An Roinn Oideachais agus Eolaíochta

Department of Education and Science

 

Whole-School Evaluation

REPORT

 

Mercy Heights Secondary School

Skibbereen, County Cork

Roll number: 62490T

 

Date of inspection: 20-24 October 2008

 

 

 

 

Whole-school evaluation

Introduction

Quality of school management

Quality of school planning

Quality of curriculum provision

Quality of learning and teaching in subjects

Quality of support for students

Summary of findings and recommendations for further development

Related subject inspection reports

School response to the report

 

 

 

 

Whole-school evaluation

 

A whole-school evaluation of Mercy Heights Secondary School was undertaken in October, 2008. This report presents the findings of the evaluation and makes recommendations for improvement. During the evaluation, the quality of teaching and learning in four subjects were evaluated in detail, and separate reports are available on these subjects. (See section 7 for details).  The board of management of the school was given an opportunity to comment in writing on the findings and recommendations of the report, and the response of the board will be found in the appendix of this report.

 

 

Introduction

 

Mercy Heights Secondary School is located overlooking the town of Skibbereen, a rural market town in the heart of West Cork. It has a wide catchment area, taking in students from a large number of villages and townlands in the vicinity and the school’s enrolment has remained consistently strong over many years. The school’s roots go back to the post-Famine era of 1860 when the Sisters of Mercy opened a school for junior and senior students, survivors of the Great Hunger which devastated Skibbereen.

 

In 1971 a single storey extension was opened and in the early 1980s the school changed its name from Our Lady of Mercy Secondary School to Mercy Heights Secondary School. A long and proud history and association between the town and the Sisters of Mercy came to an end in 2004 when the Sisters of Mercy sold the convent and the school applied to the Department of Education and Science (DES) for replacement buildings. These were granted in the form of temporary accommodation and staff and students moved into these buildings at the start of November 2004.

 

An amalgamation of the three schools in Skibbereen, Mercy Heights, St. Fachtna’s De La Salle and Rossa College has been proposed since 2001. There has been relatively little progress in the proposed amalgamation in recent years. Although this has not affected the day-to-day operation of Mercy Heights, it is nonetheless a factor which influences the school’s long-term planning and means that the school cannot definitively say where it will be located in the medium to long term. The school continues to carry on the proud tradition, educational philosophy and reputation of the Mercy Order with the trusteeship of the school having latterly transferred to Catholic Education - an Irish Schools Trust (CEIST).

 

 

1.         quality of school management

 

1.1          Characteristic spirit of the school

 

The school’s admissions policy states that the school strives to create an environment of care and respect where each student and member of staff feels valued and gets the opportunity to pursue excellence appropriate to their abilities in a wide variety of activities, academically and otherwise. The creation of an environment of care and respect where each student and member of staff feels valued and where each student is directed and helped to become the best person she is capable of becoming, is a key part of the school ethos. This ethos is characterised by the quality of relationships within the school community. The contribution of each individual to the life of the school is valued and appreciated and the values of forgiveness, reconciliation, justice and tolerance, which are at the core of the educational philosophy of the Mercy Order and of CEIST, are actively promoted. Such values are clearly being lived out on a day-to-day basis in the interactions between staff and students and are reinforced through a variety of school policies and practices, most notably through the school’s code of behaviour and the exceptional measures in place to assist students with special educational needs. The considerable efforts which the school makes to track students who have left the school is also clear testimony to its caring ethos and the value placed upon students maintaining a lifelong connection with the school. This supportive, caring learning environment was acknowledged by all partners during the whole school evaluation, particularly by parents and students.

 

1.2          School ownership and management

 

The board of management of the school is properly constituted. The trustees appoint four representatives. Parents/guardians of children who are currently attending the school elect two representatives and the teaching staff also nominate two representatives. The principal acts as non-voting secretary to the board. The board meets at least four times per year and additional meetings are organised as required. The chairperson also meets regularly with the principal to discuss issues as they arise and to prepare for meetings. The present board is in its second year of a three-year cycle having had its first meeting in October 2007. Board members have a clear understanding of their moral and legal responsibilities in the operation of the school. The excellent practice whereby all new members of the board have accessed training provided by the Joint Managerial Body (JMB) and the Association of Secondary Schools in Ireland (ASTI), as appropriate, is highly commended as this has helped board members to fully understand the diversity of their role including their statutory obligations.

 

The trustees take a strong and continuing interest in the operation of the school and, through the board, are seen to be very supportive of the school, its staff and students. The board delegates many of the day-to-day responsibilities for the operation of the school to the principal and staff. An agreed report issues from the board to staff after each board meeting. Although parents’ representatives report verbally to parents on matters which have emerged at board meetings, parents currently do not receive a formal report. It is recommended that the same agreed report that issues to staff should also issue to parents to ensure consistency in reporting procedures. The board has taken an active interest in policy development and adoption, particularly in recent years, with each new or revised policy subject to considerable scrutiny and debate, prior to ratification.

 

The long-term priorities which the board has identified are centred on the continued maintenance of the school’s Catholic values and ethos, the provision of a holistic, inclusive education accessible to all, the promotion of the high standards of teaching and learning, continuing support for staff development and the provision of the best possible teaching resources and facilities. Issues related to the proposed amalgamation have been to the fore in board proceedings for a considerable time. The issue of the impact on staffing levels of teachers who hold contracts of indefinite duration (CID) is also monitored by the board and the board is conscious of the need to ensure that there is neither an over or under-supply of teachers in any particular subject area.

 

In the recent past, the board has approved the theme of “improving standards for all” as a key area for future development. The adoption of this as a developmental priority came about as a result of comprehensive internal reviews of the performance of students in state examinations and through wide-ranging consultation with staff. The board felt that, while the school’s high achievers are performing very well, and the structures in place to support students with additional educational needs are very thorough, students who fall between these two categories make up the majority of students in the school and must not be overlooked. Thus, a comprehensive range of monitoring and assessment strategies has been put in place, in addition to strategies focussed on teaching and learning, aimed at ensuring that all students work to the highest level for as long as possible and aim to achieve their fullest potential. The board, school management and staff are highly commended for the vision and leadership exhibited in this regard. The board is also aware of, and supportive of, the work which is taking place among the various school development planning working groups and has approved the areas which are being addressed by each group in the current school year.

 

1.3          In-school management

 

The quality of in-school management in the school is excellent with the principal and deputy principal working as a cohesive, effective, senior management team. They have clearly defined duties which they attend to on a daily basis, though they operate collaboratively in providing dynamic, proactive leadership of the school. Their efforts in this regard are deserving of the highest praise and have gained the respect of the whole school community. The vision which they are pursuing for the future direction of the school has been arrived at through consensus and achieved through comprehensive, open consultation with all members of staff and the school community. The geographical location of the school, in the heart of West Cork, has meant that it can sometimes be difficult for management to travel to Dublin or other locations at which many, relevant meetings and seminars are held. As a mode of peer support, the principal meets regularly with the principals of other CEIST schools in the area and the willingness to do so is commended as a means of sharing best practice and devising strategies for overcoming difficulties.

 

The school is extremely reflective in everything it does and a culture of self-evaluation, review and constantly seeking to improve has been well established. The views of all educational partners are regularly sought either through meetings, questionnaires, question and answer sessions or through representative bodies such as the parents’ association and the students’ council. Middle management in the school is involved in carrying out a wide range of duties which are essential to the smooth running of the school. The duties attached to posts of responsibility were thoroughly reviewed in 2006 and resulted in a complete overhaul of tasks that were to be carried out by both assistant principals and special duties teachers. Typical of the consensual style of management in the school, this review was carried out in an open, transparent manner with the views of all staff being canvassed. The result was a clear, detailed specification for the performance of all post duties. It is considered good practice that each post holder is expected to submit an annual report of work undertaken as part of their post duties and that this report also asks for ways in which the work involved could be made more efficient or could be improved. The views expressed by teachers in these reports are attended to carefully by management and adjustments to post duties are made as appropriate and with the agreement of the relevant post holder.

 

There are excellent, thorough procedures in place to assist the induction of new staff and a post of responsibility has been allocated to the role of staff development officer, a person who is charged with the responsibility of helping new staff to settle in. The comprehensive staff handbook contains a wealth of relevant, useful material to assist any teachers who are new to the school, including a map of the buildings as well as key policy documentation. Management also makes sure that any visiting speakers or people who may be carrying out short-term building or maintenance work on site are informed of the school’s value systems in a general, discreet and informal manner. In this regard the role of the school’s ancillary staff, whose contribution to all aspects of school life in Mercy Heights is greatly valued and appreciated, is significant.

 

There is excellent facilitation and support from management for continuing professional development (CPD) which takes place both within the school and in external locations. Staff are facilitated and encouraged to attend all relevant CPD and information is disseminated to other staff following these events. This is good practice. Recent school based CPD has focused on special educational needs, the school’s admissions policy, induction programme and substance abuse.

 

The principal visits the feeder national schools each year to promote Mercy Heights to pupils who may be considering enrolling. These pupils are also invited to the school for a day so that they can see what the school is like during a normal school day. These strategies, together with the school’s open night and other promotional activities in the local press, have clearly been successful in attracting students to the school as the numbers enrolling have remained consistently strong.

 

The enrolment practices in the school are open, inclusive and welcoming of all applicants, in keeping with the ethos and traditions of the Mercy Order. Despite these genuinely open enrolment practices, however, some minor amendments are recommended to the admissions policy and procedures to bring them into line with the excellent practices that obtain. In particular, it is suggested that the school revisit criteria which are mentioned as possible grounds for refusal to enrol a student. As currently stated the enrolment of students with special educational needs is cited as being “dependent on the supply of resources from DES” and the school states that it may refuse to accept a student transferring form another school if the enrolment of that student represented a health and safety risk. It is suggested that these matters be revisited. The position with regard to students with special educational needs is that the school would be expected to enrol such students and then seek the appropriate resources to cater for them from the Department of Education and Science (DES). Even though the school does make it clear that such a caveat would only be applied in exceptional circumstances, the school would, nonetheless, be expected to have exhausted all reasonable efforts to cater for the needs of such students, either from within its own resources or the additional resources supplied, before it could hope to defend a decision not to enrol. Similarly, it would be difficult to justify a decision not to enrol a student on the basis that it was expected that she would represent a threat to health and safety without first giving the student a chance to disabuse such expectations. It bears repeating that the amendments suggested here are offered with a view to bringing a possible literal interpretation of the school’s policies in line with the excellent practices that obtain on the ground and that no discriminatory or biased practices are in evidence in any of the school’s activities, whether with regard to admissions or any other aspect of school life. A minor alteration is also suggested to the school’s enrolment form involving the removal of the request for information concerning the occupation of the parents or guardians. While it is accepted that this information is not used in any way to prejudice decisions regarding enrolment, best practice would be that such information is not sought as it serves no obvious purpose. Finally, it is suggested that students who are enrolling in the school, and who claim to have an exemption from the study of Gaeilge, be asked to provide a copy of the relevant exemption issued by the DES.

 

In keeping with the school’s caring ethos and respect for all individuals, students of different faiths are accommodated and are not expected to study religion. The school’s draft religious education policy states, however, that these students must remain in the class and that it is expected that all students would partake in the retreats. It is suggested that such expectations should not be applied in an overly rigid manner and that the school make every effort to accommodate any students who wish to be physically excluded from retreats or classes in which religious education is taking place, if this can be managed without compromising the duty of care which the school has to its students.

 

The school has a very effective code of behaviour which has the respect of both students and parents and focuses, commendably, on promoting positive student behaviour rather than on correcting misbehaviour. Students spoke freely of how they feel they are respected by teachers, are treated fairly and get a second chance if they breach the code, in keeping with the staged approach to dealing with any disciplinary matters. The school’s concern that all disciplinary procedures are not only fair, but are seen to be fair, is nowhere more evident than in the fact that if a student has to appear before the school’s disciplinary committee, which comprises the deputy principal, a year head and the guidance counsellor, the student’s own year head is not part of the committee. This helps to remove any possible perception of bias and also helps to preserve the pastoral role of the year head, a role which is greatly valued by the school. This is considered excellent practice and the fact that students are happy and content in the school is evidenced by the extremely low rate of suspensions and expulsions, with no student either expelled or suspended in the past year, and the fact that the school has never had an appeal taken against its procedures under Section 29 of the Education Act, 1998.

 

The students’ council has been in existence for a relatively short time and as a result was not available for formal consultation regarding the school’s code of behaviour when it was being ratified. Nonetheless, a number of senior cycle students were given the opportunity to examine the code and comment on it prior to ratification, during a two-hour meeting with the principal. The students’ council has now become firmly established and is expected to take a lead role in initiatives such as the healthy eating programme planned in the school. Students’ council members interviewed as part of the whole-school evaluation displayed a commendable enthusiasm for their role and a keen interest in representing the views of their peers. It is recommended, in order to make the council truly representative of all years in the school, that students from first and second year should also be included in the council. As a practical matter, it is suggested that the council could operate from January to December each year so as to facilitate continuity from one school year to the next and so that newly enrolled first-year students are not faced with the potentially daunting task of representing their year after just a few weeks in the school.

 

The school has been proactive in putting a wide range of strategies in place to monitor attendance, in response to an emerging concern that attendance was beginning to slip, particularly among students in Transition Year (TY). Although the overall attendance of students never reached the stage of becoming a problem of any significance, with figures at their worst only very slightly above national norms in any one year, the attendance strategy which is in place, together with a regular review and monitoring of procedures have overcome any potential problem and the school is satisfied that its procedures are now much tighter. The school is commended for its vigilance in this area and for its initiative in taking remedial action as required. Ambitious plans which the school has in place to use an SMS text messaging system to communicate with parents regarding their daughters’ absences and other matters are worth investigating as they have the potential to provide prompt contact with parents as the need arises.

 

The parents’ association in Mercy Heights has been in existence for approximately ten years and is not affiliated with any national body. The principal and deputy principal are ex-officio members of the association. The association was mainly involved in fundraising activities initially, but in recent years has expanded its role to include the examination of school policies prior to ratification and the operation of the school book-rental scheme for first-year, second-year and third-year students. It communicates with parents mainly through its meetings, which take place at least once per term, although information and newsletters sent home from the school often detail its activities. It is recommended that the relatively new school website (www.mercyheights.ie) be used to promote and heighten awareness of the work of the parents’ association and in this regard a section of the site could be dedicated to the association for its own activities. Items such as the new constitution of the parents’ association, which has been recently approved by the board of management, could also be displayed. Communication structures, both within the school and with parents and the wider community are very good and the ‘open door’ policy of management has been attested by all. Good links have been established with many outside agencies and businesses in the locality who are always willing to take students from the school on work experience as part of the school’s TY programme and LCVP. An excellent range of documentation to assist parents has been produced and is distributed at forums such as open nights, information and celebration nights. The school journal also provides a rich source of useful, relevant information to both parents and students.

 

1.4          Management of resources

 

The school is in compliance with DES regulations with regard to the number of class contact hours per week and the number of days of instruction per year. The staffing allocation for the 2008/2009 school year, when all available entitlements and additional concessions have been included, is 30.19 wholetime teacher equivalents (WTE). Staff are appropriately deployed according to their expertise in order to deliver the maximum educational benefit to students. Management regularly monitors staffing levels and recruitment to ensure the curriculum in the school continues to be driven by students’ needs. There are three special-needs assistants (SNA) employed in the school and their contribution to the welfare of students to whom they are assigned as well as their contribution to many aspects of school life including the school’s pastoral care system, is greatly valued by management.

 

The newer part of the school building takes the form of two blocks, both of pre-fabricated construction built in 2004. One block houses, a computer room, sewing room, language lab, science preparation area, science laboratory, prayer room (which now doubles as a library), two classrooms, three learning-support rooms, guidance counsellor’s office, caretakers’ office and toilets. The other block houses eight classrooms. In addition to these two blocks the school has an existing single-storey building built in 1969. This houses administration offices, staff area, kitchenette, music room, art room, five classrooms, stores, assembly area, changing area and toilets. Although the school is in relatively good condition and is very well maintained with a good range of well-equipped general and specialist rooms, there is some concern regarding the ongoing maintenance of one of the school’s buildings as this is not very well insulated and considerable work has gone into trying to prevent leaks in the flat roof. It is not uncommon for such leaks to occur during the winter months and the school is conscious that uncertainty regarding the proposed amalgamation makes it difficult to commit large amounts of funding to carrying out the required repairs or replacement of the roof.

 

The school recently carried out a comprehensive information and communication technology (ICT) review. This was completed with a view to assessing provision, needs and the extent of staff capabilities regarding ICT with the overall goal of increasing the integration of ICT in the teaching and learning processes. The main findings were that staff are highly committed to the use of ICT, a huge overhaul of current equipment and availability of internet access is required and there are significant training needs for staff, particularly if the ambitious plans to use e-portal are to be realised. All staff members are commended for their genuine interest in this area, evidenced by the fact that many teachers using laptop computers in their daily teaching have purchased these from their own funds. There are a good number of personal computers (PC) in various rooms throughout the school, as well as one dedicated computer room with thirty PCs. Management expressed the view that access to ICT for staff and students is improving. It is suggested that, should funds become available to the school, the purchase of a mobile classroom might be worth considering as a means of providing portable internet access to a number of classrooms. These mobile classrooms usually consist of a portable trolley with a lockable cabinet containing a data projector, printer and number of laptop computers which can wirelessly connect to the internet and are available in both PC and Apple Mac platforms.

 

A small contribution is sought annually from parents in order to cover some of the costs associated with the running of the school and the school is commended for making explicit the voluntary nature of the contribution requested. Subject departments are well resourced and a clear, transparent system is in place for the requisition and purchase of all materials and equipment necessary for the delivery of the school’s curriculum. The school’s health and safety statement was updated in 2006 and reviewed in 2007 following a full audit. Health and safety is part of the duties of a special duties post of responsibility, with a teacher having recently taken up this role.

 

The school is commended for its interest in environmental issues and was the first school in West Cork to achieve Green Flag status. The school used to have a wormery and is at present investigating how it can deal with waste management in the most environmentally friendly manner and a school development planning (SDP) working group is looking at this area. The brief of this group is to examine the current systems of waste management in the school, analyse the current cost to the school of waste disposal and devise plans to increase the amount of recycling waste across the school while also decreasing the amount of other waste, particularly food waste. Students are commended for their obvious interest in this aspect of school life also, as they have stated that they would welcome a recycling area as a means of dealing with the school’s waste.

 

The lack of a suitable indoor space for Physical Education is an issue which the school has been conscious of for quite a while. At the moment, especially during inclement weather, many physical education lessons take place in a small, internal open space which has classrooms adjacent to it. This poses considerable limitations on the type of activities that can be covered in physical education lessons and places considerable demands on the school’s physical education teacher in terms of modifying activities and inventing new activities that can take place in such a confined space while producing minimal noise so as not to distract nearby classes. While the school is commended for securing access, for one day per week, to a locally available indoor hall and leisure centre, and while the outdoor facilities available in the school are good, one of the clear benefits of the proposed amalgamation would be that the new school would be expected to have its own physical education hall. Other, less significant, shortcomings in terms of accommodation include the lack of indoor recreational space for junior cycle students during lunchtime and the relatively small size of the music room.

 

 

2.         Quality of school planning

 

School development planning (SDP) has been ongoing in the school for a number of years but has taken a very prominent role in the life of the school in the past few years. The process is particularly well organised, with a clear structure and purpose to all planning activities including timeframes for working groups to complete their work and clear stages for policy ratification. The allocation of a special duties post of responsibility to the role of SDP co-ordinator has been important in providing considerable impetus and focus to the planning process and the teacher appointed to this role is commended for being prepared to pursue an external qualification in the area. Priorities have been identified for SDP for each year and the school is working to a very specific, long-term programme of policy ratification.

 

As with all aspects of school life in Mercy Heights, school development planning proceeds in a very democratic, transparent manner and the views of all stakeholders are sought and respected before plans are ratified. This involves a very extensive process of consultation, drafting, collaboration and review and, occasionally, plans are sent for legal advice before they are ratified by the board. The school’s code of behaviour went through seven different staff meetings, a consultative meeting with an external expert, a whole-staff development day and consultations with parents, students and the board of management before it was finally ratified. This thoroughness and commitment is applauded and has been seen to be worthwhile as the code of behaviour has the respect of the whole school community. The school is aware that the code of behaviour will require review in keeping with the recommendations of the National Educational Welfare Board (NEWB) publication Developing a Code of Behaviour: Guidelines for Schools. In this regard it is noted that many of the school’s policies have a review date included and it is recommended that this good practice be extended to all policies as appropriate, notwithstanding the fact that many policies are relatively new and therefore may not need a very extensive review. It must also be pointed out that the school is very proactive with regard to policy review and amends policies and procedures whenever it becomes apparent that this is warranted.

 

Staff are commended for their ongoing commitment to the planning process and it is noted that all members of staff are involved in one or other of the school development planning groups which are working in the current school year. These groups are developing draft policies on attendance, ICT, waste management, health promotion, fundraising and money collection, and standards monitoring. These topics were agreed following consultation with staff and have the approval of the board of management. In addition to the SDP working groups, staff also work on another range of committees for the current school year including sports and sporting functions, TY team, social committee, awards committee, religious functions committee and the open day/night committee. The selfless commitment of staff to all of these areas of activity is applauded.

 

As mentioned earlier, the school has taken a commendable decision to shift its planning emphasis, from policy making alone, to focus additionally on planning for teaching and learning. Thus, a standards monitoring group is working on the theme of improving standards for all. This has involved review and analysis of students’ work and results in state and house examinations to see if patterns or trends can be identified. The excellent work which has taken place has resulted in a target level of attainment being identified and particular procedures being put in place to assist students who are falling behind. This helps to identify students whose standard of work may, for a variety of reasons, be slipping or who may be better advised to study a particular subject at a lower level. It is particularly commendable that work in this area has also begun to impact upon classroom practices and pedagogy. Work has recently started on using assessment for learning (AfL) strategies in teaching and learning and the school has engaged with personnel from the School Development Planning Initiative (SDPI) with a view to providing a staff-development day in this area in the near future. Many other staff-development days have take place in recent years, on topics such as co-operative learning and self evaluation, for example. These events are facilitated both by external personnel and using expertise from with the school’s own staff.

 

The permanent section of the school plan has been adopted and the range of policies completed to date is a reflection of the considerable commitment and effort of all the staff in the school. These include policies on admissions, behaviour, suspension and expulsions, dignity in the workplace, grievance/complaints/discipline procedures, change of subject/level, anti-bullying and career break/job sharing. Each policy contains an introductory statement, outlining how the policy is in line with the school’s ethos and this is often followed by a brief outline of the legislative basis for the policy. In addition to the range of policies outlined above, many other general, student-management procedures, such as those governing the use of mobile phones for example, have also been produced. These policies and procedures are having a very positive impact on the life of the school and the experience of students. The engagement of staff in their formulation has led to the creation of a healthy culture of questioning and review to make the operation of the school more efficient and as beneficial as possible to students.

 

In addition to the policies that have been ratified, a number of policies are at various stages in the drafting, consultation and ratification process and these include policies on substance abuse, pastoral care, Religious Education, Social Personal and Health Education (SPHE), fundraising and, as already mentioned, ICT. A procedure for dealing with critical incidents is also near to completion. It is recommended that work which is near to completion with regard to the formulation of a policy on special educational needs and work on the guidance plan, which is a little less advanced, be prioritised in the next round of school development planning. Management feels that the school’s crisis response team may be ideally placed to progress the guidance plan, in line with the whole-school nature of this plan.

 

It is recommended that consideration be given to integrating the very valuable work in which the school is involved regarding the use of ICT in education with work planned and ongoing on AfL. Research indicates that the use of ICT can be very important in engaging students in the educational process and, when used effectively, can also lead to students becoming more autonomous, self-directed learners, ideals to which AfL also espouses. Also, as the school is currently developing its own ICT policy, it is recommended that this should include an acceptable usage policy (AUP) for internet use. It may also be worth considering incorporating a data-management strategy as part of the ICT policy to cover items such as how the school deals with storage, access and security of electronic and other data. The school’s commitment, noted in its draft pastoral care policy, to respectfully and sensitively dealing with how information is reviewed, shared, stored and accessed should serve as a useful basis for this work.

 

Confirmation was provided that, in compliance with Post-primary Circulars M44/05 and 0062/2006, the board of management has formally adopted the Child Protection Guidelines for Post-primary Schools (Department of Education and Science, September 2004). These guidelines were formally adopted by the board in January 2006. An excellent internal document entitled “Code Of Practice For Mercy Schools Concerning The Principles Of Best Practice Concerning The Inter-Relationships Between Students And All School Personnel” has also informed the school’s deliberations and procedures in this area. Confirmation was also provided that these child protection procedures have been brought to the attention of management, school staff and parents; that a copy of the procedures has been provided to all staff (including all new staff); and that management has ensured that all staff are familiar with the procedures to be followed. A designated liaison person (DLP) and a deputy DLP have been appointed in line with the requirements of the guidelines with the school principal and guidance counsellor, respectively, fulfilling these roles.

 

 

3.         Quality of curriculum provision

 

3.1          Curriculum planning and organisation

 

Curriculum planning and organisation takes place in co-operation with the nearby St. Fachtna’s College and the long-standing collaboration between both schools is regarded as a significant advantage to both in terms of the breadth of subjects and levels that can be offered. Management maintains good communication with St. Fachtna’s as there are some practical issues that impact on both schools, such as timing of school events like parent-teacher meetings and staff-development days. Mercy Heights offers the traditional Junior Certificate and Leaving Certificate programmes in addition to the TY programme and the LCVP. The school’s obvious willingness to engage in curriculum development and innovation is further demonstrated by the fact that it is one of five schools nationally that is currently engaged in a pilot of the Young Social Innovators (YSI) project. Regular meetings of the curricular teams involved in overseeing the TY, YSI and LCVP ensure that these continue to operate as effectively as possible in meeting the needs of students. All team members, teachers of the programmes and the especially the programme co-ordinators, deserve particular credit in this regard.

 

Classes are mixed ability at junior cycle, with banding in Maths, Irish and English in second year and third year. This banding also continues into senior cycle where higher-level and ordinary-level classes are formed in subjects in which there are sufficient numbers. Students are encouraged to follow the highest possible level for as long as possible in all year groups. There are very good communication strategies between the school and parents in relation to students wishing to change subjects or levels and the formulation of a school policy on this matter has helped to provide clarity as to the procedures that have to be followed.

 

All subjects are made available to students with additional educational needs and the learning-support team have devised special, modified curriculums for students with special educational needs who do not follow all the mainstream subjects. Thus, some students may take additional lessons in specific subjects, often practical subjects, if it was felt that the nature of these subjects was particularly suited to their learning needs. This is good practice and is further evidence of the efforts being made to enable all students to achieve their fullest potential.

 

The school aims to ensure the compulsory TY programme provides an interesting, challenging and dynamic experience for students. The wide range of modules on offer, and the excellent organisation of the TY programme in general, certainly help to ensure that this is the case. Modular activities have included topics such as education for inclusion, interior design, aromatherapy, drama, First Aid, crafts, positive mental health, computer applications, art DNA, film production, debating, careers, driving skills, art and design and YSI. Some of the interesting project work which the latter has dealt with has included work on elderly action, road safety, sudden adult death syndrome, water safety, life on wheels (dealing with issues of wheelchair access), aurelia trust (Irish charity working for social reform in eastern Europe) and guilty until proven innocent (dealing with the topic of child abuse). TY students also spend one full morning doing physical education activities each week including kayaking, gym and aerobics, aqua aerobics, health related fitness, yoga, Tae-Kwon-do, orienteering, creative dance and team challenges.

 

The excellent system of review and monitoring of the TY programme is deserving of the highest praise and has meant that the range of modular and other activities offered is updated regularly, with some activities being dropped and others added from year to year. A specific logbook was designed for TY students in order to allow them to log their activities and modules completed throughout the year and to enable parents and teachers to monitor and observe the record of students’ work. A student profile was introduced some years ago and is completed once a month for each student by the TY teachers with each teacher awarding a mark to reflect the student’s attendance, uniform, punctuality, participation and quality of homework. This profile is recorded for each month and an average mark is calculated which features on the student’s overall TY certificate, issued at the end of the year. It is highly commendable that the views of students are central to the reviews that take place with regard to the success of various modules. All TY students are interviewed, in a well-structured manner, at the end of the year and insightful evaluation sheets, completed in advance by the students, are used as prompts for these interviews. This is excellent practice.

 

In addition to all of the above good work in relation to the TY programme, clear priorities have been developed for the future development of the programme. These commendable aims focus on impacting on students’ performance in the classroom, improving attendance, developing self-evaluation and other assessment modes including evaluation of the work experience programme and modifying school report forms. While the formulation of these aims is a clear indication of the school’s commitment to maintaining high standards in relation to TY, some other modifications to the programme are recommended in order to bring it fully into line with the overall ethos of TY programme. Central to this is the need to ensure that non-modular classes operate in a sufficiently unique manner that they cannot be considered to be part of a de-facto three year Leaving Certificate programme. This was not the case during many of the lessons observed as part of the whole-school evaluation with the use of Leaving Certificate textbooks and schemes of work observed as well as teaching methodologies more typical of lessons in which students are preparing for state examinations. While there is no absolute prohibition in covering material that is part of, or relevant to, the Leaving Certificate syllabus, DES circular M01/00 as well as the Department of Education and Science publication Transition Year Programmes Guidelines for Schools make it clear that ‘where Leaving Certificate material is chosen for study it should be done so on the clear understanding that it is to be explored in an original and stimulating way that is significantly different from the way in which it would have been treated in the two years to Leaving Certificate’. The school is urged to address this as matter of priority, preferably via subject department planning, so as to ensure that the excellent work which is taking place in the modular classes in TY is complemented by equally rewarding, novel experiences for students in conventional subject areas.

 

The majority of students in fifth and sixth year are following the school’s very popular LCVP which has been operating in the school since 1995. The LCVP planning team consists of four members, including two business teachers, the Guidance Counsellor and a teacher of ICT. Each of the team takes responsibility for the operation of different aspects of the programme and maintains their own planning folders for this work. These excellent planning structures were shown to be important in facilitating the smooth handover of co-ordinating duties from one teacher to another recently and the team deserves considerable praise for their enthusiasm and dedication to their roles. They meet on a monthly basis and liaise closely with one of the learning-support teachers. Considerable work has gone into making sure that the two link modules which the school offers as part of this programme, i.e. preparation for the world of work and enterprise education, operate to provide the best possible practical, self-directed learning experience for students. One of the additional benefits of the LCVP and TY programme has been the close links which the programmes have helped to establish with the local community, as students from both programmes engage in work experience during the year. These links are further strengthened by the many speakers and tutors, again largely drawn from the local community, who visit the school to provide lectures and instruction on a very wide range of topics.

 

The school actively promotes the involvement and interest of students in science subjects and has facilitated students who want to study these subjects to Leaving Certificate level by placing Biology on three option lines. Also, there are always one or two class groups of Chemistry each year and one class of Physics. Provision for Physical Education is posing some difficulties for the school at senior cycle, although the present system at least ensures that all students have access to Physical Education during the year. While providing Physical Education in line with the DES Rules and Programmes for Secondary Schools 2004-2005, which recommends a minimum of two hours of Physical Education per student per week, may not be realistic in the short term, not least due to the shortcomings in physical education facilities mentioned earlier, the school is encouraged to keep the matter under review. It is noted that the planned review of the LCVP is also intended to involve a review of Physical Education as provision for the LCVP link modules directly affects provision for Physical Education.

 

3.2          Arrangements for students’ choice of subjects and programmes

 

Upon entry to first year in Mercy Heights, students study Irish, English, Maths, Religion, French, History, Geography, Spanish, Business Studies, Science, Home Economics, Music, Physical Education, Computers, Civic Social Political Education (CSPE) and SPHE. At the end of first year, students choose one subject from Science or Home Economics, and one subject from Art, Spanish and Music. Prior to making these choices the guidance counsellor visits each class and provides information about these subjects. In addition, individual students and their parents are invited to make appointments with the guidance counsellor if required. Management is aware that it is less than ideal that the subject choices available to students going into second year are relatively fixed, although they are reviewed from time to time. The fact that students have to choose either Science or Home Economics is a function of the impact of CID contracts, mentioned earlier, as there is an insufficient number of science teachers on staff to allow students to study both Science and Home Economics. This is unfortunate and management is urged to continue to keep the matter under review with a view to providing subjects choices driven by student demand to the greatest possible extent.

 

The perception, mentioned earlier in this report, that aspects of the TY programme are operating in a fashion similar to a three-year Leaving Certificate programme is reinforced by the fact that students choose their subjects for the Leaving Certificate at the end of third year. While it is accepted that some flexibility is allowed for students to change subject choices during TY and in fifth year, the fact that the formal selection process takes place at the end of third year should be reviewed. It is recommended that the selection of Leaving Certificate subjects be delayed until the end of TY, or at least fully re-visited at the end of that year. Apart from countering the perception mentioned above, allowing students to make their subject choices at the end of TY is likely to mean that students are more informed as to possible career paths which they intend to follow, such is the breadth of interesting, novel experiences available to them in TY.

 

Genuine efforts are made to provide as broad a curriculum as possible and subject option bands at senior cycle change depending on student needs and are agreed in collaboration with St. Fachtna’s. At Leaving Certificate level the following subjects are offered: Irish, English, Mathematics, Religion, Physical Education, Career Guidance, History, Geography, French, Spanish, Art, Business, Home Economics, Music, Biology, Physics, Chemistry, Technical Drawing, Accounting and Agricultural Science. Subject-option bands vary from year to year and are driven by the demands of each cohort of students. This is very good practice and has led to a situation where, despite the added complexities involved in collaborating with St. Fachtna’s, the majority of students get most of their preferred subject choices. Higher-level and ordinary-level classes are formed on a needs basis in subjects in which there are sufficient numbers to form two or more classes. In addition to studying Irish, English and Maths, all students are expected to take four subjects out of a choice of fourteen option subjects, plus the LCVP. The LCVP was originally introduced as an option. The system that currently obtains is that students are automatically allocated to the programme if their choices of subjects qualify them for inclusion in it. While the system appears to be operating to the satisfaction of all concerned, and it is noted that students who do not want to do the LCVP can opt out of it if they are achieving to a high level in house exams, it is recommended, merely to improve the transparency of the process, that information concerning subject choices which will lead to automatic inclusion in the programme be made available to students before they make their subject choices for Leaving Certificate.

 

The quality of information available to students and their parents in advance of making subject choices at all levels in the school, and the role of the guidance counsellor in facilitating these processes, are commendable. The guidance counsellor visits all classes in advance of the subject choice process, provides key information on the nature of each subject and, in senior cycle, the possible career paths to which studying particular subjects may lead. In addition to this, key information is transmitted to parents at open nights, information nights and at other forums to keep them fully informed as to the subject choice process and how it operates. The emphasis in all communications with parents and students is, commendably, placed on students keeping their career options as open as possible for as long as possible.

 

 

3.3          Co-curricular and extra-curricular provision

 

There is very good provision of extracurricular and co-curricular activity in Mercy Heights with a wide range of activities taking place. These activities both extend and complement learning that is taking place in the classroom and also lead students into many new areas of endeavour which they may not have encountered previously. The selfless, voluntary commitment of a significant number of teachers, who often contribute many hours per week in facilitating the many activities that take place, is worthy of the highest praise.

 

While the list of extracurricular and co-curricular activities taking place is too extensive to delineate, some activities are worthy of particular mention, such is the significant impact that they are having on large numbers of students. The school’s charitable, fundraising activities, for example, have seen the school raise valuable funds for groups such as Bóthar, RNLI, Guide Dogs for the Blind, Meningitis Ireland, SADS and the Aurelia Trust. The staff also send an annual contribution to a sponsored family in Peru. Students are encouraged to reflect on local and global problems via participation in events such as the Shoe Box Appeal, St. Vincent de Paul Food Appeal, Concern Fasts, Trócaire, The Irish Cancer Society and the Tsunami Appeal. The positive impact that participating in such events has on students cannot be overestimated and it is likely that the philanthropic values which this promotes will see students develop as well-adjusted adults in a better position to understand their responsibilities to help those less fortunate than themselves. An apposite reminder of the impact which students’ efforts can have on the lives of others is the prominent display of a photograph of a small fishing boat, appropriately named “Mercy Heights”. This vessel was paid for out of funds raised to help victims of the tsunami to rebuild their lives and livelihoods in the Far East. So extensive are the school’s fundraising activities in fact, that the school has decided to produce a policy on fundraising in an attempt to bring a clear structure to these activities so that they do not overlap or place too much strain on the time or generosity of all concerned.

 

The school participates in a range of sporting activities each year, with many students involved in teams representing the school in football, basketball, athletic and cross-country running events in particular. The school has enjoyed considerable successes in these events and the prominent display of sporting trophies at the entrance to the school is testimony to the efforts of all concerned. The school had a very successful volleyball team some years ago which won numerous All-Ireland titles. However, there is nobody presently in a position to coach this sport in the school. Apart from competitive sporting involvements there are many fun activities organised throughout the school year which help to deliver key messages about the importance of participation and enjoyment in physical activities. Many of these activities, such as table tennis, chess club, ultimate frisbee, hockey, Olympic handball and team challenges take place at lunchtimes and thus facilitate the involvement of as many students as possible. Plans, which the students’ council has to examine how it can promote and contribute to the organisation of lunch time activities, are commendable and should be encouraged. Also worthy of particular praise is the school’s strong tradition of debating, public speaking, drama and musical productions. Last year the school won the All-Ireland Transition Year Drama Festival for the second time and the school organises musical productions, talent shows and small drama productions which facilitate the involvement of large numbers of students. The school’s awards day recognises students’ achievements in a wide range of curricular and extracurricular arenas and is regarded as very important in building students’ self esteem and school relationships by validating the achievements of all students.

 

 

4.         Quality of learning and teaching in subjects

 

4.1          Planning and preparation

 

Very good quality planning and preparation is in evidence in all the subject areas evaluated. Inspectors were strong in their praise of the whole-school structures in place to facilitate collaborative planning for teaching and learning. They were equally positive in relation to the quality of individual planning for lessons and of the level of informal collaboration and support within the teaching teams.

 

The facilitation of subject planning by school management has resulted in the establishment of a subject coordinator in each of the subject areas evaluated. This is seen as very good practice and the rotation of this position among the subject team members is both commended and encouraged. Subject departments have regular planning meetings and the outcomes of these meetings are recorded. These subject departments have developed elaborate subject plans including common teaching programmes. The quality of these subject plans was praised in all subject areas. Where very good practice was observed, plans referred to recent professional developments including the application of AfL and differentiated strategies in the classroom. Planning, in a number of subject areas, for the inclusion of students with additional educational needs, including those with special educational needs and those for whom English is an additional language, is also recognised as very good practice.

 

Developmental recommendations relating to subject planning concern the inclusion of learning outcomes linked to the subject syllabus for each year of the teaching programme. Other recommendations focus on the sequencing and delivery of units of study in the teaching plan, the allocation of tasks and responsibilities to team members and continued planning for the appropriate integration of ICT into classroom practice.

 

The most significant recommendations relating to subject planning concern CSPE and the TY programme. In relation to planning for CSPE, it is recommended that action projects are clearly linked to the core concepts of the syllabus and not to topics that fall within the realm of SPHE or health generally. A review of the approach to teaching and learning in both Home Economics and Geography is strongly recommended in TY to ensure that students are provided with significantly different learning experiences to those used in the two-year Leaving Certificate programmes. In this regard, and as already mentioned, reference should be made to circular M1/00 and to the Transition Year Programmes: Guidelines for Schools. These documents outline clearly the appropriate relationship between the TY programme and the Leaving Certificate programmes.

 

4.2          Learning and teaching

 

Inspectors reported that the atmosphere in the vast majority of classes visited was very positive, with clear and fair codes of behaviour and good teacher-student rapport in evidence. Students worked diligently, with some teachers using humour to maintain a good learning environment. The use and development of a print-rich environment was also noted both in the corridors and in some of the classrooms, which is good practice. Good CSPE-linked illustrations was reported which highlighted the involvement of a class in the students’ council election and another showing an art-oriented set of students’ projects on human rights. Good practice was also observed where students’ work was prominently displayed and keywords were highlighted in connection with a text being studied in English. Display of student work, posters and photographic evidence of activities in Home Economics were also reported. All departments are encouraged to continue to develop the print-rich environment, which will aid the learning of the students.

 

Teaching and learning was reported to be of a good standard by the inspectors. High expectations of teachers for their students were also reported for example in Geography, which was reflected in the number of students, encouraged to study this subject to higher level. In the main, lessons commenced with some recall of the previous work completed and/or by a review of homework assigned. Following this, inspectors reported that in some of the observed lessons, the plan for the lesson was shared with the students together with the desired learning objectives, which is best practice and should form part of all lessons.

 

A range of resources was employed in the lessons. The use of whiteboard, textbooks, worksheets, overhead projector, digital data projector, photocopied material, costumes and props, flashcards, a set of thesauruses, food packages, food samples, handouts, marking schemes, posters, revision exercises, pages from websites and word searches were all noted by inspectors. These were used in conjunction with the variety of teaching methodologies observed. Strategies observed included didactic delivery, brainstorming, role play, discussion, investigative learning, note-taking, pair work, group work and worksheet completion. Teachers gauged students’ learning through responses to questions and in a minority of cases through short tasks, group work and note taking. These are all praise worthy. However, in some instances, the creation of a greater balance between teacher and student input in the lessons is recommended. This will help to engage students and increase their responsibility in the learning process. To achieve this, further discussion, development and planning of active-teaching and learning methodologies will be required, which will help to increase the level of independent learning by the student. In addition, mixed-ability classes can benefit greatly from the deployment of active strategies where the use of differentiated methodologies is essential. All inspectors also reported that, in general, lessons were appropriately paced and the material used was appropriate to the syllabus.

 

The use of questioning proved very effective in almost all lessons, particularly in terms of involving students in the lesson. In the main, students were named when questioned and affirmed for their contributions. Questioning was also used to examine previous learning, to check students’ understanding, to link with previous work completed and in some instances as a challenge for students to apply learned information to different scenarios and situations. The inclusion of the latter level and type of questioning is further encouraged as a means of developing students’ higher-order thinking skills.

 

Some inspectors also reported that students would benefit from the use of keywords and the development of a student dictionary in copybooks, which would help in the understanding of new terminology. In addition the value of breaking down some of the more challenging words into their component parts, or focusing on the word-origins to assist students’ understanding could also be discussed. Overall inspectors reported that the students demonstrated a good comprehension of the material being delivered, which is to be commended.

 

4.3          Assessment

 

A comprehensive range of assessment practices has been observed in different subject areas. In addition to oral questioning in class, some imaginative homework tasks have been evident, ranging from students being asked to write scripts for role plays, to undertake short projects or internet research tasks, to respond to visual stimuli and to engage in different forms of writing tasks. In some instances, good clarity was given to students around the learning intentions of such tasks, and in a number of examples of homework examined, a good commitment to formative, comment-based assessment was also evident. Such assessment strategies are recommended for wider use if possible, as a means of further developing the link between assessment and students’ learning. In some instances, very good commitments to broad assessment strategies have been commended. These strategies include the use of aggregate marking across a range of elements in a subject, including class tests, or the assessment of students’ participation and engagement as part of an overall grade.

 

More formal assessment practices are well established at the school. Good commitments to common assessment, particularly in end-of-year examinations, have been noted and recommended for further development. In a number of subjects, very good guidelines have been adapted from State Examinations Commission (SEC) materials and are used to guide students’ work, which is also commended. The outcomes of assessments at Christmas and at the end of the school year are communicated to parents in written reports. In addition, good communication with parents around assessment outcomes and general progress is facilitated by regular use of the students’ journal and by annual parent-teacher meetings.

 

 

5.         Quality of support for students

 

5.1          Inclusion of students with additional educational needs

 

In keeping with the traditions of the Mercy Order, and the stated aims of the school’s mission statement, Mercy Heights strives to create an environment of care and respect where each student feels valued and gets the opportunity to pursue excellence appropriate to their abilities. This vision is lived out to the clearest possible extent with regard to the inclusion of students with additional educational needs in the school. Provision for these students begins with good contacts between the school and the feeder national schools where information is passed regarding students who have particular learning needs. The school then begins the process of identifying the precise needs of each student and how best it might cater for these. In the current school year, the school has been allocated .5 of a wholetime teaching equivalent for remedial education, .27 for international students, .14 for students from the Traveller community and 1.89 for students with special educational needs. Commendably, these allocations are built into the timetables of the individual teachers concerned at a very early stage in the compilation of the school timetable each year. It is a considerable advantage to planning the learning-support provision that the personnel who make up the learning-support team are relatively fixed and that they all have some additional qualification in the area. There are three, dedicated learning-support rooms in the school and these contain a range of ICT equipment and other resource materials. Management makes every effort to meet the resource needs of the learning-support department by facilitating the purchase of additional materials and equipment as required.

 

An excellent document has been included in the school plan which deals with strategies to help students with areas such as organisation, written work, reading and note-taking. It also includes suggestions for parents on how to assist students with each of these matters. Although the special educational needs plan is not yet finalised, the many excellent procedures which the school has developed have ensured that students with special educational needs have their needs addressed in a very comprehensive manner. Notwithstanding this, it is recommended that the special educational needs plan be finalised as soon as is practicable, not least so that the many excellent practices that have been developed by the school can be brought together in one document and also so that the excellent vision and rationale which the school has for catering for special educational needs students can be articulated to the whole-school community.

 

A comprehensive programme of information gathering, assessment, monitoring and reporting, pre-entry and post-entry to school, enables the learning-support department to provide the most effective support to students who need it. The purpose and nature of assessment tests clearly articulated to parents and all students enrolling in the school are assessed using a range of standardised tests so that the school can provide the best possible range of supports, appropriate to their needs. Depending on the results of these assessments, students are initially offered extra support in Maths and/or English although this typically expands to assistance in other subject areas following consultation with teachers. There are excellent processes in place for collaboration between the learning-support department and mainstream teachers and the learning-support department works through a specific schedule of teachers with whom they need to meet and consult regarding the educational provision for specific students. Other, more general information is passed on at staff meetings and it is noted that a significant amount of time at these meetings is dedicated to matters concerning learning support. Individual educational plans (IEP) have been compiled for each student in receipt of an allocation of resource hours.

 

The nature of supports delivered varies from student to student but can include one-to-one and small-group tuition, special accommodation during house examinations, learning support and resource classes for students who have resource hours and referral to external agencies if required. All of this work is co-ordinated by a dedicated, highly-skilled learning-support team whose commitment to their work and genuine interest in students under their care was clearly evident to all during the evaluation. Excellent monitoring and tracking procedures are in place and the weekly meetings of the learning-support department are often used to discuss modifications that are needed to the provision for individual students. At the end of the first school year, those students who received learning support re-sit some of the assessment tests completed upon entry to the school so that the school can assess improvement and tailor future, ongoing interventions that may be required.

 

Students with special educational needs are included in all aspects of school life and are fully integrated with mainstream students. The special educational needs team, guidance counsellor, principal and the school’s three SNAs collaborate very effectively and regular meetings take place, usually at a time when the special educational needs team are free, aimed at discussing issues that have emerged and planning for the future. Both formal and informal meetings are also held between members of the learning-support team and mainstream teachers to ensure that the needs of special educational needs students are being addressed in mainstream classes and in learning-support classes. Parents are kept informed on a regular basis, are expected to sign IEPs where these are in place and are consulted on all but the most minor changes to be made to their daughters’ education. This is excellent practice.

 

Although the number of international students attending the school is quite small, good supports are in place to assist these students and they are offered support with the English language as their needs dictate. Staff are made aware of the methods to aid the inclusion of these students in mainstream classes and keywords for different subjects are displayed on the walls of mainstream and learning-support classrooms. Some classes have also been provided outside of school time for these students and plans are in place to further enhance the integration of all students through the introduction of new programmes, such as the circle of friends and rainbows programmes and anti-bullying presentations, next year. A thorough, understated system of supports is in place to assist students from disadvantaged backgrounds with a range of supports, including the provision of uniforms, books, Christmas hampers and financial contributions, to ensure that all students can benefit from curricular and co-curricular activities. The close-knit nature of the local community, and the school’s central place within that community, is an advantage here as local knowledge assists the school in providing supports to students who require it. In this regard, the work of the school’s care team is particularly noteworthy. This team meet every week to discuss all aspects of student welfare and areas of concern. Although this group officially consists of the school’s year heads, guidance counsellor, principal and deputy principal, all staff, including SNAs, are aware that they have a pastoral-care role and all contribute to the excellent levels of care that are in place.

 

 

5.2          Guidance and student support in the whole-school context

 

The school has one, full-time guidance counsellor who oversees the provision of personal, educational and career guidance to students and who, through this work, aims to increase students’ self-esteem, confidence and achievement in all areas of school life. The school has been allocated .77 WTE for guidance and this has enabled the guidance counsellor to deliver a range of whole-school supports to students from all year groups. The nature of this work includes the administration of entrance exams to incoming first year students, providing information on options choices to parents and students, organising talks and lectures from visiting speakers, liaising with outside agencies and providing formal guidance classes to senior cycle students. Such is the whole-school nature of guidance provision in the school that the guidance counsellor is involved in all aspects of student support and is often the first point of contact for students in difficulty, providing an essential home-school link. The multi-faceted role of the guidance counsellor is acknowledged and appreciated by all. It is recommended that work on the guidance plan be progressed so as to document all aspects of guidance provision in the school and to guide the future development of the subject in line with the commendable aims identified. These aims focus on the provision of more career resources for students with special educational needs, increased access to junior cycle students, expanding the use of ICT in guidance and establishing a careers section in the school library.

 

This school has a number of excellent student-management procedures which place the pastoral welfare of students at their core. Central to this are a well-organised discipline system and clear code of behaviour which allow for behaviour to be regularly monitored and thus facilitate early and staged interventions as required. The combination of pastoral and disciplinary roles is seen as crucial to the success of the school and the student journal draws particular attention to school attendance, the school rules and to the expectations of the school. The school’s code of behaviour went through a very thorough process of consultation, drafting and re-drafting before it was ratified and the result has been a code that has the respect of the whole school community. The code is applied in an even-handed, fair manner and students feel that they are valued and respected, even when they breach aspects of the code. There are clearly defined roles for all members of staff in the pastoral care of students. Excellent links have been established with many external agencies and personnel from these agencies have provided talks to parents and students on topics including drug awareness. The role of the local National Educational Psychological Service (NEPS) psychologist is particularly valued by the school in providing advice and support in times of difficulty and the school was particularly pleased by how its own crisis response team co-ordinated the school’s response to a recent bereavement.

 

A comprehensive range of formal and informal support structures is in place to assist students and the excellent induction procedures for new students are particularly commendable. On entering the school, students participate in an induction programme which continues throughout the first term and includes friendship activities, mentoring by the fourth year students, a bullying workshop and a trip away. A handbook is provided to assist students and this contains a map, a “what if?” section answering specific questions they may have, a blank timetable, homework guide, rules, journal, advice and fun worksheets. It is particularly commendable that the information contained in this handbook was reviewed based on questionnaires given to students who had just completed first year. The school’s commitment to listening to the student voice, and, more importantly, to acting on the views expressed by students is highly commended and is taken as a further indication of the commitment of the school to meeting the needs of all students. There are suggestion boxes in all classrooms into which students can place their suggestions and they can also make their views on any topic known to year heads or to students’ council members. In addition to the student handbook an excellent handout for parents has also been produced and this deals with all aspects of how parents can support the education of their child.

 

Chaplaincy activities are informally catered for by a teacher with relevant qualifications in the area. The Religious Education, Music and SPHE teachers also fulfil some chaplaincy roles and assist in the organisation of school events such as retreats, the beginning of year school mass, Christmas carol services and graduation mass. These efforts are acknowledged and greatly valued by the school.

 

The school makes concerted efforts to track the progress of students who have left the school and has succeeded in creating a real sense of community through these efforts where students who have left are still made to feel that the school has an ongoing interest in their progress. These efforts are clearly successful, as is evidenced by the fact that some indirect mentoring takes place involving students who have left the school informally providing support and advice to the current sixth-year students. This is highly commendable.

 

 

6.         Summary of findings and recommendations for further development

 

The following are the main strengths identified in the evaluation:

  • The school has a consistently strong enrolment, catering for students from a wide catchment area in the West Cork area.
  • An amalgamation of the school with two other schools in the town has been proposed since 2001, although there has been relatively little progress in the matter in the recent past.
  • The school ethos, which places a high value on care and respect, finds clear expression in the excellent quality of relationships within the school community.
  • The board of management of the school is properly constituted and training which has been accessed by board members has provided them with a clear understanding of their moral and legal responsibilities in the operation of the school.
  • The trustees take a strong and continuing interest in the operation of the school and are very supportive of the school, its staff and students.
  • The board has approved the theme of “improving standards for all” as a key priority for future development.
  • The quality of in-school management is excellent with the principal and deputy principal working as a cohesive, effective, senior management team who provide dynamic, proactive leadership of the school.
  • A culture of self-evaluation, review, consultation with the school community and constantly seeking to improve has been well established in the school.
  • The school has a very effective code of behaviour which has the respect of both students and parents.
  • The school is commended for carrying out a comprehensive ICT review with the overall goal of increasing the integration of ICT in the teaching and learning processes.
  • Subject departments are well resourced and a clear, transparent system is in place for the requisition and purchase of all materials and equipment necessary for the delivery of the school’s curriculum.
  • School development planning is particularly well organised and staff are commended for their ongoing commitment to the planning process.
  • The school is working to a very specific, long-term programme of policy ratification and all planning activities have a clear structure and purpose.
  • The recent emphasis on the theme of improving standards for all has seen commendable practices, including work on the use of assessment for learning, being used to directly impact on students’ learning.
  • The long-standing collaboration with the nearby St. Fachtna’s College is a significant advantage to both schools in terms of curriculum planning and organisation.
  • The wide range of modules on offer in the TY programme ensures an interesting, challenging and dynamic experience for students.
  • The excellent systems of review and monitoring of the TY, LCVP and YSI are deserving of very high praise.
  • The majority of students in fifth and sixth year are following the school’s very popular LCVP.
  • Excellent information is provided to students and their parents to assist in making subject choices.
  • There is very good provision of extracurricular and co-curricular activity in the school with a wide range of activities taking place reflecting the commitment of a large number of staff.
  • The school’s charitable, fundraising activities as well as its many sporting activities are having a significant positive impact on the lives and attitudes of many students.
  • Very good quality planning and preparation was in evidence in all the subject areas evaluated.
  • Lessons take place in a positive atmosphere with very good teacher-student rapport in evidence.
  • Effective use of questioning, use of a good range of teaching methodologies and a good standard of teaching overall were reported by inspectors.
  • A comprehensive range of assessment practices, including the use of some imaginative homework tasks, was observed during the inspection.
  • The school’s mission statement, which emphasises the creation of an environment of care and respect where each student feels valued and gets the opportunity to pursue excellence, is lived out to the clearest possible extent with regard to the inclusion of students with additional educational needs.
  • A comprehensive programme of information gathering, assessment, monitoring and reporting, pre-entry and post-entry to school, enables the learning-support department to provide the most effective support to students who need it. All of this work is co-ordinated by a dedicated, highly skilled learning-support team.
  • There is an excellent level of whole-school guidance and student support in the school and the excellent induction procedures for new students are particularly commendable.

 

As a means of building on these strengths and to address areas for development, the following key recommendations are made:

  • It is recommended that an agreed report of board of management proceedings should issue to parents to ensure consistency in reporting procedures.
  • While the school’s genuinely open enrolment practices are commended, some minor amendments are recommended to the admissions policy and procedures to bring them into line with the excellent practices that obtain.
  • Students enrolling in the school who claim to have an exemption from the study of Gaeilge should be asked to provide a copy of the relevant exemption issued by the Department of Education and Science.
  • It is recommended that students from first and second year should also be included in the students’ council.
  • It is recommended that the school website (www.mercyheights.ie) be used to promote and heighten awareness of the many activities taking place in the school and the work of the parents’ association in particular.
  • As the school lacks a suitable indoor facility for Physical Education, it is recommended that this matter be kept under review with a view to upgrading its facilities.
  • It is recommended that work which is near to completion with regard to the formulation of a policy on special educational needs and work on the guidance plan be prioritised in the next round of school development planning.
  • There is scope to integrate the very valuable work in which the school is involved regarding the use of ICT in education with work planned and ongoing on the use of assessment for learning.
  • The planning and organisation of non-modular classes in TY needs to be addressed to make sure these do not operate as a de-facto, three-year Leaving Certificate programme.
  • It is recommended that the selection of Leaving Certificate subjects be delayed until the end of TY, or at least fully re-visited at the end of that year.
  • Management is urged to continue to provide subject choices driven by student demand to the greatest possible extent. This is particularly relevant with regard to students having to choose between Home Economics and Science at the end of first year.
  • It is recommended that information concerning subject choices leading to automatic inclusion in the LCVP be made available to students before they make their subject choices for Leaving Certificate.
  • Discussion, development, planning and implementation of active teaching and learning methodologies, including the further use of assessment for learning is recommended.

 

Post-evaluation meetings were held with the staff and board of management when the draft findings and recommendations of the evaluation were presented and discussed.

 

 

7.         Related subject inspection reports

 

The following related Subject Inspection reports are available:

  • Subject Inspection of CSPE – 23 October 2008
  • Subject Inspection of English – 12 March 2008
  • Subject Inspection of Geography – 20 October 2008
  • Subject Inspection of Home Economics – 22 October 2008.

 

 

 

 

Published, June 2009

 

 

 

 

 

Appendix

 

School response to the report

 

Submitted by the Board of Management

 

 

 

 

 

Area 1   Observations on the content of the inspection report     

The Board of Management of Mercy Heights Secondary School welcomes this extremely positive report on the operation of the school. In particular the Board is pleased that the inspectorate recognised that all that goes on within the school is determined by the schools ethos of care, respect and the value placed on each individual. This is evidenced throughout the report but is best exemplified by this following statement; “The contribution of each individual to the life of the school is valued and appreciated and the values of forgiveness, reconciliation, justice and tolerance, which are at the core of the educational philosophy of the Mercy Order and CEIST, are actively promoted”.

 

In addition to this, the Board is delighted by the Inspectorate’s recognition and acknowledgement of the excellent practices that are taking place within the school thereby recognising the hard work and dedication of the whole school community, staff, students, parents and management. The Board particularly notes the following examples of the good practice identified in the report:

 

·         The reflective approach to self evaluation

·         Very effective code of behaviour

·         Open inclusive enrolment practices

·         Ongoing commitment to the planning process

·         Cohesive, effective senior management team

·         Excellent review and monitoring of TY

·         Induction of students and staff

·         Broad senior cycle curriculum

·         Quality and excellent range of information provided to parents

·         The firmly established Students’ Council and Parents’ Association

·         The selfless, voluntary commitment to co-curricular and extra-curricular provision

·         Excellence of the inclusion of students with special needs

·         The multi faceted role of the guidance counsellor

·         Positive learning environment

·         Comprehensive range of assessment practices

·         Quality of relationships within the school community

·         Close links with the local community

·         Role of ancillary staff greatly valued and appreciated

·         The supportive role played by both the Board itself and the Trustee Body

 

 

In conclusion, the Board wishes to acknowledge and commend all the school partners for their continued hard work, dedication and commitment to the development of both each individual student and the school itself which has resulted in such a positive and affirming report. Furthermore, the Board wishes to take the opportunity to thank the members of the Inspectorate who undertook the evaluation for their professional and courteous manner throughout.

 

Area 2:   Follow-up actions planned or undertaken since the completion of the   inspection activity to implement the findings and recommendations of the inspection

 

The Board recognises the role of the Whole School Evaluation Team in identifying ways of promoting and maintaining the already high standards of teaching, learning, planning and overall performance in the school. In this regard the valuable recommendations made will be thoroughly examined and any required changes adopted with the same enthusiasm and commitment in improvement as was evidenced throughout the evaluation process. Some of these changes, particularly those relating to the provision of physical education facilities and ICT resources, may be more difficult to implement in the changed economic times that have developed since this report was undertaken. However, the Board along with the entire school community will continue as always to do all in its power to provide the best possible facilities for the students under our care.