By Brian Byrne
WHEN Harristown House language school near Carnalway, Kilcullen, was established by Noella Beaumont in the summer of 2019, the idea was to give young students from France, Italy and Spain a unique and immersive in learning English, on residential lessons at the Harristown estate. Almost as an afterthought, Noella set up a summer camp element where local Irish children could start learning French. “Friends and other families in the area asked me to do it, and since I had set up the school facilities anyway, it seemed like a good idea.” It turned out to be a lifeline for the school.
For this first summer, Noella’s school gave international and local Irish students the opportunity to mingle and socialize as each group was determined to learn a language that was not native to them. By summer’s end, it seemed like a perfect formula had been developed for an international company with local trimmings. Until Covid hit the horizon last March, just when planning for the summer ahead was kicking into high gear.
“I had to cancel all the children who would have come from abroad,” she recalls. “Then I had to see if there was a way to make the summer camps work. It was thanks to great help from the local business office in Kildare and the HSA, and wonderful Zoom training , that we were able to put in place all the protections to ensure the safety of the instructors and the children.
Precautions were taken, children from local families came and everything went very well. Noella remembers being very impressed with the children’s resilience in the face of precautions and worries, and it turned out to be a very pleasant experience for them. This was helped in part by the fact that the weather was nice and that many activities could take place outside. “We got through it, although I must say it was extremely stressful for us and we were all quite tired at the end of each week,” she recalled on behalf of her staff.
The numbers need to be reduced, but when she had time to reflect on the six weeks, she felt that the quality of teaching was better, given the reduced numbers. “The more one-on-ones and the more attention they can get, the better the results. We found that as long as we stuck to eight or ten, they were happy. And when it came to of sports and teamwork, it was a great number to have, and it also proved to be a “magic number” when it came to balancing the books at the end of the summer.
In anticipation of this summer, a second language element, Spanish, is offered to summer camp 2021 students. “I did not expect us to be in the same situation this summer, but the advantage is that I know how to make sure everyone is safe and that I meet all HSA requirements. So that bit of work is already done. This meant that Noella had time to think about how they could organize another language course at the same time as French.
“It’s not that difficult, we’ll just swap morning and afternoon activities between each group. Thus, one will do his tennis and his cooking while the others will do their language in class, then alternate. We will keep it small and safe.
Noella is of the opinion that languages should be available at primary level in schools, which is under consideration by education authorities, but there is no timeline for implementation. “It’s a way to see if there’s an appetite for Spanish, which is growing in popularity.”
In 2019, Noella had just started what looked like the future to become a very successful international business. But Harristown Language School, like many other businesses, had to change direction quickly, and the fact that there was an Irish summer student option at the initial stage means the school will have survived when all this is finished. “I will be so grateful for the opportunity, and I see no reason why Harristown can’t become a place where young Irish children can come and learn their foreign languages for a week in the summer, just as they can go to the Gaeltacht for their Irish. I won’t necessarily be looking overseas that quickly, I actually think there’s a greater need in Ireland for that.
These summer camps for this year begin June 12 for high school students and July 5 for elementary students.