An Roinn Oideachais agus Eolaíochta
Department of Education and Science
Whole School Evaluation
Saint Mary’s National School
Athlone, Co Westmeath
Roll number: 20073P
Date of inspection: 25 October 2006
Date of issue of report: 22 February 2007
This report has been written following a whole school evaluation of St Mary’s National School, Athlone. It presents the findings of an evaluation of the work of the school as a whole and makes recommendations for the further development of the work of the school. During the evaluation, the inspectors held pre-evaluation meetings with the principal, the teachers, the school’s board of management and parents. The evaluation was conducted over a number of days during which inspectors visited classrooms and observed teaching and learning. They interacted with pupils and teachers, examined pupils’ work, and interacted with the class teachers. They reviewed school planning documentation and teachers’ written preparation, and met with various staff teams, where appropriate. Following the evaluation visit, the inspectors provided oral feedback on the outcomes of the evaluation to the staff and to the board of management. 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.
St Mary’s National School is a twenty-seven teacher vertical, co-educational school. It was established in 1998 when three schools in St Mary’s parish amalgamated. In two of the schools, St Mary’s Infant School and St Mary’s Girls’ school, the La Sainte Union order of nuns maintained a strong presence. In the third school, the Marist Brothers were strongly represented. The school is under the patronage of the Catholic Bishop of Ardagh and Clonmacnoise. The characteristic spirit and Catholic ethos of the school are clearly enunciated in the mission statement, a copy of which is provided to all new families on enrolment. The school is situated in the town centre and caters for pupils from the immediate urban hinterland. It serves a diverse community and there are many pupils who come from families with English as an additional language (EAL). This diversity is celebrated throughout the school. Pupils are welcome regardless of creed, race, ethnicity or social background and the principles of inclusiveness, equality and respect for all are enshrined in the school’s admission policy. At the time of evaluation, there were 380 pupils on roll, including 206 boys and 174 girls. School records show that enrolment is stable and is likely to remain at the current level in the near future. For the majority of pupils, attendance is good, but the attendance of a significant minority of pupils gives cause for concern. To address this issue, the school has recently adopted practices that aim to reward good attendance and to improve on poor school attendance. Procedures are in place to report on absenteeism to the National Educational Welfare Board and, in the last school year, the level of absenteeism has decreased. The school receives additional funding under band two of the Department of Education and Science DEIS initiative for schools serving areas of educational disadvantage and such funds are used effectively to tackle disadvantage. This is the first whole school evaluation conducted in the school and the first report furnished since the amalgamation of the three schools.
The board of management is commended for the manner in which it attends to its duties and responsibilities for the administration of the school. The board is properly constituted and it functions in accordance with the rules and requirements of the Department of Education and Science, and the Education Act 1998. Board meetings are convened at least once each term, and additional meetings are held if required. An agenda is agreed in advance and minutes are maintained. Specific duties have been assigned to members and a financial report is presented annually. Accommodation issues are managed in a very effective manner, notwithstanding the fact that there are four separate buildings to maintain. Arrangements are in place to ensure that all available grants are spent in a responsible manner, that the school facility is well maintained on a continuous basis and that an adequate supply of up-to-date teaching resources is available. In recent times, wheelchair access to each building has been provided, the lobby has been refurbished and the administration offices have been upgraded. The board oversees the development of the school plan and a system of reviewing and ratifying policies has been established. There is regular and comprehensive communication between the principal and the chairperson regarding the day-to-day running of the school. Effective communication systems are also in place to facilitate collaboration between parents, teachers and the board. During the pre-evaluation meetings, the teachers and parents acknowledged the effective and comprehensive support provided by the board. Board members, in turn, expressed their high level of satisfaction with the manner in which the curriculum is taught and with the achievement levels of pupils.
The principal was appointed in an acting capacity in September 2006 when the previous principal was seconded to the School Development Planning Support service. Clear procedures have been set out, in collaboration with the board of management, to facilitate the efficient running of the school on a day-to day basis, and to ensure continuity and consistency when there is a change in teaching staff or ancillary personnel. In the areas of leading and managing the school, the work of the principal is carried out effectively and efficiently. A strong emphasis is placed on the adoption of a consultative approach to school development and improvement, and a shared vision for the school community is evident. Under the leadership of the principal, curriculum provision and teaching methodologies are discussed regularly at staff meetings. There is an empathic understanding of the pastoral needs of the pupils and close, regular links with parents and with outside agencies are a significant feature of the school. Administrative duties are attended to with care and school records and registers are completed in line with Department requirements. Overall, the duties of the principal are executed in a thoroughly professional and caring manner.
The principal is ably assisted by an in-school management team including a deputy principal, two assistant principals and five special duties teachers. A sixth post has recently been advertised. The duties of post-holders were reviewed at the start of the current school year and appropriate responsibilities are delegated in curricular, organisational and pastoral areas. The willingness of team members to work collaboratively, and their evident commitment to providing a happy, safe working environment for both pupils and teachers, contributes significantly to the effective management of the school. Each Thursday, the principal, deputy principal and assistant principals release mainstream teachers from class so that they can engage in collaborative classroom planning. During this time pupil assembly is held at which the Christian ethos of the school is reinforced, pupil achievement and effort are celebrated, and social skills are developed. Both the principal and the post-holders are commended for the curriculum leadership they provide and for the sensitivity with which they respond to the pastoral care needs of the pupils.
The teachers and board of management display commendable competence and effectiveness in their management of the resources of the school. The teaching staff consists of: an administrative principal, fourteen mainstream class teachers, two teachers for pupils with speech and language difficulties, three language support teachers for pupils with English as an additional language (EAL); four teachers for pupils with special educational needs (SETs), and three resource teachers for pupils from the Traveller community. Department of Education and Science (DES) requirements in relation to the appointment, retention and deployment of teachers are observed and all posts are filled by qualified teachers. In allocating teaching responsibilities each year, the principal consults with staff and efforts are made to ensure that all teachers experience a variety of classes and contexts. There is an active policy of sharing expertise among teachers. A mentoring system is in place to help with the induction of newly qualified teachers. A very useful folder is provided for all new and substitute teachers with a summary of policies, timetables, and general information about school procedures and practices.
The commitment of the teachers to the school is evident in their voluntary attendance at many continuous professional development courses. These courses extend their knowledge and expertise in curriculum areas and assist them with the management of pupil behaviour. At whole-school level, personnel from the Department’s various Support Programmes have provided curriculum training for teachers in areas such as Music, Mathematics, Science, Irish and English. The board of management supports teacher attendance at courses through the provision funding of from time to time.
There are seven full-time special-needs assistants (SNAs) who co-operate in looking after the care needs of twelve pupils. Although they are initially assigned to specific pupils, in fact they assist with any pupil who requires additional care in the classroom or playground. Useful guidelines for teachers and SNAs working together are set down in the school plan and the content of relevant policies is explained carefully. Interaction with pupils is further supported through the familiarity of SNAs with the relevant content in individual education plans and, as a result, a considerate and empathetic understanding of the pupils is evident throughout the school.
The board of management employs a full-time secretary who provides valuable administrative and record management assistance to the principal, teachers and the board. A full-time caretaker is employed to look after routine maintenance, in the school and around the grounds and, from time to time, the board finds it necessary to employ an additional part-time caretaker to carry out maintenance work. Two part-time cleaners are employed daily to look after the cleaning of classrooms and other areas inside the building and a high standard of cleanliness is evident throughout the school. Payment of these ancillary staff is financed through Department schemes and capitation grants.
The school is situated on two campuses separated by a busy road. Despite this significant inconvenience, in terms of number of classrooms and ancillary rooms the accommodation is suited to the current needs of the school. Pupils from junior infants to second class are accommodated in the junior campus and those from third to sixth class are in the senior campus. The junior campus is comprised of three separate buildings. In the main building there is a spacious assembly hall, administration offices, a staff room, toilet, and four mainstream classrooms. The second building has four mainstream classrooms with separate toilet facilities and a small rest room used by visiting personnel. The third building has four SET rooms, two language classes, and a small room used by the speech therapist and occupational therapist that work with the language classes. The building also has separate toilet and cloakroom facilities. In the senior campus there is another spacious hall with stage and dressing rooms, seven mainstream classrooms, a SET room, a computer room, a small office cum SET room, two cloakrooms with toilets, a small staff room and teachers’ toilets, and two storage rooms. There are three SET rooms and a toilet in the prefab building. Outdoor facilities are extensive and include a large playing pitch in the senior campus, a hard-core playground, a basketball court, and an uncultivated natural habitat that can be used for environmental studies. The junior campus has two hard-core playground areas and a developing wildlife garden used by pupils to plant seeds and bulbs. The school is a central part of the local community and it is commendable that various groups and organisation use the building regularly after school hours.
An extensive range of
material and information and communication technology (ICT) resources is
available throughout the school and suitable arrangements are in place to
manage the acquisition, dispersal and replacement of these resources. All
classrooms have a good supply of books, manipulatives, and age-appropriate
concrete materials, and the infant and junior classes are particularly well
stocked with an attractive supply of games, toys and play materials to
encourage structured free play activities. Regular, creative and imaginative
use is made
There is an active parents’ association that supports the work of the school in many valuable ways. The members meet in the school on a monthly basis. They have provided funds for basketball stands, benches for the junior yard, and indoor games for pupils on wet days. At school occasions such as First Communion or parents’ day they provide refreshments. They sponsor the sports day and they stock medical bags for sporting events. They actively support the school’s involvement in inter-schools Gaelic and soccer leagues. At the end of the year they organise and supervise a disco for sixth class pupils and they produce a colourful yearbook as a memento for these pupils. Parents have also helped to equip a playroom for pupils with special educational needs. There is regular contact between the officers of the association and the parents’ representatives on the board of management, and also with the principal. Clear avenues of communication have been established to facilitate parental involvement in the life of the school.
The board of management and teaching staff report that they view parents as vital partners in the education of their children. An information leaflet is provided to inform new parents about school procedures. Regular newsletters are sent out during the school year with news about upcoming events and school achievements. Formal invitations are issued to all parents to visit the school during open day, science day, art exhibitions at which pupil work is displayed, fun day and sports day. From time to time, individual class teachers invite parents to class-related activities such as assemblies, plays and presentations. In an effort to promote greater parental involvement, coffee mornings for new parents have recently been started and English language classes are planned for parents whose first language is not English. In conjunction with Athlone Community Task Force (ACTF) and Westmeath Development Board, the school authorities arrange counselling service and drama therapy for pupils at risk and parents are welcome to participate in these sessions. The ACTF also funds a home-school-community liaison co-ordinator, who is shared with Athlone Community College, for six hours per week. The focus of many of the home visits is on pupils whose attendance is poor and programmes to assist with transition from primary to second level are also organised. The Harmony group supervises a homework club from 2pm to 4.30 pm daily. This initiative is funded under the Equal Opportunity Childcare Programme. A further homework club is run by a member of the teaching staff on a daily basis from 3 pm to 4.30 pm for pupils from second to sixth class. All of these interventions are aimed at forging strong home-school links and they incorporate collaborative work practices with local support organisations. They are laudable and they contribute extensively to the success of the school.
The school plan includes a comprehensive code of behaviour and an anti-bullying policy. It is evident that these policies are implemented in a consistent manner. There is a strong emphasis on pastoral care and on respecting the dignity of all members of the school community. During the evaluation, it was evident that the daily routines of the school are carried out with a sense of order and discipline. Behaviour management strategies and reward systems are designed to be fair and to encourage pupils to take responsibility for their own conduct. The student council, made up of elected representatives from sixth class, takes on a leadership role within the school and senior pupils are encouraged to look after younger pupils during assembly, at playtime, and to liaise with teachers during yard supervision. A particularly effective intervention based on the Incredible Years programme is worthy of note. Teachers of infants and first class have attended training courses to develop their classroom organisation skills and to expand their range of strategies in dealing with pupils with challenging behaviour and poor attention span. During the evaluation, teachers displayed some excellent pupil management strategies and it is anticipated that all teachers will be in a position to benefit from this programme in the near future. Overall, the management of pupils is highly effective, caring and empathetic.
The principal, teachers and board of management are highly commended for the commitment they make to ensure that their obligations in relation to the development of a school plan are met. A cyclical process of school development planning has been developed and all partners are consulted, as appropriate. The content of the school plan has been drafted as a result of discussion during staff meetings, planning days, meetings of the board of management and of the parents’ association. The plan is presented in two sections, administration and curriculum. Policies relating to the administration of the school, its functioning on a day to day basis and its general management are stated very clearly and they outline the responsibilities of various individuals and groups in these areas. The documents serve as a very useful means of informing the school community on relevant aspects of school life. During the evaluation evidence was provided to confirm that the board of management and staff have taken appropriate steps to develop policies in line with the provisions in Children First: National Guidelines for the Protection and Welfare of Children (Department of Health and Children, 2004) and Child Protection Guidelines for Primary Schools (Department of Education and Science, September 2004). Evidence was also provided to confirm that the board of management has adopted and implemented the policies. A designated liaison person has been appointed in line with the requirements of the Departmental guidelines.
The teachers have collaborated in the development of whole-school curriculum plans. To date, plans have been finalised in English, Irish, Mathematics, Visual Arts, Social, Personal and Health Education (SPHE), Science and Physical Education (PE). From the school’s action plan, it is noted that policies in, Music, Drama, History and Geography are in the process of being developed. The completed plans provide guidelines for teachers regarding the range of teaching methodologies to be used, and available resources are identified. In some plans, a general outline of content linked to the strands and strand units of the Primary School Curriculum is included. It is anticipated that when plans are reviewed and further developed, programme content will be examined to ensure that there is continuity and progression in pupil learning. The plans should also give careful consideration to how pupils’ progress will be monitored and recorded in each curriculum area. The further development of a broad range of assessment tools will help guide teachers in their own evaluation of teaching methodologies and of the extent to which the objectives of the curriculum are attained.
The teachers display a very good understanding of the principles of the Primary School Curriculum (1999) and programmes of work are prepared to facilitate its implementation at all class levels. Long-term planning is broadly in line with the structure and content of the curriculum and the majority of teachers appropriately select programme content according to the strands and strand units of each curriculum area. At some class levels, particularly close consideration is given to planning for progression and continuity, and care is taken to ensure that there are no gaps in pupil learning or undue repetition of content covered in previous years’ programmes. Short-term plans are prepared, usually on a fortnightly basis. In some of these plans, learning objectives are clarified, appropriate resources are identified and consideration is given to teaching methodologies. These plans also reflect on how pupil progress will be monitored and recorded in each curriculum area. These approaches to planning are highly praised and it is recommended that they be adopted on a school-wide basis. Various systems of recording the portion of the programme covered each month are used and the principal maintains copies of these documents centrally. Some of these progress records are sufficiently detailed and can therefore be used as a basis for reviewing the implementation of the school plan. However, the clarity of some progress records requires further development, particularly where limited short-term plans are used as their basis.
The quality of teaching and learning was evaluated through observation of lessons taught, consideration of interaction between pupils and teachers, review of samples of pupils’ work and interaction between the inspectors and pupils. At whole-school level, teachers provide for a broad and balanced curriculum and they employ an appropriate range of teaching approaches and methodologies. Effective methodologies observed include group work, pair work, individual learning and collaborative project work. Lessons are taught in an atmosphere of mutual respect and teachers ensure that the physical learning environment in their classrooms is conducive to learning. Thus a positive attitude to learning is inculcated. In general, content of lessons is suited to the age and ability of pupils and a suitable range of learning tasks is designed to reinforce pupils’ learning. Pupils are generally very well motivated, they engage willingly in classroom activities and they take pride in their own work.
Tá na múinteoirí ag déanamh forbairt bhreá curaclam suntasach a leagadh amach don Ghaeilge sa phlean scoile. Sa snáitheanna agus na snáithaonaid, léirítear aidhmeanna agus téamaí a bhaineann le saol na ndaltaí. Déantar machnamh cuí ar na modhanna múinte agus ar úsáid áiseanna teagaisc agus foghlama chomh maith. Déanann cuid de na múinteoirí iarracht mhacánta an Ghaeilge a úsáid mar theanga chaidrimh ar fud na scoile. Baintear feidhm as modhanna gníomhaíochta le linn an teagaisc sna ranganna uile agus cothaítear dearcadh fábhrach i leith na Gaeilge. Úsáidtear cluichí teanga, agallaimh bheirte, agus drámaíocht go héifeachtach chun cumas cumarsáide an pháiste a fhorbairt. Baineann na daltaí taitneamh as bheith gníomhach san fhoghlaim agus glacann siad páirt go toilteanach sna tascanna le linn na gceachtanna. I ranganna áirithe, roinntear an cheacht ar thrí thréimhse teagaisc agus foghlama: an tréimhse réamhchumarsáide, an tréimhse cumarsáide agus an tréimhse iarchumarsáide. Sna ranganna seo, éiríonn go geal maidir le mianach thorthaí na foghlama agus baintear ard-chaighdeán amach. Moltar úsáid níos leithne a bhaint as na tréimhsí seo chun cumas cumarsáide an pháiste a fhorbairt ar chontanam agus go forchéimnitheach.
Sa léitheoireacht, tá straitéisí éagsúla á chleachtadh agus, ar an iomlán, léann na daltaí le líofacht agus tuigeann a bhformhór na scéalta. Bunaítear an obair scríofa ar ghníomhaíochtaí a bhíonn déanta ó bhéal roimh ré agus ar cheisteanna sna leabhair léitheoireachta. Ó am go chéile, iarrtar ar na daltaí sna hardranganna ailt agus aistí gearra a scríobh faoi stiúir na n-oidí. Tá cnuasach deas rann, dánta agus amhrán ar eolas ag na daltaí .
The teachers are making good progress regarding the preparation of an enjoyable curriculum for Irish in the school plan. In the strands and strand units, aims and themes that relate to the lives of the pupils are identified. Appropriate consideration is given to teaching methodologies and to the use of teaching and learning resources. Some teachers make an honest effort to use Irish as the language of communication around the school. Activity methods are used during lessons at all class levels and a positive attitude towards Irish is cultivated. Language games, pair work and drama are used effectively to develop conversation skills in pupils. They enjoy being actively engaged in the lessons and they participate willingly in the learning tasks. In certain classes, the organisation of the Irish lesson is based on structured pre-communication, communication and post-communication periods. In these lessons, there is a greater degree of success regarding the quality of learning outcomes and a high standard is reached. It is advised that more widespread use be made of this approach so that pupil skills will be developed on a continuous and progressive basis.
Pupils are taught to read using a variety of approaches and, in general, pupils read fluently and demonstrate an understanding of the stories. Written work is usually based on work that is prepared orally in advance and on questions in pupils’ textbooks. Occasionally, pupils in senior classes are encouraged to write stories and paragraphs with the help of the teacher. Pupils in all classes have a good store of rhymes, poems and songs in Irish.
The quality of teaching and learning of English is high throughout the school. English lessons observed demonstrate creative and effective linkage of the curriculum strands to provide a total language experience for the pupils. Suitable discussion topics are chosen to stimulate children’s oral expression and to extend progressively their confidence, competence and creativity in use of language. Reading readiness activities in infant classes are of a high standard. Suitable emphasis is placed on the development of phonological and phonemic awareness and letter-sound relationships through innovative teaching methodologies and effective use of concrete and electronic resources. Word recognition and word attack skills are extended appropriately as children progress through the school and, in general, children in all classrooms read with a level of accuracy, fluency and comprehension appropriate to their age. Each classroom has a plentiful supply of age-appropriate books and the ability of pupils in middle and senior classes to discuss material they have read is impressive. The practice of inviting visiting authors to the school to address the children and to be interviewed by them is commendable. Classroom teachers administer standardised reading tests annually. Some teachers also maintain personally designed checklists to document pupils’ reading progress on an ongoing basis. This practice is praiseworthy.
Creative and functional writing skills are developed at an appropriate level in each classroom. The very effective use of ICT observed in some classrooms for production and presentation of pupils’ creative writing in a variety of genres is noteworthy. There is evidence of frequent monitoring and evaluation of written work throughout the school. The abundance of attractive, print-rich visual resources displayed in classrooms contributes significantly to the development of pupils’ independent reading and writing skills. The commitment and creativity of the teachers in providing this stimulating learning environment is highly commended. Poetry is linked with other strands of the English programme and pupils in all classrooms have an appropriate repertoire of rhymes or poems, which they recite from memory with enthusiasm. The excellent quality of penmanship and presentation of pupils’ work is a notable feature in most classes.
The teaching of Mathematics throughout the school is firmly based on the Primary Curriculum and all strands of the curriculum are taught in all classes. All teachers provide long-term plans that indicate the sequence in which the Mathematics curriculum is to be covered at each class level. Generally, short-term plans list the proposed lesson content for each fortnight. Some teachers’ plans include learning objectives, lists of resources and proposed teaching methodologies. Appropriate textbooks that follow the structure of the curriculum are in use for most pupils. Classroom displays feature charts and posters on various aspects of the Mathematics programme and in many classes teachers augment the supply of classroom resources with carefully designed teacher-made materials. Mental Mathematics and the development of mathematical language are suitably emphasised in most classes. Children are taught to use problem-solving strategies and in general they are able to apply these strategies effectively to solve problems based on real-life situations. During the evaluation, the most successful lessons observed featured high levels of active learning as the children engaged purposefully with suitable resources in order to achieve clearly stated learning objectives.
Teachers monitor children’s progress in a variety of ways. Standardised tests are administered annually and are used to identify children with additional needs in Mathematics. In most classes children’s copybooks reflect the range of work covered. Some teachers design worksheets to give children opportunities to practise computational skills and also to test whether learning objectives are being achieved. All classes engage in regular testing using supplementary texts. In most classes the regular correction of the children’s written work and analysis of errors provides them with valuable feedback on their progress. In a minority of classes it is advised that there should be a better balance between oral work and practical activity on the one hand, and written problem solving and computation exercises on the other. At some class levels, pupils experiencing difficulty in Mathematics are supported in the mainstream classroom rather than by withdrawal from the class. While this approach is helpful in most classes, there is scope for development at some class levels. In-class support is most effective where differentiated learning activities are set for the various ability levels in the class and where children are set suitably challenging yet achievable tasks. These tasks should be linked closely to pupil previous knowledge and ability rather than on the content of the class textbook.
The teachers are highly commended for the quality of teaching in History. Teaching methodologies encourage pupils to take an active interest in the past. Many very useful resources are utilised in an effective and creative manner to bring History to life, and, as a result, the quality of pupils’ learning is high. Starting in infant classes, story is used very well to stimulate pupil interest and pupils are enabled to ask questions and explore the chronology of personal events. Timelines, posters, aerial photographs, and artefacts are central to lessons in middle and senior classes and pupils speak knowledgeably about the various aspects of national History they have studied. Lesson content is integrated with other curriculum areas, and drama, mime and role-play are used to good effect in many classes. The immediate hinterland of the school and local historical events and places are explored on a gradual basis, and the approach taken in some classes to developing pupil knowledge of matters of local historical significance is laudable. Apart from learning historical facts, pupils are also enabled to develop the skills of working as a historian and to discuss cause and effect. The use of the class History Diary is an effective approach to linking local, national and international events and it enables children to view themselves as part of the evolving history of the world. All lessons observed during the evaluation were paced appropriately and pupils engaged fully with the learning tasks they were set.
Although a whole-school plan for Geography has not been compiled, individual teachers’ planning provides for balanced coverage of the three curriculum strands, at an appropriate level, in each classroom. Geography lessons in infant and junior classes are focused closely on the children’s immediate surroundings. Suitable topics and activities are chosen to build awareness of the physical and human geography of the locality and to inspire in the pupils a sense of place and community. In middle and senior classes a more extensive range of environmental and geographic themes is introduced to stimulate pupils’ interest and to broaden their knowledge of aspects of life, cultures and natural environments in more diverse places. Geography lessons observed, samples of children’s project work, and discussion with the pupils provided ample evidence of good teaching methodologies and high pupil attainment in this area. Some excellent resources are utilised very creatively to stimulate emergent learning from pupils’ observation and investigation. Field trips are organised to stimulate children’s awareness of geographical features of the local area. Pupils display good ability to research and record information in project form and speak knowledgably and confidently about topics they have studied. A notable feature of classrooms throughout the school is the presence of large world maps identifying the native countries of the pupils from diverse national backgrounds. This practice is commended both for its effectiveness in promoting an inclusive ethos and for developing geographic awareness from an early age. There is also a display area in the senior school dedicated to the promotion of geographical studies.
The school’s Science programme features all four strands of the curriculum. A range of useful resources designed to facilitate the study of living things, energy and forces, materials and environmental awareness and care has been built up. Nature tables and dedicated Science or discovery areas in some classrooms allow children to observe scientific phenomena and to stimulate their curiosity. Learning activities in the living things strand of the curriculum are effectively linked with language and Visual Arts lessons, particularly at infant level. A selection of magnets and other kits prepared for National Science Week facilitate activities in the energy and forces strand. Experiments to examine the properties of various materials are planned. Composting bins in each class involve the children in an effort to recycle and to keep waste to a minimum. The focused manner in which all members of the school community have worked to achieve the Green Flag for the school is highly commended, and staff and pupils alike are justifiably proud of their achievement. A Green Flag was awarded for recycling in 2003 and the second award in 2005 was for the conservation of energy. The school’s close ties with Athlone Institute of Technology (AIT) contribute to the development of Science in the school. A scientist from AIT comes into the school regularly and works with the teachers and children. Yearly goals for Science are agreed with the Science co-ordinator. Children from third to sixth classes are involved in this programme, which culminates in the school holding a Science exhibition in AIT. The school received an “Award of Excellence” for its involvement in Discover Primary Science.
During the evaluation the most effective Science lessons observed involved the children working collaboratively, predicting, observing, experimenting and recording and explaining the result of their investigations. Teacher-made worksheets were used very effectively to guide the children through their scientific inquiry. Use is also made of textbooks that follow the curricular strands, but these texts should be used for review or consolidation of concepts learned rather than as the starting points for Science lessons. Photographic records of children experimenting are displayed as part of the very attractive display in the hall. This practice could be extended very effectively to the classrooms and, together with children’s own pictorial and written records of their scientific work, would help to show the breadth of the curriculum covered in Science.
The children in all classes are introduced to a broad and balanced Visual Arts programme, covering all strands of the curriculum very proficiently. Suitable activities are selected at each class level to stimulate pupils to explore, experiment and enjoy artistic experiences through a variety of media. The quality of children’s work displayed in the central hall, corridors and classrooms is very impressive. Pupils engage eagerly in artistic work and discuss both the process and the product with enthusiasm. Some lessons observed focused admirably on encouraging originality, imagination and individuality without an over-emphasis on teacher-direction. Children’s appreciation of art is developed by affording them ample opportunity to examine, discuss and respond to various works of art, and visiting artists are invited from time to time to conduct workshops with pupils. The compilation of pupil-designed personal art portfolios evident in some classrooms is a very worthwhile practice, as it provides pupils with a gratifying anthology of their work and simultaneously furnishes the teacher with a meaningful assessment instrument. More extensive adoption of this practice is advisable.
The Music programme followed in the school incorporates the curricular strands of listening and responding to music, performing and composing. All teachers provide long and short-term plans for the teaching of Music and these plans consist of aims for each class level, resources to be used and proposed lesson content, including in many cases extensive lists of songs in English and in Irish, as well as lists of pieces of music for listening and responding. Planning shows that teachers are aware of how musical elements can be included in the programme and opportunities for integrating Music with many other curricular areas are identified. The school has a large selection of percussion instruments and other musical equipment and these are used to good effect to develop pupils’ abilities. In the infant and junior classes children use simple percussion instruments such as shakers they have made to create simple sound effects, to explore various rhythms and to accompany songs. They sing a range of songs including action songs in both Irish and English. The repertoire of songs is extended as pupils progress through the school to include pieces from the religious education programme and other suitable and seasonal songs. Imaginative use of teacher-made recordings for listening and responding to music was observed and it is anticipated that further use will be made of such resources to stimulate the children to compose their own musical pieces. All pupils begin to learn to play the tin whistle in second class and it is planned that this will continue into middle and senior classes where the range and complexity of their tunes will be extended.
At all class levels the general content for Drama lessons is outlined in teachers’ planning. The content is usually linked to the strands and strand units of the Drama curriculum and interesting and suitably challenging programmes of work are prepared. In the lessons observed, pupils engaged with great enthusiasm and they were obviously comfortable with the type of tasks they were set. Many lessons featured well-structured opportunities for pupils to respond to a variety of situations and to explore their feelings and reactions. Many useful starting points for purposeful teaching of Drama are employed, including topical news, pupil life experiences, historical facts and works of fiction. Genuine efforts are made to develop children’s self-confidence in a non-threatening and safe learning environment. Overall, work in this curriculum area reflects originality and creativity. There is no school plan for Drama as yet, but it is anticipated that this will be developed when teachers have participated in curriculum training in the current school year.
The school has extensive facilities including two halls, a games pitch and adequate grass and tarmacadam areas, which make possible a broad programme in Physical Education. A comprehensive school plan for this area outlines how the school organises the delivery of the PE curriculum. The plan was drafted by the staff following in-service provided by the Primary Curriculum Support Programme (PCSP) and was ratified by the board of management in May 2006. Teachers’ plans indicate that all curricular strands are covered in each class. Pupils from second to sixth class avail of swimming lessons for specific periods each year. The school liaises with sporting bodies, including the GAA, FAI and IRFU, who provide coaches to work with some classes to develop skills in Gaelic football, soccer and rugby. A code of ethics for outside personnel is incorporated into the school plan. A strong tradition in Gaelic games remains strongly in evidence in the school today. Generous after-school provision, much of this given by teachers in the school, includes coaching in team games and in Irish dancing. A plentiful supply of resources has been provided for the teaching of games, including basketball and hockey. These resources are stored tidily in both halls and are readily accessible when required. Lessons observed during the evaluation were based on the games strand of the curriculum and indicate that warm-up activities, skills development and practice, and suitable cool-down activities are included appropriately in lesson structure. Pupils evidently enjoy the activities and participate enthusiastically in them. Appropriate attention is given to safety issues and suitable resources are used during lessons.
The positive, caring atmosphere cultivated in the school provides an ideal base for the successful delivery of the Social, Personal and Health Education (SPHE) programme. The attractive presentation of all areas, the pleasant demeanour of the pupils, and the happy atmosphere one senses on entering the school, all testify to the effective focus on social and personal development. The school’s SPHE programme provides suitable and sensitive opportunities for children to understand themselves, to develop a positive self-image, to establish and enjoy healthy relationships with others, and to appreciate factors that impact positively or negatively on human and environmental well-being. SPHE lessons are organised adeptly to encourage expression of opinions and exchange of views in a climate of tolerance, respect and impartiality. At infant level, stories and puppets are used to very good effect to relay important messages to the children. In special-education classes observed, it was very evident that there is a deliberate emphasis on the development of personal and social skills in conjunction with literacy and numeracy. The judicious use of individual teacher expertise in the delivery of Relationships and Sexuality Education (RSE), and in programmes such as Stay Safe, Walk Tall and Rainbows is highly commended. The school’s innovative approach to celebrating student of the week is particularly noteworthy.
The school policy on standardised assessment in literacy and numeracy and on diagnostic testing is clearly outlined in the school plan. Guidelines are provided on the frequency of testing and specific assessment instruments to be used are identified. The policy is implemented effectively at all class levels and much valuable assessment data is gathered on pupils at the end of the instructional term and on an annual basis. This information is used to inform teachers on pupil performance and to assist in the selection of pupils for supplementary teaching. Decisions regarding literacy programmes and, to a lesser extent, numeracy programmes to be followed in mainstream classrooms are also guided by this information.
Some general guidelines are included in the school plan regarding non-standardised assessment. At all class levels, teachers gather much useful information about pupil progress through observation of pupils during learning tasks, monitoring of written work in copybooks and correction of homework assignments. Some teacher-designed tests are also given at the end of the term or year. It is recommended that policy on the monitoring and recording of pupil progress in areas other than literacy and numeracy be formulated so that a cohesive whole-school approach would be taken in all curriculum areas. The implementation of the policy would then be monitored and reviewed at whole-school level on an ongoing basis.
The school is commended for the inclusive approach taken to providing for pupils with special educational needs. The Learning Support Guidelines and other relevant Department circulars guide provision in this area. The SETs keep themselves very well informed of up to date methodologies and current developments in special education through their attendance at courses and membership of professional organisations. The SETs use a broad range of assessment instruments including standardised tests, expertly chosen diagnostic tests, and teacher-designed checklists to gather data on pupils. They prepare detailed, focused individual education plans with clearly stated objectives based upon the identified learning needs of pupils. Achievement criteria are specified clearly and the content of these plans is regularly reviewed. Individual pupil progress is very closely monitored and recorded, and this information is used very effectively and judiciously to guide the development and implementation of specific programmes in collaboration with mainstream class teachers. The standard of many teacher-designed resources is exceptional. Ingenious use is made of the scanner, digital photography, adaptive technology, touch screens and specific ICT programmes as a means of reinforcing pupil learning. The teachers are highly commended for their success in presenting aesthetically pleasing and educationally stimulating learning environments. There is a good balance between in-class support and pupil withdrawal and for the majority of pupils these approaches are highly effective. It is advised that the existing system for conferring with class teachers be strengthened and augmented through the timetabling of regular focussed meetings. The school has two classes that cater for the needs of pupils with specific speech and language disorders. Commendable practice was observed in relation to programme planning, teaching methodologies and use of resources in these settings. Effective arrangements have been made for the appropriate integration of the children into mainstream classes according to their level of needs and attainments. Overall, the quality of support in relation to pupils with special educational needs is of exemplary standard and is a key strength of the educational provision throughout the school.
The school is commended for the high quality of policy and planning implemented to support pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds, minority groups and pupils from diverse international backgrounds. The richness of cultural and linguistic diversity in the school is celebrated through attractive and informative displays in classrooms and in the two halls. Appropriate supports have been sought from the Department and these are used effectively. Support strategies such as the book rental scheme and language support teaching are aimed at ensuring the full inclusion of all pupils in the life of the school. Language support teachers also organise an Intercultural Day where parents, pupils and teachers celebrate together. The school has sought funding from the Department of Family and Social Affairs and this is used to finance a morning munch programme whereby healthy snacks are provided for all pupils each morning. The continuous close liaison initiated by the school with the Health Board and other local family support services is laudable and teachers make every effort to ensure that pupils at risk receive a high standard of care. Under the DEIS initiative, the school will shortly have the services of a shared home-school-community liaison co-ordinator and it will also be included in the School Completion Programme. Given the highly successful use made of existing supports to date, it is anticipated that these recent developments will add significantly to the quality of provision in St. Mary’s NS.
The following are the main strengths identified in the evaluation:
· The board of management is highly supportive of the work of the school and it has developed effective school management systems.
· The role of principal is executed in a most professional, dedicated and caring manner.
· Appropriate responsibilities have been delegated to the in-school management team and these duties are carried out in a proficient and supportive way.
· The teachers are thoroughly professional in their work and it is evident that they are committed to providing a high quality, holistic education for their pupils in an inclusive, attractive learning environment.
· Members of the parent body give generously of their time and effort to organise many worthwhile activities that enhance the quality of provision in the school and close, regular links are maintained between the school, parents and the board of management.
· Efficient use is made of a comprehensive range of material resources to support the teaching and learning process.
· The school’s behaviour management strategies ensure that pupils co-operate with each other and with the teachers in an appropriate and socially acceptable way. Pastoral care systems are particularly effective.
· The quality of planning, curriculum implementation and recording of progress for pupils with special educational needs is laudable.
As a means of building on these strengths and to address areas for development, the following key recommendations are made:
· To build upon effective practice in the teaching of Mathematics in mainstream classes, it is recommended that the programme content be differentiated to a greater degree for pupils with difficulties. The selection of textbooks for these pupils also requires review.
· The effectiveness of some in-class learning support provision in Mathematics and English requires review.
· To improve the quality of learning outcomes in Irish, the structure of lessons should be closely based on that advocated in the Primary School Curriculum (1999).
· The development of a whole-school approach to short-term planning and monthly recording of progress is recommended. These should be linked to learning objectives and based on the strands and strand units of the Curriculum.
· The school plan for assessment would benefit from the inclusion of expanded guidelines on the monitoring and recording of pupil progress in each curriculum area.
Post-evaluation meetings were held with the staff and board of management where the draft findings and recommendations of the evaluation were presented and discussed.