An Roinn Oideachais agus Eolaíochta

Department of Education and Science


Subject Inspection of Social, Personal and Health Education (SPHE)



Our Lady of Mercy Secondary School,

Beaumont, Dublin 9

Roll number: 60870T


Date of inspection: 23 April 2009





Subject inspection report

Subject provision and whole school support

Planning and preparation

Teaching and learning


Summary of main findings and recommendations



Report on the Quality of Learning and Teaching in Social, Personal and Health Education (SPHE)


Subject inspection report


This report has been written following a subject inspection in Our Lady of Mercy Secondary School, Dublin 9. It presents the findings of an evaluation of the quality of teaching and learning in SPHE (including Relationships and Sexuality Education) and makes recommendations for the further development of the teaching of this subject in the school. The evaluation was conducted over two days during which the inspector visited classrooms and observed teaching and learning. The inspector interacted with students and teachers, examined students’ work, and had discussions with the teachers. The inspector reviewed school planning documentation and teachers’ written preparation. Following the evaluation visit, the inspector provided oral feedback on the outcomes of the evaluation to the principal, deputy principal and teachers of SPHE. The board of management of the school was given an opportunity to comment on the findings and recommendations of the report; the board chose to accept the report without response.


Subject provision and whole school support


Our Lady of Mercy College is an all-girls voluntary secondary school where a social, personal and health education programme is considered to be an important component of the whole-school curriculum.  Senior management has led several recent initiatives that have impacted positively on the breadth of the programme offered in the school.  


To support the creation of a supportive whole-school climate for SPHE, a year head and form tutor system has been established. This system, together with the work of the pastoral care co-ordinator, chaplain, care team and SPHE team all play an integral role in providing a whole-school approach to facilitating a social, personal and health education programme.


All junior cycle classes are timetabled for one class of SPHE per week in accordance with the Department of Education and Science circular letter M11/03. Double lessons can also be occasionally facilitated to accommodate guest speakers. Very good whole-school procedures are in place for facilitating visiting speakers. This maximises the effectiveness of such occasions in supporting the SPHE programme. The inclusion of a personal development module in the curriculum for Transition Year (TY) students is commended as a support for senior cycle students. In addition, all classes are timetabled for one tutor period per month. In the case of Leaving Certificate classes, a social and personal development programme is currently being developed and delivered during this time. This work is highly commended as a means of building on the junior cycle programme and of providing for students’ personal development as they progress through the Leaving Certificate programme.


Relationships and Sexuality Education (RSE) at junior cycle is incorporated into the SPHE programme while elements of senior cycle RSE is provided through Religious Education, Biology, Home Economics and the use of visiting speakers.  It is recommended that consideration be given to the use of some additional tutor time to provide a broader RSE programme to Leaving Certificate students.


Senior management demonstrates an acute awareness of the pre-requisites for a high-quality SPHE programme and is pro-actively leading and managing the development of the programme. It is laudable that a core team of SPHE teachers, led by a co-ordinator, has been established this year. Most members of the team are new to teaching SPHE in the school. The professional qualifications of individual members, together with the continuous professional development (CPD) courses already attended have resulted in a good level of shared expertise being developed. It is commendable that feedback from in-service routinely forms part of the agenda of team meetings in order to share good practice and to allow the experience gained from CPD inform planning at school level. The core team displays a high level of enthusiasm for the continued development of SPHE in the school. In order to progress the good work already underway, it is recommended that this core team be consolidated. Where possible, teachers should retain their class from first year through to third year. This assists in the establishment of a safe and secure learning environment, which is necessary to facilitate optimal learning in SPHE. To facilitate maximum continuity, the appropriateness of deploying post-graduate Diploma in Education students to teach SPHE classes should be re-considered.


The SPHE co-ordinator assumed the role since the start of this school year. The duties include gathering resources, assisting teachers new to SPHE and co-ordinating the on-going development of the collaborative plan. It is commendable that the teacher has attended CPD for co-ordinators of SPHE to support the work. There has also been a good level of contact with the previous co-ordinator to support this transitionary phase.  The subject co-ordinator displays a very high level of commitment and enthusiasm for leading the work of the subject team. It is recommended that the current co-ordinator remains in position until the new developments in relation to programme planning are established in the school. As other core team members gain experience, consideration should be given to rotating the role of co-ordinator. This would share the workload attached to this voluntary position and allow each member of the team assume a leadership role in the continued development of the SPHE programme.


A systematic approach to CPD is evident among the core team. Members have prioritised continuation and RSE training as well as in-service in the area of emotional health. It is recommended that priority be given to upskilling a number of teachers in the area of junior and senior cycle RSE and on ensuring that all members of the core team attend the introductory SPHE course. Further information on the RSE training planned for the autumn is available for the SPHE Support Service website at It is suggested that a copy of the information supplied at each in-service course attended be filed in a subject CPD folder and stored in the staff work area. This would ensure that the information is available to each member of the team to be referred to when required.


Very good progress has been made in compiling a catalogue of all resources available in the school that would support the SPHE programme. The location of each resource is also identified to facilitate ease of access among team members. Consideration should be given to organising the catalogue in terms of the ten SPHE modules and the age appropriateness of the materials. This would make it easier to identify gaps and plan, over time, for enhancing the range of materials available.


Planning and preparation


Recent initiatives in the area of school development planning have resulted in very good progress being made in the drafting of mandatory policies in the areas of RSE, substance use and critical incidents. The anti-bullying policy has also been reviewed as part of the school’s engagement with the Cool School Programme. A commendable level of consultation informed the development of these polices through the use of a sub-committee structure comprising staff, parents and students. It is recommended that these policies be ratified by the board of management as soon as is practicable. It is laudable that these policies make clear links to the contribution that the school curriculum makes in the areas of RSE, anti-bullying and substance use education. This should facilitate a cohesive approach being adopted at whole-school and classroom level and prove useful in reviewing the effectiveness of the implementation of policy and SPHE planning.  Before the RSE policy is ratified it is recommended that the document be reviewed to ensure that it includes all the information in accordance with the guidelines issued by the Department of Education and Science. These guidelines can be downloaded from the education personnel section of the Department of Education and Science website at


Very good progress has been made in establishing a cohesive SPHE subject department. Meetings are facilitated regularly by senior management. It is commendable that an agenda is planned and that minutes are recorded to support continuity between meetings. It is laudable that the principal regularly attends team meetings to support the work being undertaken.


A very organised and systematic approach is being adopted to subject planning for SPHE. Good progress has been made in the development of a subject plan. The plan, which is based on the School Development Planning Initiative template, includes aims and objectives that are in keeping with the ethos of an SPHE curriculum. The plan highlights the importance of linking with other subjects in planning the SPHE programme. This is very good practice in an SPHE context, where lessons are delivered once a week. It is commendable that staff completed a short survey to allow for the systematic identification of cross-curricular links between their individual subjects and the junior cycle SPHE programme. This initial research could be used to generate a number of planned cross-curricular projects on a phased basis. 


Subject planning for junior cycle SPHE is at an early stage of development. The common long-term programme plan being used is the outline framework provided by the support service. While this information ensures broad coverage of curriculum modules, it needs to be customised to meet the specific needs of the school. To support the school’s stated aim of developing a structured cyclical programme for SPHE, it is recommended that a common programme of work for the school be developed by the core team. The school programme, while still based on the curriculum framework, should include time-bound information on the topics that will be covered in each module on a term-by-term basis for each year group. Due to the spiral nature of the SPHE curriculum framework, modules are re-visited each year. Therefore clear learning outcomes that facilitate an incremental approach to the development of students’ knowledge, attitudes and skills should be identified for each module of work from first year through to third year.  This will allow certain topics to be revisited whilst also avoiding unnecessary duplication. Any whole-school activities that support the personal, social and health education of the students should also be factored into the programme. Specific information with regard to suitable teaching and learning strategies, as well as suggested resource materials, can be incorporated over time.  This enhanced approach to programme planning should inform the pace and pitch of lessons and form the basis for on-going planning for senior cycle tutor periods. Further information on subject planning is contained in the Guidelines For Teachers produced by the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment.


Very good on-going planning practices are evident in the work of individual teachers. Teachers have enhanced the long-term plan to support their class work by the development of topic aims, objectives, planned teaching strategies and resources. Of particular note is the fact that individual teachers review each lesson by recording the topic and resources used. This information should be used to inform the development of the collaborative programme of work as outlined above. To build on this very good practice it is recommended that, in reviewing lessons, teachers would pay particular attention to recording the effectiveness of the teaching strategies and resources used. This item should routinely be on the agenda of planning meetings in order to share good practice in facilitating SPHE lessons.


Junior cycle RSE is integrated into SPHE. However it is recognised by the SPHE team and school management that there is scope to review the implementation of senior cycle RSE. Particular attention should be paid to the breadth of the programme delivered. Since staff members will attend senior cycle RSE training in the autumn, this provides an opportunity to review the breadth and balance of the senior cycle RSE programme, as well as the model of delivery. The revised RSE programme should be documented in a similar fashion to the junior cycle SPHE programme.


Teaching and learning


Teachers prepared thoroughly for all of the lessons observed. The individual lessons plans provided during the evaluation outlined key aims, objectives, methodologies and resources to be used. On occasion assessment strategies were also documented. This very good practice is encouraged as it is recommended that on-going assessment of students’ progress be an integral component of all lesson planning for SPHE.


All of the topics featured in lessons were in line with the long-term plan. However, at times there was scope to adjust the pace and pitch of the learning outcomes for the lesson to a level more appropriate to students’ experiences and stage in the junior cycle programme. This adjustment should be informed by the enhanced long-term plan as recommended in the previous section. There was some very good practice evident in sharing lesson outcomes with students in terms of what they would be doing in the lesson and why. This practice, which provides a very good structure to the lessons, is encouraged further.


There was some very good use of ice-breaker activities to introduce lessons. In one instance flash cards were used to very good effect to establish students’ understanding of the concept of positive and negative feelings. In another lesson on safety, a brain-storming session allowed the class teacher to gauge students’ previous knowledge and experience of the topic. This is very good practice, as linking lessons to prior learning or student experiences greatly assists understanding. This is particularly relevant in a SPHE context where lessons are delivered in one period per week.  The practice also promotes the spiral approach to learning, as recommended in the SPHE curriculum framework.


A range of methodologies was deployed in the lessons observed. Of particular note were instances where students actively engaged in experiential learning. Case studies and teacher-led discussion featured in a number of lessons. However, in planning such activities care should be taken to ensure that students are given enough time to process the information. The balance of student-led and teacher-led activity needs careful monitoring to make certain that the teacher acts mainly as the facilitator to enable students to process and clarify the information for themselves. In adopting such a strategy opportunities are also provided for teachers to monitor student work and provide feedback.


On occasion students were provided with opportunities to develop skills and confidence in group-work and pair-work activity. This very good practice enabled students to reflect on the material being taught and to discuss the issues with their peers. Furthermore, small-group work or pair work provides valuable opportunities for quieter students to develop social skills and it leads to less reliance on teacher-led activities. Best practice in group work was evident in instances when the activity was time bound, where group members were assigned roles and when the class teacher, in facilitating a feedback stage, clarified issues that arose. Such plenary sessions are very important to enhance learning and assist in the development of positive student attitudes on the issues being discussed. 


Some very good practice in summarising lesson content was evident. This very important stage of a lesson should always be planned in order to consolidate students’ learning and facilitate opportunities for student reflection and the provision of feedback. This is a key principle underpinning the aims of the SPHE syllabus.


A caring and supportive atmosphere permeated all of the lessons observed. Some very good practice was evident in drawing up and enforcing class contracts for SPHE lessons. Of particular note was where the contract was written as “we agreed” statements to encourage collective ownership of the ground rules for SPHE.  Planned learning activities were well managed. In planning room allocations for next year, the use of the demonstration room for SPHE lessons should be avoided, as the tiered seating arrangement is not conducive to the kind of student movement and group work activities that take place.


Students are making good progress in SPHE with a good range of completed activities evident in their folders. Interaction with students during the course of the evaluation indicated that they were challenged and motivated in SPHE lessons. The SPHE displays evident in many classrooms served to create a stimulating, print-rich environment for the subject. It is laudable that students are afforded an opportunity to display some of their own work. This good practice promotes a sense of shared ownership and responsibility for the creation of a stimulating learning environment.




Strategies are incorporated into lessons to provide opportunities for assessing students’ progress. In the lessons observed, questioning techniques and worksheet activities, as well as the monitoring of group activities, provided opportunities to assess learning. It was noted positively that students were assigned a home task in a number of the lessons observed. This very good practice reinforces learning and provides opportunities for students to reflect on the work covered. The provision of constructive feedback from teachers in subsequent lessons can assist students in making sound judgements, which is one aim of the SPHE syllabus. Some very good practice in the monitoring of student work was evident in the folders reviewed during the evaluation.


Teachers maintain very good records of students’ attendance and the work covered in SPHE lessons. It is commendable that the school reports to parents on students’ progress in SPHE as part of the regular school report and at parent-teacher meetings.  In addition, student achievement in SPHE is recognised at the annual awards night. This is very good practice. However, there is a need to extend the evidence base that informs the feedback provided. There is considerable internal expertise in the area of formative assessment among the SPHE team. Therefore, it is recommended that the team agrees an assessment policy for SPHE that includes strategies to provide feedback to individual students. It is important that the assessment modes used are fully compatible with the aims and objectives of the SPHE syllabus. Information and support on assessment is available in the Guidelines for Teachers (pp 59-68). 


To assist with on-going programme review, consideration should be given to routinely using the end-of-module review forms available in the SPHE Handbook. This would allow students to provide feedback and inform the cycle of programme review and evaluation.



Summary of main findings and recommendations


The following are the main strengths identified in the evaluation:



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




Post-evaluation meetings were held with the teachers of SPHE and with the principal and deputy principal at the conclusion of the evaluation when the draft findings and recommendations of the evaluation were presented and discussed.





Published, November 2009