An Roinn Oideachais agus Eolaíochta
Department of Education and Science
Whole School Evaluation
Saint Mary’s Diocesan School
Drogheda, County Louth
Roll number: 63841E
Date of inspection: 27 October 2006
Date of issue of report: 21 June 2007
This report has been written following a whole school evaluation of St. Mary’s Diocesan School, Drogheda. It presents the findings of an evaluation of the work of the school as a whole and makes recommendations for the further development of the work of the school. During the evaluation, the inspectors held pre-evaluation meetings with the principal, the teachers, the school’s board of management, and 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 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.
St. Mary’s Diocesan School is a Catholic secondary school for boys, which serves families in the Drogheda and East Meath areas. It is situated to the west of Drogheda town centre in a rapidly expanding region. A steady increase in applications for enrolment has forced the school to redraw its catchment area and limit student intake. The size of the school’s site restricts its potential for growth, but the arrival of additional temporary classroom accommodation is imminent.
The diocese of Meath replaced the Christian Brothers as patron of the school in 1985 and in 2005-2006 the school celebrated its fortieth jubilee. The school has recently entered into an arrangement with the diocese which sees it leasing the adjacent “monastery” building. Following refurbishment work, appropriate and sought-after accommodation for small groups of students and middle-management offices will be created.
The full student cohort of 766 currently includes a very small number of boys of foreign nationality. The teaching staff includes a significant proportion whose careers have spanned more than twenty years in St. Mary’s, along with a growing number in the earlier stages of their chosen profession.
St. Mary’s strives to be inclusive, charitable and compassionate, endeavouring to ensure that the Christian ethos permeates all aspects of school life. The promotion of good interpersonal relationships based on care and respect is considered to be one of the school’s most valuable characteristics, and the resulting environment is believed to be inclusive and caring for staff, students and other members of the school community. The school prides itself on striving for high academic achievement for all, while, at the same time, catering for the pastoral, physical and spiritual needs of all its students.
The mission statement, printed on the first page of the students’ journal, commits the school to the development of the whole person, offering equal opportunities to all to achieve their full potential in a familial Christian environment; the school aspires to an education based on high ideals and a broad curriculum which will allow students to confidently play their role in society. This vision is shared among key members of the school community and clearly influences the development of policies and practices.
Pastoral structures established within the school and supports made available for students with special educational needs reflect the ethos of St. Mary’s. In addition, the code of behaviour, based on mutual respect, self-discipline and social responsibility, emphasises good behaviour and consequent rewards for students. A policy on dignity in the workplace has been developed and strategies for supporting staff members and students, in times of difficulty, have been agreed by the board of management.
During the evaluation, the school atmosphere was welcoming and calm. There was a palpable sense of pride in the school and what it is endeavouring to achieve. Interactions observed among and between staff and students were courteous and respectful, and acted as living examples of the achievement of the stated characteristic spirit.
The board of management is appropriately constituted with its eight members including representatives of the Trustee, parents and teaching staff. Strong links exist with the in-school senior management team; the principal acts as secretary to the board and the deputy principal as recording secretary at meetings that generally take place every six weeks. The board that undertook to meet with inspectors had been in place from November 2003 and, having run its three-year term, was being replaced by a new board following the meeting. It is indicative of the commitment of board members that a number of individuals are continuing their involvement at board level into the next three-year term. The outgoing board has used the Manual for Boards of Management of Catholic Secondary Schools as a source of information and support, but has not participated in any available training in the role. It is recommended that training aimed specifically at members of boards of management be investigated and undertaken by as many members as possible of the incoming board. In this way, understanding of roles and responsibilities as board members will be enhanced.
The chairperson, who is appointed from within the Trustee nominees, sees the provision of active support for the principal in the day-to-day management of the school, the inclusion of all members in the work and decisions of the board, and the clear communication of roles and responsibilities in relation to decisions taken, as core principles influencing her work. In line with good practice, decisions of the board are consensus-driven following open and frank discussion; during the lifetime of the outgoing board it has not been necessary to take a vote on any issue. Board meetings include a school report from the principal, and teachers’ and parents’ reports from their representatives. It is notable that records of meetings include reference to subject inspections carried out in the school.
Current reporting procedures see the Trustee being kept informed of developments in the school on an ongoing informal basis; parents and teachers are informally briefed by their representatives on all items other than those agreed as confidential to the board. It is recommended that consideration be given to producing an agreed report of each meeting as a means of communicating with constituent groups; such a report could increase consistency in reporting and formalise these key channels of communication open to the board.
A significant area of work for the board has been the development and revision of policies; such work has been both student-focussed (admissions policy, child protection policy, substance use policy, anti-bullying policy) and teacher-focussed (secondment policy, dignity in the workplace policy). It is commendable that the board has involved itself, not only in the discussion and ratification of policies, but has been the initiating force behind a number of policies.
Issues of physical resources—plant and equipment—have also demanded board attention and have resulted in funding being sought and secured for a dust extraction system for the wood/construction technology department and additional temporary classrooms. The physical capacity of the school will remain a priority for the incoming board as it has brought about the difficult decision to cap numbers of incoming students and continues to affect the school’s ability to make certain specialist subjects available to all.
The school is supported by a long-standing parents’ association, formed in 1973, which is highly involved in and committed to school activities. Committee members are nominated at the annual general meeting and, thereafter, attend monthly committee meetings. The school, in turn, supports the parents’ association in a number of practical ways. Firstly, financial support is provided, which, along with monies raised through additional fundraising activities, allows the association to fund its choice of projects. Secondly, its importance is underlined through the allocation of time for the chairperson to address parents at the incoming first-year parents’ night, and, thirdly, its profile is maintained through space being made available to communicate with the parent body via the school newsletter. The principal and deputy principal attend all parents’ association meetings, at which the principal provides a report on school activities for the previous month. The highlights of the association’s impressive involvement in recent years have included the substantial funding of the school’s computer suite and Astro Turf playing area, the sponsorship of student awards, the contribution to the school’s book rental scheme and the advisory role in school policies and practices.
The in-school senior management team is guided in its work by a belief in the school’s capacity to fulfil its potential as a holistic educational institution. The principal emphasises excellent interpersonal relationships as the single most important leadership quality and leads the school by example, endeavouring at all times to carry out her duties according to the school’s core values. Her success in this regard was evident during interviews with the board, parents’ association and staff members, where clear indications were given of the high esteem in which she is held and the confidence in the direction she is taking the school. Both principal and deputy principal continue to engage in teaching duties, emphasising the notion of being ‘principal teachers’ among the staff and thus contributing to discussion around the quality of learning and teaching in the school. Concerted efforts are being made to create a climate within which real or potential problems can be vocalised and practical solutions found.
A number of duties of the senior management team are shared, maximising the talents and interests of individual members, who are only in their third year as principal and deputy. In addition, strategies have recently been put in place to rationalise the workload in the key area of liaising with middle management post-holders. It is recommended that, in line with good practice, the duties of senior management continue to be open for discussion and agreement. Building in time for formal annual review would facilitate this.
In line with Department of Education and Science Circular 05/98, the assistant principal and special duties post-holders form part of the middle-management structure within the school. A schedule of posts was drawn up and agreed in the late 1990s, following extensive consultation with teaching staff. The schedule has served the school’s needs since that time, absorbing informal adjustments along the way. However, given the constantly changing environment of schools and the need to maintain a dynamic and responsive management culture, it is recommended that a formal review and realignment of the schedule and assignment of post duties takes place during the current and following school year.
Very definite steps are being taken to nurture the developing management culture within the school. Autumn 2006 has seen the introduction of a formal planned meeting structure for middle management. This is assisting the school in deriving maximum benefit now and into the future from the sharing of the valuable experience and expertise of long-serving post-holders, and is commended. In addition, a management group identity is being reinforced and individual post-holders are becoming more aware of the work being undertaken by their colleagues.
It has been a tradition for many years within St. Mary’s for additional responsibilities, including those of year head, to be taken on by teachers who do not hold a middle-management post. It has been seen as a means of encouraging competent and willing staff members to involve themselves in the administrative and discipline structures within the school, presenting a balance in the significant roles in the lives of the students and parents. Teachers and senior management are applauded on finding and agreeing a way, appropriate to the context in which they operate, to ensure the school reaps the benefits of the talents of both long-serving and less-experienced staff.
Regular staff meetings are held; short meetings take place each month and extended meetings, which usually include an opportunity for planning, are held each term. In a worthy and innovative effort to ensure the most effective use of time, and to share the sense of ownership of issues discussed, clear, agreed procedures for the operation of meetings are in place: at the beginning of each year, two teachers volunteer to act as chair and minutes secretary; the agenda incorporates staff and principal’s submissions, each prioritised and allocated a time slot; following meetings it is the responsibility of the chairperson to ensure the implementation of decisions taken.
With regard to the management of students, following incoming assessment tests and consultation with primary schools, first year students are assigned to one of two bands, upper or middle. The accuracy of this placement is monitored, particularly during first year, and alterations can be made in the early stages of junior cycle. There are some indications, however, that a student’s placement may affect the aspirations and ambitions held for and by him. It is recommended that the school review the suitability of this banding structure as a priority.
There is an established year head and tutor system in operation in the school to manage the pastoral and discipline issues that go hand in hand with school life. The code of behaviour, which includes the school rules to which each student and their parents sign up, is implemented with an eye on the pastoral dimension. In addition, the prefect system, open to sixth year students, and the student council, representative of all year groups, play their respective parts in student and school matters.
The school communicates with the general parent body using an appropriately wide range of methods; the school newsletter provides regular opportunities to communicate on a variety of topics, information nights focus on particular themes such as senior cycle options or study skills, the open night, held every second year, provides the opportunity for current and prospective parents to tour the school facilities, term reports and parent-teacher meetings report on students’ progress, and letters provide information on upcoming events as well as addressing issues arising throughout the school year. Links with the wider community and with past pupils come into focus for extra-curricular activities, for work placement for transition year students and for student awards ceremonies.
St. Mary’s relationship with feeder primary schools is worthy of particular comment and is reflective of genuine partnership. The primary schools have, following invitation, contributed to the preparation of the incoming assessment instruments, ensuring they better reflect the syllabuses and approaches used at primary level. In addition, the results of the marking process are issued to the relevant primary schools for comment, particularly in the cases where students may have underperformed. It is only on completion of this process that first year classes are formed. With respect to students with special educational needs, contact between the support co-ordinator in St. Mary’s and the learning support/resource teachers in the primary schools takes place at an early stage in sixth class, so that appropriate arrangements can be put in place. This can mean, for some students, that targeted support and/or specially drawn up test papers are available on the day the entrance assessments take place. Such sharing of information and the attention to important detail can be invaluable to incoming students and their parents and shows the trust that exists between St. Mary’s and the schools from which their students come. This is a fine example of a real effort being made by co-operating schools to ease the transition from first to second level for young students and their parents.
In-school management and staff have been engaged in self-review over many years, as evidenced by the many changes that have taken place in the school. While major aspects have been undertaken by staff groups or by the entire staff, there are examples of small-scale review taking place, for example, between post-holder and senior management. Consideration might be given to allowing the wider staff body to contribute to minor review, perhaps simply by inviting feedback, thus increasing the potential for the inclusion of a variety of perspectives.
Human resource management is taken very seriously and the approach adopted has been open and considered. On an informal level, senior management operates an open-door policy for staff to discuss issues, express concerns or put forward ideas. Formally, priority staffing areas have been identified and difficulties or gaps are being addressed. Teachers are being encouraged and facilitated to work within subject department structures, taking advantage of the inherent opportunities for collaboration and collegiality. In turn, agreed procedures such as the rotation of levels among teaching teams and innovative practices, such as peer mentoring, are emerging.
School management is supportive of teachers’ personal and professional development and teachers are encouraged and facilitated to attend relevant courses. The board of management has set aside funds to offer financial assistance, subject to agreed criteria being met, to teachers wishing to undertake courses of study or attend conferences/seminars. In addition, management has been proactive in the area of teacher professional development, arranging for school planning days with a focus on core areas such as classroom management skills.
The caretaking and secretarial staff provide invaluable support for the school in general and school management in particular. They operate as an integral part of the school community, playing a key role in frontline contact with students and parents. They, in turn, are supported by school management and acknowledge the prompt and efficient response to any requests made for additional resources.
The core accommodation for St. Mary’s school, situated in two buildings linked by a bridge-style corridor and an adjacent sports hall, is of a high standard and is particularly well-maintained; corridors and grounds are clean and there are few signs of defacement. Information for students and examples of student work are prominently displayed, and an impressive array of photographs creates a sense of history of the school and the many teachers and students who have passed through over the years.
Teachers are classroom-based, where possible, and many have taken the opportunity provided to optimise the learning environment, displaying charts, posters and high-quality student work. Specialist rooms are generally fit for purpose, with identified areas of concern – wood/construction and art – receiving attention. Other than in exceptional cases, the timetabling of specialist rooms, including science laboratories, is restricted to the relevant subject area. Access to computers is provided in the recently upgraded computer suite in which all information and communication technology (ICT) classes are timetabled, and in the library, educational support room, staff room and a number of classrooms. The computer suite is available for bookings by other staff members outside of the timetabled ICT lessons.
A comprehensive health and safety policy has been produced for St. Mary’s Diocesan School and a safety awareness officer, at the level of assistant principal, has been appointed. Safety notices are visible around the school and, commendably, new students are addressed regarding safety issues at the beginning of each year.
The library is well-stocked with appropriate books, magazines, and DVDs. It houses five computers with internet access and the school’s careers library. Access is available to sixth year students before class begins in the mornings and to all students, under supervision, during lunch time. The documented library plan is laudably clear and succinct, and includes a review of activities and achievements as well as proposals for the year ahead. It is suggested that other posts of responsibility involving the management of resources would incorporate the production of similar plans.
The school is advanced and focused in its planning activities. A planning coordinator has been in place since 1999 and this has facilitated the promotion of a collaborative approach in the development of a wide range of school policies. As a participant in the initial pilot project on school development planning, the school established a steering group and invited the services of an external School Development Planning Initiative (SDPI) facilitator. Since then, it is a credit to the planning team that planning has become an integral part of school life in St. Mary’s and has provided continuity, cohesion and a framework for improvement in the school.
Since 2003, the in-school planning process has been formally supported with the holding of a series of staff planning days jointly facilitated by the SDPI facilitator and the school coordinator. In addition, time has been built in at extended staff meetings to accommodate planning activities. Task groups have worked on prioritised issues, presenting initial drafts of policies or procedures to the full staff body for discussion and agreement. A small number of task groups have included parent and board of management perspectives in the drawing up of initial drafts, but it has been more usual for board, parent and student input to be sought following the production of the agreed staff draft. Collaboration with parents and students has been sought on policies such as those on substance use or school admissions, but certain policies, such as that on dignity in the workplace, have been initiated by the board of management and developed by staff and board alone.
A wide range of documentation was made available during the evaluation and the energies and efforts involved are recognised and applauded. Much of this could be collated to form the permanent section of St. Mary’s school plan. In line with SDPI guidelines, this would include school profile and history, school structures and resources, curriculum provision, and established policies. The already documented history of planning work undertaken and the work prioritised for the current school year would form an appropriate developmental section of the plan.
Evidence was provided to confirm that the board of management and staff have taken appropriate steps to develop policies in line with the provisions in Children First: National Guidelines for the Protection and Welfare of Children (Department of Health and Children, 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 policies. A designated liaison person has been appointed in line with the requirements of the Departmental guidelines.
The focus for planning within the school is now moving from the development of required policies to the improvement of teaching and learning. This is being addressed both at subject department level and at whole-school level. Subject teams are engaging in review and are agreeing programmes, methodologies, assessment procedures and resources within their areas of specialism, and more generic issues such as classroom management strategies and inclusion measures are being dealt with during whole-school planning days. There are clear indications that planning is facilitating the development of reflective practice amongst teachers in the school and is leading to real changes in the core areas of teaching and learning and in supports for students. Examples of this include the introduction of ‘comment only’ marking in certain subjects and the provision of a seminar on study skills for senior students. Management and staff are commended on this work and encouraged to continue this programme of improvement and development.
The school offers the Junior Certificate (JC) programme at junior cycle and the transition year (TY) and established Leaving Certificate (LC) programmes at senior cycle. The Leaving Certificate Vocational Programme (LCVP), which provides a complete LC programme combined with a focus on self-directed learning, enterprise, work and the community was available to students for a short time, but has been discontinued. Given the diversity of the student population and the commitment of St. Mary’s to addressing the needs of all students, it is recommended that consideration be given to reintroducing the LCVP. In addition, it is recommended that the Leaving Certificate Applied (LCA) programme, a distinct, self-contained two-year programme aimed at preparing students for adult and working life, be examined as a possible extension to the curriculum on offer. In the programme, the emphasis is on recognising the talents of all students and providing opportunities for development in terms of responsibility, self-esteem and self-knowledge. It is an innovative programme in the way students learn, in what they learn and in the way their achievements are assessed. Further information and advice can be accessed from the Second Level Support Service (SLSS).
There is a wide range of subjects on offer to students throughout their studies. At junior cycle, students study each of twelve core subjects, which include Science, computer studies, Social, Personal and Health Education (sphe) and a modern language, and two optional subjects from a choice of six. This provides students with the opportunity to experience a broad and balanced curriculum forming a solid base on which to build at senior cycle. For the LC programme, four core subjects – Mathematics, English, Gaeilge and Religious Education – are studied by all students, along with four optional subjects from a choice of fifteen. It is indicative of the school’s commitment to all students that, despite such a wide range of available options, it is exploring ways of introducing a further subject – Music – to the curriculum.
SPHE is timetabled for the three years of junior cycle, as required. Civic, Social and Political Education (CSPE), however, does not have its required allocation of time in second and third years. This should be addressed by the school at the next drawing up of the timetable.
The TY programme was established in the school as an optional programme in 1992. Its popularity with students is reflected in the fact that, despite stringent entry requirements, there are consistently more applicants than places available. TY students have a high profile within the school and the wider community; they participate prominently in school events, including organising students’ council elections, they have an allocated slot in the school newsletter, and they contribute to activities run by local press and radio stations. Towards the end of the final term, they play an active part in promoting the programme to the parents and students of third year, and, under teacher guidance, they produce the popular year book.
The TY coordinator, who has engaged in targeted professional development, has overseen the production of the TY plan. In line with good practice, teachers become involved in teaching TY through an expression of interest although, unusually, there is no TY core team. The range of subjects offered during TY generally link junior cycle with senior cycle and, in some cases, for example Art and Classical Studies, students can study ab initio and, commendably, continue through senior cycle to the Leaving Certificate examination. The documentation of current module plans is not wholly in line with guidelines and teachers are encouraged to consult with the document Writing a Transition Year Programme. While students evaluate their work experience placements and their individual TY experiences at the end of their studies, a formal evaluation of the programme itself from year to year would prove valuable to the school. Such an evaluation should involve students, parents, participating teachers and work-experience employers. In this way, good practice will be confirmed and affirmed and possible areas for improvement highlighted.
The parents of incoming first-year students receive information regarding optional subjects as part of the information night held in April each year. First year students themselves follow a ‘taster’ programme for the first month, allowing them sample each optional subject prior to making what are then more informed choices. Options are offered in two blocks within the pre-formed upper and middle bands with all students having access to all subjects, with one exception. The school makes every effort to accommodate students in their first choices within each block; failing that, their first choice in one block and their second choice in the other are usually achieved.
Teachers of third-year classes are involved in providing information to students on their specialisms at senior cycle. In addition, an information night is held at which information on programme and subject choice is given. The guidance counsellors provide information at parent nights and are available for individual consultation by students or their parents. The four option blocks at senior cycle are formed so as to maximise students’ first choices and there is a high success rate in this regard.
There is a very wide range of co- and extra-curricular activities available to all students attending St. Mary’s school. The obvious commitment from teachers concerned is commendable and appreciation for the time and effort involved was expressed by school management, parents and students. Such voluntary contributions of so many teachers plays a significant part in enhancing student/teacher relationships, extending the curricular experience for students and providing opportunities for students of sporting and other talents.
The extra-curricular sports programme, operating in line with the newly developed sports policy, is a clear reflection of the school’s ethos, focusing on students’ holistic development through participation in physical activity. Teachers involved reported a high level of consciousness regarding the maintenance of the school’s standards in striving for respectful behaviour at all times. The school’s focus on rewards as a positive influence on behaviour is lived out each school year, when a number of awards ceremonies are held, including one in celebration of achievements in extra-curricular activities.
Subject department planning has been facilitated through the provision, by senior management, of formal time for meeting. There was evidence that, commendably, a majority of subject departments have developed a collaborative approach to subject planning and it is recommended that this approach be extended to all subject departments. Long-term subject plans, which were syllabus-based and, in some cases, contained appropriate sequencing of topics were available for most subjects evaluated. Consideration should be given to including a programme of topics to be covered each term by each year group in plans for other subject departments, assisting with ongoing review of syllabus coverage. Good practice was evident where planning documentation reflected the schools’ mission statement and made reference to aims and objectives of the syllabus, to the grouping of students, class organisation, support for students with special educational needs, cross-curricular activities, varied teaching methodologies, materials, resources and ICT.
Short term planning documentation was presented for a number of lessons visited and good practice included the emphasising of achievable and measurable learning outcomes within the lesson timeframe. Teachers are to be commended on their preparation of lessons, organisation and setting up of materials to be used in experiments and other practical activities, and the development of resources such as worksheets and overhead transparencies.
A number of individual planning documents observed during the evaluation provided impressive evidence of programmes being modified to suit individual class groups and this is commended. There were examples observed of excellent teaching and exceptional openness and cooperation among some teachers. In light of this, it is suggested that consideration be given at subject department level to planning for opportunities for peer observation as a means of supporting reflective practice.
Very good rapport and mutual respect was evident between students and teachers. Encouragement and the effective use of student affirmation led to a pleasant and respectful atmosphere prevailing in classes observed, thus promoting student engagement and participation in the work at hand.
Classroom management was effective and good discipline was observed in the manner in which students settled to work quickly, the manner in which students in practical classes worked with due regard for health and safety requirements, as well as in routine matters such as the taking of the roll at the start of lessons and the communication of instructions.
Short-term lesson planning is, in most cases, commended for being well structured and syllabus-appropriate. There were examples of high-quality lesson plans in which the aims, learning outcomes, resources and methodologies were clearly documented. In lessons themselves, there was, in line with good practice, evidence of continuity between lessons and of links effectively made with earlier and subsequent learning. In the many instances where they were observed, clearly explained lesson aims as well as appropriate pace and content in lessons were commended. It is recommended that all lessons begin with defined and explicit learning outcomes, which are communicated to students. Time should then be allocated at the conclusion of lessons to check if the outcomes have been achieved.
A good variety of teaching methodologies was observed in lessons visited, commendably sustaining student interest and promoting enthusiastic interaction. These included the use of video clips and case study, well managed group work, whole class discussion and feedback, investigative work, peer learning, differentiated teaching, humour, and the emphasizing of key concepts, terminology and skills. In addition, a commendably wide range of resources, including models, play dough, crosswords, wall-map and time chart, was effectively used to assist in the achievement of learning targets. Teachers are applauded for providing opportunities for active and independent learning for students. Other notable practices included the development of themes beyond the textbook and the linking of learning to everyday life. It is recommended that such strategies be further developed and incorporated in all subject areas.
There were, however, also examples of more traditional classroom methods where student participation was limited to answering teacher-directed questions and where teacher talk was predominant. While this approach can be suitable in certain instances, it is recommended that more student-centred approaches be adopted, leading to active learning methodologies being employed. In this respect, teachers might share experiences of and expertise in methodologies with a view to enhancing the overall learning experiences of students.
A range of assessment techniques, including questioning, practical work, homework and topic tests, was in evidence in St Mary’s Diocesan School. In addition, testing used for diagnostic purposes is helping students to identify their specific talents and supporting subject and level choice and is commended. The good practice of having students record homework assignments was observed in many of the classrooms visited.
Students sit formal examinations at the end of the first term, as do non-examination classes at the end of the summer term. Mock examinations are held for examination students during the second term. Teachers keep records of students’ progress and report to parents following the term examinations and at parent-teacher meetings.
In line with good practice, the setting of common tests for specific year groups has been introduced in some subject areas, assisting in the standardisation of timeframes for course delivery and consistency of practice. It is recommended that the use of common tests be further extended to other subject areas, as appropriate.
It is recommended that the subject departments develop policies on assessment. These should address the development of appropriate assessment methods and marking practices and include references to homework and coursework. Consideration should also be given to incorporating assessment for learning practices in all subject areas as a means of enhancing student learning. Further information can be sourced at www.ncca.ie, the website of the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA).
Students with special educational needs (SEN) are generally identified through liaison with feeder primary schools or during the incoming assessment process. Small numbers not previously identified may be referred to the school’s educational support coordinator by individual subject teachers. Once identified, measures are put in place to ensure that each student with SEN receives support appropriate to his assessed needs. This may mean receiving tuition in a specially formed learning-support class or it may mean withdrawal from mainstream class to receive additional resource tuition in literacy or numeracy.
Files opened on students receiving additional educational supports are appropriately maintained and stored in a locked filing cabinet. Information, whose release has been sanctioned by parents, is given to staff on a ‘need to know’ basis. There was evidence of a high level of awareness of the sensitivity of such information and, with the increasing numbers of teachers involved in providing support, measures need to continue to ensure its safety. Individual education plans contained in files have been collaboratively prepared; support teachers, subject teachers, parents and students themselves have been consulted in the process. It would be appropriate to share completed education plans with parents, cementing the partnership between home and school in working towards agreed goals in the best interests of each student. The carrying out of regular review and updating of plans is excellent practice and is commended.
The educational support team, working out of a Department of Education and Science allocation of 9.75 whole-time teacher equivalents, includes special needs assistants, resource and learning support teachers and language support teachers, all operating under the effective and enthusiastic leadership of the educational support coordinator. Difficulty in securing places on professional development courses has been an issue for the school and, as a result, not all personnel involved have a specialist qualification in the area. It is recommended that all professional development options be explored and that core team members take advantage of the best available so as to upskill in this very important field of work.
The educational support department is highly proactive in maintaining links with the wider school community of subject teachers, tutors, year heads, school management and parents. The role of the coordinator has been crucial in establishing structures within the department and in supporting and guiding the team involved as well as other staff members. All teachers have been provided with a teaching pack containing guidelines on good classroom practice in teaching students with SEN, and general issues on SEN provision continue to be addressed as a whole-school planning activity.
The dedicated notice board in the staff room facilitates general communication between the department and the teaching staff. However, informal communication and liaison with teachers takes place as a matter of course throughout the school day; the willingness of team members to continuously support colleagues and address issues is acknowledged and applauded.
The linking of the educational support department with the school’s pastoral structures is formalised through weekly scheduled meetings of the school’s care team, namely the educational support coordinator, the guidance counsellors and the home-school-community-liaison (HSCL) coordinator. In addition, formal weekly meetings take place between the coordinator and principal, and the coordinator and core team. Also, at the end of each of each half-term, special needs assistants meet with the coordinator and principal for review and planning purposes. Minutes of all meetings are kept in the extensive and highly impressive folder presented during the inspection, and all involved in preparing and maintaining this and all other appropriate documentation are applauded.
The strong links with feeder primary schools, referred to in section 2.3, begin in October of the year prior to student entry. This allows time to process information received from the schools, to contact parents to give details of requirements to enable continued support provision, and to make application for appropriate resources. The fact that St. Mary’s has no assigned educational psychologist can be a barrier that requires concerted effort to overcome and hopes were expressed that this situation will be resolved in the short term. The coordinator also links appropriately with the assigned Special Educational Needs Organiser (SENO) and the reasonable accommodation section of the State Examinations Commission (SEC).
The dedicated educational support room is well-equipped with teaching and learning materials and five computers, all with internet access. The teaching environment has been enhanced with the use of posters, charts and high-quality student work and is a stimulating setting for learning.
St. Mary’s Diocesan School has shown flexibility in responding to emerging needs among its student population; a special initiative has been ongoing since September to address issues arising in one of the junior cycle class groups. Through collaboration involving the year head, class tutor and guidance counsellors, a specially devised programme has been put in place. Such a proactive and innovative approach is commended.
There are few culturally diverse students enrolled in the school. Those for whom English is an additional language receive language support, generally on an individual basis. Assistance in planning a programme of English language support should be obtained from Integrate Ireland Language and Training (IILT) who also make available materials for language support teachers, English-language students and school staffs and managements. Other supports offered by the school include those for students from financially disadvantaged backgrounds who can be assisted from school funds.
This section draws on the related “Report on Guidance and Counselling Provision”, taking into account developments since the completion of that inspection visit.
There is a good sense of care for students in the school as evidenced by the supports and initiatives available to students. As part of this, two teachers, qualified guidance counsellors, collaborate to lead the guidance and counselling provision. A care team has been established and weekly meetings are scheduled between the guidance counsellors, educational support coordinator and HSCL coordinator. This collaborative approach enhances the good work being done by facilitating the formal sharing of information and the establishment of appropriate support measures at the earliest opportunity. It has been reported that, commendably, a whole-school approach to guidance delivery is being developed.
Guidance classes are scheduled in TY and sixth year, and, at junior cycle, guidance counsellors borrow classes in order to work with third year students. Last year, one of the guidance personnel interviewed all first year students in support of a smooth transition from primary to second level. This is commended.
Addresses to parents of incoming first-year students, at their information night, include those made by a member of the guidance team and the coordinator of first-year options. It is recommended that steps be taken to ensure that parents are informed, at the time choices are being made, not only of the content of subjects, but also of the implications of choices for future career and study plans.
Facilities for guidance are very good and include a fully-equipped office for each teacher, a well-stocked careers library, a regularly updated display board, and access to computers that satisfies teacher requirements. Senior students can inform themselves through engaging with videos, QualifaX and Career Directions, and their access to the computer suite at lunch times encourages independent learning and self-management skills.
The guidance counsellors work closely with the HSCL coordinator in promoting school attendance; individual supports are offered to retain students considering early leaving. In addition, the post-holder with responsibility for monitoring attendance pays particular attention to students at risk of early school leaving.
Further detail on guidance provision in the school can be read in the “Report on Guidance and Counselling Provision” related to this report.
Pastoral care is a cornerstone of the school’s characteristic spirit and is a core concern of the whole school community. Feedback from representatives of the parents’ association emphasised their support and appreciation for the caring and inclusive ethos of the school. Key members of the care team have been formally identified and, as indicated in section 6.3, a facility provided for them to hold scheduled meetings each week. However, the school’s wider care team encompasses tutors, year heads, Religious Education teachers, school chaplain, guidance counsellors, educational support team, HSCL coordinator, the senior management team and student prefects, each playing a significant role in addressing the pastoral needs of the students in their care.
At junior cycle, year heads, who take overall responsibility for student welfare, work closely with the tutors operating within their year groups. Together, they build positive relationships with each student, helping him benefit to the greatest extent possible from his time in school. At senior cycle, however, the year head functions are performed largely in a solo capacity, as the tutor role currently does not continue past third year. It is recommended that supports for year heads in the continuation of their care duties be explored with a view to the extension of the tutor framework or to the embedding of assistant year heads in fifth and sixth years.
Meetings between year head, tutors and SPHE coordinator take place twice each term at which issues are discussed and preparations made for the delivery of the next SPHE module. Parental involvement in the SPHE programme is ongoing. They were represented on the Relationships and Sexuality Education (RSE) development subcommittee and the final draft was presented for ratification at their annual general meeting. Parents were also involved in the development of the substance use policy and are invited, each year, to confirm it remains relevant to their needs. Last year, they were responsible for a module in SPHE being brought forward in the programme schedule.
Further evidence of the school’s commitment to student care can be seen in the supporting initiatives introduced, including Rainbows (bereavement) groups, Cool Schools (anti-bullying) programme, homework club, after-school study and targeted supports for individual classes or students. In addition, student effort and achievement is celebrated, acknowledged and promoted through the use of corridor displays, classroom displays, merit cards and the student awards scheme.
Student involvement in pastoral care within the school is found, formally, in the sixth-year prefect system and the students’ council. Prefects are appointed following application, interview and approval by the teaching staff. It is a commendable sign of further cooperation between the school and parents that the composition of interview panels includes teacher and parent representatives. The twenty prefects appointed play a specific and important role in helping first year students integrate into school life. Those assigned responsibility for first year classes act as mentors or ‘big brothers’ and the remainder take a more general role in student welfare. It is suggested that consideration be given to extending the mentor role of prefects into supporting students in second year classes. In addition, formalised links might be forged between prefects and the students’ council regarding areas of common concern.
The students’ council is elected annually and is fully representative of the student body. The steering committee, made up of officers and one member from each year group, holds weekly lunchtime meetings. Their stated goal is to improve school life for students and, to that end, they consult and otherwise communicate with the student body in a variety of appropriate ways. Consideration might be given to providing a dedicated notice board so as to further enhance communications and to raise the profile of the students’ council within the school. Financial support has been provided to the council by the parents’ association, thus facilitating their involvement in and promotion of projects and activities for students. Guidance, support and advice have been available from the board of management, senior in-school management and teachers.
The Catholic chaplain combines his role in the school with other parish duties. Even so, he attends the school on four days of the week, engaging with students formally in the classroom setting and informally about the school. Commendably, his teaching responsibilities extend beyond Religious Education, promoting a more complete picture of the role among students in St. Mary’s.
The following are the main strengths identified in the evaluation:
As a means of building on these strengths and to address areas for development, the following key recommendations are made:
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:
Submitted by the Board of Management
Area 1: Observations on the content of the inspection report
The Board of Management, Parents Council, Management and Staff of St Mary's Diocesan School welcomed the W.S.E Report in its entirety for its commendation of the excellence of the school in many key areas.
The Board were particularly pleased with the recognition given to the caring environment of St Mary's and to the pastoral ethos within the school, both for staff and pupils. Without this characteristic spirit of care prevalent, the school would not be the school it is today. Also, the commendations made to the Special Needs Department, the quality of teaching and learning and the Planning areas were particularly pleasing, as much work has gone into these aspects of school life. St. Mary's will continue to develop and improve these already high quality areas.
The Board recognise the valuable contribution made by the Principal, Deputy Principal and Staff to the school.
The Board welcomed the acknowledgement by the Inspectorate that St Mary's was in a rapidly expanding area and yet the school had little room for expansion. The Inspectorate noted the good relationship with our feeder schools and this points to a school at the core of a community, and we too applaud the good healthy interactive relationship the school continues to enjoy with its feeder schools. Many of the Board members were delighted to continue to serve on the Board of St Mary's.
The Parents Council were pleased that they were acknowledged so favourably, particular mention being given to the Chairpersons address to the parents of incoming first years. The Chairperson also gives an address at the School Awards Day, Graduation Mass, and the State Exams Awards Night. They felt that the Chaplains role in maintaining the Catholic ethos in the school could be mentioned, particularly services on Ash Wednesday, Prayer services and the 6th year Graduation Mass. The Board and Parents Council have a very good working relationship.
The Board wishes to acknowledge the contribution made by our pupils to the success of the W.S.E.
We also wish to acknowledge the professionalism of the Inspectorate and the collaborative manner in which they carried out the inspection.
We accept the recommendations as valid and as a solid means for building on the strengths outlined and addressing areas for development. We look forward to the challenge of addressing these recommendations.
Area 2: Follow-up actions planned or undertaken since the completion of the inspection activity to implement the findings and recommendations of the inspection