An Roinn Oideachais agus Eolaíochta

Department of Education and Science


Subject Inspection of Guidance



St Columba’s College

Stranorlar, County Donegal

Roll number: 62861F


Date of inspection:  05 March 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 Provision in Guidance



Subject inspection report


This report has been written following a subject inspection in St Columba’s College, Stranorlar, County Donegal. It presents the findings of an evaluation of the quality of provision in Guidance and makes recommendations for the further development of Guidance in the school.  The evaluation was conducted over two days during which the inspector visited classrooms, viewed guidance facilities, interacted with students, met with teachers, held discussions with the principal, with the deputy principal, with the guidance counsellor and with the teacher delivering part of the guidance programme. Following the evaluation visit, the inspector provided oral feedback on the outcomes of the evaluation to the principal, the guidance counsellor and the teacher delivering part of the guidance provision. The board of management was given an opportunity to comment in writing on the findings and recommendations of the report; a response was not received from the board.



Subject provision and whole school support


St Columba’s College, a co-educational voluntary secondary school, operates under the trusteeship of Catholic Education, an Irish Schools Trust (CEIST). The school is one of two schools in the town and caters for students from diverse, urban and rural backgrounds. Currently, there are twenty-two feeder primary schools giving an enrolment of 805 with students coming from the twin towns of Stranorlar and Ballybofey as well as from a large rural hinterland. The school participates in the School Completion Programme (SCP) initiative through which funding is provided to encourage students to continue in school. The principal is the chairperson of the local SCP cluster group and the SCP co-ordinator is based in St Columba’s College.


The school receives an ex-quota allocation of thirty-six hours per week for Guidance from the Department of Education and Science. At the time of the evaluation, one of the two guidance counsellors on the staff had recently retired and the school had been unable to find a qualified replacement. Fourteen hours and ten minutes of the guidance provision were being delivered by a qualified guidance counsellor who also teaches English and Social, Personal and Health Education (SPHE) and twenty-one hours and fifteen minutes were provided by a temporary teacher. However, the principal was in the process of rearranging the timetable so that the guidance counsellor would be available to deliver an additional three and a half hours of Guidance beginning the following week. It is recommended that the school authorities make every effort to obtain the services of a second qualified guidance counsellor in order to ensure that the total allocation be used to the optimum level to deliver the guidance provision in the next and subsequent school years. The school has the services of a designated National Educational Psychological Services (NEPS) psychologist.


While the guidance plan identifies the need to target all year groups, guidance provision is currently targeted primarily in senior cycle with weekly timetabled classes in fourth and fifth years, including the Leaving Certificate Applied (LCA) and the Leaving Certificate Vocational Programme (LCVP) class groups. As Guidance is not timetabled in junior cycle the guidance counsellor borrows class periods from teaching colleagues to visit all first year groups at the beginning of the year to introduce the guidance service. The guidance and the SPHE departments are liaising to develop a guidance module for first and second years. This cross-curricular approach is commended as it will prove mutually supportive in the delivery of the SPHE and the guidance programmes. The guidance counsellor also plans to visit first year classes prior to the in-house examinations at the end of the year. Commendably St Columba’s introduced mixed-ability teaching in first year in the current school year and plans to continue this approach during junior cycle. It is recommended that a guidance input would be beneficial to first year students at they decide subject levels for the Junior Certificate examination. The SCP co-ordinator arranges visits to Letterkenny Institute of Technology (LYIT) for groups of second year students. This is commended as a means of motivating and encouraging junior cycle students.


The guidance counsellor collaborates with the Transition Year (TY) programme co-ordinator and the teachers of third year to provide a module on subject and programme choice for senior cycle. Commendably, this module includes an introduction to internet-based research which students are encouraged to continue independently. It is proposed to provide a guidance module in TY next year incorporating the “Be Real Game”. Individual appointments and personal counselling are offered in all year groups as needs arise. In light of the imbalance in guidance provision between junior and senior cycle students it is recommended that, in the course of guidance planning, the school explores the current timetabling arrangements to consider how to ensure the best possible and most equitable deployment of resources across the whole student body.


St Columba’s College has an allocation of an ex-quota resource post and a half of this post is allocated to a member of staff to support students and their families. This member of staff is also a trained counsellor who provides counselling for students and, in the absence of a home-school-community liaison (HSCL) co-ordinator visits homes and works as the home-school links co-ordinator. One of the local curates attends the school two days per week as a part-time chaplain. As counselling provision is important in the school and as a number of people are involved in providing counselling to students it is recommended that the school formulates a counselling policy which, when ratified by the board of management, can be included in the guidance plan.


St Columba’s College has very good facilities for guidance in the form of two offices with computer, broadband access, phone, shelving and storage. A careers library is housed in both offices and guidance-related materials are available in the school library. Notice boards are displayed outside the guidance offices. The guidance department reports that with the introduction of the new technology suite access to information and communications technology (ICT) facilities in the school is very good this year.


There is a good sense of care in the school which is evidenced by the supports and programmes provided for students. A pastoral care team operates in the school and counselling and support for students are discussed at meetings. It is recommended that the school reviews the current schedule of meetings to ensure the optimum attendance of all team members at these meetings. It is also recommended that minutes of meetings be recorded. Regular, ongoing contact is maintained informally between the guidance counsellor and the home-school links co-ordinator, programme co-ordinators, the learning support teacher and the deputy principal. The guidance department also works closely with year heads and class tutors and refers students for inclusion in the SCP activities to the SCP co-ordinator through the deputy principal. All of this collaboration to enhance student support is commended. It is suggested that the school should consider the benefits of having the SCP co-ordinator attend some of the pastoral care team meetings.


Referrals of students to the guidance department for counselling and extra support are made by senior management, year heads, class teachers, subject teachers, parents and students may also self-refer. Referrals to outside agencies are effected through the office of the principal in consultation with parents, year heads and guidance department.


Links between the guidance department and senior management are maintained through formal meetings and through informal ongoing contact between the deputy principal and the guidance counsellor. The guidance counsellor is a member of the curriculum committee which reviews subject areas included in the curriculum and time allocation.


It is to be commended that St Columba’s has established links with a number of support agencies and organisations where both students and their families can receive support. The Family Enrichment Centre, where courses and group meetings are hosted, is supported by the Mercy Order and located on the same campus as the school. The centre offers the Rainbows programme and students are welcome to attend. The school participates in cross-border initiatives such as the Learning and Educating Together (LET) and the Knowledge and Enterprise for Youth (KEY) programmes. Strong links have been established with a number of institutes of further and higher education both in Northern Ireland and in the Republic.


Commendably, St Columba’s has developed a critical incident response plan and the guidance counsellor is part of the critical incident response team. In the review of the policy document it is recommended that the school networks with other local guidance counsellors as such collaboration will provide additional support and assist all participants.


While there is no specific budget for the guidance department resources are provided as required.



Planning and preparation


Guidance planning is ongoing in the school and to date a good deal of work has been completed. A planning committee has recently been established to progress the whole-school approach to guidance delivery. Programmes have been developed for first, third and senior cycle students and, commendably, an audit of guidance provision, including counselling, has been completed recently. It is recommended that input from staff, the student council, parents and from representative of the local business community now be sought. A student needs analysis would also inform the planning process.


St Columba’s has in place a well established transition programme for incoming first year students, co-ordinated by the deputy principal in close collaboration with the home-school link co-ordinator, the SPHE co-ordinator, the guidance and learning support departments. Fifth and sixth class pupils from the primary schools are invited to an open day in St Columba’s. Transport is provided. A well-presented brochure provides clear information on the school for prospective students and their parents. The home-school links co-ordinator visits the primary schools to speak with teachers of sixth classes. Parents attend St Columba’s to enrol the students and this is followed by an assessment day which assists the school in identifying students in need of extra support in first year. The guidance counsellor is part of the team that visits the feeder primary schools and the school reports good feedback from the primary schools. This allows the school to prepare support, as necessary, for incoming students. A follow-up meeting is then arranged with the deputy principal for any student with special needs along with their parents.


A four-day induction programme is held in August to familiarise students with the school campus, timetables and facilities. Students attend for three days in August and on the day before term begins. As the campus is quite large it is suggested that a plan of the school buildings be displayed in the front hall, particularly for the benefit of new students. The induction programme also includes a trip for each class group to an outdoor adventure centre.


While demonstration lessons are offered during the open day and during the induction programme students choose their subjects for the Junior Certificate examination before entry to St Columba’s. The school states that there is flexibility to change subjects during September. In order to assist students with subject choice it is recommended that the school explores the provision of some taster classes so that incoming students can make a more informed choice of subject and level.  It is recommended also that the school offers an information session for parents of incoming students on the import of subject choice. In this regard parents could be directed to the information available regarding subject choice on the Qualifax website (


In September the school hosts a session for first year parents. This is commended as it enables parents to obtain information on the settling-in process and raise any issues of concern. In the course of first year the home-school links co-ordinator meets with all students individually and with their parents. Additional meetings are provided to support the newcomer students and their parents. The big sister/big brother programme operates at lunch time between senior and first year students. At the end of first year the deputy principal, the learning support teacher who also co-ordinates the Junior Certificate School Programme (JCSP) and the guidance counsellor collaborate to identify students for whom the JCSP is considered suitable and the school hosts an information evening for parents of these students. This approach is commended. The transfer programme co-ordinator has completed a survey with first year students to evaluate the transfer programme. This will inform future planning. The guidance counsellor has also carried out a survey of first year students to identify any concerns they may have regarding the settling-in process and to arrange any necessary additional support.


The guidance counsellor is a member of the SPHE teaching team and there is good collaboration between the SPHE and the guidance departments. It is recommended that this networking be formalised to include planning meetings at the beginning of the year and subsequently, as required.


It is to be commended that St Columba’s offers all the second level curricular programmes and an excellent range of subjects at both junior and senior levels. Subject and programme choice procedures for senior cycle, which begin with a preliminary choice of programme and subjects by students, are clearly defined as part of the guidance planning process. In collaboration with subject teachers the guidance department is planning to develop an information booklet on subject choice for junior cycle. For senior cycle programme co-ordinators provide presentations to students to explain programme content and requirements and a booklet is provided. The school also allows a certain degree of flexibility if students wish to change subject or programme at the beginning of senior cycle. Before changes are made parents are required to sign a note and an appointment is arranged with the guidance counsellor. It is suggested that the school devises a form for use by parents. The guidance counsellor collaborates with the deputy principal, the SCP co-ordinator and year head to support any student considering leaving school before completion of the Leaving Certificate. Students are encouraged to remain in school and options and plans are discussed.


Appropriate programmes have been developed and are delivered to fourth and fifth year students. Students are prepared to make application to the CAO, to UCAS, to the post-Leaving Certificate (PLCs) courses and to training and apprenticeships. Commendably, a number of useful handouts have been developed by the guidance department. A careers newsletter providing up-dated information on guidance-related issues, courses and scholarships is issued regularly by the guidance department to Leaving Certificate students and copies displayed on the guidance notice boards. The commitment involved in its preparation by the guidance counsellor is acknowledged and commended.


As St Columba’s is located adjacent to the border with Northern Ireland a number of senior students attend college open days and other career and course information events in both jurisdictions. Commendably the guidance department has developed protocols/procedures for student attendance at open days and career events. It is recommended that these procedures now be reviewed and formalised with input from students and parents. A significant number of students apply to UCAS and each application necessitates a detailed reference which the guidance department prepares. It is suggested that the school explores how other members of staff could contribute to this process thus enhancing the availability of the guidance counsellor for core guidance activities.


A seminar on study skills by an outside agency is offered to fourth year students and this is followed by a further half-day seminar in Leaving Certificate year. The school liaises closely with the other post-primary school in the town where post-Leaving Certificate courses (PLCs) are offered.


Parents are encouraged and welcomed to contact the guidance department as required. The guidance counsellor attends all parent/teacher meetings and provides an input into all information sessions for parents. The school hosts an information session for parents of third year and of TY to explain the programmes and the subject options available in senior cycle. Parents of Leaving Certificate students are invited to an information session on options available after the completion of the Leaving Certificate, applications to further and higher education, the Higher Education Access Route (HEAR) programme, grants and fees. The school hosts an awards evening, to which parents are invited, to acknowledge and celebrate student achievement in both academic and non-academic spheres.


The guidance counsellor is a member of the Institute of Guidance Counsellors (IGC). The school facilitates attendance at local and national in-service, relevant guidance and training events and the local professional development sessions to support counselling.



Teaching and learning


In the course of the evaluation one fourth year and one fifth year class group were visited. Both lessons were delivered in one of the computer rooms. The focus of the fourth year lesson was the researching of careers as part of the career investigation process while the lesson in fifth year was the first in a short series on the development of interview techniques. The content of both lessons was well planned and was appropriate to the groups. Commendably, each lesson began with a recap of what had been completed in the lesson of the previous week. The aims of the current lesson were then explained to students, handouts were provided to the groups in the course of the lessons, successful linkages were made with other subject areas such as business and references were made to relevant, useful websites.


A variety of methodologies was used including the use of handouts, discussion and internet. In one case the career directions website and data projector were used to demonstrate research methods to students and, in another, a PowerPoint presentation was used to provide information to students. When PowerPoint is used, it is recommended that students are facilitated to participate in other interactive learning methodologies which complement the presentation. In one lesson individual student folders were distributed and this opportunity was used to check attendance. In the course of working on the internet individual students were provided with help as requested and whole-class teaching was employed as required. Questioning was used to check understanding or to initiate comment and discussion.


Discipline was maintained in a gentle and positive manner and students were at ease to ask questions. As an added stimulus to the learning environment it is suggested that a copy of the National Framework of Qualifications diagram, available from the National Qualifications Authority of Ireland (NQAI), be displayed in the computer rooms as well as a list of websites relevant to Guidance. 


A friendly and relaxed class atmosphere and good working relationships were evident in both lessons. Students were positively affirmed and encouraged. Students were diligent in their work. Good rapport and mutual respect were obvious between guidance counsellor and students and between teacher and students.





In junior cycle the testing of students is primarily diagnostic. The guidance counsellor collaborates with the learning support teacher to administer norm-referenced literacy and numeracy tests prior to entry. Interest inventories such as Career Interest Inventory (CII), Job Interests and those available on the QualifaX, Career Directions and UCAS websites are used with senior cycle students to assist career and course choices. The Differential Aptitude Tests (DATs) are administered in May to the Leaving Certificate year one students and feedback is provided at the beginning of the new school year. Given the lapse of time over the summer it is suggested that the school reviews this timeframe.


Tracking of Leaving Certificate students is currently done in an informal manner by senior management. Discussions are in progress between the guidance counsellor and the deputy principal as to how the tracking of initial destinations could be formalised. This is encouraged as the information gathered could encourage and motivate current students. Past students are welcomed to visit the school or to meet with the guidance counsellor for further information and support.


Both the guidance counsellor and the teacher delivering part of the guidance programme maintain records of meetings with students as students attend the guidance department. Profiles of senior cycle students are maintained by the guidance counsellor in folders which are stored in a locked filing cabinet. The guidance counsellor also maintains brief notes to record guidance meetings. 



Summary of main findings and recommendations


The following are the main strengths identified in the evaluation:


·         A whole-school approach to guidance delivery in St Columba’s College is being established.

·         There are good facilities for Guidance and access to ICT facilities has been enhanced recently.

·         Guidance planning is ongoing in the school and a planning committee has recently been established. An audit of guidance provision and support for students has been carried out by the guidance counsellor.

·         There is a good sense of care for students in the school. A care team has been established and an effective informal network operates within the school. There is worthwhile engagement with outside organisations and programmes to support students and their parents.

·         The school offers all the second level curricular programmes and an excellent range of subjects at both junior and senior levels.

·         A careers newsletter is produced regularly for Leaving Certificate students and information booklets on subject choice in junior cycle are being developed to assist parents.

·         In collaboration with the primary schools the school has a transfer programme in place to assist students in making a successful transfer from primary to post-primary school.

·         Mixed ability teaching has been introduced into first year in the school year 2007-08.

·         Information regarding subject and programme choice is provided to third year parents.

·         In the lessons observed a friendly and relaxed class atmosphere prevailed and good working relationships were evident. Students were diligent in their work. Good rapport and mutual respect were evident between guidance counsellor, teacher and students.



As a means of building on these strengths the following key recommendations are made:


·         It is recommended that the school authorities make every effort to obtain the services of a second qualified guidance counsellor in order to ensure that the total allocation is used to the optimum level to deliver the guidance provision in the next and subsequent school years.

·         The school should review the current timetabling arrangements in order to ensure the best possible, and most equitable, deployment of resources and to address the imbalance in provision between junior and senior cycles. 

·         In order to assist subject choice it is recommended that the school considers the inclusion of some taster classes in the transfer/induction programme for first years.



A post-evaluation meeting was held with the principal, the guidance counsellor and the teacher delivering part of the guidance programme at the conclusion of the evaluation when the draft findings and recommendations of the evaluation were presented and discussed.





Published  November 2008