I was thinking about this while on holiday in County Kerry, on Ireland’s Atlantic coast. Pausing to survey the magnificent scenery, I realised I was looking at Dunquin’s Scoil Naomh Gobnait, which, with its 20 pupils and two teachers, is the most westerly school in Europe.
Perched on the tip of the Dingle Peninsula, Dunquin is home to around 150 people in the heart of the Gaeltacht --one of Ireland’s Irish speaking areas. You could wax lyrical about the area, a coastline once described by National Geographic as ‘the most beautiful place on earth’ but to consider St Gobnait’s in educational terms is to realise the difficulties, but also the opportunities, presented by its location.
Indeed, it presents a complete redefinition of those familiar educational terms -- ‘pupil placement’ and ‘community school’.
The challenges faced by rural schools are not confined to Ireland, and there are many discussions here in Scotland about the sustainability of small village schools, though it’s true that the digital age makes communication easier than ever before. For all that, though, it was easy to see the opportunities available to the 20 pupils in Dunquin.
Speaking Irish primarily, but also having English, they have all the advantages of bilingualism. Through the classroom windows they can see the home of many ancestors, the de-peopled Blasket islands, with their distinctive literary and cultural history.
Within half an hour of the playground are stone age beehive huts, the flora peculiar to this peninsula washed by the gulf stream -- from palm trees to rock plants, and beaches inundated with the most glorious marine ecology.
Close by is Valentia Island where the first transatlantic telegraph messages were sent, and the home place of Tom Crean the Antarctic explorer. Add to this the various strands of political, artistic and social tradition in this area and it is clear that, far from being ‘remote’ from learning opportunities, these pupils are well placed to benefit from a rich diversity of information.
They can receive the best of education -- that which widens their mind while giving them a sense of place and continuity. They are the heart of their community and the guarantee of its health and well being.
Just over the hill from the school is another link to the wider world. In 1969, film director David Lean spent a year making the film Ryan’s Daughter at Dunquin. Idiosyncratically, he built a complete village as a location. Though that is long gone, the schoolhouse he built remains, 40 years later. It overlooks the Atlantic -- the Blaskets ahead, stone strewn fields behind -- an inspiring location if ever there was one.
Time and sheltering cattle have left the building with two of its side walls reduced to rubble. Had this been a real school, it’s tempting to suggest that the missing walls would open up the classroom to the land around, and allow access to the winds of wisdom.
Now there’s a model for teaching and learning!