An Roinn Oideachais agus Eolaíochta

Department of Education and Science

 

 Whole-School Evaluation

REPORT

 

Ursuline College

Sligo

Roll number: 65180T

 

Date of inspection: 26 January 2007

Date of issue of report: 17 January 2008

 

Whole-School Evaluation report

1. Introduction

2. The quality of school management

3. Quality of school planning

4. Quality of curriculum provision

5. Quality of learning and teaching in subjects

6. Quality of support for students

7. Summary of findings and recommendations for further development

8. Related subject inspection reports

 

 

 

Whole-School Evaluation report

 

This report has been written following a whole-school evaluation of Ursuline College, Sligo. 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 and the deputy principal, the teachers, the school’s board of management, and representatives of the parents’ association. The evaluation was conducted over a number of days during which inspectors visited classrooms and observed teaching and learning. They interacted with students and teachers, examined students’ 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.

 

 

1.         Introduction

 

Ursuline College is situated in Sligo town. It was founded in 1850 and is a privately owned Catholic secondary school for girls, under the trusteeship of the Irish Ursuline Union. It operates under the Department of Education and Science’s scheme for free education and is funded accordingly. The school catered for boarders until 1984. Ursuline College, Sligo is one of five Ursuline secondary schools in Ireland. The philosophy of the Ursuline education is based on the writings of St Angela Merici, foundress of the Ursuline congregation. Ursuline education is committed to the principle of collaboration and partnership between students, staff, parents, local community, management and trustees.

 

The school has a current enrolment of 595 girls and draws its students from five main feeder primary schools in Sligo town, as well as a number of rural schools within a ten-mile radius. Ursuline College is located in its own private grounds and the original school building is still in use. A recently completed extension has provided the school with much needed accommodation in the form of specialist and general purpose classrooms as well as a state-of-the-art gym. Unfortunately, the access to facilities in the convent section of the building which the school community enjoyed for many years is no longer possible due to the recent sale of that part of the building. This is a busy school with lots of very good work going on.

 

 

2.         The quality of school management

 

2.1          Characteristic spirit of the school

 

The school’s mission statement asserts that Ursuline College, Sligo “is a school where students are educated in partnership with parents in a Catholic and caring community, where each individual is respected as unique, where every aspect of the person is developed and where students are prepared to take their place in society as responsible citizens”.

 

The characteristic spirit of the school, which is concerned with the dignity, uniqueness and holistic development of each individual, is reflected in the school’s policies and draft policies, is integrated into all areas of the curriculum and is emulated in the daily practices and interactions in the school. It was noted that all members of the school community share an understanding of the ethos of the school and are committed to ensuring that the Ursuline tradition be continued. The inclusion of the mission statement and the Ursuline coat of arms in the student journal serves as an ongoing reminder to students of the school’s ethos.

 

Students referred to the school as a happy, open and friendly place with good support and a good spirit. Parents mentioned the caring ethos and acknowledged the care and support provided for their daughters. They appreciated the commitment of the staff, both inside and outside of the classroom, and the good relationships between staff and students. During the evaluation, the inspectors noted the courteousness and friendly manner of the students, both in the classrooms and on the corridors.

 

While the ethos of the school is Catholic, it respects the traditions of others and welcomes students from all denominations and backgrounds. Indeed the school reports that the growing number of newcomer students, currently representing sixteen culturally diverse nationalities, has greatly enriched its student population in recent years.

 

2.2          School ownership and management

 

A board of management has been in existence in the school since 1988. While the current board is in the first year of its tenure, some members, including the chairperson, have considerable experience having served several terms of office, thus ensuring continuity between boards. The principal and deputy principal attend board meetings as secretary and recording secretary respectively. The board is properly constituted under the Articles of Management for Catholic Secondary Schools. Commendably, the Ursuline Education Office provides ongoing training for board members. The board reports that careful attention is paid to A Manual for Boards of Management of Voluntary Secondary Schools in the implementation of its responsibilities. It is commendable that the chairperson and the secretary attend regular meetings of the Association of Management of Catholic Secondary Schools (AMCSS).

 

The board meets every month during the school year and additional meetings are organised when required. All members consider that the meetings are very transparent and all decisions are reached by consensus, following open discussion. Good communication is maintained with the teaching staff, the parents' association and the trustees through the provision of an agreed written report following each board meeting. This good practice is commended. Copies of the minutes of board of management meetings, dating back to 2001 were made available during the evaluation process and these provided a good insight into the work of the board over that period.

 

A supportive and collaborative relationship exists between the board and senior management. It is clear that the board of management is very committed and keenly interested in the operation and development of the school. During the evaluation, the principal acknowledged the significance of the board’s collective wisdom and expertise in supporting the management of the school. The board is kept informed of ongoing developments by means of the principal’s report. The board is guided by the principal who brings ideas and proposals for discussion to the meetings. While the board demonstrates very significant strengths in terms of its management functions, there is some evidence that it may not currently be realising its full potential for leadership and therefore, it is now timely for the board to take a stronger leadership role, thus avoiding the risk of over-dependence on the principal.

 

It is acknowledged that, in the last two years, much time and energy have been devoted at board meetings to the advancement of the school extension. As a result, the board has had limited involvement, to date, in relation to the development of the school plan. In order to meet the requirements of section 21(1) of the Education Act, 1998 it is recommended that the board of management should identify the key development priorities to be achieved over its three-year tenure. Arrangements should also be made to progress and formalise the school plan, particularly in terms of prioritising and preparing the policies for ratification by the board and in setting out a timeframe for this work. In this regard, account should be taken of the relevant and most recent legislation.

 

The trustees are very supportive of the work of the board and the school. Regular two-way contact is maintained through the trustee representatives on the board, as well as ongoing support from the Ursuline Education Office.

 

There is a long tradition of a parents' association in the school. However, the school reports that, while parents are very supportive of the school and events organised by the school, it is getting more difficult to get parents involved in the association. The representatives of the recently elected parents' association, who met with the inspectors, are enthusiastic and are very keen to become further involved in supporting the work of the school. They were also very appreciative of the principal’s support for their work through, for example, attendance at committee meetings. An active parents’ association is a rich resource and support for the school. In order to build on the enthusiasm of the current committee, it is recommended that the committee of the parents' association, with the support of the board and school management, works to reinvigorate the association by the involvement of a larger number of parents and thus provide a new impetus for involvement in school activities at all levels. As part of this, the parents' association might look at developing a plan of activities to encourage more parents to become involved. A column for the parents' association in the school newsletter could be used to reach out to the larger body of parents. Targeting the parents of incoming first years might be one way of increasing involvement in the association.

 

2.3          In-school management

 

The principal and deputy principal, as senior management, share a common vision of a school with a strong focus on the concept of community, where students are supported to reach their full potential and develop their strengths. There is a very good working relationship between the principal and the deputy principal and they are supportive of each other in fulfilling their roles. The principal is very dynamic, takes overall responsibility for the running of the school and continuously seeks ways of furthering its development. The principal is commended for the enormous amount of time and energy devoted to the recently completed school building project. The board and the parents’ association, in their meetings with the inspectors, expressed confidence in the principal and acknowledged the collaborative and open approach. The deputy principal’s responsibilities include the management of the supervision and substitution system, the rolls, reports for the in-house examinations as well as looking after new and substitute teachers.

 

The middle management team consists of nine assistant principals, one programme co-ordinator and fourteen special duties teachers. Their duties are clearly documented and there is an obvious commitment to supporting senior management in the efficient running of the school. In many cases, post holders have outlined a plan of work for the year ahead and there is evidence of very good record keeping of work completed on a week-by-week basis; such good practices are commended.

 

The present schedule of posts was devised in 1998 in consultation with the teaching staff. The schedule has been reviewed several times and some changes have been made to duties in order to meet the needs of the school. The recent appointment of a special duties teacher to look after and provide support for the growing number of newcomer students is a fine example of the school’s endeavours to provide for the changing needs of its student population. An examination of the schedule of posts illustrates that there is currently an imbalance in duties attaching to some of the middle management roles. As part of the school’s good practice of ongoing review, it is recommended that the duties attached to all middle management roles in the school should be reviewed by reference to Circular Letter PPT 29/02, Appendix 1. In addition to ensuring that the duties attached to posts meet the current needs and policy priorities of the school, attention should be given to ensuring a more even distribution of duties. Further devolution of responsibilities would also ease the load of the principal and, looking to the future, would provide additional opportunities to develop competence and leadership amongst post holders.

 

The year head system is very well established and has a high profile in the school. The majority of the year heads are assistant principals. They form an effective part of the middle management team. The good practice of encouraging autonomy amongst year heads is commended. It is also good to note that the assistant principals deputise for senior management as required. Apart from the year heads, it is unclear whether all of the post holders have an awareness of their role as middle management beyond the duties that they perform as part of their post. Formal meetings are held between senior management and year heads at the beginning of the school year, while senior management also meets with other post holders, individually and in small groups, from time to time. In order to improve cohesion amongst the middle management team and to develop awareness amongst all post holders of their important role as middle management, it is recommended that opportunities be provided for meetings of all post holders with senior management. Such meetings might take place at the beginning and end of the school year. Consideration might also be given to the provision of training for all post holders in order to explore their role as middle management.

 

There is evidence of excellent communication and support among teaching staff and between the teaching staff and senior management. A strong spirit of collegiality and teamwork characterises the working relationships amongst staff members. Care and support for teachers is evident through, for example, an induction programme for new teachers provided through the Irish Ursuline Union. Staff meetings are held regularly throughout the year and in keeping with the excellent practice for all meetings in the school, these meetings are minuted.

 

In keeping with the Ursuline tradition and the school’s mission statement, the school adopts a positive, caring and pastoral approach to the management of students. The year heads play a key role in this area and they share a common vision of their duties, where the focus is on the development of the whole person. Commendably, the year heads maintain very close links with the class tutors and regular meetings are held between the year head and the class tutors of the respective year groups. Students’ progress is monitored through a review of the reports from the in-house examinations. Where there are concerns regarding a student’s progress, the principal and the year head meet with the student to review progress, and to support them in the development of an action plan.

 

Effective systems are in place to track students’ absences and late arrival to school and class, and to communicate these to parents. Commendably, the deputy principal has provided training for the year heads to complete and monitor this process electronically. The code of behaviour, which is signed by parents and students on admission to the school, is anchored on the principle of respect. Opportunities are sought to promote and affirm positive student behaviour throughout the school.

 

The student journal is a useful means of maintaining ongoing two-way contact between home and school. Parents indicated that they felt very free to make contact with the school at any time and they were very appreciative of the open-door policy of the principal and the caring supportive role of teachers. The quarterly newsletter is an effective means of keeping the whole parent body in touch with developments and activities in the school as well as a means of announcing and celebrating student achievement. The weekly Champion in the Classroom column in the local newspaper is used successfully to convey the activities and successes of students to parents and the wider community. A very high quality school magazine that records and celebrates the activities of the school and its students is produced annually. All concerned are applauded for their efforts to involve many students in activities such as the production of the newspaper column and the school magazine. Good contacts have been established with the business community through, for example, the provision of work experience and sponsorship of a range of school activities. Important links have also been established with the two third-level institutions in the town, Sligo Institute of Technology (IT) and St Angela’s College, as well as a range of other services and organisations.

 

2.4          Management of resources

 

The ability to provide appropriately for students’ needs is an ongoing priority for management. The school’s staffing allocation from the Department for the current school year is 46.96 wholetime teacher equivalents (WTE) which includes the ex-quota posts of principal, deputy principal, learning support and a 1.27 allocation for Guidance. Concessions are also included for supporting students with special educational needs and those from minority groupings. However, the school is also dependent on concessionary hours for Spanish and Physical Education to maintain the present level of curriculum provision. In addition to the allocation from the Department, the board of management provides some funding for staffing as required. In particular, a school chaplain, home-school liaison teacher and a matron are available to support students and their parents, thanks to the generosity of the board.

 

In the main, the deployment of teaching staff is consistent with teachers’ qualifications, expertise and experience. Classes are allocated to teachers by the principal and within the relevant subject departments teachers collaborate and agree responsibility for higher and ordinary level classes. Staff are encouraged and facilitated by the board of management to avail of continuing professional development (CPD) in the form of in-service for syllabus and programme review and for a range of courses that have direct benefits for the students and the school. The provision of whole-staff in-service on topics related to teaching and learning is a commendable feature of staff development in the school. 

 

The school plant comprises a number of buildings, ranging from those that are more than one hundred and fifty years old to the recently completed extension. As a result, there is wide variation in the general standard of facilities. In the oldest section of the building, classrooms are small and corridors and stairways are very narrow. Apart from the specialist rooms, students remain classroom-based while teachers move from room to room. Management acknowledges that this situation does not facilitate the display of subject-specific materials and students’ work in classrooms and it means that teachers have to transport resources, and sometimes equipment, from room to room. However, this arrangement is necessary from a health and safety perspective.

 

The recently completed building project provided the school with much needed accommodation in the form of a state-of-the-art gymnasium, two art rooms, two home economics rooms, one science laboratory, one music room, one geography room and a number of general classrooms. In addition, the existing home economics room, the guidance suite and the computer facilities were refurbished and upgraded. The school library was formerly housed in the convent section of the building, thanks to the generosity of the Ursuline Community. Due to the recent sale of the convent, the library has been temporarily moved to a classroom. The school has ambitions, depending on the receipt of some grant aid, to renovate the former church to house the library. Commendably, a team of senior students has been trained as librarians and they work under the guidance of a special duties teacher.

 

As part of its ongoing efforts to further develop and improve facilities for students, management has prioritised the improvement of facilities for Technology and the provision of canteen facilities for students as the next projects to be undertaken. Due to the absence of canteen facilities, students have no option but to eat their lunch in classrooms or leave the school premises during lunchtime. The representatives of the parents' association and the students in their meetings with the inspectors, as well as senior management and many staff members, expressed the need for canteen facilities in the school. 

 

Fundraising is ongoing for the development of facilities and the maintenance of the school buildings. There is no annual budget allocated to subject departments, but resources to support teaching and learning are generally provided on request.

 

The reception desk located at the main entrance of the school building provides a welcoming focal point for students, staff, parents and visitors. The display of photographs of key personnel, including management, year heads, office staff, the chaplain and the home-school liaison teacher, as well as members of the student council and the sports council, is a useful source of information for students and their parents. It is obvious that the secretarial staff provides effective and valuable support for the day-to-day running of the school and they are commended in this regard. All those involved, and particularly the caretaking and the cleaning staff, are commended for their efforts to maintain the school to a high standard. Notice boards and photographic displays celebrating student achievement enhance the public areas of the school. The school is involved in recycling and the plans of the green school committee to attain the An Taisce Green Flag are encouraged and commended. An eye-catching organic hedgehog-shaped sculpture, with surrounding plants, in the school grounds has recently become the focus of attention. The transition year students constructed this as part of an art module.

 

Coordination of information and communication technology (ICT) is the responsibility of one of the special duties teachers who has a lot of expertise in this area. The ICT facilities have been upgraded in recent years, broadband is available in the school and all computers are networked. Commendably all hardware and software is catalogued. It is noted that an ICT plan and an Acceptable Usage Policy (AUP) have been developed. Students have supervised access to the internet, provided their parents have given permission and signed the AUP. Many staff members have developed a high degree of skill in ICT and there is a very good level of interest amongst the teaching staff in integrating ICT into teaching and learning; it is important to build on this enthusiasm.

 

During the evaluation, a number of second year and transition year students, under the guidance of a teacher, were heavily involved in the development of the school’s website. This was at a very advanced stage and when completed will serve as another source for the dissemination of information about the school to current and prospective students, parents and the wider community. It is noted that very strong links have been developed with the ICT staff in Sligo Education Centre and the school particularly acknowledges the support received from the education centre in the development of the website. Ursuline College is also involved in an eTwinning project with two partner schools in France and Italy. Activities such as these provide students with valuable opportunities for the development and application of their ICT skills and are strongly commended.

 

A safety statement has been produced that includes the identification of hazards and risks as well as a record of the remedial actions taken. One of the assistant principals is the designated health and safety officer and close links are maintained with senior management and the caretaking staff with regard to the maintenance of health and safety. It is noted that a specific code of behaviour has been developed for each of the practical subject classrooms to ensure high standards of health and safety. As part of the school’s plans to keep the safety statement updated, and in line with the review of all polices recommended in section 2.2 of this report, cognisance should be taken of the most recent legislation. In this regard, the Safety, Health and Welfare at Work Act, 2005 should be considered.

 

 

3.         Quality of school planning

 

The formal process of school development planning began in 2003. A number of policies on areas such as homework, health and safety, code of discipline, classroom management and relationships and sexuality education (RSE) had been developed prior to this date. In the initial stages, key areas were prioritised and the teaching staff was divided into working groups, with an assistant principal leading each group. A number of policies were drafted and presented to the whole teaching staff for discussion and feedback. In some cases, policies were built around what already was practice in the school. The school has engaged with the School Development Planning Initiative (SDPI) through whole-staff input and by attendance at the regional seminars organised by the SDPI. Following engagement with the SDPI, a planning committee was established in 2005. To date, the history, mission statement and aims of the school, as well as a very wide array of draft policy documents, focusing on the organisational and curricular aspects of the school have been developed.

 

The school reports that, to date, each member of staff has been involved in the specific development work on at least three policies. Commendably, detailed records of the processes and procedures in relation to school development planning have been maintained. To date, parents and students have had very limited input into planning and policy development. It is therefore recommended that parents and students, through their representative bodies, should be given the opportunity to contribute to all future policy development and review.

 

It is evident that a good deal has been achieved in the area of school planning and much of the documentation as well as the draft policies already generated are included in a folder entitled The School Plan. The plan and particularly the majority of the draft policies, although ready for ratification, have not yet been ratified and adopted by the board of management. As outlined in Section 2.2 of this report, due to the time devoted to the management of the building project, the board of management has so far ratified only two policies. However, it is recommended that the focus should now be on prioritising and progressing the school plan, including the draft policies for ratification by the board within a planned timeframe. The policies, when ratified, will form a major part of the relatively permanent features (part 1) of the school plan. It should be noted that the anti-bullying policy, in particular, would benefit from further development, before being ratified. An anti-bullying policy template together with useful guidance and information regarding the development of an anti-bullying policy is available at www.education.ie (click on education personnel and then on school policies and plans).

 

While the developmental section (part 2) of the school plan is not comprehensively documented, there is no doubt that much development is occurring and discussions with members of the school community during the evaluation indicated that a number of key development priorities have been identified. Further work on the developmental section of the school plan, by charting and prioritising the key development targets and outlining action plans and timeframes, will provide a clear roadmap for the school in ensuring that progress is made, while at the same time maintaining a balance between the pace of change and the enthusiasm to reach targets. It will also raise awareness of what has been achieved and provide an effective means for the school to engage in self-evaluation. Useful guidance and information on the development of the school plan is available at www.sdpi.ie

 

Evidence was provided to confirm that the board of management and staff have taken appropriate steps to develop a policy in line with the provisions in Children First: National Guidelines for the Protection and Welfare of Children (Department of Health and Children, 1999, updated issue May 2004) and Child Protection Guidelines for Post-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 policy. A designated liaison person (DLP) has been appointed in line with the requirements of the Departmental guidelines. However, since the briefing session was provided to staff, a number of new teachers have joined the staff. It is therefore recommended that the briefing session on the Child Protection Guidelines should be provided for new teachers who have not yet received it, and for the non-teaching staff. All staff should also be reminded of who the DLP and deputy DLP are and what their roles entail.

 

In recent times, the focus of planning has moved to curriculum planning. While there is a long tradition of subject departments working together in the school, subject department planning was formally initiated in 2005. Many subject department plans, varying in their stages of development, were made available during the evaluation. Further information on subject planning in relation to the subjects evaluated, is available in Section 5.1 of this report. Specific details on planning in each of the four subjects evaluated as part of this whole-school evaluation are available in the subject inspection reports that accompany this report.

 

It is to be noted that the subject plan for Social, Personal and Health Education (SPHE) in junior cycle requires further development. It is recommended that the subject plan should outline the topics to be covered under each module, in first, second and third year, on a term-by-term basis. The specific learning outcomes should then be defined for each topic. This approach would result in a coherent document that provides a clear overview of the content of the school’s SPHE programme for the entire three-year cycle. It will also ensure that key aspects of a particular module are not omitted, especially when a class group might have a change of teacher from year to year. In addition, modules can be revisited without becoming repetitive over the three-year cycle, thus ensuring a spiral and developmental approach to the delivery of the SPHE programme. The junior cycle SPHE syllabus should be used as a flexible framework when planning the three-year programme. The SPHE team should also find the exemplar programme outlines and the templates in the SPHE Guidelines for Teachers useful in this process.

 

A number of outside agencies and personnel are involved in the delivery of programmes on topics such as anti-bullying, drug education and study skills. It is recommended that there be close co-ordination and planning between personnel delivering these courses and the SPHE team in the school so that, in accordance with best practice, the topics remain anchored in the SPHE programme. Outside personnel should always be guided by the school, in terms of content and delivery. These programmes should be documented in the SPHE subject plan. It is further recommended that there should be close collaboration and planning between those involved in the planning and delivery of RSE and SPHE in junior cycle.

 

Discussions with management and staff during the evaluation indicated that there is a very positive approach to planning and that the planning process has energised the staff, enhanced motivation and professional development and has created awareness of the impact of legislation in key areas of school life. It has also resulted in subject departments sharing good practice in terms of methodologies and resources. It is clear that there is a whole-staff approach to planning and staff members are commended in this regard.

 

 

4.         Quality of curriculum provision

 

4.1          Curriculum planning and organisation

 

It is laudable that the school’s mission statement is a determining factor in the process of curriculum planning and organisation. The school is continuously evaluating and reviewing the curriculum in terms of meeting the needs of its students. It is noted that all programmes and subjects are available to all students and the school attributes its low dropout rate from school to the fact that every effort is made to meet the needs of students in terms of curriculum provision. The curriculum is broad and balanced and complies with the Rules and Programmes for Secondary Schools. The programmes currently on offer are the Junior Certificate, Established Leaving Certificate (ELC), Leaving Certificate Vocational Programme (LCVP) and the Transition Year (TY) programme which is optional.

 

The TY programme and the LCVP are well established in the school and planning for these programmes is at a very advanced stage. The process of an annual evaluation of the TY programme, involving all partners (students, teachers and parents) is a commendable initiative and plays an important role in informing programme planning in the subsequent year. It is good practice that the LCVP and the TY co-ordinators have formed effective links with the guidance counsellor and the core team involved in each case in the planning and implementation of the programmes. 

 

The school is commended for the wide range of subjects available to students, including the provision of Chemistry, Physics and Biology in senior cycle and Technology in junior cycle. In accordance with the needs and preferences of students, the school is open to the introduction of new subjects such as Japanese, which was introduced to senior cycle through the Post-Primary Languages Initiative. Applied Mathematics was introduced in the current year outside of school time, due to requests from students. In senior cycle, for example, students can choose from fifteen optional subjects. This includes the four modern languages: French, German, Spanish and Japanese.

 

In junior cycle, while a taster programme is not in place, students have the opportunity of dropping one subject at the end of first year. It is commendable that French, German and Spanish are available in junior cycle. Science is a compulsory subject in junior cycle, while Business Studies is compulsory in first year only. At the end of first year, junior cycle students choose three optional subjects from a pool of eight; this pool includes the three modern languages. In compliance with the requirements of CL M11/03 SPHE is timetabled for all junior cycle students for one class period per week. In addition, RSE is provided in junior cycle as part of SPHE and Lifeskills is provided in senior cycle. The school provides Singing for all students in accordance with Rule 20 of the Rules and Programmes.

 

A perusal of the current subject groupings for the option subjects in both junior and senior cycles indicates that the groupings do not vary too much from year to year, although the school reports that the majority of students get their choice regarding subjects. Of what would be considered the non-traditional subjects for girls, Technology in junior cycle is the one subject offered. The school’s plans to develop the facilities for Technology are to be welcomed as a means of encouraging students to look at non-traditional choices, in keeping with the spirit of section 9(e) of the Education Act, 1998.

 

An examination of the timetable indicates that the school day is made up of a series of thirty-five and forty minute lesson periods, arranged in three blocks of three. However, apart from the first lesson period in the morning, the forty-minute periods are timetabled for the last three lessons of the day. It is to be noted that this sometimes results in an uneven distribution of time amongst subjects. In particular, where practical subjects are timetabled for a double period before lunchtime, they only have seventy minutes of class contact time as opposed to a possible eighty minutes if they were timetabled after lunchtime. A review of the sequence of the thirty-five and forty minute class periods throughout the day should be carried out in order to ensure a more equal distribution of time for all subjects. In sixth year, the core subjects English, Irish and Mathematics, in the main, are timetabled in the earlier part of the day throughout the week. The school reports that the rationale for this arrangement is that students are generally fresher in the morning. The three core subjects have a time allocation of six thirty-five minute periods while the majority of the optional subjects have five forty minute periods per week. In time, the school should review the practice of timetabling the core subjects for sixth years in the earlier part of the day to see if this practice is proving beneficial for both core and optional subjects.

 

Lessons finish twenty minutes earlier every Wednesday to facilitate a short staff meeting. An examination of the minutes provides evidence that the meetings are both informative and very productive. While acknowledging the enormous value of these meetings and indeed recognising the commitment of the teaching staff in that the meetings often impact on teachers’ own time, it is noted that the arrangements for this practice result in timetabling arrangements that fall short of what is required to ensure that all students have access to twenty-eight class contact hours per week. It is therefore recommended that the content of CL M29/95 be closely examined in the context of timetabling for subsequent school years.

 

4.2          Arrangements for students’ choice of subjects and programmes

 

There is a very comprehensive and well-established induction programme for first years. This includes initial visits to the feeder primary schools by members of staff in advance of an open day for incoming first years and their parents. It is noted that the staff members are available to answer questions from parents and students at the open day. The learning-support coordinator also visits the feeder schools in advance to determine the special facilities and resources that students may need. On arrival in the school, an induction day provides students with further support to help them settle into school and this is followed by an information evening for their parents in early September. While students are supported by the guidance counsellor when making choices at the end of first year, and the guidance counsellor is available to students and their parents, there is no formal input on subject choice from the guidance counsellor at the open day or the information evening. It is recommended that there is a formal guidance input at information evenings, when students are making choices regarding subjects and when choosing levels for the Junior Certificate.

 

Information evenings are organised to provide third-year students and their parents with information and advice in relation to choice of subjects and programmes for senior cycle. The guidance counsellor provides the students and their parents with a comprehensive package of information on the subject options at the end of third year. However, the parents' association, in their meeting with the evaluation team, said that they would value a formal input on careers and courses to enhance the existing information provided for senior cycle students.

 

It is commendable that the school is committed to facilitating students in accessing the most appropriate level in core subjects through the concurrent timetabling, as far as possible, of lessons in Mathematics, English and Irish, particularly in senior cycle.

 

4.3          Co-curricular and extra-curricular provision

 

In keeping with the sentiments expressed in the school’s mission statement and as an example of how the school lives out its characteristic spirit, students are offered a very broad variety of co-curricular and extra-curricular activities that are of a sporting, artistic, community, cultural and social nature. The activities are open to all students in the school and provision is heavily reliant on the ongoing generosity and dedication of many staff members and supported by a large number of senior students. The board of management, parents' association and the student council, in their meetings with the inspectors, expressed their appreciation for the contribution of the many teachers involved and particularly their enthusiasm and commitment to activities at lunchtimes and after school. The school is justifiably proud of its long and ongoing tradition of participation in, and of the many successes achieved at provincial, national and international level, in many of the co-curricular and extra-curricular activities.

 

Students’ experience of the curriculum is enriched by their participation in an extensive array of co-curricular activities, many of which are detailed in the subject inspection reports that accompany this report. There is a long tradition of success in debating and public speaking in competitions organised by, for example, the Soroptomists and the Mental Health Association of Ireland. Some of these competitions have culminated in visits to the European parliament. In the last few years, students have had much success in the Rotary Youth Leadership competition. Poetry recitation and the Yeats competition, membership of the junior film society, visits to the theatre and the Gaeltacht, school tours, participation in the local St Patrick’s day parade, Seachtain na Gaeilge, RoboCup Ireland and Science Week provide students with enjoyable and challenging opportunities to extend their learning beyond the classroom. A group of senior students was recently successful in gaining second place in the Physics section of the 2007 Young Scientist and Technology Exhibition with a project entitled Using Technology to Measure the Safety of Microwave Ovens.

 

The school has a very proud musical tradition. The school musical and the Stars in Your Eyes competition expose students to the world of theatre and stage. Gaisce, the President’s Award is long established in the school and provides students with opportunities to complete a variety of personal challenges. Seven bronze and twenty-one silver awards were recently presented to students from Ursuline College. Participation in the Comenius project enabled students form links with partner schools in Poland, Northern Ireland and Romania. The production of the annual school magazine and the newsletter along with the transition year mini companies help students develop research, entrepreneurial, journalistic and teamwork skills.

 

Despite the absence of an astro-turf pitch and the costs involved in hiring buses and an astro-turf pitch, students have achieved lots of success in the sporting arena. There is a very long tradition of hockey in the school and students can participate in Gaelic football, handball, athletics, basketball, swimming, squash, badminton, tennis and yoga. It is commendable that the physical education department tries to introduce students to a new sport every year; the most recent one is Olympic handball. The operation of the Girls Active programme provides further opportunities for the students to take part in a range of non-competitive sports. The first year clubs, which are detailed later in this report, are a wonderful social event for first-year students as well as introducing them to a wide range of extra-curricular activities. The school is commended for its excellent efforts to foster leadership, responsibility and develop confidence in the many senior students who assist with activities such as coaching younger students in a variety of sporting activities. Parents are also very supportive in helping to transport students to and from events, while the parents' association and the student council make an important contribution in relation to fund-raising.

 

Students are encouraged and facilitated by the school to contribute to their local community and the wider community. The many activities to help students develop a social conscience include the annual Mission project for Kenya, the preparation of hampers for those in need, carol singing to raise funds for the St Vincent de Paul society, the Shoebox for Romania, Fair Trade, Guide Dogs for the Blind, Concern and Trócaire. A successful and very significant event in the life of the school was the organisation of a Skipathon to raise money for medical research as a tribute to a first-year student who had recently lost her battle with cancer.

 

 

5.         Quality of learning and teaching in subjects

 

5.1          Planning and preparation

 

Teachers in each of the subject areas are organised into formal subject departments and a high level of teamwork was in evidence among teachers in all of the subject areas evaluated. Each department has a recognised co-ordinator who acts in a voluntary capacity. As part of school development planning, management facilitates subject department planning through the provision of formal time for meetings. Good practice was observed in some departments where agendas and minutes were available for these formal meetings. There is potential to extend this practice among all subject departments. There are also frequent informal and casual meetings of departments which is praiseworthy.

 

Long-term subject planning in the subjects inspected was based on the SDPI templates. Considerable thought has been given to both long-term and short-term planning in some subject departments while other areas are in need of more detailed planning. This could include items such as topics to be taught on a term-by-term basis, desired learning outcomes, teaching and learning strategies to be implemented, as well as assessment. A mechanism for review, in order to evaluate progress, should also be included.

 

Transition year plans were presented for a number of subjects and some were described as creative and ambitious. ICT has been used as part of the TY module in some subjects and there is opportunity to explore its potential as a valuable teaching and learning tool in further lessons. Exploring the guidelines, Writing the Transition Year Programme, available at www.slss.ie could further enhance the TY plans.

 

Short-term planning was effective and included pre-prepared materials and resources. This attention to planning served to enhance the teaching and learning in each lesson and these resources were most effective when they were tailored to suit the abilities of the individuals in the class groups.

 

5.2          Teaching and learning

 

In classrooms visited during the inspection, the content and pace of lessons were appropriate and in line with syllabus requirements. Students were, in all cases, attentive and there was a respectful atmosphere between teachers and students. There was regular affirmation of students and a high level of engagement in class work. In some classrooms, a print-rich environment consisting of subject related materials and student work served to create a stimulating learning environment. This practice is commended and its wider use is recommended.

 

While traditional-style teaching predominated in some lessons, a commendable range of learning strategies and methodologies was observed in many classes. Given the variety of student learning styles it is recommended that teachers work to develop active learning strategies, including the use of ICT, and their gradual incorporation into lessons in all subject areas. A focus on the integration of ICT into teaching and learning will build on teachers’ interest and enthusiasm in this area and capitalise on the high degree of skill among staff members, already referred to in Section 2.4 of this report.

 

In a number of lessons, teachers communicated the day’s learning objectives to the students. This can be very motivating for students and it can encourage a sense of self-awareness with regard to progress and achievement in the subject. It is therefore recommended that all teachers begin lessons by explicitly sharing the lesson objectives and conclude with the marking off of their achievement. 

 

Questioning was used effectively as a means of engaging students in the learning activity, to check understanding and to encourage students to form personal opinions. On occasion, questions were directed to individual students. This is commended as an effective method of monitoring individual student learning. In some lessons, good efforts were made to present knowledge in a style that related to students’ everyday lives, stimulating interest and encouraging engagement. Interaction with students and observation of student work showed good knowledge of the lesson content by the majority of students.

 

Classroom management was good in all lessons. The good practice of calling the roll at the beginning of lessons was noted. In the lessons observed explanations and instructions were clear and accurate. In practical lessons appropriate health and safety regulations were adhered to and students displayed good routines in preparing for and clearing away after the various tasks. While teachers engaged principally in whole-class teaching, high levels of attention were given to individual students during periods of student engagement with class-work. 

 

5.3          Assessment

 

In the subjects observed a range of assessment techniques was in evidence in the Ursuline College. These included focussed questioning, the provision of feedback during lessons and student self-assessment. Formal assessment of students’ progress is carried out predominantly through the administration of class tests and term examinations. It is commendable that there is widespread use of common test papers in all subject departments where applicable. It is recommended that teachers of practical subjects consider including an allocation of marks for the practical components of the syllabuses within these common test results. This would ensure that the range of assessment modes reflects the assessment objectives of the syllabus and provides a more accurate indicator of a student’s ability in the subject. Records of student attainment in class tests, maintained by teachers, provide a good source of information for feedback to parents, and assist students in making subject and level choices in the certificate examinations.

 

Parents are kept informed of student progress through the school journal, parent-teacher meetings and when formal examinations are held for all students, at Christmas and at the end of the school year, reports issue to parents. An additional progress report is issued at Easter to parents of third and sixth-year students. The sixth-year year head and the principal meet with sixth-year students and their parents to discuss progress and devise action plans, as necessary. This monitoring is commended.

 

An examination of a sample of student copybooks indicated appropriate work, generally of a high standard. There was evidence of homework being assigned and monitored regularly. This is commended. In some cases, formative notes were observed on student work. This good practice is commended as it gives direction to students and it is recommended that all subject departments adopt this approach. Teachers are also encouraged to further explore assessment for learning strategies. Assistance in this regard may be obtained from colleagues who are already using this approach and at www.ncca.ie

 

 

6.         Quality of support for students

 

6.1          Students with special educational needs

 

Ursuline College welcomes all students and supports the principles of inclusiveness and equality of access for all. The school’s commitment is evident in the very commendable whole-school approach to the planning and delivery of support for students with special educational needs. The provision of whole-staff in-service training on areas such as autism, differentiated learning and hearing impairment is commended.

 

The special educational needs department has a strong profile in the school and it is reported that there is very good support from management. The school makes full use of its allocation of hours for resource teaching and learning support. In addition to the learning-support teacher and the resource teacher a further eleven teachers are involved, to a lesser extent, in the delivery of support to students, either on a one-to-one basis or in small groups. Close liaison with feeder primary schools and with parents provides the school with information about individual students’ needs and these are confirmed either through psychological testing or by a combination of the in-school testing programme and teacher assessments in the first month of first year.

 

Planning in this department is well advanced and a special educational needs policy has been developed. It is recommended that in the review of this policy, cognisance should be taken of the most current legislation, and particularly the Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs (EPSEN) Act, 2004. The special educational needs department is co-ordinated in an efficient and committed manner and there is a good sense of teamwork. A close working relationship has been established between the learning support and resource teachers who meet on a very regular basis. The very good practice of maintaining two-way communication with the teachers of mainstream subjects is commended. It is clear that close contact is also maintained with senior management, the special-needs assistant, the guidance counsellor and the year heads as necessary. The school liaises regularly with parents. The school’s good practice of methodical record keeping extends to the special educational needs department. It is noted that detailed records are kept of all contacts with parents, students and teachers and there is good evidence of the tracking of students’ progress from first year through to senior cycle. The teachers concerned are commended for the work involved in the preparation and updating of student profiles and in the preparation of individual education plans. Observation of practice in the classroom indicated that students are being challenged in their work. This is not necessarily matched in all of the written profiles for students. Ongoing monitoring, review and updating is necessary to ensure that the targets set for students in the written student profiles are sufficiently challenging.

 

In addition to the provision of learning support for students who may have a deficit in numeracy or literacy or both, supplementary teaching is available in Science, Biology and Business for students who require some extra support with particular aspects of the subject. Students attend on the recommendation of the class teacher or their parents or they self-refer. While they are encouraged to return to mainstream as quickly as possible, it appears that some students become more comfortable in the smaller class groups. It is therefore recommended that the school monitors and evaluates the progress of students receiving extra academic support to ensure efficient and appropriate use of resources and to avoid over-dependency on this extra tuition. The school has developed effective links with, and avails of the services of, a range of outside agencies including the Special Education Needs Organiser (SENO), the National Educational Psychological Service (NEPS), the visiting teachers for the visually impaired and the hearing impaired and the relevant occupational and speech therapists.

 

6.2          Other supports for students: (Disadvantaged, minority and other groups)

 

In line with its characteristic spirit, the school welcomes students from minority backgrounds. Enormous efforts are made to integrate all students, irrespective of class, creed or culture. To ensure that all students can participate in the full range of activities available in the school, students from disadvantaged backgrounds are provided with financial support in a sensitive and confidential manner. The school has a very small Traveller population and good links have been established with the visiting teacher for Travellers (VTT).

 

Special measures and effective supports have been put in place to meet the needs of the increasing number of newcomer students currently representing sixteen different nationalities. An allocation of 0.54 WTE from the Department is used to provide language support for students whose first language is not English. A two-week immersion programme was used successfully for some non-English speaking students following their arrival in the school. As the school continues to meet the language support needs of its newcomer students, it might avail of the many supports provided by Integrate Ireland Language and Training (IILT). The range of support materials available from IILT (www.iilt.ie) for post-primary schools includes English language proficiency benchmarks to assess students’ language proficiency and consequently plan, implement, and monitor an appropriate programme of language support.

 

During the evaluation, the inspectors visited a lunchtime meeting of newcomer students. Once a week the students meet together under the guidance of a special duties teacher. This is a most praiseworthy initiative which was introduced to look after and support the growing number of newcomer students, to help them settle into the school and thus facilitate their integration. In addition to aiding students’ personal and social development, the meetings are also used as opportunities to share and celebrate the culture, customs and traditions of the different nationalities. Consideration should be given to using some of the activities of these weekly meetings to reach out to the newcomer parent population of the school. The National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA) publication Intercultural Education in the Post-Primary School should also prove a useful resource for the school in further providing for the inclusion of newcomer students and their parents.

 

While the school does not have an allocation from the Department for a home-school-community liaison co-ordinator, the board of management generously subsidises a home-school liaison teacher who acts as a very effective two-way link between home and school for first-year students and their parents. The parents, who met with the inspectors, acknowledged the valuable supports provided and the time invested by the home-school liaison teacher in visiting the homes of all of the first-year students.

 

6.3          Guidance

 

Ursuline College receives an ex-quota allocation of twenty-eight hours (1.27 WTE) for Guidance. In addition to the qualified guidance counsellor, two part-time members of staff are currently involved in delivering the guidance programmes. As there are two other members of staff with a recognised qualification in Guidance, it is recommended that the school explores how timetabled hours could be arranged so that the total ex-quota allocation for the provision of Guidance is delivered by qualified guidance counsellors in the next and subsequent years. In the meantime, delivery of the guidance provision in the current year would be enhanced by further collaborative and cohesive planning among current personnel, under the direction of the qualified guidance counsellor and including, for example, those delivering SPHE in junior cycle, and Lifeskills in senior cycle.

 

It is commendable that the guidance counsellor avails of the ongoing in-service at local level provided by the Institute of Guidance Counsellors as well as the counselling supervision and a range of appropriate continuing professional development courses. In addition to the effective liaison with outside agencies already referred to in other sections of this report, good links have been established with the Access programme in St Angela’s College and the Breaking the Mould programme in Sligo IT.

 

Personnel from outside agencies, for the most part, provide individual counselling for students. As an example, the Youth Liaison Officer (YLO), from Sligo Youth Service, visits the school one day per week to work with students. The YLO links with class tutors, year heads, the chaplain and senior management as appropriate, but there is very little collaboration with the guidance counsellor. It is recommended that this issue be addressed and that an exploration of the roles of the YLO and the guidance counsellor should take place.

 

A guidance-planning group has been established and a good deal of work has been completed to date on the guidance plan. It includes, for example, the supports currently available to first, second and third years. It is recommended that the guidance plan should be progressed by carrying out a review of current provision and delivery, doing an analysis of students’ needs, identifying the gaps and overlaps and prioritising. The planning group should be led by the guidance counsellor in order to ensure a cohesive guidance programme. Apart from the guidance counsellor, management and staff, the planning group could include representatives from the parents' association, the student council and the local business community. In the course of the guidance planning process, the school should address the imbalance in guidance provision between junior and senior cycles and review the counselling provision for students. The document Planning the School’s Guidance Programme together with a policy template for the development of a guidance plan available at www.education.ie may prove useful in progressing the guidance plan.

 

The recent refurbishment of the guidance suite has resulted in excellent facilities for the delivery of Guidance. This consists of a careers’ library and classroom with a suite of twelve computers with broadband access as well as an adjoining office.

 

6.4          Pastoral care

 

There is very good care and support for students in Ursuline College. Pastoral care, supported by a high level of staff dedication and commitment, is an important component of the support structures available to students. All members of the school community from senior management through to the student council play an important role in pastoral care. The school is commended for the provision of a chaplain, home-school liaison teacher and a matron who provide valuable supports for students. During the evaluation, students stated that they have lots of people in the school that they could turn to for advice and support if they were in difficulty. A pastoral care policy commendably outlines the roles of the individuals involved in delivery. A critical incident response policy is also in place and it is recommended that it be further developed to include input from the network of local schools and NEPS.

 

While it is acknowledged that many individual members of the pastoral care team meet in small groups and with the principal, to share information and to discuss student needs, it is recommended that the pastoral care team structure be formalised to facilitate the transfer of information on students and the early identification of those in need of extra support. This should include regular minuted meetings and ensure liaison among all of those involved in pastoral care. Such a structure will consolidate the very good work already being done by individuals and small groups.

 

The school chaplain is a very visible presence on the corridors and plays an important role in the provision of personal and spiritual support to students. A comprehensive programme of liturgical seasons, events and celebrations takes place throughout the school year, with the Graduation Mass as a particular highlight for the students who are leaving the school.

 

Junior and senior student councils have been established and are guided by two link teachers. The ceremony with the blessing and presentation of the badges and the making of a pledge to serve signifies the seriousness of their roles in the school. The councils meet separately and together, and they have identified the promotion of healthy living as their objective for this school year. There is also a prefect system in the school and the head girl is the president of the senior student council. While students have acted in a secretarial capacity at meetings, no officers have been elected to the student councils apart from the president. The link teachers sometimes chair the meetings. The council does not yet have a constitution. It is recommended that the current structures of the student council be reviewed.

 

There is a sports council with representatives from each class and it has a mandate for the promotion of sport in the school. Its members are ably led by the sports captain and the deputy captain. Sixth-year students have the luxury of a common room. Opportunities are well used in the school to celebrate and honour student achievement throughout the year.

 

The school is commended for the valuable contribution of the Cairdeas mentoring programme for first years. In addition, all first years must join at least three clubs which are organised at lunchtime in a very efficient and dedicated manner by a large group of senior students, under the guidance of a special duties teacher. The clubs provide students with a variety of activities. Students plan the content and structure of the clubs, they meet regularly to discuss progress and plan ahead and commendably they keep good records of their meetings. Parents and first-year students who met with the evaluation team highlighted the valuable contribution of the mentoring programme and the first-year clubs in helping the students integrate, settle in to school and make new friends, apart from their potential to learn new skills. All involved and particularly the large number of senior students who give so willingly of their time are commended for their excellent contribution to the life of Ursuline College, Sligo.

 

 

7.         Summary of findings and recommendations for further development

 

The following are the main strengths identified in the evaluation:

 

·         The characteristic spirit of the school, is reflected in the school’s polices and draft policies, and is emulated in the daily practices and interactions in the school.

·         A board of management has been in existence since 1988 and is very supportive of the work of the school. The trustees are supportive of the work of the board.

·         There is evidence of excellent communication and support among teaching staff and between teaching staff and senior management.

·         The principal takes overall responsibility for the day-to-day running of the school and continuously seeks ways of furthering the development of the school.

·         The year head system forms an effective part of the middle management team. The school adopts a positive, caring and pastoral approach to the management of students.

·         School development planning has begun and a wide array of draft polices has been developed. There is a very positive approach to planning amongst the teaching staff. 

·         There is a very wide range of co-curricular and extra-curricular activities on offer to students and this provision is heavily reliant on the ongoing generosity and dedication of many staff members, and supported by a large number of senior students.

·         Teachers in each of the subject areas are organised into formal subject departments and a high level of teamwork was in evidence among teachers.

·         While traditional-style teaching predominated in some lessons, a commendable range of learning strategies and methodologies was observed in many classes resulting in a high level of engagement in class work.

·         There is a very commendable whole-school approach to the planning and delivery of support for students with SEN. The provision of whole-staff in-service training on areas such as autism, differentiated learning and hearing impairment is commended.

·         Pastoral care, supported by a high level of staff dedication and commitment, is an important component of the support structures available to students. Effective supports are provided for newcomer students. 

·         Parents and students referred to the valuable contribution of the Cairdeas mentoring programme, as well as the first-year clubs, in helping first-year students settle into the school.

 

As a means of building on these strengths and to address areas for development, the following key recommendations are made:

 

·         The board of management should look at its potential for leadership to avoid over-dependence on the principal. The board should become more actively involved in the planning process and it should progress and formalise the school plan.

·         The duties attached to all middle management roles in the school should be reviewed by reference to Circular Letter PPT 29/02, Appendix 1.

·         Parents and students, through their representative bodies, should be given the opportunity to contribute to future policy development and review.

·         The junior cycle SPHE programme should be further developed into a coherent programme with specified learning outcomes for each year group. In the delivery of programmes by outside agencies it is essential that there be close co-ordination and planning between those delivering the courses and the SPHE team.

·         The content of CL M29/95 should be closely examined in the context of timetabling for subsequent school years.

·         The further development of active learning strategies as well as the integration of ICT into teaching and learning is recommended.

·         The school should explore how timetabled hours could be arranged so that the total ex-quota allocation for the provision of Guidance is delivered by qualified guidance counsellors in the next and subsequent years.

·         The guidance plan should be progressed and the planning group should be led by the guidance counsellor in order to ensure a cohesive guidance programme.

·         The pastoral care team structure should be formalised to facilitate the transfer of information on students and the early identification of those in need of extra support.

 

 

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.

 

 

8.          Related subject inspection reports

 

The following related Subject Inspection reports are available:

·         Subject Inspection of Art - 22 January 2007

·         Subject Inspection of Mathematics - 24 January 2007

·         Subject Inspection of Music - 22 September 2006

·         Subject Inspection of Science - 24 January 2007