other European countries gave an added, interesting dimension to the training events and allowed for the sharing of new ideas and practices. I can honestly say that attending these courses has been the best professional development I have ever undertaken.
While the participants included senior and junior teachers, class teachers and learning support teachers and those with managerial positions, it was still a whole-school project. Staff meetings were given over to the Erasmus+ project so that the knowledge gained and the new approaches to teaching and learning could be disseminated to all the staff. They all bought into it and undertook to try out the new ideas brought back from the foreign travels in their own classrooms, with the help of the participating teachers through mentoring and team teaching.
The children in our school are also seeing the benefits of the project. They are enjoying more diverse teaching styles and report that they really enjoy participating in the co-operative learning activities. We also now see cultural and linguistic diversity as a positive and we explicitly promote inclusion. For example, the national days of the children are marked in the school by having general assemblies in which the children speak of their homeland and their flag is flown in front of the school. With over 20 languages being spoken in the school, each language is promoted in turn where native speakers teach simple words and phrases to their peers. The school also took part in Show Racism the Red Card where we received a national award for composing and performing an original anti-racism song. The children, no matter their background, now feel valued and enjoy enhanced self-esteem.
For me, though, the highlight of the project was the school visits themselves and getting to be part of life in a European school for one week. In the two schools we visited we were welcomed with open arms and made the centre of attention for the week. School concerts were specially put on for us, teachers welcomed us into their classrooms and we were afforded the opportunity to do some teaching ourselves. The kindness and hospitality we were shown was truly touching. The teachers went out of their way to show us a good time and organised social events, historical trips and cultural activities for us. We had experiences that we could never have had if we visited simply as tourists. We visited marvellous places that tourist companies do not bring you to and, more importantly, we made lifelong friends. European integration at its best!
Our travelling is finished but our project lives on in the life of our school. I cannot emphasise strongly enough what a marvelous opportunity an Erasmus+ project can be. I know that in the next school year I will be sitting down with a new application form so as to continue our marvelous European adventures!"
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