Explore the Ryan Report

Chapter 8 — Letterfrack

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Br Dondre, who was in Letterfrack in the late 1960s and early 1970s, described this process to the Committee. He said that he taught the weakest group, and classes were allocated by the school Principal, who determined the boys’ ability on entry: I taught the weakest class and I can only go on my own experience in the classroom situation. The weakest boys were very weak. I did two remedial courses when I was there ... to improve my knowledge about weaker kids and the methodology of teaching these weaker children. I was quite happy with my results I could pass kids through my classroom, from 3rd class. There was a great mobility as I said before, I could get kids from my classroom into the next class inside three or four months because they were intelligent, all they needed was regular schooling. There were some kids that never graduated from the bottom two classes, some of them were educationally backward and some of them would be bordered on being mildly mentally handicapped.


The second factor that had a significant impact was that class sizes were comparatively small – smaller than those in outside national schools.


In 1960, the Visitor noted that the average class size was uneconomic, ‘but that nothing could be done about it until such time as the numbers rise’. He further stated that the present staff of three should, ordinarily, be teaching double the number of pupils.


In 1961, Br Guillaume wrote to the Department informing it that the boys admitted to Letterfrack were educationally challenged in that most of them, on admission, were unable to read or write. He stated that the Brothers in the school were doing their utmost to ensure these boys, at the very least, were able to read and write, add and subtract before they left the Institution and, to this end, had appointed an extra teacher to the school which he asked the Department to sanction. The Department recognised the extra teacher as a classroom assistant, but did not sanction two further classroom assistants as requested.


In 1962, the Interdepartmental Committee on the Prevention of Crime and Treatment of Offenders visited the school. The Working Party reported that, as boys entering Letterfrack were below the normal educational standard for their age, they required more individual attention than their national school counterparts. The Committee recommended smaller class sizes and more intensive instruction in English and arithmetic.


A Department of Education official followed up on the Interdepartmental Committee, with a more thorough investigation into the education provided in Letterfrack, and reported in 1963.


His report identified the uneven age profile in the classes as ‘a most unsatisfactory state of affairs’ although, by the time the boys reached 6th form, the age disparity with outside national schools had been reduced from two and a half years in 3rd form to 6 months. In June 1962, 34 of the 91 pupils who had reached the age of 14 had not moved on to 6th class. The report noted that the prevailing standard at the time was rated as ‘satisfactory’. It noted that, in former years, ‘allowances had to be made ... for adverse circumstances’. These included inadequate buildings, equipment and teachers and the ‘depressing surroundings’, as well as the priority given to work in the Institution over classes.


The report went on to say that ‘If any of the above factors still operate there would be a lowering of educational attainments’. Each of the factors listed above could be readily identified by the Inspector and it is not clear why the report was phrased in this way. What is clear is that each of these suggestions was within the remit of the management of the School and was deemed to be ‘desirable’ if not ‘essential’.


The report noted the possibility that the Christian Brothers had ‘not made the best possible staff available in Letterfrack’, and highlighted the fact that many Brothers seemed not to care to work there. Of particular concern was the fact that there was a very frequent turnover of teaching staff which, it stated, would ‘militate against achieving good educational results’. Also of concern was the lack of experience of some of the teachers in the School. The report highlighted that the youngest of the teachers had only been at the School for six months. The report expressed concern that this teacher had not yet received his diploma, and questioned whether such an inexperienced teacher should have been sent to a school where so many educational problems had to be faced in his daily interactions with the pupils.61


Significantly, the Inspector noted that the Manager had reported to the Interdepartmental Committee that ‘only 2 out of 114 boys (were) below average intelligence’ and he agreed with this assessment. The problem, therefore, was not the intelligence of the boys but their lack of educational opportunity before being sent to Letterfrack.


Throughout the 1960s the Visitors noted the difficulty of teaching the boys who were coming to Letterfrack because of their severe educational disadvantage prior to coming there. One of a number of Reports compiled in the 1970s was highly critical of the standard of teaching in the School. Of the five teachers there, only one was qualified, three had completed one year of training in Marino, and a fifth had no qualifications at all.


The 1972 Visitation Report criticised the Principal. It stated that his abilities fell ‘short of the very high standard required to deal with the disturbed children’ that were admitted. It also noted that ‘most of the boys are very much retarded’. The Visitor expressed concerns at the class sizes, suggesting that an extra teacher would be required to cater for the needs of the boys. He further reported that many of the boys were in need of remedial teaching, something that was impossible to provide with the structure in place. He stated that this problem was further compounded by the fact that ‘neither Br Thibaud62 nor Br Arnaud63 are very efficient teachers, at least for boys of this kind’.


In the same year, three members of staff wrote to the Provincial complaining about the education provided. They stated that the educational set-up that prevailed in the Institution was ‘grossly inadequate to meet the educational requirements’ of the type of boy found there. They concluded by stating that, were the staff shortages not remedied, the Province would be ‘failing in the real work of Edmund Rice’, and further expressed their view that ‘the school should be closed immediately if the ... situation is to prevail’.


A Department of Education report later in the year made a number of recommendations to remedy the problems facing the staff in Letterfrack, including having the children professionally assessed. Importantly, this report recognised the need to compensate children in industrial schools for the fact that they were there. Among its many recommendations it stated: It would be necessary to provide children in care with more than the normal educational facilities. It would, in other words, be necessary to overcompensate for deprivation.


It also recommended specialised training and a more holistic approach to the care of these children. Thinking had at last begun to move on.

  1. Letterfrack Industrial School, Report on archival material held at Cluain Mhuire, by Bernard Dunleavy BL (2001).
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  6. Prior Park was a residential school run by the Christian Brothers near Bath, England.
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  19. This document is undated, although the date ‘6th November 1964’ is crossed out.
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  32. See table at paragraph 3.20 .
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  36. This information is taken from a report compiled for the Christian Brothers by Michael Bruton in relation to Letterfrack in 2001.
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  58. Electricity Supply Board.
  59. See table at paragraph 8.21 .
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  61. Cross-reference to CB General Chapter where notes that this arrangement was with the agreement of the Department of Education.
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  65. Gateways Chapter 3 goes into this in detail.