An Roinn Oideachais agus Eolaíochta
Department of Education and Science
Our Lady’s Secondary School
Drogheda, County Louth
Roll number: 63850F
Date of inspection: 25 January 2008
A whole-school evaluation of Our Lady’s Secondary School, Greenhills, Drogheda, Co. Louth was undertaken in January 2008. This report presents the findings of the evaluation and makes recommendations for improvement. During the evaluation, the quality of teaching and learning in four subjects was evaluated in detail, and separate reports are available on these subjects (see section 7 for details). 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.
Our Lady’s College is an all-girls Catholic secondary school under the trusteeship of CEIST (Catholic Education - an Irish Schools Trust). CEIST is a relatively new organisation and at the time of the evaluation the school’s trusteeship was in a transition phase from the Presentation Order to CEIST. The school is located on the eastern outskirts of the town of Drogheda and commands a four acre site with a pleasing amount of green area and a wonderful view of the river Boyne. The school was originally opened as a boarding school in 1940 and only ceased taking boarders in 1975. In 1965 a new school designed to accommodate 350 students was officially opened on the same site by its greatest benefactor, Cardinal Cushing of Boston, USA. With the advent of the free education scheme in 1968 numbers increased in a manner that demanded further extensions to the school in 1979 and 1998. Enrolment in the school has remained steady over recent years and, today, there are 881 girls attending the school.
The school is one of six post-primary schools in the town of Drogheda and has both urban and rural areas in its catchment area. This comprises the town of Drogheda itself, together with areas in the south east and north east of counties Louth and Meath respectively. In total, the school has over twenty main feeder primary schools.
Our Lady’s College is an inclusive school. The school has a diverse student population which includes a sizable number of newcomer students and students with additional educational needs. Until the introduction in 2005 of the Department’s new action plan for educational disadvantage, Delivering Equality of Opportunity in Schools (DEIS), the school participated in the Department’s Disadvantaged Areas Scheme (DAS). While the school did not qualify for participation in DEIS it continues to receive a DAS and home school community liaison (HSCL) grant from the Department and this is expected to continue for the duration of the DEIS programme. Currently, the school has the advantage of being able to avail of the services, albeit in a voluntary capacity, of a number of Presentation Sisters who assist the school in varying capacities. The contribution that the Sisters make to the school, especially in the area of tackling educational disadvantage, is very significant and worthy of particular acknowledgement.
Our Lady’s College is a warm, friendly and caring school. The school staff is committed to, and supportive of, the students and activities take place in a positive, structured and affirmative environment. It was clear from interactions with students that they feel safe and secure in the school. The school’s mission statement is very much informed by the Presentation philosophy of education, and is reflective of Nano Nagle’s mission to educate the marginalised. The statement commits the school to fostering gospel values and ensuring a Catholic ethos, catering for the pastoral needs of students, offering a broad curriculum, delivering high standards of teaching and learning and cultivating in students an appreciation of their surroundings and of their own self-worth. It was observed throughout the evaluation that the different pledges and values inherent in the mission statement are strongly embedded in the culture and practices of the school. The school is also appropriately flexible to accommodate students from different religions and cultural backgrounds. For example, the school’s faith development policy, the development and implementation of which is supported at all levels in the school, aims to “promote the faith of its Catholic students” while encouraging “other students to deepen their particular faith”. The school chapel is utilised for liturgical events throughout the school year and this, along with the school oratory, provides staff and students with space for private prayer and reflection.
The school’s trustees play a strong leadership role in terms of inspiring and supporting school management and the community. Members of school management through their collaborative and democratic leadership style contribute to the welcoming and positive atmosphere that permeates every corner of the school. The school’s teaching staff also contributes to the creation of this atmosphere through its members’ loyalty, dedication and commitment to the school and their focus on the holistic development of students. All staff in the school work as a team and in a spirit of partnership. Management clearly values staff, morale in the school is extremely high and relationships at all levels were observed as being courteous, cordial and business-like. The learning environment of the school is one that is based on trust and mutual respect and a positive discipline system operates in the school. It was clear that all students are valued equally. The school can pride itself on the strong emphasis it places on the pastoral care it offers its students.
The school’s current board of management was established in late 2007. The board is properly constituted and while some members are quite new to the role others have significant experience of serving on previous boards of management in the school. These members provide the board with continuity and confidence as it fulfils its managerial role in the school and they willingly share their knowledge and experience with the new board members. The board receives excellent levels of support from the school’s trustees and there is regular and effective communication on pertinent issues between both parties. Current board members participated in training prior to their first meeting and additional training was planned at the time of the evaluation. Further, copies of the manual for boards of management were supplied by the trustees for each board member and elements of this manual form the basis of discussions at initial meetings of each new board. All of these activities constitute good practice.
Commendably, the board meets nine or ten times annually and appropriate records are kept of all meetings. The school principal, who acts as secretary to the board, provides a report on the operation of the school at each board meeting and a detailed report on the school’s operation is compiled annually for the board by the school’s senior management team. A written report is agreed at the conclusion of board meetings for dissemination among the relevant partners and there are open and effective channels of communication in place between the different board members and those bodies or groups that they represent. These are all commendable practices. The board is fully supportive of the school’s senior management team and the teaching and ancillary staff in the school. The board takes every opportunity to empower the school staff and actively facilitates and encourages teachers in accessing appropriate continuing professional development opportunities.
The board was clear about its management function as defined under section 4 of the Education Act 1998 and there was a collective awareness and understanding of the legislative environment in which it operates. The board is also intrinsically involved in the governance of the school. It engages in school development planning, action planning and policy development work and all school polices are ratified by the board before their implementation.
Our Lady’s College is currently in the final year of implementing its third five-year plan (2003-2008). Already, the board have prioritised a number of issues for inclusion in the school’s next long-term plan. These include the continuation of the personal and professional development of staff, the promotion of team teaching and the sharing of staff developed resources, the further development of strategies to enhance inclusion especially in the case of students with additional educational needs, a review of curriculum provision and the advancement of school building projects. These are pertinent priorities and are clear evidence that the board is continually deliberating on ways of improving on the quality of educational provision in the school.
The principal and the deputy principals who together constitute the school’s senior management team are committed to the ideals of the school; their huge commitment of time and industrious work rate was obvious during the course of the evaluation. The principal in particular has a wealth of experience in educational management which he brings to bear on the role with vigour, confidence and sensitivity. He is a very effective principal whose leadership style is collaborative, democratic and open door in nature. The principal has the full support of the staff, the students and the wider school community. The management, administrative and interpersonal skills displayed by the principal and deputy principals during the evaluation complemented one another. Senior management has a shared vision for the school and therefore its members work extremely well together as a team. The duties and roles of the deputy principals, which evolved over time, are appropriately distributed and targeted, and are clearly defined. Effective lines of communication were seen to exist between these different senior management personnel with both formal and informal meetings being held on a regular basis.
The school has a large middle management team consisting of eleven assistant principals and sixteen special duties teachers. A formal meeting of the school’s senior management and middle management teams takes place once annually. This provides a forum and opportunities for pertinent school management issues to be discussed. While this is a commendable practice it has certain limitations, not least being the fact that only one meeting per year militates against the application of a consistent approach to addressing issues that arise from meetings. Consideration should, therefore, be given to providing the school’s middle management team, at least the school’s assistant principals, with more opportunities to meet formally as a group. More regular meetings would provide opportunities for post holders to share experiences of their work practices and would act as a useful support network for teachers when performing their duties.
An examination of the school’s current schedule of posts of responsibility found that the majority were meeting the management and pastoral needs of the school. While this is commendable a review of responsibilities attached to a small number of posts is advised. The aim of this review should be to ensure that all posts of responsibility continue to remain viable, and that there is limited overlap between the responsibilities attached to posts where possible. The duties attached to all of the posts of responsibility in the school were made available in written form. From the descriptions provided, however, it appeared that the workload distributed across posts varied significantly with some appearing to be much heavier than others. Also, from discussions with some post holders, it was clear that their written duties did not fully reflect the work that they actually undertook as part of their post. It is recommended therefore that the written duties that accompany all posts of responsibility should be more comprehensive in nature and that they should be an accurate reflection of the work attached to a post. An informal review of a number of posts of responsibility takes place annually between senior management personnel and the relevant post holders. While this is good practice consideration should be given to providing such reviews with a more formal structure. For example, consideration could be given to introducing the practice of allowing post holders to conduct a self-evaluation of their progress in their post and to use such evaluations, as well as indications of future plans for posts, as the basis for discussions at review meetings. It is important also to ensure that all posts of responsibility are reviewed regularly, for example, either bi-annually or tri-annually.
While management actively encourages and facilitates staff to engage in relevant professional development they are also simultaneously committed to the principle of protecting the class contact time of teachers. The level of engagement by staff in professional development courses in recent years has been exemplary. In particular, the school is commended for the way in which it utilises its own in-house expertise to develop the capacity of its staff. The professional development courses in information and communications technology (ICT), for example, which were organised and delivered on-site by members of staff is a perfect example of this capacity building. This is excellent practice.
The student body is well managed and supported in the school. The school’s admissions policy reflects a spirit of inclusiveness. It was reported that this policy was soon to be reviewed to ensure that it continued to conform to best practice, and to allow it to reflect demographic changes in the school’s catchment area since its last review. This is commendable. The school operates a positive code of discipline and from discussions with students it was clear that they had a good understanding of school rules and of their own responsibilities in the context of the discipline policy. The board of management and senior management team are only required to deal with serious disciplinary matters on rare occasions. The school has procedures in place which monitor and record student attendance, absenteeism and punctuality on a daily basis. This incorporates a roll call of the entire student body each morning with a cumulative record of a student’s attendance being reported to her parents on a termly basis via the relevant class tutor or head of year. Teachers also keep daily individual records of attendance in their lessons, while students late to school sign a ‘late book’ located in the school lobby. Despite these efforts it is possible for the current monitoring procedures to fail in recording accurately the attendance or otherwise of a student at school after lunchtime. It is possible also that some students might not sign the ‘late book’. It is recommended that the merits and feasibility be explored of conducting a full attendance check of students in the afternoon of each school day.
The school has a long established student council system in operation. The council’s current membership is reflective of the entire student body which makes it an effective voice for students. The student council involves itself in a range of activities from policy development and curricular matters to fund-raising and voluntary activities. This is commendable. A teacher is assigned to liaise between the council and school management and staff and there is regular and effective two-way communication between both parties. The student body also elects head and deputy head girls annually who operate separately to the student council. The school hosts an ecumenical conference annually which this year took place during the whole-school evaluation. The address which the head girl presented at this conference received commendation from participants as being very professional and well researched. The head girl did the entire student body proud through this conference presentation.
Our Lady’s College has strong links with its parent body. In particular, the school has an active parents’ council which plays a very important role in the life of the school. In addition to providing financial assistance the council also takes every opportunity to support projects that enhance student learning and school life. The school’s gymnasium was constructed with significant help and support from the parents’ council and this facility now acts as a valuable resource for both the school and its local community. While some members of the council have engaged in relevant training in the past, opportunities exist to liaise with CEIST for further training. The council could now consider how it might contribute to further enhancing the integration of newcomer parents into the life of the school. Discussions with parents revealed that they were very satisfied with the level of accessibility that they had to both school management and teaching personnel. In particular, there are excellent lines of communication in place between the school principal and the parents’ council with the principal attending council meetings regularly. A parent-teacher meeting is held annually in the school for each class group while numerous talks and meetings on a range of topics take place throughout the school year also. These practices, combined with regular progress reports and letters and notices home, as well as the use of a bi-annual newsletter and the school year book and journal, constitute effective modes of communication between the school and the homes of students. The school also links with a wide range of bodies and groups in the local community, and with outside agencies. At the kernel of many of these links lies the objective of providing students with a positive educational experience.
Communication structures within the school are varied and clearly work along well-established lines. The staffrooms are friendly places where staff members interact openly with one another and with visitors. There are plenty of display-boards on the walls of the main staffroom and these are used to good effect. Given the large number of staff and students in the school, and the volume of activities that take place on a daily and weekly basis, particularly in terms of the school’s extra-curricular and co-curricular activities, it is suggested that communication structures could be enhanced by introducing a weekly or fortnightly school newsletter. In order to enhance communications even further consideration should also be given to developing the current handbook for staff, introducing an electronic notice board in the lobby area of the school and reassigning one or two of the notice boards in the school’s corridors as dedicated notice boards for TY and LCA students. The school is to be commended for using available space to provide some staff members with dedicated study spaces to support their own planning and preparation work, and their monitoring of students’ work. There were plenty of teaching resources in evidence at these spaces also.
The school complies fully with Department circular M29/95 (Time in School) in terms of the number of days it operates annually, and the weekly instruction time it provides for students.
The school has a dedicated, committed and well-qualified staff available to teach the range of subjects it offers. At the time of the evaluation the school had a seventy-two strong teaching staff made up mostly of permanent whole-time staff members, as well as those who were working in a temporary whole-time, job sharing, part-time or voluntary capacity. From discussions with management it was clear that they were acutely aware of the future needs of the school in terms of teaching expertise and that strategies to secure such requirements were either in place, or being actively developed. This was an excellent example of forward planning by management. The school also benefits from the services of twenty other staff members made up of secretarial, support, care taking, canteen and auxiliary staff, as well as chaplains, the school gardener and those who work in a voluntary capacity which includes some Presentation Sisters and a plant manager. This group of staff makes significant contributions to the administrative, environmental, structural, social and pastoral aspects of the school. From discussions with management, teaching staff and with students it was apparent that their inputs are greatly valued by the whole school community.
While no formal budgets exist for the different subject areas resources are generally provided on request from a subject department as needed. As a means of creating a greater awareness in the school of the availability of teaching and learning resources, including ICT resources, consideration should be given to circulating staff with the teaching resources section of the inventory of school property which is currently being compiled at the request of the school’s trustees. Thereafter, this should be updated and circulated on a regular basis, for example, annually.
The school recently moved from a student to a teacher based classroom system. This now provides teachers with opportunities to make use of classroom wall spaces to display visual materials. This was the case in many of the classrooms visited where displays included a good mix of students’ work and other learning materials. This is very good practice. In addition to providing a stimulating and motivating setting for learning, such displays also allow for student effort to be recognised and celebrated. It was found, however, that the use of retractable barriers to separate classrooms created problems in one area of the school. These barriers not only precluded the creation of a print-rich learning environment, but they were also found to impact negatively on the teaching and learning process by acting, for example, as a source of noise pollution. These barriers should be avoided as much as possible while those in need of repair should be attended to as soon as it is practicable.
The school has two fully equipped computer rooms which are made accessible to students outside of class contact time. A system is also in place whereby teachers can book the rooms for class groups as necessary. These practices are commended. ICT is well integrated into the teaching and learning process in a variety of subject areas in the school. This is due in no small part to the work of the school’s ICT coordinators and is highly commendable. Consideration could be given to establishing a computer club for students as a means of encouraging greater use of the technology among students.
Overall, the school buildings and grounds are well maintained and this contributes to the creation of a positive, stimulating and safe learning environment. Corridors and classrooms are kept clean and tidy and the school has a comprehensive and up-to-date safety statement in place. The variety of photographic and other displays in the school corridors is a fitting recognition of the contribution of students, both past and present, to school life. These displays also reflect the range of events that take place in the school annually and are a suitable way of recognising and promoting students’ achievements. The school has Green Flag status. The acquirement of this status is reflective of not only the hard work and dedication of the school’s Green Flag Committee, but of the school community as a whole.
The school’s long and active engagement in the school development planning initiative (SDPI) has led to the development of a culture of planning in the school. School planning is a collaborative process in which all staff, and other relevant stakeholders, are both consulted and provided with opportunities to contribute. The process itself is coordinated by a post-holder who, to date, has discharged the duties attached to the post very effectively. The level of record-keeping associated with the process is of a high standard with the coordinator taking responsibility for most of the records.
A comprehensive school plan is in place in the school. This is commendable. To be fully compliant with section 21(4) of the Education Act (1998) the school should now focus attention on making arrangements for the circulation of the school plan among its trustees, parents, teachers and other staff of the school. The school also develops and implements action plans that are derived from the school plan. From a review of the school plan, and recent annual school development planning reports prepared by the school for its trustee body and its board of management, it was clear that significant progress was made in all of the plan’s priority areas. These priorities included the further development of teaching and learning strategies in classrooms, staff and student welfare issues and school management and organisation procedures. The compilation of annual reports on the progress of school planning is excellent practice; they fulfil a monitoring role in terms of school planning while simultaneously keeping management and others informed of challenges and progress. The school has already turned its attention to drawing up a new long-term action plan. It was reported that a focus of this new plan will be to continue the strategy of improving the quality of teaching and learning in the school, with a particular emphasis on the further expansion of the use of ICT in classrooms. It is intended that the new plan will also prioritise the completion of the school’s pastoral care policy (with particular emphasis on the role of the class teacher) and pursue the case for a building expansion which is inclusive of additional classrooms and staff and administrative areas. Each of these areas is worthy of priority in the new plan.
A wide range of written policies is in place in the school which is inclusive of all those required by current legislation. The school’s policy development process, like school planning, is collaborative in nature. To date, the school’s board of management has ratified some thirty-eight policies, while a number of others were in their developmental stage at the time of the evaluation. Only a small number of policies now need to be prioritised for development and implementation—for example, the pastoral care and Civic, Social and Personal Education (CSPE) policies.
The school has an informal ICT steering committee comprising the school’s ICT coordinators and other teachers. This committee has been instrumental in developing the school’s ICT infrastructure and regularly provides the system with technical support and maintenance. The committee also managed the development of the school’s ICT plan and its acceptable use policy, and has successfully encouraged and supported the integration of ICT in a number of subject areas in the school. In order to facilitate and further enhance the work of this committee, it is recommended that it be established on a more formal basis in the school. The committee should then initiate a formal review of the school’s ICT plan. A revised ICT plan should incorporate an action plan for the development of the school’s ICT infrastructure and detail how the good practices already in place in some subjects regarding the integration of ICT in teaching and learning can be replicated across the entire school curriculum.
Confirmation was provided that, in compliance with post-primary circulars M44/05 and 0062/2006, the board of management has formally adopted the Child Protection Guidelines for Post-primary Schools (Department of Education and Science, September 2004). A designated liaison person (DLP) and a deputy DLP have been appointed in line with the requirements of the guidelines. However, it is important that management satisfies itself, as a matter of urgency, that a copy of the school’s child protection procedures has been provided to all categories of staff (including all new staff) and that all staff members are familiar with the procedures to be followed.
The school is now entering a phase where there is scope to shift the emphasis of its efforts in the school planning and policy arena from development and ratification issues to that of policy implementation and review. In this respect, consideration could be given to establishing a formal monitoring committee, to include the school development planning coordinator, whose function would be to monitor progress regarding the implementation of the school plan and policies, to report to the board of management as necessary and to initiate evaluations and reviews where appropriate. It is suggested that a major focus of the school’s planning process into the future should be on the development and implementation of self-evaluation practices which, in turn, would contribute to the development of a culture of self-evaluation and review. In this respect, the Inspectorate’s Looking at Our School: An aid to self-evaluation in second level schools will assist the school community in reviewing and evaluating its work.
A long established practice of having a six-person board of studies is in place in Our Lady’s College which comprises management and teaching personnel. The function of this board is to monitor, review and advise the school principal on curricular matters on behalf of the board of management. The board of studies meets regularly and appropriate records are kept of these meetings. This arrangement supports curriculum planning in the school and represents good practice.
Our Lady’s College offers a broad curriculum and there is equality of access for students to all of the programmes and subjects on offer. The programmes offered in the school include the Junior Certificate (JC), the Transition Year (TY), the Leaving Certificate Applied (LCA) and the established Leaving Certificate (LC). A large number of subjects are offered to students across these different programmes including core subjects of English, Mathematics and Gaeilge, as well as science, business, social studies and foreign language subjects. The school, however, has a restricted applied science curriculum. Currently, only Home Economics is offered in this curricular area. During the evaluation both management and teaching personnel expressed their concern at the restrictions in this particular area of the curriculum, as did some parents and students. It is recommended, therefore, that the school’ board of studies consider the merits and feasibility of expanding the school’s applied science curriculum. Consideration, for example, should be given to the merits of introducing a technology subject such as Technology or Technical Graphics and Design and Communication Graphics. The introduction of a technology subject would lead to the provision of a more balanced curriculum in the school. It would also represent a new and exciting departure for the school in terms of its curricular provision.
TY is an optional programme for students. There are currently two class groups of twenty-five students each following the programme and it was reported that its take-up has remained at this level, and more, over recent years. The TY is coordinated by a post-holder and a comprehensive TY written programme which, commendably, was informed by Department guidelines, is in place in the school. The TY also has a core team and formal meetings of this team take place regularly with informal meetings of different core team members being frequent also. Appropriate records of these meetings are kept.
A TY core team meeting took place during the evaluation and an inspector attended this meeting. The meeting was professionally organised, had a full attendance and was conducted in an efficient manner. Discussions were student-focussed throughout. The results of a recent student evaluation of the TY formed part of the agenda. It was clear from the evaluation results, and from the quality of the discussions on this item, that students were satisfied with and benefiting from their experience of most of the TY programme. It was equally clear, however, that a small number of subjects were presenting difficulties for some students. An excellent discussion took place with regard to the strategies that could be adopted to address these difficulties and appropriate actions were decided. Overall, the school is to be commended for the way in which it evaluates its TY programme, and particularly for the way in which it involves students and other stakeholders in the process.
The majority of those students who complete the JC and TY programmes opt for the established LC programme. The LCA programme is also available to students. The LCA was introduced in 2000 following recognition by staff and parents that there was a cohort of students annually whose needs were not being fully met by the traditional LC programme. The LCA, like the TY, has a comprehensive plan in place, as well as a core team who provide the LCA coordinator with very effective support. The elective and vocational specialism modules of the LCA can vary from year to year. They are usually chosen based on the outcomes of continuous evaluation by the LCA core team and LCA teaching staff, as well as on the perceived needs of students and on school resources. This represents good practice. Recently, the school introduced social work experience as part of the LCA Social Education module and have provided a programme of personal development facilitated by an outside professional. The LCA has been successful at developing links between the school and its community. These links have greatly enhanced the success of the programme.
Consideration was given in the past to the possibility of introducing the Leaving Certificate Vocational Programme (LCVP) into the school’s curriculum. Since the programme, has undergone significant change in the recent past, the school should now seek an input on the programme for the whole staff from the Second Level Support Service. This will place the school in a more informed position with regard to making a decision regarding the introduction of the LCVP.
At the time of the evaluation the school’s teaching staff was timetabled for the requisite number of teaching hours and where a time allocation was allowed for other purposes this was used effectively for management, planning, organisation or meetings. Teachers are provided with opportunities to teach a variety of year groups and group levels. Furthermore, students have, as far as is practically possible, continuity of teachers in their junior cycle subjects, and again in their Leaving Certificate subjects. This is good practice.
All first year students study the following core subjects: Gaeilge, English, Mathematics, History, Geography, Science, Physical Education, Religious Education, Civic, Social and Political Education (CSPE) and Social, Personal and Health Education (SPHE). In addition, all students at this level study a number of optional subjects which includes either French or German and three of the following four subjects: Art, Business Studies, Home Economics and Music. In essence, students are required to make some subject choices prior to entry into first year. In the interest of promoting a more student-centred approach to the subject choice arrangements at this level consideration should be given to introducing a taster system which would allow students the opportunity to experience a greater range, if not all, of the optional subjects prior to making their subject choice decisions.
First year classes are predominantly mixed ability in nature. A small number of subjects, however, are timetabled concurrently across all classes each year which allows for ability levels to be established if desired.
Upon transfer to second year students must choose to study through to Junior Certificate level three optional subjects. Students may only choose optional subjects that they have already studied in first year. Science becomes an optional subject at this point but it was reported that the school’s board of studies has plans to consider the merits of maintaining Science as a core subject throughout the junior cycle. This is evidence that the school monitors its curricular provision at junior cycle level and is commended. Students and parents are well informed and supported by the school in terms of the subject choices that have to be made at this level. Information briefings are made available for parents, for example, and there is appropriate involvement of subject and guidance counsellors in the process also.
The core subjects of Gaeilge, English and Mathematics are always timetabled on a setting basis in second and third year. This allows for the assignment of students to classes based on their attainment in each of these subjects. Physical Education and SPHE are always timetabled on a mixed ability basis across these years, and while the remaining subjects are generally timetabled on a mixed ability basis also it is possible for subjects to be timetabled on a setting basis where student numbers permit. Second and third year students who are experiencing significant difficulties in some subjects are timetabled in a separate class. This class is described in greater detail in section 5.1 of this report.
Students and parents are again well informed, and informed early, of the programmes and subjects on offer in the school’s senior cycle. Strategies used include the school prospectus, and information nights and leaflets, as well as involvement of management personnel, programme coordinators and subject and guidance teachers. There is opportunity, however, for the different subject departments in the school to develop a suite of simple, but attractive, brochures on each of their subjects. These could be distributed among parents and students and would help project positive images of the different subjects, both inside and outside the school.
The core and modern foreign language subjects are timetabled on a setting basis in the TY which means that it is possible to assign students to different class groups depending on their attainment level in these particular subjects. It is important that the TY programme is not seen as an opportunity for spending three years rather than two studying Leaving Certificate material. With this in mind it will be necessary to review aspects of the current TY programme. All other subjects in the TY are timetabled on a mixed ability class basis allowing for module change over in January each year.
Third year students who opt not to study the TY are surveyed annually with a view to achieving the most suitable option bands for fifth year subject choices in the established Leaving Certificate. The fact that students’ subject preferences are a considerable factor in determining the timetabling arrangements for Leaving Certificate subjects is good practice. The core subjects at this level are timetabled on a setting basis which allows for the assignment of students to classes based on their ability levels. Choice subjects at this level are timetabled on the basis of setting or mixed ability depending on student numbers. LCA students are timetabled on an individual class basis in both fifth and sixth year.
While the school’s timetabling arrangements endeavour to ensure that all students are placed in a setting where they can achieve their potential it was clear from a review of the timetable, and from discussions with school management and others involved in timetabling, that many constraints impinge on the timetabling process currently operating in the school. It is recommended, therefore, that the school timetabling structure be reviewed with a view to enhancing the arrangements for students’ choice of subjects and programmes, and to facilitate future curricular developments. This could involve moving from an eight to a nine period day. This particular change would create an extra five lesson periods per week in the school’s timetable and so would facilitate an expansion of the curriculum. It would also cater more effectively for the needs of students with limited attention spans.
An extensive co-curricular and extra-curricular programme operates in the school which is accessible by all students. All of the different activities on offer both support and enhance the quality of students’ learning and there is significant interest among the student body. Extra-curricular sporting activities include basketball, Gaelic football, soccer, tennis, badminton, athletics, table tennis and equestrian activities. The school has teams in each of these sports, each one coached by a staff member, and they participate regularly in both local and national competitions. Indeed, the school has achieved success on numerous occasions in a range of sports and other activities. While the school has devoted part of one of its posts of responsibility to promoting sports in the school, which is commendable, it is felt that consideration could be given to establishing a school’s sports council which could contribute to enhancing further the organisation and development of sporting activities in the school.
Activities of a scientific and cultural nature are also popular in the school, as well those that promote students’ personal development such as Gaisce (the President’s award) and the junior and senior talent shows. Students also have opportunities to participate in a varied programme of enterprise and community based activities. In this respect, students are to be commended for their work in support of local charitable organisations and, through the school’s student visitation programme, for their work with local voluntary groups and senior citizens. The school has close links with a school in Zimbabwe, Africa which it supports annually. Co-curricular activities include annual retreats for students and religion-related trips, theatre outings, history tours, geography field trips, CSPE outings, music performances and workshops and participation in and visits to the annual Young Scientist Exhibition.
Inspectors had opportunity to attend and observe a number of extra-curricular activities at lunchtimes during the course of the evaluation. These included rehearsals for a school play, debating, soccer, badminton, a music recital and a céile. The folk band that provided the music for the céile comprised both staff and student members. This was an excellent example of the extension in an out-of-classroom setting of the quality teacher-student relationships that exists in classrooms. Each of the activities observed was well-attended, students had an obvious enthusiasm for their chosen activity and were clearly acquiring much enjoyment from their participation. The voluntary input of staff in respect of all extra-curricular and co-curricular activities is highly commended.
Programme and subject planning are well established in the school. Formal planning meetings of programme core teams and subject departments are both facilitated and attended by management personnel at least twice annually. The attendance of management at these meetings acts as a significant support to teachers, and is an excellent way for management to keep abreast of developments in the different programmes and subjects in the school. All formal planning meetings are recorded in detail, while informal meetings of teachers are also frequent. Subject coordinators are in place and are a further support to long term planning for subjects.
Comprehensive planning documentation for each of the subjects on offer in the school was made available for inspection. Planned teaching programmes were based on syllabus documentation or on the School Development Planning Initiative (SDPI) template. Plans included references to aims, objectives, curriculum content, teaching methodologies, resources, assessment, and evaluation. Commendably plans also contained references to cross-curricular links. From a review of the curriculum plans it is recommended that teachers focus more on expressing the syllabuses in terms of learning outcomes rather than in terms of syllabus content alone. The learning outcomes could then be related to curriculum content, teaching methodologies, resource provision and assessment. This would conform to the most recent National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA) recommendations.
Comprehensive written documentation pertaining to the TY and LCA programmes was also provided. The innovative and creative approach evident in planning for the TY is commended, particularly in the establishment of cross-curricular links with other subject areas.
There was evidence of very effective short term planning by teachers for all of the lessons observed. Careful attention was given to the preparation of resources to support teaching and learning. The use of ICT in the preparation and delivery of such resources is particularly commended. Where presentations using ICT were accompanied by appropriate worksheets they prevented an overemphasis on teacher activity as students were required to engage in the learning activity as they completed the worksheets. This is commendable practice.
A very high quality of teaching and learning was observed in the majority of the lessons observed. Lessons that were well planned and prepared in advance resulted in lessons that were purposeful, well structured and confidently delivered. In general the lessons were presented at a pace suitable to the abilities of the students and teacher input was well balanced with student activity. The good practice of sharing the planned learning outcomes with the students at the beginning of the lesson was evident in some lessons. This approach is commended as it encourages students to take responsibility for their own learning. The wider use of this practice is recommended.
In the lessons observed teachers used a variety of effective teaching methodologies to stimulate interest and to actively engage students in the learning process. Activity-based learning was observed as students completed worksheets, engaged in pair or small group work or were involved in question and answer sessions with their teachers. Particularly effective in engaging interest and stimulating learning were the use of examples drawn from authentic materials such as current news items, photographs, maps, the local environment or from the students’ personal experiences. Providing variety in the teaching strategies and methodologies is commended as it supports the process of differentiation and facilitates the varying learning styles of all abilities, particularly in mixed ability settings. As a means of providing for the learning and language needs of the variety of students in the school it is suggested that teachers work collaboratively to develop strategies for differentiated learning.
In the language lessons observed excellent use was made of the target language as a medium of communication to manage learning activities and to explain new vocabulary. This approach was most effective when students were given the opportunity to use the target language to discuss familiar topics and when the use of the target language was encouraged to explain vocabulary rather than using the direct English translation. Students should be provided with every opportunity to use the target language in the course of lessons.
The integration of ICT in the teaching and learning process was a notable feature in most of the lessons observed and this provided a strong visual approach to teaching and learning. The quality of the computer presentations used in some lessons was excellent. Teachers had frequently obtained resources from the internet which were effectively integrated into lesson materials and made available to the students. Commendably, students were also encouraged to visit appropriate internet sites referred to by their teachers. The wider use of ICT as a support for learning is recommended.
While traditional seating arrangements were common in the classrooms visited it was clear that students were well accustomed to the use of more communicative settings. It is suggested that such good practices be extended to more classrooms. Innovative seating arrangements can encourage and facilitate students to actively participate in lessons which in turn can enhance students’ sense of belonging to their class group.
Classroom management was of a very high standard in the lessons observed with some examples of excellent practice. Teaching and learning took place in a supportive environment where good rapport, mutual respect and positive working relationships were evident between teachers and students. In some lessons students were challenged to develop higher-order thinking skills to which they responded positively. Student participation was encouraged and student effort was appropriately affirmed. In many of the classrooms it is to be commended that a print-rich environment conducive to learning had been created by the display of student work and subject-related materials.
The use of ‘team teaching’ as a means of further supporting students’ learning was recommended in one subject department. In another department teachers were encouraged to occasionally visit each other’s lessons as a means of disseminating the good practice evident during the evaluation process among department members and as a means of providing in-house continuing professional development.
Teachers use a variety of assessment methods, both formal and informal, to monitor student progress. These range from questioning in class, short tests to oral and written homework, as well as formal examinations. Appropriate records of tests and assignments are kept. This is good practice.
Continuous assessment of students’ progress takes place during the first term. First, second, third, TY and sixth year students receive progress reports home towards the end of the first term. Fifth-year students sit examinations in some subjects in October. Results from this are used to monitor if students have chosen the most appropriate level in the subjects being studied for the Leaving Certificate. Third and sixth-year students sit pre-examinations in the second term. End of year examinations are held for all other class groups. Common examination papers are set in certain subjects where applicable. This good practice is commended.
There is effective communication between the school and the parent body about matters relating to students’ progress. There is a parent-teacher meeting for all year groups in the course of the school year. Reports of continuous assessment or formal examinations are sent home each term. Regular communication with parents regarding students’ progress is good practice.
The samples of students’ copybooks observed during the evaluation were generally of a high standard, reflecting the high expectations of their teachers. In many cases students had received appropriate feed back. Best practice was observed where copybooks were signed and dated. A policy regarding assessment for learning (AfL) should be further developed in the school and included in the different subject department plans. Information on AfL can be downloaded from the website of the NCCA at www.ncca.ie.
The school has effective practices and procedures in place for the early identification of students with special educational needs. This usually takes place upon a student’s enrolment and entry phase to the school and involves significant levels of communication with parents, primary schools and other relevant agencies and groups. The school conducts all of its communications in these instances with appropriate care and sensitivity.
A ten person strong special educational needs (SEN) support group allocates the resource and learning support needs of identified students, and coordinates and manages the delivery of their support. This SEN support group comprises, among others, a representative of school management, a resource teacher, a language support teacher, the school’s guidance counsellors and the home-school-community liaison coordinator. The group meets regularly on a formal basis to facilitate the work, development and evaluation of the special educational needs department. Detailed records are kept of these meetings. Informal meetings also take place on an on-going basis. These practices are highly commendable.
A special educational needs policy is in place in the school. This policy, however, is not consistent with the school’s general admissions policy which states that a student’s enrolment is not conditional on resources being made available by the Department of Education and Science. It is recommended, therefore, that this SEN policy be reviewed to ensure that it is consistent with the general admissions policy of the school, and that it complies fully with the Education Act 1998, the Equal Status Act 2000 and other current legislative requirements.
A comprehensive learning support plan is in place in the school. This plan is complemented by the meticulous record keeping of the SEN support group regarding individual students and the supports that they receive. Further, individual education plans (IEPs) have been developed for a significant number of those students with special educational needs. The IEPs assist in focusing attention on improving teaching and learning for the students concerned, and their outcomes are monitored. The roles and responsibilities of the IEP coordinator, the subject teachers, parents/guardians and the students themselves are clear in respect of the implementation of IEPs in the school. These are all highly commendable practices. Currently, the school has two special needs assistants (SNAs). The SNAs liaise regularly with management and were observed to work extremely well with both the staff and student body.
A pre-first year class has operated in the school for many years. Students are identified for participation in this class via the school’s entrance assessments and are selected for participation by the school’s pre-first year team following consideration of entrance assessment results and the chronological age of students, as well as following consultation with the parents of prospective students and their primary school teachers. The aim of the pre-first year class is to prepare those students selected for participation to take their place in a mixed ability first year class in the following school year. While acknowledging the social and academic benefits that this class has had for students over the years, including easing their transition from primary to post-primary school and providing them with a hands-on or practical focus to their work, it is the case that this class constitutes a four-year junior cycle for those students who engage with the programme. Rule 21(1)(a) of Rule and Programmes for Secondary Schools states that the “junior cycle must be of three years duration in all schools”. In order to comply fully with this rule, and in light of Circular Letter M2/95 which sets out the circumstances in which an individual student may repeat a year, it is recommended that the practice of providing a formal pre-first year class be discontinued following the 2008/2009 school year. The school should continue to develop strategies to meet the needs of these students within the normal duration of the junior cycle.
SEN students from second and third year of the junior cycle are timetabled together for some of their subjects. Sometimes, these class groups involve students who completed the school’s pre-first year class. While this arrangement allows for resources to be targeted in a concentrated manner, and facilitates a low pupil-teacher ratio for the group of students concerned it is felt that the rationale for the arrangement should be developed further by the school and a policy position developed. This is a matter that the SEN support group could initiate. Further, while the focus of the work of the SEN support group is clearly targeted at the academically weaker student, which is an appropriate practice, it was also evident during the course of the evaluation that there are many exceptionally able students enrolled in the school also. With this in mind the members of the SEN support group, and other relevant teachers, should familiarise themselves with the NCCA draft guidelines for teachers on providing for exceptionally able students.
Students with SEN also receive resource and learning support as a separate provision to the class group and timetabling structures outlined above. In this instance there was clear evidence that all relevant resources allocated by the Department are targeted to support students with SEN. A total of sixteen teachers are involved in the provision of this support which takes the form of providing assistance in areas such as Mathematics, English, Literacy and Geography. Many of these teachers have received appropriate training in learning support provision. Extra training in this area could be prioritised in the school’s professional development plan for staff. Effective communication procedures were seen to exist between learning support teachers and relevant subject teachers. In the main, students are provided with resource and learning support on a withdrawal basis. A mix of approaches is used to provide students with such support including individual work with their teacher, as well as pair and small group work. This is commendable.
A wide range of supports is made available to students to support their learning and their schooling experience. These include the breakfast club, the book rental scheme for junior cycle students, the lunchbox (a subsidised school meals programme) and the student mentoring programme (including the Foróige-supported ‘big brother big sister’ programme), along with the wide range of co-curricular and extra-curricular activities referred to earlier in this report. The school operated an after-school homework club for students in the past but this was discontinued, primarily for financial reasons. From discussions with staff and students it was clear that this club benefited students in many different ways. It is recommended, therefore, that management, in collaboration with staff, parents and the school community, explore the possibility of re-introducing the after-school homework club. Also, an extension of the school’s book loan scheme to encompass senior cycle students should be explored.
The school had sixty-four newcomer students enrolled at the time of the evaluation. The majority of these students receive English language support and a comprehensive and up-to-date English language support plan, including programmes of work for individual students, were in place in the school. The implementation of this plan is well coordinated and monitored by the English language support personnel in the school and liaison takes place with subject teachers as appropriate. The language support department also makes effective use of resources and materials produced by Integrate Ireland Language and Training (IILT) which is commendable. English language support personnel also assist significantly in the integration of newcomer students in the school. In the main, students are provided with language support on a withdrawal basis. In general, students who require English language support have an exemption from studying Gaeilge and it is from this subject that students are prioritised for withdrawal. This is good practice as it minimises the time that students are absent from their mainstream lessons. Language support is generally provided to students in pairs, or in a small group setting, in the school’s language support room. While this is appropriate the school should also explore ways of diversifying on these approaches. Team teaching, for example, could be further developed in the school.
School management, staff and students are to be commended for their efforts in creating a truly inclusive learning environment which embraces the newcomer student. The school recently held a very successful intercultural week, for example, while the corridors display flags and facts of many of the home countries of newcomer students. Multilingual signs are posted around the school and in the past two years the school’s deputy head girls have been newcomer students. While the activities and events organised in this area are many and varied it is felt that they would benefit from enhanced coordination and recording. In this respect it is recommended that consideration be given to including in the school’s schedule of posts responsibility for the integration of newcomer students and their families into the school. This recommendation is made in the context of an earlier recommendation which suggested that a small number of posts of responsibility in the school be reviewed. While difficulties are common in communicating with many parents of newcomer students consideration could be given to translating into different languages some standard school letters and policies.
There is a whole-school commitment to the provision of Guidance in the school. A detailed school guidance plan is in place while the process of guidance planning in the school provides a model of good practice. Students have appropriate access to educational, personal and vocational guidance and the guidance programme is planned and delivered in collaboration with other subjects. Aspects of the programme, for example, are delivered by teachers of SPHE, Religious Education, Home Economics and Physical Education. The aspects of the programme that are delivered by other subject teachers are set out in the guidance plan. This collaboration is commended.
The school receives forty-four ex-quota hours from the Department for guidance and all of this allocation is used for that purpose. Two qualified guidance counsellors deliver the guidance programme and there is balance of provision between junior and senior cycles and between class guidance and individual counselling. While all year groups receive class guidance this is not reflected in the timetable. With the exception of TY and LCA, which are timetabled for weekly lessons, all other lessons are borrowed by arrangement with subject teachers. Guidance lessons should be reflected on the school’s timetable.
The school’s guidance counsellors have access to an abundance of guidance-related facilities and resources, including ICT facilities. Students have access to the two computer rooms for guidance lessons, but there are no dedicated computers which can be accessed at other times for guidance purposes. There are two display boards in the school for guidance related materials and both are well used and located. There is no dedicated classroom for Guidance in the school. It is recommended that the provision of a dedicated classroom for Guidance, as well as a room or office space for the school’s chaplains, should be adopted as long term goals in the context of the development of the school’s physical infrastructure. These facilities would provide safe, secure and peaceful environments for guidance personnel and chaplains to engage with students.
Guidance in the school enhances the quality of the communications and linkages between the school and the school’s parent body. The guidance counsellors, for example, endeavour to involve parents in their daughter’s subject and other decision-making activities and they welcome individual parents to meet with them should they have any concerns in relation to their daughter’s progress or personal development. Presentations are made by the guidance counsellors at parent evenings on subject and programme choices, third level, further education and training courses, while members of the parents’ council assist in the organisation of an annual career event in the school. Parents also frequently assist students in preparation for work experience.
The school has a long established and robust system of student care and support in place which involves all staff and has the welfare of the student at its core. A student support or pastoral care team is in place which comprises management personnel, year heads, guidance counsellors, the home-school-community liaison co-ordinator and a school chaplain. The team meets formally every six weeks but informal meetings are held more frequently if required. A formal staff meeting is held annually to discuss issues around student support and the school’s teaching staff has managed to strike an excellent balance between their pastoral and discipline roles. The student mentoring programmes also play key roles in pastoral care. There are all commendable practices.
The following are the main strengths identified in the evaluation:
· In line with its mission statement, the ethos, policies and practices of Our Lady’s College fosters the holistic development of students in an inclusive, caring and respectful environment.
· The school has an effective and committed board of management which engages fully in the management and governance of the school.
· The principal is a very effective leader who supports, and receives the full support of, the entire school staff and the school community. The school’s senior management personnel work well together as a team; they have a shared vision for the school and roles are clearly defined. The school has a large middle management team with the majority of posts meeting the management and pastoral needs of the school.
· The school has committed and dedicated teachers who engage regularly in professional development courses, all encouraged and facilitated by management. In particular, the school is commended for the way in which it utilises its own in-house expertise to develop the capacity of its staff.
· Engagement in the School Development Planning Initiative (SDPI) has led to the development of a culture of planning in the school. A school plan, to include a five-year action plan, is in place and a wide range of policies support this plan. Subject department planning is also well established. Formal planning meetings are facilitated and attended by management on a regular basis and are recorded in detail, while informal meetings are also frequent.
· The school communicates regularly and effectively with its parent body and the parents’ council plays a very important role in the life of the school. In addition to providing financial assistance the council takes every opportunity to support projects that enhance student learning and school life.
· The school has an active student council whose membership is reflective of the entire student body. The council is an effective voice for students and is involved in a range of activities from policy development to fundraising and voluntary events.
· The school has a long established and effective pastoral care system in operation that has the welfare of the student at its core. A school care team is in place and staff have managed to strike an excellent balance between their pastoral and discipline roles. The school chaplains and the student mentoring programme play key roles in pastoral care.
· Our Lady’s College has strong links with a wide range of bodies and groups in the local community. At the kernel of these links lies the objective of providing students with a positive educational experience.
· The school buildings and grounds are well maintained and this contributes to the creation of a positive and stimulating learning environment. Corridors and classrooms were kept clean and tidy and, where feasible, were also well decorated with posters and displays of students’ work.
· The school offers a broad curriculum. Students and parents are well informed of the programmes and subjects on offer in the school. The school’s board of studies, which monitors and advises on curricular matters, represents good practice.
· An extensive co-curricular and extra-curricular programme operates in the school. The school has achieved national and local success on numerous occasions in a range of sports and other activities. The voluntary input of staff in respect of these activities is highly commended.
· Teacher planning and preparation for those lessons observed was of a very high standard. Planning for the use of available resources was particularly striking, as was the level and quality of teacher generated resources.
· The quality of teaching and learning was very strong in the majority of those classrooms visited. In these lessons teachers managed to use in an effective way a variety of teaching methods, ICT was integrated into the lessons, effective learning was taking place and students were regular affirmed for their efforts.
· Information and communications technology (ICT) is well integrated into the teaching and learning process in a variety of subject areas in the school. This is highly commendable.
· There was evidence that resources were targeted to support students with additional educational needs.
· There is a whole-school commitment to the provision of Guidance for all students in the school and there is good balance of provision between junior and senior cycles and between classroom guidance and individual counselling. Guidance planning in the school is a model of good practice.
As a means of building on these strengths and to address areas for development, the following key recommendations are made:
· The school’s general admissions policy and special educational needs policy should be revised to ensure that they are consistent with each another, and that they comply fully with the Equal Status Act 2000 and the Education Act 1998, as well as other current legislative requirements.
· A review of the areas attached to a small number of posts of responsibility should be conducted. In the context of this review consideration should be given to including in the schedule of posts responsibility for the integration of newcomer students and their families into the life of the school.
· The school timetabling structure should be reviewed with a view to enhancing the arrangements for students’ choice of subjects and programmes, and to facilitate future curricular developments.
· The board of studies should prioritise two particular aspects of the school’s curricular provision for attention and make recommendations to the board of management as appropriate. Firstly, the merits of introducing a technology subject into the school curriculum should be explored. Secondly, the board should instigate a review of certain aspects of the current TY programme in the school. The TY programme is not part of the Leaving Certificate programme, and should not be seen as an opportunity for spending three years studying Leaving Certificate material.
· In order to comply fully with rule 21.(1)(a) of Rule and Programmes for Secondary Schools, and in light of Circular Letter M2/95 which sets out the circumstances in which an individual student may repeat a year, it is recommended that the practice of providing a formal pre-first year class be discontinued following the 2008/2009 school year.
· Management should ensure that a copy of the school’s child protection procedures is provided to all categories of staff (including all new staff) and that all staff members are familiar with the procedures to be followed.
Post-evaluation meetings were held with the staff and board of management when the draft findings and recommendations of the evaluation were presented and discussed.
The following related Subject Inspection reports are available:
Published September 2008
Submitted by the Board of Management
Area 1: Observations on the content of the inspection report
The Board of Management welcomes this WSE report. It appreciates the professional manner in which the DES Evaluation team engaged with all the educational partners in our school and is gratified by the positive affirmation that is recorded in all sections of the report. The Board welcomes the constructive recommendations made, which will be addressed as part of our next five-year Development Plan, 2008-2013.
We are pleased that among aspects singled out for particular commendation are:
Area 2: Follow-up actions planned or undertaken since the completion of the inspection activity to implement the findings and recommendations of the inspection
The Board has noted all the recommendations made in this report. Some have already been addressed:
Under the direction of the Board, and in consultation with Parents and Students, all other recommendations will be addressed by management and staff over the lifetime of the new School Development Plan 2008-2013. The work of prioritising these recommendations, and further needs identified by the school, was initiated at a recent Staff In-service day facilitated by the regional SDPI Co-ordinator.
The Board is very disappointed by the recommendation that the school’s Pre-First Year class be discontinued after the current school year. The school believes that the class is a very effective model of early intervention for some students at the start of their secondary education.