St Mary's Primary School in Mullaghabawn may be a small rural school, but this is a school with world aspirations.
Nestled under the shadows of Slieve Gullion, the school, which is home to less than 300 pupils, is going global by working with schools across Europe — as well as in China.
They recently scooped €79,725 under the Erasmus+ scheme, the EU’s flagship programme for education, training, youth and sport, and through it, are hoping to help pupils develop as global citizens.
Eramsus+, which is managed by the British Council and Ecorys UK, is helping the County Armagh school work with five countries across Europe — Finland, Greece, Spain, Ireland and Italy, on two complementing projects. They aim to promote IT skills, environmental awareness, a second language and even a happier work environment.
The first project, entitled Dissolving European Boundaries, will see the school work and engage with countries across Europe using an online platform in which they will focus on environmental matters as well as culture and language — ultimately working towards achieving ‘Green Flag status’. Through it, the pupils have been designing logos, using their iPads for digital storytelling and creating the ultimate eco warrior mascots. This project will cumulate with the development of a virtual learning platform, which will provide a safe environment for both staff and pupils.
In addition to this, the school also received funding to allow teachers to visit other educational settings across Europe and attend international training courses. The school hopes to learn best practice and explore educational systems, while also improving ICT skills and foreign language ability. So far the teachers have met in Mullaghbawn, The Basque Country, and most recently, in Finland.
According to Ciara Crawley, the Erasmus+ Coordinator at the school, this funding will help the pupils and teachers in insurmountable ways.
She said: “Through the project we hope to open our pupils’ minds so that they are not afraid to travel in later life, while also helping them acquire a second language. Even the younger pupils know what Erasmus+ is, and we can see that they’re already making new friends and connections.
“Hopefully Erasmus+ will make them feel part of the European community, while also enhancing their career paths and broadening their outlook on the world."
For Ciara, the benefits of the programme are far-reaching.
She said: “We firmly believe that a good project impacts on not only the school involved, but also the wider community, to which each school belongs. Here at St Mary’s we’ve developed a real community spirit — working with parents and grandparents and others within the local area. It's really important for us to have their support."
St Mary’s is no stranger to working on an international level however, having worked with the British Council for the past 12 years.
Ciara said: “We initially developed European contacts through Comenius, when we began working with our partner school in Finland. Since then, we've gone on to work with schools through the eTwinning programme and this has enabled us to develop further international links. Without these previous projects, one on this scale would have been a lot harder to accomplish.”
The school however is looking further east for the year ahead — with plans afoot to partner with a school in China.
“Last October a colleague and I were lucky enough to take part in an international study visit to China through the British Council. We visited many schools and brought back a lot of knowledge on their educational system. We enjoyed the experience so much that we’ve decided to work with one school out there which is home to 2,000 pupils — it’s sure to be an eye-opener!”
The project will see St Mary’s lead a cluster of ten schools in Northern Ireland who are forming links in China through the British Council’s Connecting Classroom’s programme.
“This is great for us as a school as we’re used to working with schools outside of Northern Ireland but not with ones in our own backyard — it’s wonderful to have a chance to collaborate like this. Working with schools in China will also be amazing and it will complement the Mandarin classes that we already have in place here,” Ciara said.
“Partnering with China is also great for the local community — a few of the parents have business links there so we can think ahead about future career development as well as what it could do for businesses in the local community.
“Working in China may be something we've never done before — but it's sure to be a wonderful new challenge.”
Speaking about the schools global reach, Jonathan Stewart, Deputy Director of British Council Northern Ireland said: “Our international partnerships are at the heart of everything we do and initiatives such as these enable young people to understand issues of worldwide importance, gain a sense of social responsibility and develop the skills they need to succeed in a global economy.
“However, as demonstrated in Mullaghabawn, the international aspect of programmes such as Connecting Classrooms can also add value to local school collaboration and cross-community work.
“For schools, Eramsus+ is a crucially important programme, as it aims to improve the quality of teaching and learning from pre-primary through to secondary level. It’s also vital for actively raising the awareness among teachers and students about the importance of implementing an international dimension in their school activities.”
Erasmus+ and Connecting Classrooms are just a few of the programmes available to schools through British Council Northern Ireland. For more information visit http://nireland.britishcouncil.org, ww.erasmusplus.org.uk or follow on Twitter at @BCouncil_NI