Armstrong, Florence (1928–2010), teacher and pioneer of multi-denominational education, was born on 26 November 1928, one of four children (three boys and a girl) of Thomas Armstrong and his wife Elizabeth (née Dunne). Both parents were from farming backgrounds. Florence (usually known as 'Florrie ') was born in the townland of Drumalure, Co. Cavan, probably her mother's homeplace, but the family lived in Belturbet, where her father worked as a clerk in the railway office.
As a teenager, Florrie gained a place in Coláiste Mobhí, based in the Phoenix Park, Dublin, a second-level college established as a preparatory school to train protestants through the medium of Irish. From there she successfully competed in 1947 for a sizarship in Irish, on which she entered TCD to study languages, graduating BA (1951). She then went back to Cavan as principal of a one-teacher national school at Bocade Glebe, Kildallan. In 1954 she was awarded the H.Dip.Ed. by TCD, and became principal in St Patrick's, a one-teacher national school in Dalkey, Co. Dublin.
The rather run-down school, very inadequately accommodated in a church hall, was under the patronage of the local Church of Ireland parish, and in 1954 had sixteen pupils. Miss Armstrong's commitment to the children and her enthusiasm for progressive educational ideals brought about changes. By 1965 there were sixty-nine children and three teachers, and by 1971, two hundred children on the roll. With the support of the manager, local rector Desmond Murray, and his select vestry, and in keeping with the original ethos of 'national schools' as established in the 1830s, the school welcomed children from different denominations. Florrie Armstrong pioneered a new child-centred education, and from 1971 St Patrick's was selected by the Department of Education to pilot aspects of the much-discussed 'new curriculum'.
The school's success, however, led to overcrowding problems, and to strains within the community, especially after Revd Murray moved to another parish in 1970; the school managers who succeeded him argued that Church of Ireland resources should not be used for non-protestants, and insisted that the admissions policy should be revised. At the same time, some conservative catholics were appalled that catholic families were joining the avowedly non-sectarian community in St Patrick's. The Department of Education, under the aegis of the conservative and strongly catholic Fine Gael minister, Richard Burke (1932–2016), refused to sanction any further expansion, and in 1974 it was announced that there was to be no intake into junior infants class that year.
One of Armstrong's tenets, radical at the time, was that parents should be treated as partners with the school in the provision of education, even encouraging active participation in the teaching process. For three years, she and her supporters had struggled against attempts to turn back her innovations, and when the school's pioneering 'learn together' ethos was challenged by educational and church authorities, a group of parents resolved to stand together to fight for multi-denominational education.
At an AGM in 1974, the parent–teacher association passed a vote of no confidence in the manager, asking him to resign. He refused to do so, and in the months afterwards, the situation in Dalkey and the whole question of a new approach to religion in education became topics of national concern, with discussion in media, in letters to the press, and throughout society. Some maintained that the Northern Ireland 'troubles', then at their height, had been exacerbated by separate denominational education, and activists argued that there was no place in modern society for what Florrie Armstrong characterised as 'indoctrination' and 'evangelism' (Ir. Times, 8 April 1974).
Unable to agree to the new policies in the school, later in 1974 Armstrong took leave of absence, with the support of the Department of Education, to go on secondment as a curriculum advisor to the government of Nigeria. There, in the immediate aftermath of the Nigerian civil war, she worked towards changing the training of teachers; it was hoped that gender and tribal identities could be balanced in new curricular developments and in planned integrated primary education. She stayed on after her secondment to become principal of a large girls' school in Bida, Niger State, established in difficult conditions following a repressed military coup in February 1976.
Despite Armstrong's move to Africa and her obvious commitment to Nigerian education, a number of the Dalkey parents refused to give up the hope of maintaining or establishing a 'Florrie-type school (Johnson, 'Appreciation'). They formed an association to explore the possibility of establishing a school outside the prevalent denominational system, under which almost every school in the state was under the patronage of one or another denomination. For the first time, this apparently immutable dispensation was questioned, and the Dalkey School Project (DSP) was established in 1975.
The DSP knew that if the parents took on the role of school patron, the school buildings and site, at least, if not also the teachers' salaries, would have to be funded from their own resources. They held on to their vision through three years of non-stop fundraising and a discouraging lack of support and response from the Department of Education. The project and individuals involved were preached against several times in local churches, accused of being godless secularists, and were verbally attacked by conservative catholics. In 1977 an anonymous pamphlet, Have the snakes come back?, was distributed in Dalkey by a group calling itself the Council for Social Concern.
The subsequent success of the school, and others in the Educate Together movement, provided strong evidence of a will for change in Irish society, after generations of apparent quiescent unanimity in all sectors of public and private life. The DSP was at least as significant in encouraging the questioning of church authority as in the educational import of the project.
After the 1977 election, Fianna Fáil took office, and a new minister for education, John Patrick Wilson (qv), immediately offered support to the Dalkey School Project, and thereupon events moved quickly. A letter offering Florrie Armstrong the post of principal in the new school was sent to Nigeria in the diplomatic bag, and she accepted with alacrity, although she had been seriously ill in Nigeria, and neither premises nor future security of tenure had been arranged.
The new school opened in a private house in Monkstown in September 1978, with Armstrong as a teaching principal and two other teachers for ninety-two pupils. Her ability to inspire her staff was matched by her interest in pupils, and her role required ongoing fundraising and also on occasion being the voice for the whole multi-denominational sector. Her views on education and on religion in school were frequently canvassed; her support for co-education and for less formal teaching methods likewise proved influential. Armstrong stayed with the school through rapid expansion, which necessitated several moves. She retired in 1990, after over three hundred pupils and ten teachers moved into purpose-built accommodation in Glenageary, Dún Laoghaire, Co. Dublin.
Armstrong then returned to Africa as an educational consultant, working for the Agency for Personal Service Overseas and for Irish Aid, and played a major role in an educational project in Kasama in northern Zambia, developing teacher training and in particular supporting the education of girls. She received a number of educational awards. In 2006 she was the first recipient of the Educate Together Seed Award, and she was guest of honour at a ceremony in Áras an Uachtaráin in 2008, to mark the thirtieth anniversary of the opening of the first Educate Together school.
She died on 14 December 2010 in St Vincent's University Hospital, Dublin. She never married. A memorial service the following month in Christ Church, Bray, provided an occasion when former colleagues acknowledged her influence on the development not only of multi-denominational education but also of a pluralist society in Ireland. Not a revolutionary, not a godless secularist, and probably not even a radical, Armstrong achieved in establishing a novel paradigm in Irish education that owed immensely to her ability to encourage other people to keep doing what she believed was the right thing to do.