An Roinn Oideachais agus Eolaíochta


Department of Education and Science


Subject Inspection of

Social, Personal & Health Education (SPHE)




Loreto Secondary School,

Fermoy, County Cork.

Roll number: 62270F


Date of inspection: 4 and 5 December 2007

Date of issue of report: 22 May 2008


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


Subject inspection report


This report has been written following a subject inspection in Loreto Secondary School. It presents the findings of an evaluation of the quality of teaching and learning in Social, Personal and Health Education (SPHE) 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 and subject teachers. 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


All junior cycle students in Loreto Secondary School are afforded the opportunity to study Social, Personal and Health Education (SPHE). The fact that SPHE is timetabled as a discrete, stand-alone subject is noted as consistent with best practice. First-year students are timetabled for one period of SPHE per week. This is in accordance with the requirements of CL M11/03. While second and third year students are timetabled for a double period of SPHE, they are only timetabled for half of the school year. This is at odds with the requirements of the fore-mentioned circular. In addition, it makes it very difficult to provide a coherent programme that reflects the developmental approach described in both the subject’s syllabus and its related teacher guidelines. As a result, it is strongly recommended that the best practice evident in the timetabling of first-year SPHE classes be extended to all junior cycle classes when timetabling SPHE in the future.


While recognising the contribution made by subjects such as Home Economics, Religion and Science, Relationships and Sexuality Education (RSE) in Loreto Secondary School is provided for in junior cycle, in the main, through SPHE. This provision is documented in the junior cycle SPHE programmes of work. In senior cycle a cross-curricular approach has been adopted to the delivery of RSE. The subjects involved include Biology, Home Economics and Religion. While this approach is referenced in the school’s RSE policy, it is recommended that a senior cycle RSE programme of work be drawn up. This would clearly outline when, where and how each of the three main themes at senior cycle, namely human growth and development, human sexuality and human relationships, are being delivered. To assist with this task, management and staff are directed to a 1996 National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA) publication entitled Relationships and Sexuality Education – An aspect of Social, Personal and Health Education – Interim Curriculum and Guidelines for Post-Primary Schools. The 1999 Department of Education and Science (DES) publication, Resource Materials for RSE, may also be of some assistance in this regard. In addition to the provision detailed previously, the school also engages the experience and expertise of Cork Sexual Health, who provide workshops for students that are designed to enhance or contribute to the school’s RSE programme. This approach, which seeks to complement the school’s own work, is commended. Continuing on the theme of RSE, management and staff are encouraged to review the school’s current RSE policy in light of the template that has been provided recently on the website of the DES, which can be accessed at


Students’ core class groups, which are organised on a mixed-ability basis, provide the forum for the delivery of SPHE. Some class groups are quite large, on occasions accommodating up to thirty students. This is not ideal for the delivery of SPHE. It is suggested that management explores how the formation of smaller class groups for the purpose of SPHE might be facilitated. One strategy that could be considered would be the splitting of class groups. It was mentioned by management on the day of the subject inspection that currently there are not enough trained staff in the school to provide for this. As a result, it is further suggested that other staff members be encouraged to up-skill in SPHE in the current school year. The SPHE Support Service, which offers a comprehensive, annual, in-service programme, will be able to assist in this regard. In relation to staff deployment, best practice is where teachers assigned to a group in first year remain with the class through to the end of third year. Management is encouraged in its efforts to seek to provide for this in the future deployment of staff. 


SPHE is very well resourced in the school. An annual budget supports the resourcing of the subject. A bank of material resources has been purchased and collected. These are systematically filed and stored by the subject department so as to ensure ease of access for all teachers. A dedicated room, which incorporates an open space for circle time and other such activities, as well as an area for group work and structured feedback, truly supports teacher planning for the delivery of the SPHE syllabus. The room, which is decorated with students’ SPHE work, also houses a number of storage cupboards for paper, scissors, glue and other such materials. This level of provision is highly praised. On a very minor recommendation, the provision of a flipchart in the room for use during lesson delivery and to facilitate a revisitation of previous activities should be considered by management. 


Management’s support for teachers’ continuing professional development (CPD), relevant to SPHE, is clear. The fact that the principal has personally participated in a workshop designed for principals and school leaders is indicative of management’s support for the subject. Almost all teachers of SPHE have accessed appropriate training, with the majority having participated in four to six, in-service workshops. This personal commitment to ongoing CPD is applauded. It is essential that all teachers of SPHE have completed the two-day, introductory workshop. Where applicable it is recommended that this, which is the minimum requirement in terms of training, be accessed as soon as is practicable. It is commendable that whole-staff input has also been delivered on SPHE.


An SPHE department or team has been established in the school. It was described as a relatively permanent department, with the majority of members having taught SPHE for several years. That said, there is an obvious openness to having new members join the team. Teachers are always consulted by management before being assigned to teach SPHE. As a result, the members of the department are enthusiastic about the subject and are interested in teaching it. The group is representative of a broad range of subject areas, which is always positive. Currently the department is composed entirely of female members of staff. With this in mind, and building on the suggestion made previously with regard to actively encouraging more staff to train in the area, the possibility of encouraging some male staff members to get involved should also be explored. Encouraging more staff to train will also facilitate capacity building for the future.


While a subject co-ordinator, who has overall responsibility for the work of the department, is appointed on a rotational basis, the co-ordination of the subject is shared equally amongst all teachers. This approach is working well in the department in question. It follows, from the paragraph above which references the enthusiasm and interest of the teachers, that the work of the department is being co-ordinated in a similar fashion. These two qualities are key to the successful co-ordination of any subject. The provision by management of formal time, both at the beginning of each school year and as required over the course of the year, for the purpose of collaborative subject planning is commended.   


An SPHE box file houses a number of items that could be formalised into a single document. This would, in essence, summarise the school’s policy in relation to SPHE. The members of the SPHE department are directed to section 2.4 of the SPHE Handbook, which outlines a good structure for such a policy. The department is also encouraged to consider preparing a policy on visiting teachers for inclusion as part of the overall SPHE policy. Once again, the SPHE handbook, in this instance section 7, will inform in this regard. Ideas that were shared with management and staff on the day of the inspection, that related to communicating with non-SPHE teaching staff, parents and students in relation to SPHE, should also be considered. 


There is a strong sense that the whole-school climate in Loreto Secondary school is one that resonates with the overall aims of SPHE. For example, the board of management has ratified a number of school policies that are seen to support these aims. This includes anti-bullying, child protection and substance use policies. As an addendum, it would be important that each policy clearly indicates the relevant date of ratification, as well as the proposed date for the planned review of each policy. In a more direct way, the provision that has been made for the establishment of systems designed to support students is also noted and commended. A student group, Cairdeas, has been established to ensure that all students feel welcome and included and that supports are provided for students experiencing difficulties. Senior students are also invited to become involved in a Youth Leadership group, who have a significant role to play within the school community. A working document, entitled Towards a Health Promotion Policy provides a comprehensive picture of school practices, approaches and systems that contribute to the social, personal and health education of the student body. The finalisation and ratification of this document is fully advocated. Simultaneously, consideration should also be given to an inclusion in this document of the measures that contribute to the social, personal and health education of all other members of the school community. Finally, much significance can be attached to the fact that under no circumstances, will a student be withdrawn from SPHE for learning support or resource. This highlights the importance placed by management and staff on SPHE lessons and is applauded. 



Planning and preparation


The content of the three-year, junior cycle SPHE programme in Loreto Secondary School is outlined in a short, single document. This uses as its basis, the sample B outline programme which is provided in the teacher guidelines. The individual teachers’ planning documents do not reflect the delivery of modules and their associated topics, as set down in this document. For example, the timeframe for the delivery of the modules in the agreed programme differs from that observed in teacher files. As a result, it is recommended that teachers meet to rectify this and to agree a programme that will be followed by all teachers of each year group. This will ensure that, for example, all first-year SPHE students will be exploring similar material more or less simultaneously. This style of delivery is a valuable support to teachers, promoting a greater sharing of experiences surrounding suitable resources and effective methodologies. Furthermore, it is recommended that consideration be given to the inclusion in this document of the aims and learning outcomes relevant to each module to be studied. This helps to ensure that all activities planned and provided for find their basis in the aims and outcomes as set down in the SPHE syllabus. This will act as a great reference for teachers on a weekly basis. In some instances comprehensive documents of work completed are being maintained by individual teachers. This practice is further encouraged. Section 4 of the SPHE Handbook provides a suitable template.  


Individual teachers’ planning documentation was indicative of some very good practice in relation to programme planning. First and foremost, provision was generally made for each of the ten modules which should be studied as part of junior cycle SPHE. Best practice is where the RSE and friendship modules are delivered in close proximity to one another. This, which was evident in some of the individual planning documentation reviewed, should be considered by all when programme planning in the future. Programmes of work were time-based and in some cases provided details relating to modules’ aims, resources, methodologies and assessment. In essence, however, each teacher uses a different approach to the preparation of individual plans. It is recommended that, as a means of sharing good practice, teachers agree on a template for this planning work. As a guide, best practice would be where programmes of work would include the name of the module, the topic, useful resources, suitable methodologies, the planned learning outcomes, together with the mechanisms used to assess these outcomes, as well as a comment box that can be used by individual teachers to evaluate or comment on each lesson delivered. The comment box is the key to transforming the programmes of work into ‘working’ documents, while facilitating reflection, evaluation and review. This approach would also support a greater sharing of experience and knowledge amongst all members of the SPHE department. As a suggestion, and further down the road, this document could inform the production of the school’s own SPHE teaching aid. Each module could, for example, be presented in a folder that provides exemplar lessons, resources which have been tried and tested, suitable assessment modes relevant to the module being explored as well as student activities for completion at home or in school.


A range of co-curricular and extracurricular activities, relevant to the themes of SPHE, is planned and provided for by the members of the SPHE department. Visiting speakers, for example, are availed of as appropriate. Teachers are encouraged to embed all such activities in the programmes of work, as they very often find their inspiration in one or more of the ten modules explored. As a means of supporting the development of cross-curricular links between SPHE and other subjects offered on the school’s curriculum the department is encouraged to erect an SPHE notice-board in the staffroom. This would indicate, amongst other things, at any one time, the module and topics planned for exploration with each year group from first through to third year. This might inspire other staff members to cover related material in and around the same time.      



Teaching and learning


There was clear evidence of planning and preparation for all lessons observed on the day of the subject inspection. In some instances high quality lessons plans had been prepared. In general, lesson content and planned activities reflected the aims and learning outcomes of the relevant module. A large number of resources were either prepared, collected or used in lesson delivery. This included the blackboard, a flip-chart, student workbooks, handouts, worksheets that included, for example, crossword activities, activities based around statement envelopes, short stories, visualisation exercises and videos/DVDs. In the main, lessons commenced with a carefully chosen ice-breaker, which occasionally bore a direct relevance to the topic explored over the course of the lesson. This level of planning is highly praised. 


In general lessons were well structured and therefore appropriately sequenced and paced. On occasions there was some scope for reducing lesson content. This recommendation stems from the maxim ‘minimise to maximise’, whereby content is minimised in order that the effect can be maximised. All lessons demonstrated a clear purpose which, in all cases, was openly shared with students. This strategy is commended. Best practice was where this included a referencing, in a very general sense, of the lesson’s aims and the intended learning outcomes, as relevant to the SPHE syllabus and the topic being explored. In many instances, significant efforts were made to link student activity and learning with preceding work. On occasions, motivation for learning was fostered amongst students through the provision of information relating to work planned for future lessons. The integrated approach to syllabus delivery that both strategies suggest is highly praised.


An extensive range of methodologies was used over the course of the two-day inspection, many of which called on the active participation of students. Teaching and learning was most effective where student involvement and activity predominated and where teachers adopted a facilitative role in terms of topic delivery. In relation to SPHE, teacher input which predominates lessons or sections of lessons is discouraged. To this end, the ‘ask’ rather than the ‘tell’ approach is encouraged. In a number of lessons the experiential method, which is espoused in the syllabus and teacher guidelines, was clearly evident. This method, with its four distinct stages of experiencing, processing, generalising and applying, is an ideal lesson-planning and lesson-delivery tool. As it is widely recognised as the most appropriate method for use in SPHE it is an approach that is further encouraged. Teachers are directed to the NCCA’s Guidelines for Teachers, as well as the SPHE Handbook, both of which can inform in this regard.


The clarity of teacher instruction was very apparent. This was most evident before, during and after each planned activity, where straightforward directions were issued in relation to assigned tasks. In the main student’s attention levels were very good. Where this was not the case, approaches designed to ensure students’ full attention, especially when instructions are being issued, need to be employed. While ground rules have been put in place for each class group, little or no reference was made to these over the course of lessons. Ground rules could, for example, have been used as a tool to seek to ensure total student co-operation and attention in the instance outlined previously. The appropriate use of or reference to ground rules over the course of lessons is always encouraged. All activities, including group work and pair work were effectively managed. For example, the time allocated for assigned activities was clearly outlined to students, where relevant the responsibilities of each group member were clearly defined and student activity and participation was always closely monitored by teachers. The systematic approach to student activity, including group work, that was observed, really helped to ensure that learning took place. Teacher’s work in this regard is highly praised.    


In some lessons the provision of a short exercise that required students to reflect on lesson content was planned and provided for. Students’ copybooks also indicated that this approach is very established in some class groups. This approach is encouraged with all classes, although the approach used should be varied from lesson to lesson, otherwise it loses its significance for the students. Overall, lessons would benefit from a more structured approach to lesson summary. As appropriate, the approach to lesson summary should always provide for a highlighting of knowledge gained and skills developed, as well as of behaviours and attitudes that might have been discussed or explored.          


Classroom atmosphere was notably positive. Teacher-student relations contributed significantly in this regard. Every student was provided with the opportunity to contribute to lesson content. Students’ input was acknowledged and appropriately affirmed. Classroom environments were well organised. Classroom walls, but in particular the walls of the dedicated SPHE classroom, were decorated with suitably stimulating, subject-specific material, which commendably included students’ own work. A striking feature of all lessons was the way in which students thanked their respective teachers when the lesson had concluded and as they left the classroom. Teachers warmly reciprocated this gesture.





It is clear that assessment of students’ progress and achievement in SPHE in Loreto Secondary School is an area that is in need of further exploration and work. That said, a variety of approaches to assessment are being employed by the various teachers of SPHE in the school. Home-tasks, for example, were assigned in each of the lessons observed. Some student folders also housed a number of other previously completed and monitored home-tasks. The reflection exercises provided as a number of lessons concluded are, however, the main mode of assessment employed. As alluded to previously, a more varied approach to this is recommended. Such exercises should seek to provide for students to reflect, not just on the knowledge garnered but also on the skills or attitudes that may have been fostered and developed. End-of-module or end-of-topic, as opposed to end-of-lesson exercises, might be best placed to provide for all three. In addition, these end-of-session exercises could be used to get feedback from students in relation to what went well and what didn’t in each lesson. The outcomes of this can be used to inform future lesson planning and delivery. To this end, templates are provided in both the Guidelines for Teachers, as well as in the SPHE Handbook.     


The SPHE department has agreed a system for the collation and storage of student workbooks and class materials. This is the first step on route to portfolio assessment, an approach that is strongly encouraged in the assessment of students’ advancement and attainment in SPHE. Once again, the Guidelines for Teachers provides a model on which the department’s work could be based. It sets out, for example, the need to agree the criteria to be applied in relation to items for inclusion, as well as a formal recognition system for all submitted items. Teachers are encouraged to explore this assessment option. In time, students’ portfolios could be used to inform feedback provided to parents at the annual parent-teacher meetings and in school reports.   


To conclude, best practice is where planning for assessment is incorporated into lesson planning and is incorporated into lesson structure and delivery. This reflects the assessment model that is moving from assessment of learning to assessment for learning (AfL). Aspects of this approach were glimpsed in some lessons. This is discussed in the Guidelines for Teachers, which also provides some very accessible examples of AfL at work in the SPHE classroom. In conclusion, it is recommended that assessment be prioritised for discussion in forthcoming and future SPHE department meetings. In time, when an approach has been agreed and implemented, the drafting of a subject-specific, assessment policy should be considered.       



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 at the conclusion of the evaluation, when the draft findings and recommendations of the evaluation were presented and discussed.