An Roinn Oideachais agus Scileanna

Department of Education and Skills


Subject Inspection of

Social, Personal and Health Education



Portmarnock Community School

Portmarnock, County Dublin

Roll number: 91324P


Date of inspection: 13 November 2009





Subject inspection report

Subject provision and whole school support

Planning and preparation

Teaching and learning


Summary of main findings and recommendations

School response to the report





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 Portmarnock Community School. It presents the findings of an evaluation of the quality of teaching and learning in Social, Personal and Health Education (including Relationships and Sexuality Education in senior cycle) 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 examined students’ work. Following the evaluation visit, the inspector provided oral feedback on the outcomes of the evaluation to both deputy principals. The board of management 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.



Subject provision and whole school support


Portmarnock Community School caters for 506 male and 383 female students. Social, Personal and Health Education (SPHE) as a curriculum subject is well provided for and it benefits from strong whole-school support. Each junior-cycle class group is timetabled for SPHE in line with Circular Letter M11/03. A post of responsibility has been assigned to the co-ordination of the subject.


In addition to the activities planned and delivered by the SPHE teachers, management provided evidence which indicated that presentations are also made by external agencies such as the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre and Accord. However, management were not able to confirm the extent of the information provided by those agencies to the SPHE teachers in advance of any external inputs or the manner in which this is done. Equally, no evidence was provided to indicate that any de-briefing sessions with students are conducted following external inputs. The school should be aware that all information provided by presenters should be documented and made available to all the teachers of SPHE concerned. Also, students’ evaluations of those inputs should be undertaken and recorded. This information and any other relevant detail should be included in the department plan. Reference should be made to Circular Letter 0023/2010 SPHE and RSE - Best Practice Guidelines for Post-Primary Schools for further advice (available at ).


In the current year, there is a core team of four teachers of SPHE in the school, all of whom are experienced in teaching this subject. All members of the team are assigned to teach SPHE to more than one class group. This is good practice. It is particularly good to note that these teachers were assigned to the SPHE department either by request or through consultation. The school is supportive of teachers’ continuing professional development and attendance at in-service provided by the SPHE support service has been facilitated. All of the teachers currently delivering SPHE have attended the Introductory Training and most have attended the Continuation Training and the RSE Training.


The school endeavours to create an environment that promotes SPHE in the wider whole-school context and this is commended. For instance, in September 2008 all staff members attended a seminar entitled SPHE in a Whole School Context organised by the SPHE support service. Each year, the school organises an anti-bullying week. A “buddy system” has also been established whereby sixth-year students mentor first-year students until March. This support is then provided by fifth-year students until the end of the academic year.


The Parents Association (PA) is particularly proactive in promoting SPHE. The association liaises with external agencies and runs seminars for parents. These seminars have included topics such as Self Esteem and Friendship Week. Attendance at these seminars is reported to be very good. The school is also involved in a humanitarian project with a school in South Africa. Each year, various fundraising activities are organised by the PA so that a group of Transition Year (TY) students can travel to South Africa and work with a group of orphans. The work of the PA in facilitating such activities is highly commended.



Planning and preparation


The school operates a class tutor system and all tutors meet with their class group each week for one class period. It was reported that components of the SPHE programme are delivered by the tutors at these times. Senior management provided the inspector with a copy of the SPHE department’s junior-cycle programme framework. A one-page plan in calendar format, generated in the school, was also made available listing a number of topics from the programme and giving an indication of when they would be covered. No further planning documentation was available to the inspector. From lessons observed, it was evident that some teachers follow this plan strictly. Consistency of approach is good but some flexibility is also important to adapt to the circumstances and needs of individual class groups.


It was reported that the teachers of SPHE meet regularly to plan their work and to share resources. However, no evidence was presented that these meetings have resulted in any level of collaboration between tutors and SPHE teachers in the planning process. Such collaboration is essential in order to avoid unnecessary overlaps in the delivery of the SPHE programme by these two groups of teachers.


The following recommendations are made based on the information available during the evaluation. The SPHE department plan should include the organisational details in relation to the subject. The framework document should be developed further to identify the key learning outcomes and skills development required from each module. It is important that there is a spiral and developmental approach being taken to the delivery of the SPHE programme and this is recommended. Templates developed by the school development planning initiative (SDPI) are available at and these could be used as an aid tool for writing the plan. In addition, the exemplar programme outlines and the templates in the SPHE Guidelines for Teachers (pages 7-20) would also be useful.


Most of the key school policies relevant to or supportive of SPHE have been developed. These include the anti-bullying policy and the substance use policy. The relationships and sexuality education (RSE) policy is currently in draft form. It is recommended that this policy should be progressed to ratification by the board of management as a matter of priority in order to comply with Rule 20 of the Rules and Programme for Secondary Schools and with Circular Letter 0027/2008. Materials are available from the SPHE support service to support this process.


The school does not have any agreed RSE programme in place in senior cycle. It is strongly recommended that a suitable RSE programme for senior-cycle students be developed and delivered to these students following collaboration with parents, students and the board of management. The school might find it useful to refer to the recently developed TRUST (Talking Relationships Understanding Sexuality Teaching) resource for senior cycle when planning the RSE programme.


Resources including text books and DVDs to support the teaching of SPHE have been acquired and are currently stored in the staff room, where they are accessible to all SPHE teachers. In the lessons observed, it was good to see that teachers are creating or acquiring additional materials to enhance the learning experiences of students. However, there was no evidence that materials such as these are appropriately filed and catalogued according to each year group and available to all teachers. The school should be aware that this is the desired practice.


Whilst teachers’ written plans were not provided, observation of teaching and learning indicated that the quality of preparation for the lessons observed was very good. Much effort had been taken to create appropriate resources for the lessons. These were integrated at appropriate stages. Lessons contained a very good balance between teacher-led and student participative strategies.



Teaching and learning


Five lessons were observed during the course of the evaluation. All lessons had a clear focus and were well structured. There was some very good practice evident in the sharing of lesson outcomes with students in terms of what they would be learning in the lesson and why. This strategy should form part of all lessons. This enables learning outcomes to be referred to throughout the lesson, thus consolidating learning and facilitating opportunities for student reflection and self-evaluation. The achievement of these is an overarching principle of the SPHE curriculum framework. In all lessons observed, deliberate efforts were made to link lesson content to prior learning or to student experiences and this greatly assisted understanding. In some instances, the very good practice of informing students of the subject matter for forthcoming lessons was noted as a further support to continuity. This is a particularly effective strategy in a SPHE context where lessons are confined to one period per week.


Very good practice was evident in the preparation of resource materials to support student learning in all lessons observed. For instance, in a lesson on Body Image, the inclusion of visual images supported students’ learning by enabling them to think concretely about the topic. In another lesson on nutrition, the use of a three-dimensional model of the food pyramid facilitated learners to actively engage with exemplars from each of the food groups. One particularly effective use of information and communications technology (ICT) occurred in a lesson on alcohol where a video clip was shown to students using a laptop and data projector. The accompanying strategies used by the teacher to facilitate whole-class discussion and draw out relevant points from the chosen video facilitated a deeper discussion by students about the topic.


A wide range of methodologies was deployed in the classes visited. Of particular note were instances where students actively engaged in experiential learning. In all lessons, group work and pair work strategies were used to facilitate understanding and actively promote positive attitudes. This approach was most successful when the activity was well managed, where the task assigned was time bound and where the attention of all students remained focused. It is good that teachers allow students to move for particular activities. However, in such instances, it is important to use the full space of the room and to give careful consideration in advance to how the activity will work when students are involved.


Good efforts were made to ensure that students understood the task in hand. During the discussion phases of lessons, effective questioning encouraged students to express their opinions and make sound judgments on issues relating to the topic. Good practice was evident in instances where the development of students’ higher-order skills was facilitated by using gentle probing questions that encouraged students to analyse critically the information under discussion. In the lessons observed, good attention was paid to the development of students’ literacy skills by clearly explaining the key terminology associated with the topic under discussion.


Plenary sessions occurred in some lessons where student feedback was summarised on the classroom board. An alternative approach would have been to have involved the students in recording the information on the board. When appropriate, this can provide variety for learners, raise activity levels and improve learning.


During the course of the classroom visits, some serious deficiencies in relation to student behaviour were apparent. In a minority of lessons, high expectations regarding student behaviour were set and the ground rules for SPHE lessons were reinforced. This is very good practice. However, in the majority of lessons visited, classroom management was found to be unsatisfactory. In these lessons, a cohort of students was unmotivated and engaged in off-task discussion with each other whilst the teacher gave instruction. This behaviour went unchallenged. It is essential that the members of the SPHE department collaborate to devise strategies to improve classroom management immediately. This should include a review of the seating arrangements currently in use in lessons.


In all of the classrooms visited, it was noted that SPHE corners have been developed to enable students 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.





The SPHE department has devised an evaluation form for students to use upon the completion of each topic. This is a very good initiative. However, the extent to which this template is being implemented by teachers and used by students differed considerably between classes. This is regrettable as this is a very valuable resource which places some responsibility on the students for evaluating their own learning. The increased use of this template is strongly encouraged. It is also important that, where a subject team has agreed a common approach, this should be implemented by all members of the department, in order to ensure a consistent learning experience for students.


Student progress is assessed on an ongoing basis through oral questioning. This varied between targeting individual students and distributing questions to the entire class. Care should always be taken to ensure that lessons are not dominated by the more vocal students.


It was reported that some students store materials in folders. However, this did not appear to be standard practice in the majority of classes as very few folders of student work were available on the day of the evaluation. Consequently, the value of the resources being provided by teachers is most likely not being fully realised. It is advised that a system be put in place so that these materials are available for all SPHE lessons. In addition, the level of completed assignments in student text books varied considerably. In order for teachers to measure students’ progress effectively, it is essential that the SPHE department devises a policy regarding assessment practice. Self-assessment is one possible approach and materials in students’ folders and textbooks can act as a basis for this. Further information and advice on assessment in SPHE is available in the Guidelines for Teachers (pages 59 to 68) and from the SPHE support service.


Formal reports are issued to parents at Christmas and summer. Currently, the school does not report to parents on students’ progress in SPHE. This should be addressed at the earliest opportunity. In advance of any such action, consideration should be given to the criteria being applied prior to the inclusion of SPHE on school reports. No student records were submitted to the inspector. It is important that all teachers maintain records of students’ work. These would also provide very valuable information when reporting on students’ progress.



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:


A post-evaluation meeting was held with both deputy principals at the conclusion of the evaluation when the draft findings and recommendations of the evaluation were presented and discussed.





Published June 2010







School response to the report


Submitted by the Board of Management





Area 1:  Observations on the content of the inspection report


The Board noted the many positive comments made by the report particularly in relation to the SPHE department’s commitment to teaching and learning. This commitment is articulated in various stages of the report; of particular note is the SPHE department’s flexibility in adopting methodologies that seek to enhance the learning needs of the students.


It was also noted by the Board that the comments made in regard to classroom management are at odds with the experience of senior management of the SPHE department’s insistence on high levels of student behaviour. Furthermore, the concern raised with regard to classroom management appears to be in conflict with the observation that lessons contain a “good balance between teacher led and student participative strategies”.


It should be noted that the relevant documentation was unavailable for inspection due to the ongoing industrial dispute. This documentation is available to the Board of Management.



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


It is the intention of the Board to introduce RSE at Senior Cycle.


The school will provide parents with written SPHE reports as soon as assessment criteria have been agreed by the SPHE department.