THESE are busy days for Ciarán Geraghty. Like most other national school principals in the county, the month of September is all about bringing stability and routine to the new school year, sowing the seeds for a fruitful and rewarding ten months.
But as principal of Knockrooskey National School, four miles outside Westport, three weeks ago Ciarán also faced the challenge of welcoming students back to a school undergoing a major facelift with a new extension now almost complete.
The school is located in an area that has seen a major building boom in the last decade with houses sprouting up in its surrounding hinterland, mainly due to the area’s close proximity to Westport. As a result, numbers in the school have risen as young families settle in the area, and, after years of frustration, work on a big extension and improved car parking facilities got under way - much to the community’s delight - in June.
“Thank God, works are now drawing to a close and we are very much looking forward to having a spacious, state-of-the-art facility for our 104 students,” states Ciarán, who lives with his wife Caroline and three children in nearby Westport.
“Space is of paramount importance in terms of the delivery of the revised curriculum and with the extension we will have the luxury of teaching our students in comfortable and modern surroundings. It’s an exciting time for myself and all the staff and huge credit is due to the locals in the area who started the fund-raising drive as far back as the early ‘90s to ensure that the school could expand,” states Ciarán, who returned two years ago as principal to the school where he had received his primary schooling.
“To be honest, it was one of the few principalships in the country that I would have even looked at, as I was very happy in my position as a teacher in St Patrick’s Boys’ school in Castlebar. I suppose there was a bit of nostalgia involved; it’s a great honour to come back and teach in the school where I was educated myself and it was a great honour to take over from Merci Kilcoyne, who taught me and who has been a great help to me as Vice Principal over the last two years.”
Ciarán’s mother, the late Josephine Geraghty, also taught at Knockrooskey school for 23 years after moving there when Aughagower school amalgamated with Knockrooskey in 1971.
Almost every parish in the county will be familiar with the painstaking process of trying to secure funding from the Department of Education for school improvements and, nowadays, there is always the necessary involvement of the local community to raise funds, especially since the introduction of the Devolved Funding Initiative.
“The work that is going on here at present is the culmination of 15 years’ planning by the local board of management who began fund-raising locally back in the early ‘90s. It really is thanks to their foresight that we were able to deliver a project of this magnitude.
“The initiative we are involved in is the Devolved Funding Initiative for small schools. That is where the Department of Education devolve the responsibility to the Board of Management and they then go through the proper procedures to engage design teams and contractors to deliver a project. The monies allocated from the Department would not have been sufficient, hence the real need for the money that was raised locally, which was of paramount importance at the end of the day.”
One of the real advantages of the new extension is the significant improvement it has brought to road safety around the burgeoning school. The volume of traffic on the Ballinrobe to Westport road has increased dramatically in recent years and there had been concern in the area in relation to school drop-offs by parents and by the school bus.
“Due to the increase in population in the area and the number of people commuting to Westport to work, traffic has increased dramatically in recent years. We have been long since aware of the need to increase the safety of road users and of course our own students, teachers and parents and I am happy that we are now approaching a permanent solution to the problem. After working closely with Mayo County Council, Westport Gardaí, our architects and our engineers, we are about to realise a project that will make it safer. The whole front of the facility has been set aside for set down, there will be a bus only lane and there will be an in-out system.”
Road safety is always a pertinent issue in relation to schools and Ciarán and the Board of Management at Knockrooskey feel a reduction in the speed limit on the stretch of road outside their school would put paid to the high speeds which some motorists indulge in.
“We as a board of management would love to see an introduction of a speed limit reduction as 80kph on a straight stretch of road where children are accessing the school is just too fast. There are warning signs and warning strips put on the road in an attempt to deal with the issue, but people can still legally pass here at over 50mph. Safety is always an issue, it has to be uppermost in the mind, but I am happy that we now have a satisfactory solution.”
In a recent survey carried out by the Department of Education, Knockrooskey was identified as one of the ‘developing schools’ in the area and Ciarán is confident that the school will maintain its numbers and perhaps even add to them in the future.
“I would be confident that given the new facilities, the improved infrastructure in the school and through our excellent teaching staff and the support services available that we will maintain our numbers and go on from here. It is now a customer market. Historically, people just went to the school in their catchment area, but that is no longer the case. There is a wider choice now available to parents.”
While teachers are generally seen as playing a vital role in the development of our youth, there is often a perception in some quarters that they ‘have it easy’, only working 30 hours a week and having three months of the year off. Ciarán dismisses such a notion.
“The ‘nine to three job’ is an urban myth, no teacher works just from nine to three. Extensive preparation for the day ahead is either done in the morning or on the evening prior to the school day and there are certain times of the year where preparation time is pressurised.”
Being principal of a 100-pupil school means the responsibility of the administration of the school also falls on Ciarán’s shoulders, but he takes the responsibility in his stride.
“Managing a school is what we are trained to do, but there are great support networks available for a principal and actually teaching or managing a school isn’t onerously challenging. But the administrative side of things can be onerous and is increasingly pressurised. The big challenge is balancing your time between teaching your class and completing the administration; very often you’ll find that you do your teaching from nine to three and you try and do the administration work at home on the computer at night-time. Thankfully, I have a very supportive board and parents’ body and a very good team dynamic here in the school. And once we have our extension completed and our new facilities in place, we are all looking forward to many successful years here in Knockrooskey, well into the future.”