An Roinn Oideachais agus Eolaíochta
Department of Education and Science
Borris Vocational School
Borris, County Carlow
Roll number: 70400L
Date of inspection: 22 October 2007
A whole-school evaluation of Borris Vocational School was undertaken in October 2007. This report presents the findings of the evaluation and makes recommendations for improvement. During the evaluation, the quality of teaching and learning in four subjects were evaluated in detail, and separate reports are available on these subjects. The board of management of the school 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.
Borris Vocational School opened in 1939 with twenty-five students. With the advent of free education and free transport in 1967 enrolments grew steeply and the Intermediate Certificate was included in the curriculum. The Leaving Certificate was introduced in 1978. Over the years the school continued to grow and develop with the addition of more classrooms. From 1944 to 2006, the school was led by two principals, each of whom provided thirty-one years of service. A new school extension and refurbishment programme was completed in 2007 bringing the school to state-of-the-art standards of accommodation for students and staff with offices, classrooms and specialist rooms.
The school is located in a small rural town and its current enrolment is 479 students, comprising approximately fifty percentage mix of boys and girls. The school is the single provider of post-primary education in the locality and the catchment area is extensive. The majority of students travel to and from school by bus, mainly from south County Carlow, but also from counties Kilkenny and Wexford. All of the main feeder primary schools are also rural in location. The school does not have disadvantaged status. The school admits all students who apply to enter from the locality and therefore caters for a wide range of abilities, needs and interests. Some students have special educational needs (SEN) and there are a very small number of newcomer students among the school population. There are currently no students from the Travelling Community attending the school.
The atmosphere in the school is welcoming, calm and respectful. There is a strong sense of community and a very united staff who endeavour to always praise and encourage their students. The school’s mission statement is “to create a caring inclusive Christian environment where each individual is encouraged to develop a sense of honesty, tolerance, and responsibility and in which everybody acquires the self-confidence to achieve his or her full potential.” Evidence gathered from day-to-day activities, practices and policies reveal that the mission statement is being lived out. Particular evidence of the ethos was noted in the manner in which all staff members have an input into decision making and the strong commitment to care for the individual. Parents met during the evaluation expressed the view that the school achieves “a quiet sense of discipline” and that “respect is inherent rather than demanded”. They feel their child will leave school with strong friendships as well as academic achievements, and expressed satisfaction with the way in which the transition into the school is handled and with the approachable nature of staff. In particular, parents clearly know the relevant year head for their child and feel secure in contacting the school on any issue.
A great sense of celebration is infused into school life. Student achievements are acknowledged in a variety of ways lifting the spirit of the student body and creating a positive atmosphere at key opportunities. Teachers strongly support their students by attending week-end sporting matches and other events in which students are involved. Photographic collages feature the many events, graduations, and trips over the lifetime of the school. Announcements on the school intercom system take a purposeful positive theme on Friday afternoons to conclude the school week and this is commended. An annual awards ceremony involving recognition of good attendance and student achievements, both academic and extra-curricular, is a well established part of the school year. Such positive reinforcement of students is highly commended. A male and female student of the year is chosen from each junior cycle class group, in fifth year and in sixth year.
The school is run under the auspices of County Carlow Vocational Education Committee (VEC). The VEC undertakes its responsibilities in relation to the employment of staff, appointment to posts of responsibility and the allocation of funding and resources to the school. The VEC provides an enabling and supporting framework for the school and makes available its educational services in the areas of planning, administration and staff professional development. The Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of the VEC occasionally attends meetings of the board of management who in turn report to the CEO on developments and issues in the school. The board and the CEO report that a very good working relationship has been established between the school and the VEC.
The board of management of Borris Vocational School meets approximately five times per year and is made up of three VEC representatives, two parent representatives and two teacher representatives, as appropriate. There is room for the board to nominate additional members to facilitate inclusiveness and partnership in education if they so wish. However, the term of office of the current board has been very lengthy. The board should review its establishment and term of office and take steps to ensure it is in accordance with the recommendations and procedures specified in the Handbook for Vocational Education Committees and Boards of Management of Schools.
The board is made aware of all developments in the school through a report by the principal who attends all meetings. The VEC provided some training for the board members and the continuation of this is encouraged. The board reported satisfaction with the smooth running of the school, the quality of pastoral care provided and the strong community spirit. Minutes of board meetings illustrate that a range of issues have been discussed, such as the school extension, management of students and various curricular and extra-curricular events. Procedures for reporting back to the nominating representative bodies on board meetings, however, are unclear. It is suggested that the board draw up an agreed report at the end of each meeting for dissemination to the parents’ association and the teaching staff, in line with best practice.
The main focus of the board to date has been in supporting the principal in the day-to-day management of the school and they have not engaged in strategic planning for the development of the school or in a systematic way in the development of the school plan. Primarily, the VEC needs to ensure that all members of the board of management are aware of the roles and responsibilities entrusted to them. There is a need for both parties to verify the scope of the work of the board. To ensure clarity for all members, a description of the role of the board and the role of the VEC should be documented drawing from the Handbook for VEC committees, the Education Act and the Vocational Education Acts. Secondly, the board needs to be more proactive in monitoring, reviewing and amending the school plan in an ongoing way. This includes initiating all policies required by legislation, but not currently in place, ratifying or reviewing current school policies in a more rigorous manner and instigating action plans for policies that are undergoing development. Thirdly, the board should establish both short-term and long-term priorities for the development of the school and these should be documented clearly in the school plan.
There is a very united senior management team, comprising a principal and deputy principal, who run the school in true partnership and consultation with each other. They are deeply committed to the school and are dedicated to undertaking a monitoring presence around the building. They are extremely approachable and demonstrate an ability to listen no matter what the issue may be. Their interaction as a senior management team, with staff and with students is characterised by respect for the individual and a distinct openness in communication. They also circulate purposefully among parents at parent teacher meetings to gauge their views and determine their level of satisfaction with the school and their child’s progress with various subjects. Their leadership is highly commended.
The principal and deputy principal meet formally early every morning and after school as well as communicating throughout the day. This enables matters requiring immediate attention to be effectively dealt with, especially in the areas of supervision and substitution and the management of students. The roles of principal and deputy principal are becoming more clearly defined and delineated as both settle in to these relatively new roles but they remain collaborative where key decisions have to be made and this is commended. The deputy principal undertakes much work in relation to school development planning and organisational issues. The principal of the school undertakes to maintain a positive ethos and good internal communication. The principal visits classes from time to time to make brief announcements and to interact with the students thereby gauging the atmosphere and learning within. It is reported that teachers can, and do, approach the principal for advice in relation to their teacher development and sometimes in relation to classroom management strategies. It is commendable that senior management use their skills in this way to manage and support staff. Worthy of particular commendation is the manner in which a team approach is inculcated by senior management among all staff.
An active and productive middle-management structure has been established. Senior management has successfully empowered and enabled the assistant principals and programme co-ordinators to contribute proactively and effectively to in-school management. Meetings between senior management and this group are held every four to five weeks. Such meetings are a very positive means for a broad range of issues to be discussed and for new ideas to emerge. The consolidation of this structure has led to a sense of collective ownership in the management of the school. Key issues are keenly debated but all decisions made are by consensus following which the whole team follow through in implementing changes in the school. Such effective delegation and collaboration is one of the key strengths of Borris Vocational School and can only be encouraged by suggesting that meetings be held more frequently.
Senior management expect an annual report from each post holder in line with best practice. There is clarity and substance to the roles and responsibilities of assistant principals. However, there is a need for greater clarity surrounding the exact duties of the special duties teachers’ posts of responsibility. It is recommended that these be reviewed to ensure they are responding to the changing needs of the school and that their group can also contribute effectively to the middle management structure in the school.
Both existing and previous principals have succeeded in creating and sustaining a collective school spirit of commitment and co-operation among staff in adhering to the school’s core values and in overall school development. Much innovation and creativity is evident among the staff of the school. They are caring and enthusiastic with an evident ‘team’ approach central to their work. They make every effort to educate students in a holistic way. Internal relationships are very good and, in a busy environment, interactions were always courteous and accommodating.
The VEC has developed codes of practice for dealing with complaints of bullying and harassment in VEC workplaces and these have been adopted by the school. The school has adopted the National Grievance Procedure for second-level VEC schools, developed by the Teachers’ Union of Ireland (TUI) and the Irish Vocational Education Association (IVEA).
Staff meetings are properly organised and staff can place items on the agenda in advance. New ideas are welcomed by senior management and staff input sought on all matters resulting in collective decision making on whole-school issues. Daily internal communication is assisted by a notice board in the staff room and short updates.
Supervision and substitution is co-ordinated daily and transparently through a timetable on the staff notice board. All teachers have agreed to participate in this scheme and groups undertake to supervise break times, before and after school and around the buses. Substitution is well co-ordinated and teachers report that they are not over-burdened with this task. For planned absences, senior management expects that a set of work would be left for the particular class groups to engage in during the substitution.
Senior management actively promotes and facilitates ongoing professional development and releases teachers for all relevant in-service training. Staff in some subject areas reported attending seminars and subject association meetings and conferences. This commitment and support is acknowledged. Recent professional development activities have focused on classroom management and positive discipline and evidence gathered during the evaluation revealed that this has been successful. Other seminars have included sessions on SEN and working with less able students. The school is encouraged to focus next on externally provided professional development in the areas of Assessment for Learning and Differentiation. Equally, and given the wealth of knowledge and expertise in these areas, the use of existing in-school expertise for targeted staff training in specific areas of both SEN and information and communication technology (ICT) is also encouraged.
A well-organised and effective student support system is in place, striking a good balance between student management and student care with a view to also enhancing educational achievement. Clearly delineated duties of year head and class teacher have developed as the roles have been discussed and refined. Class teachers endeavour to maintain a work ethic in each class by reinforcing the importance of good discipline and homework. Year heads oversee both student discipline and student progress. Focusing on students in this dual manner is highly commended. One example of the way in which year heads have undertaken to monitor student progress is through the system used by the year heads of third and sixth year: a spread sheet analysing the outcome of formal school-based assessments is produced from the school’s computerised records allowing comparison to be made between the students’ individual grades and the average marks for each subject. The year head then meets with each student to discuss their progress and will explore reasons for underperformance in certain subjects or praise their achievements, as is appropriate. This is an excellent means of monitoring attainment and the expansion of the facility to all year groups is recommended. Year heads also organise study skills seminars.
There is an effective code of behaviour which is constantly refined through open discussion. Students are well behaved, respectful and appreciative of their school. While the year heads are very supportive of all staff, subject teachers are encouraged to deal with minor misdemeanours themselves through ordinary classroom management strategies in line with good practice. Complaints forms, report cards and detention are used for serious issues only; over-use of these is discouraged as it disempowers the system and teachers. Teachers are reminded at staff meetings of situations were the use of these sanctions is appropriate or not. The number of suspensions is small and this sanction is used only in serious circumstances. Suspensions are applied for two days and the parent is always contacted in advance to arrange suitable days for implementation of the sanction.
Clear strategies for dealing with student attendance, absences and lateness are evident and working effectively. An electronic system of recording student absences together with the reasons for such absences has been designed. This new system has refined the rate with which these details can be recorded for each student and has yielded obvious benefits for each year head. The system alerts the year head when a student has reached sixteen days of absences and again at twenty days allowing prompt follow-through on the issue. There was evidence during the inspection that students move promptly between lessons and come to class on time. Observations of the late book and records of attendance indicate a good level of school attendance with little lateness. Class teachers and year heads have done a lot of work in collating data regarding student attendance and reasons for absence. It is important that this information be forwarded onto the National Educational Welfare Board as a matter of priority each year. Generally, the school meets its responsibility in submitting annual attendance information but the end of year return was not made for the 2006/07 school year due to a difficult stage of the building programme. This should not reoccur.
A students’ council has been established and is actively engaged in the life of the school. The council is elected annually from students in second year through to sixth year by their classmates after a nominating process. The council is properly constituted, meets regularly and discusses issues of importance to the student body which it represents. Members of the student council are approachable and the position is held with respect. A liaison teacher supports the council. Through the council, students are included appropriately in decisions regarding school development. They reported that their opinion is valued by senior management and that their requests have been implemented. Examples include changes to the uniform and improving the career guidance service for third-year students. Most recently they have had the final decision in the choice of sculpture for the school’s courtyard. The council supports good interpersonal relationships within the school community while also helping develop self-confidence and an attitude of care.
Parents are very involved in the life of the school and appreciative of all it offers their children. The parents association is long-established, is very active and is well aware of the issues and workings of the school. They have been involved in the school in tangible ways, such as the uniform, organising guest speakers, organising functions and supporting the book rental scheme. Of major significance, however, is the successful role they have played in securing funds for the development of the playing pitches and for the extension of the gym, and these have been achieved through persistent fundraising strategies. The association endeavours to have representation by two parents from each geographical location and these are elected at the annual general meeting of all parents. The association maintains postal contact with the full parent body and produce a school newsletter three times each year so that all parents are aware of how to contact the people involved and of ongoing events. A social night for parents is also organised. As well as having a staff representative at every meeting of the association, the principal also attends all meetings and parents are represented on the board of management. The openness of communication between the association and management is valued by all. The only concern raised by the committee was the access to properly timetabled Physical Education for all class groups.
The systems in place for clear and effective communication with parents are commended. Regular communication in the form of individual letters, notices, parent teacher meetings, information evenings, in-school celebrations and concerts, the school newsletter and phone calls home whenever necessary, are all used to provide important information and to mark achievements throughout the year. In addition, the principal and many staff engage with parents of students on an informal basis at a range of events in the locality, further enhancing community awareness about the school. An open day allows prospective parents the opportunity to meet with staff and view the facilities. Formal parent-teacher meetings are organised annually for each year group according to agreed procedures. Attendance by parents at parent teacher meetings is estimated as being as high as ninety percent. The success of the school in drawing in parents into the premises is commended.
There is scope for development of both the school prospectus and the school’s page on the VEC website as a means of providing up-to-date information for parents and the community on the operation, policies and practices of the school. The school maintains good links with the outside community through the provision of evening classes, access to the school and gym for different community events and through the work experience programmes. Students and staff undertake many fundraising activities for the benefit of various local and national charities and communities in other countries.
Teaching staff currently comprises thirty-seven whole-time teachers including the principal and deputy principal, and four part-time teachers. One of the teachers is shared with another County Carlow VEC school and the timetable is arranged accordingly. Support staff comprises four Special Needs Assistants (SNAs), one full-time and one part-time administrative staff, one full-time and one part-time caretaking and maintenance staff and four part-time cleaning staff. Support staff communicates regularly with senior management in carrying out their assignments. Their contribution to the life of the school is valued, and the contribution of the administration staff was particular noted and is commended.
All whole-time teachers are timetabled for twenty-two hours of instruction per week with assistant principals timetabled for eighteen hours, the additional allowance on the timetable being for middle management duties. Overall, it was found that there is appropriate deployment of staff and this is consistent with teachers’ qualifications, expertise and experience. Teachers are given the opportunity to teach at all levels and management allocates teachers to class groups and programmes on a rotational basis, in line with best practice. In addition, students retain the same teacher from second year into third year and from fifth year into sixth year, which is also good practice.
Annual staffing entitlements and allocation of teaching posts are subject to the prior approval of the CEO. Senior management analyses current and future staffing needs and makes an application to the VEC during February of each year for the provision of as many staff as necessary for the coming academic year. This, however, should be done through the board of management. The principal feels that the allocation from the VEC is fair but proactively seeks additional resources from the VEC to provide for students’ needs and to maintain all subjects. Given the large number of subjects offered on the curriculum, especially for Leaving Certificate, this has proved challenging for management and will continue to be so especially in meeting a minimum of twenty-eight hours of instruction for students each week.
The timetable is based on a forty-five period week and all lessons are thirty-five minutes in duration. In addition, six minutes of tutor time is timetabled each morning for each class group. Overall however, the current school timetable falls short of the statutory weekly tuition time for students, which is twenty-eight hours. The matter of compliance with the length of the school week must be addressed and the timetable revised in accordance with circular M29/95. In general, the number of class periods allocated to each subject meets syllabus requirements. However, because classes are just thirty-five minutes in duration, provision in terms of overall time allocated to subjects is only minimal. It is recommended that a review of the timetable be undertaken focusing on the overall instruction time for each subject.
Given that enrolment has been consistently just under five hundred students for a number of years, the board and in-school management should actively discuss and explore the benefits of increasing enrolment to just over five hundred, either through mainstream education or the reintroduction of Post Leaving Certificate (PLC) courses. The existence of a new building with modern resources may work favourably in this regard and should be promoted in an appropriate way.
Senior management ensures that newly appointed staff receive the support and information they need to work within the policies and practices of the school. In particular, the code of behaviour and the systems for managing students are clearly explained by the principal. The teachers’ handbook provides much essential information about the school and its ethos and the development of this handbook is encouraged. Information regarding students with individual educational needs is specified on a need-to-know basis. In the case of substitution, newly appointed teachers are given the yearly plans laid down for that subject and also meet with the other members of that subject department in order to effectively integrate and to establish the agreed procedures for homework, assessment and access to resources. Any necessary in-service is promptly provided. Newly appointed staff report that they find a team approach evident in the school and they feel secure in expressing their opinions and in making an input at staff meetings.
The school has recently been extended and refurbished to a very high standard of accommodation. It is located on a fairly large site together with a full size gymnasium, two grass sports pitches and three hard courts. A set-down area for school buses is located beside the front entrance. The school corridors are wide facilitating student movement. There are specialist rooms for Music, Guidance, Metalwork, Construction Studies, Home Economics, Dress Design, Art, Design and Communication Graphics, a library, two learning support rooms, two science laboratories and a demonstration room. These areas are all currently being equipped with new resources. Specialist rooms are not used for other subjects and this allows teachers access for preparation work and assists in the overall maintenance of the rooms. An office has been designated for use by year heads to assist them in carrying out their duties, for meeting with parents and students and for storing files. Lockers are well-maintained and made available to all students. Each locker area is designated to a particular year group, facilitating supervision at break times.
All whole-time teachers are allocated base classrooms. This system has clearly supported the development of subject specific material and the creation of stimulating subject-related learning environments. Audio-visual facilities are located in every third or fourth classroom enabling the exchange of rooms if the use of such resources is planned.
Subject departments do not have fixed budgets but management is committed to maintaining and updating resources for all subject areas. At the request of the VEC, stock-taking is carried out across the whole school on an annual basis and a commendable computerised system to assist in conducting this has been devised by the ICT co-ordinator.
A significant amount of ICT equipment is currently being provided to the school as part of the budget for the furnishing of the new building. Commendably, the roll out of the installation is being managed on a phased basis and a certain amount of future-proofing is being built into the system. There is a large multimedia room and large computer room and a separate server for administrative staff. The multimedia room is still awaiting the delivery of some software but it will allow students to access a range of audio and visual programmes. Best practice would be to give every class access to this facility at least once per week. The school is wired for Internet broadband access and data projector points have been installed in several classrooms. The system is networked allowing teachers and students to access their files from any location. The server has a folder of past examination papers, marking schemes and syllabuses for all subjects taught in the school and teachers and students have access to this.
ICT is being applied to facilitate the management and administration of the school. The school greatly appreciates the work of the ICT co-ordinator in this regard. Several examples of this work were evident during the evaluation, including the systems for monitoring student attendance, stock control and student attainment.
A computer, internet and network acceptable use policy has been drawn up and was ratified by the board in 2005. Students and their parents must sign a form indicating they will follow the terms of this policy. Teachers can supervise students’ work and especially their use of the Internet through a particular facility on the teacher’s monitor.
Computers are located in the staff work area allowing them to utilise the facilities for planning, research and preparation of materials for lessons. Many teachers availed of training in ICT through the IT2000 initiative. Some teachers use ICT in their teaching practices. The planned provision of a computer in each classroom will provide an excellent opportunity for the increased use of ICT in teaching and learning activities in all subject areas. In order that these resources can be fully exploited to enhance teaching and learning, professional development activities in ICT should be prioritised. In addition, it is essential that all modern language teachers be trained in the use of the multimedia room.
A health and safety audit of the entire school will shortly be conducted by a specialist external agency, appointed by the VEC and this is a priority for senior management. Given that the new buildings with newly resourced specialist rooms and equipment are already in use by staff and students this should be expedited. The school is encouraged to engage in regular risk assessment and review of the safety statement.
Supervised evening study is held in the library for sixth-year students throughout the school year and for third-year students after Christmas. A book rental scheme is in operation and all students avail of this. Rules and conditions of the scheme must be observed fully by students to remain in the scheme.
The school is engaged in an ongoing collaborative School Development Planning (SDP) process. Formal co-ordinating structures are in place and are operating effectively. Facilitation by the School Developing Planning Initiative has been availed of. Recently, planning has focused on the development of subject department planning with much work undertaken in this area, and it is progressing very well. The practical benefits of collaborative planning have been realised by staff and it is bringing greater consistency to the practice of all teachers and is effectively supporting learning. SDP meetings for staff take place in the first hour of staff meetings during which two sessions are held, allowing teachers to break into a sub-committee for policy making and a subject department for subject planning. Rotating subject convenors have been appointed for all subject areas and it is planned to continue with and to review subject department planning. It is also planned this year to form subject departments for SPHE, CSPE and the link modules. The formation of a SEN department should also be considered, encompassing all staff involved in provision in this area.
A school plan has been developed by the teaching staff. The school plan contains details of practices and policies that have been developed at different times over the last number of years. New policies have emerged as the needs of the school have changed. For example, the mobile phone policy is now a priority for development. However, many school policies feature in the development section of the school plan and it is not always evident when established policies were ratified. Some policies have been recently updated but others need to be reviewed. In all cases the policies should be dated and ratified by the board.
Teaching staff and senior management are the main contributors to the school development planning process and there has been limited engagement by the board of management, parents and students in the development of the school plan. The only policy that parents and students have had any tangible input into is the critical incident plan. It is intended to establish a steering group to review and update the school plan and to enhance the partnership links in the process. However, the whole breadth of planning for the future of the school will need greater focus and involvement of relevant parties at all levels, including board, parents, teaching staff and students. As already indicated, a time frame for putting various plans in place and priorities for the development of the school should be established by the board. More rigorous self-evaluation and review are recommended as is the process of monitoring the impact of school planning on students’ learning.
A guidance plan for the school is not yet in place although this was recommended in a guidance inspection report in 2003. This is a matter for concern as failure to put this plan in place is disadvantaging the students. It is recommended that a specific action plan be drawn up to ensure that all of the stages in the process of developing the guidance plan are achieved in the current academic year. The documents Planning the School Guidance Programme (National Centre for Guidance in Education 2004) and Guidelines for Second-Level Schools on the implications of Section 9(c) of the Education Act (1998), relating to students’ access to appropriate guidance (Inspectorate of the Department of Education and Science 2005) should be consulted in preparing the guidance plan. The preparation of a guidance plan is a whole-school issue and therefore should encompass all aspects of the support system for students: SPHE, first-year induction, pastoral care, Religious Education, support for subject choice and support for students with additional needs. The plan should ensure that all students can avail of a developmental guidance programme. The school’s policy on SPHE and Relationships and Sexuality Education (RSE) was drawn up eight years ago and it is now timely that this be reviewed concurrently with the development of the guidance plan.
Confirmation was provided that, in compliance with Post-primary Circulars M45/05 and 0062/2006, the board of management has formally adopted the Child Protection Guidelines for Post-primary Schools (Department of Education and Science, September 2004). Confirmation was also provided that these child protection procedures have been brought to the attention of management, school staff and parents; that a copy of the procedures has been provided to all staff and that management has ensured that all staff are familiar with the procedures to be followed. Better procedures need to be established, however, for informing newly appointed staff. A designated liaison person (DLP) and a deputy DLP have been appointed in line with the requirements of the guidelines.
The school currently offers four programmes in mainstream education: Junior Certificate, Transition Year, Leaving Certificate and the Leaving Certificate Vocational Programme (LCVP). A programme co-ordinator oversees provision, liaises with teachers involved and assists in the provision of information to parents and students. Management are currently exploring the merits of introducing the Leaving Certificate Applied programme but there may not be sufficient need among the cohort of students at present.
Study periods are allocated on the timetable for Leaving Certificate students. This must be discontinued and instruction in an appropriate area of the curriculum provided instead.
Physical Education is timetabled for students in the first, second and transition year groups only and groups in third, fifth and sixth year have no provision in this subject. While this report acknowledges the contribution of teachers to extra-curricular games activities and team training, Physical Education should be timetabled for all class groups as this is best practice. This is a particular shortcoming in the school curriculum given the availability of state-of-the-art facilities and the significant fundraising contribution by parents in this area.
With the notable exception of both Physical Education and study periods, the school offers a broad curriculum with programmes that are appropriate to the needs of the student intake. The subjects offered on the junior and senior cycle curriculum represent a good balance between the arts, languages, music, science, technical and business subjects. Students study eleven core subjects plus three subjects from the options band for the Junior Certificate. For a school of this size, a particularly wide curriculum is provided for senior cycle students with fourteen optional subjects offered and timetabled every year.
Transition Year is optional and is taken by approximately half of the students. A mix of subjects and modules is provided allowing students to make better choices for Leaving Certificate. Two sets of work experience are provided and students sign a contract of learning at the start of the year. The TY co-ordinator is assisted by a core team of teachers who meet regularly, and an annual staff meeting is held for teachers involved. TY subject plans are reviewed annually and procedures for a formal evaluation are developing. Teachers involved have embraced the programme and further in-service by the TY support service is planned.
Just over half of the students take LCVP and there is good provision for the programme. LCVP is promoted among TY students as the skills developed in TY greatly assist LCVP. A core group of teachers and a co-ordinator have been appointed and are allocated to teach two periods per week in the link modules plus one period for computers and portfolio work. It is a requirement of LCVP that all students study a modern language. Some students are continuing with the language studied in junior cycle. Those who are not, however, should be taking a modern language module for the equivalent of one class per week over the two years. This is not currently being provided. The programme co-ordinator is aware of the issue and is making plans for provision according to circular 0018/2006.
Computer lessons are timetabled for senior students. TY students have four lessons per week and some students in fifth and sixth year may have one lesson per week depending on the option block arrangement. LCVP students have timetabled computer lessons. All students can access the computer room every lunch time under the supervision of a teacher.
SPHE is firmly established in the junior cycle curriculum and gives further emphasis to the strong support for the holistic development of students. One class period per week is timetabled for all junior cycle groups. A dedicated core team of teachers, including a convenor, has been established and management are commended for the way in which these core teachers are always deployed to teach the subject. Initial and on-going training for teachers of SPHE is actively encouraged by senior management and is being availed of. Planning materials and an extensive range of resources are kept centrally. Lesson planning is flexible and adapts to need when issues arise with a particular group. Cross-curricular links are promoted and group work and circle time form part of the teaching and learning methods used. It is reported that students are very familiar with having class discussions and engage very well, developing good communication skills by third year. Suggestions for development include the inclusion of SPHE as a subject for teacher comment on student reports and the provision of time for formal liaison with the guidance counselling department so as to develop cross-curricular links in key topics between these two subjects.
The RSE programme is provided as an integral part of the SPHE programme at junior cycle. However, there is no formal provision of RSE in senior cycle, nor has there been a whole-staff agreement on this. The school should provide RSE for all senior cycle students according to circulars M4/95 and M20/96. It is the responsibility of the board to ensure this is made available. Resource materials to support RSE are available at www.sphe.ie.
In general, four class groups of students are formed each year, with two groups of TY students. A combination of banding and mixed ability groupings is used. First-year groups are arranged on a mixed-ability basis. Groups are rearranged from second year onwards, through the formation of one group of students judged to be of the highest ability and three other groupings of mixed ability. Students remain in these groups for core subjects. Banding is applied throughout junior cycle for Mathematics and for French classes in second and third year. The banding of class groups in junior cycle should be kept under constant review because of the way the system may adversely affect student self-esteem. This is particularly important given the inclusion of the acquisition of student self-confidence in the mission statement. The staff is very conscious of the implications of banding and have discussed the merits and demerits of the system.
The school provides Adult Education in the evening, opening the school’s excellent facilities to a broader range of learners. A director of Adult Education has been appointed from the staff. A stand-alone module accredited by the Further Education and Training Awards Council (FETAC) in caring for children with special needs is provided. PLC courses had been provided in the school but are no longer running. The school has recently gained its Quality Assurance certification from FETAC which will allow the introduction of additional FETAC courses and the reintroduction of PLC courses and this is encouraged. Provision of courses is geared to the needs of the local community and the director has undertaken a local survey to ascertain interest and needs. This has involved some liaison with local employers. Two sessions of night classes are scheduled annually and each course must have viable numbers before proceeding. Night classes include Irish, English-for-migrant-workers, parenting teenagers, aerobics and computers.
There is good access to subjects and programmes in the school curriculum and the school endeavours to meet the subject choices of all students. Students must choose three out of seven optional subjects prior to entry into first year. Following Junior Certificate, students may choose the Transition Year programme or either LCVP or the established Leaving Certificate, for which there is significant subject choice. ICT is used to analyse subject choice for both junior and senior cycle and the vast majority of students receive their preferred choices. Where it is not possible to accommodate the exact choices made by a student, a meeting with the guidance counsellor is arranged to discuss possible solutions. Generally, there is a good gender balance in each subject. However, the uptake of modern languages by boys at senior cycle and the uptake of Metalwork and Engineering by girls at all levels needs to be explored with a view to increasing these.
Guidance is provided to both students and parents to support them in making programme and subject choices. Provision of guidance lessons in third year is limited to a short period. However, this is supplemented by individual meetings with all third-year students to discuss their choices. A booklet on subject choice for Leaving Certificate has been drawn up by the guidance counselling service with the assistance of subject teachers. This valuable resource details the main topics covered in each subject, the career paths these may assist, the study demands and the skills the subject will help them develop.
Information and support for parents in relation to subject and programme choice and in supporting the transition to the school for first years is given through well-organised and timely information evenings held in the school. Parents are encouraged to support their child’s learning and to attend these events. These meetings are attended by subject teachers who speak about their subject or programme and the implications of subject choice. The evening for first-year parents also provides them with comprehensive information on the operation of the school and enables parents to meet key staff in their child’s education.
A TY booklet has been developed by all teachers involved in delivering the programme and this is given to all students in the second term of third year to provide them with information about the programme and the range of subjects provided.
An excellent range of extra-curricular and co-curricular activities is provided in the school and participation by students is high, especially in sports, music, enterprise and social activities. Such activities are an important part of school life and there have been many notable achievements. The majority of teachers are involved in providing activities and their enthusiasm for their particular area is palpable. Teachers feel that the rewards of working with students in this way are in building important student-teacher rapport and in developing the self-esteem of all students, no matter what their individual interests.
The wide range of activities includes public speaking, quizzes, theatre visits, drama, athletics, equestrian, Readathon, An Gaisce, and celebrations of Science Week and Seachtain na Gaeilge. In addition, junior and senior teams are prepared and trained in camogie, basketball, hurling and gaelic football. Involvement in these activities has taken the school to both Leinster and All-Ireland finals on many occasions and a significant amount of activity takes place in team training. Where inter-school matches are held during the week, it is only team members who are permitted to attend and management insist that students must complete all homework. The focus at lunchtime is in providing physical activity for those groups who do not have timetabled lessons in Physical Education and this is commended. Schedules are made out for the various year groups for the gymnasium and the basketball courts ensuring access. Inter-class competitions are also organised. Summer computer courses take place. Participation in the Green Schools initiative is underway.
Participation in co-curricular musical activities is also noteworthy with an established chamber choir, rock group, grúpa cheoil and large school choir. The music department provides strong support to the school’s liturgical and secular events and produces an annual Christmas concert and a biennial school concert which are well attended by the local community. The music department also engages in team teaching integrating key areas of both Irish and Music, and Religion and Music. This was observed to be successful during the evaluation.
Enterprise education also forms a significant feature of school activity. It is allocated three periods per week in TY. There have been numerous achievements with mini-company development and with Enterprise Awards, Carlow Young Entrepreneurs and other county, national and international competitions. Enterprise education is developed through the LCVP link module where the focus is placed on raising funds for charities, especially the Irish Cancer Society. The commitment given by the co-ordinating teachers is commended.
A collaborative approach to subject planning and programme implementation with effective subject co-ordination was evident for all the subjects evaluated: English, French, Metalwork and Engineering and Physical Education. Management facilitates three formal subject department meetings per year and minutes are recorded for these meetings in line with best practice. Teachers of the same subject also meet regularly on an informal basis throughout the year. Teachers work effectively together as a team. There was evidence of very good collaboration and sharing of useful resources and teaching and learning methodologies among teachers.
All subject departments evaluated have either developed or are in the process of developing comprehensive subject plans for each year group. As part of ongoing subject planning, it is recommended that all plans be further progressed to include proposed learning outcomes for the students and related teaching and learning strategies. There was very good planning for students with SEN in some subjects and it is recommended that this be expanded in all subjects to support the differentiated needs of all learners. TY plans for individual subjects indicated commitment to the principles of the TY programme and solid work taking place in subjects. Innovation was evident in the teaching and learning methods planned for most topics within the subject plans, with some element of review recommended in a small number of cases. Subject department plans and TY subject plans are reviewed annually.
All individual lessons observed during the evaluation process indicated careful planning and preparation. Teachers are commended for the advance readiness of required equipment and stimulus material for lessons and the preparation of a range of supplementary materials.
Lessons were generally well structured, purposeful and appropriately paced. Good practice was observed in many instances across subjects where the teacher outlined the aim of the lesson thereby engaging the students from the beginning.
Question and answer sessions were used effectively in most lessons across all subject areas. The good balance between lower-order and higher-order questions during lessons in English responded to the mixed-ability nature of the class groups and the emphasis on students’ personal responses to questions at senior cycle was highly commended. However, there were also some occasions in English where there was insufficient differentiation to respond to the needs of the students at opposite ends of the ability spectrum. Most of the tasks in Physical Education were appropriately challenging for students of all abilities. However, greater use of higher-order questioning was recommended to enhance students’ cognitive involvement in these lessons. Students’ practical work in Metalwork and Engineering was considered to be both suitably challenging and achievable.
There was good use of the target language by all teachers of French and good attention to the French alphabet and to spellings in both French and English lessons. There was evidence of good integration of the different skills in the languages taught, while the smooth transition from theory to experiential learning was evidenced in many of the practical subject lessons. An appropriate balance between teacher input and student engagement was also noted in practical lessons. However, teachers of English and French should develop a range of strategies to promote greater student engagement and active involvement in their own learning. To this end, the use of more student-based tasks including pair and group work and more opportunities for discussion should be created.
Supplementary materials including worksheets and games were used to engage students in a number of lessons across the different subjects. All subjects evaluated are currently very well-resourced with teacher-based classrooms and good subject-specific materials. Teachers are still waiting delivery of some essential machinery in the Metalwork and Engineering room, however. Classrooms for French and English are clustered in subject department areas, thereby facilitating inter-departmental collaboration and the sharing of resources. This is commended. There were maps, posters and a display of students’ work in all classrooms visited, including the gymnasium, thereby enhancing learning opportunities for students. This is also commended. Access to ICT is facilitated by the provision of a new multimedia room for language lessons and the availability of broadband in all classrooms. It is recommended that broadband be extended to the gymnasium to facilitate students’ use of electronic resources in their work. It is also recommended that teachers of all subjects avail of the existing ICT facilities as a tool for teaching and learning.
There was evidence of a positive learning environment in all of the lessons observed, facilitated by effective classroom management and a climate of mutual respect. In most cases, teachers were supportive of all students, helping them individually when engaging in student-based activities in addition to whole-class teaching. In most cases, student participation in lessons and work completed in class indicated a good understanding of the lesson content and they applied themselves to the tasks given.
Students achieve well at their chosen level but more students could be encouraged to take higher level. It is important that all students continue to be encouraged to take their subjects to the highest level appropriate to their abilities, thus maintaining and increasing levels of academic excellence and achievement.
A variety of techniques is used to monitor students’ progress, including participation in class, question and answer sessions, homework, continuous assessment, self and peer assessment in Physical Education, monitoring of practical work in Metalwork and Engineering, class tests and formal examinations. There was evidence of appropriately challenging homework tasks being assigned and corrected in relevant subject areas.
New homework and assessment practices are evolving and elements of continuous assessment are being introduced. These changes are an outcome of the combined work by senior management and assistant principals, who wanted to focus on teaching and learning, and assessment in particular. In making such changes, however, there is a need for ongoing vigilance in checking student journals and in regularly re-enforcing the system among subject departments. As a means of rooting changes in practice it is recommended that either a school policy on homework and assessment or a written account of the practices be formalised in both the student journal and the teacher handbook for next year.
Students in third year and sixth year sit five formal assessments during the year including mock examinations. First, second and third years sit four formal class-based assessments. Common tests are given where possible. It is recommended that an aural component and some form of oral assessment be included in all formal French assessments. Senior management recognise the importance of communicating students’ progress to parents. School reports are sent home twice each year indicating a mark, grade and comment for each subject, the number of absences and a general comment on the student. In addition, progress reports are issued to parents of students in third and sixth year at the end of October based on collated results of assessments.
Assessment in TY is ongoing and reporting for every subject and module is based on student attitude, class participation and a grade for the work in their folder or for a project.
There are clear procedures for identifying, assessing and monitoring the progress of students with special educational needs. All incoming students take diagnostic assessments in Mathematics and English before they enter the school. In addition, a standardised test is administered to all first years during September to establish their reading age. This information is made available to subject teachers. Learning support teachers consult with all teachers of first-year students to determine how they are progressing and to ensure all needs have been identified. Parents are requested to provide information on previous interventions when students are being enrolled. Additional educational or psychological tests and information from the primary school are also studied and utilised in determining the appropriate provision. Applications for resources to support individual students are made through the local Special Education Needs Organiser. The advice and intervention of external support agencies is sought where necessary.
The school is currently allocated fifty-five hours per week for the provision of learning support to twenty-seven students with SEN in both junior and senior cycle. Four SNA posts have also been appointed. In addition, six hours per week has been allocated to three newcomer students for language support in English. There are three main teachers allocated to teach learning support and these form the core SEN team with one teacher undertaking the role of co-ordinator. In addition, a small number of other teachers supplement this with resource teaching which may include helping students to complete projects or assisting them in key areas in particular subjects. It is suggested that resource hours could be utilised for team teaching in some circumstances.
The commitment to meeting the needs of students with SEN in both the short term and long term is commended. The SEN team are dedicated, interact effectively and benefit from each others’ experience and training. In particular, a progressive attitude is taken to developments in SEN provision and the team are determined to implement improvements.
There is ongoing collaboration between the SEN team and subject teachers so that the needs of students of all abilities are best met in every lesson. However, this has been mainly informal up to now. The SEN team are exploring means of better exchanging strategies for learning support with all teachers, especially on a more formalised basis, and to this end it is planned that the team would provide short inputs at staff meetings. This is encouraged. In order to optimise existing expertise, it is further suggested that members of the SEN team attend the SDP meetings of other subject departments on a rotating basis with a view to developing planning for SEN support in every subject area and to promote the Department of Education and Science guidelines on the Inclusion of Students with Special Educational Needs (2007). In addition, desired learning outcomes should be developed for each student with SEN and disseminated to each staff member dealing with those students.
Students who are not studying a modern language or who have an exemption from the study of Irish receive extra timetabled learning support tuition in English in small groups, with the prior approval of their parents. Because banding is applied throughout for Mathematics a small group made up of the students with the most needs in this area is formed in each year of junior cycle and students can follow foundation level in the subject. It is possible to move between the bands should a student’s capabilities allow them to reach for ordinary or higher level. Some students also receive SEN support individually. A paired reading programme is organised and students who would benefit from improved skills and self-confidence in reading are paired with sixth-year students for short reading sessions. Their reading ability is tested both before and after the programme to determine progress. The needs of very able students are met by the subject teachers who support their studies and encourage them to enter national competitions and Olympiads. Short-term learning support is provided where a student moves up to higher-level English or Mathematics and needs help with some of the sub-topics until they are comfortable with the transition. The level of support for able students is commended.
There are two specialist learning-support rooms each of which has varied displays of stimulating materials and student work. ICT programmes are in use. With the support of senior management resources are constantly being developed in line with best practice. A policy on special educational needs has been initiated and is in draft form. This draft policy should reflect more of the very good practice and service currently provided for students with additional needs.
The school has a dedicated guidance classroom with a careers library, and a separate office for the service. Modern ICT facilities are part of the resources available in these rooms. Students also use the facilities in the computer room to access careers information for themselves. The school is allocated eleven hours per week for guidance and counselling plus four-and-a-half hours per week under the Guidance Enhancement Initiative. Guidance provision in the school is documented in the subject plan and offers a range of activities and services, including timetabled classes, individual guidance consultations and counselling. There is strong support for ongoing professional development in this area. Regular attendance at local Institute of Guidance Counsellor’s meetings, interaction with other local guidance counsellors and participation in counsellor ‘supervision’ are facilitated by management.
Counselling is available to every student in the school, whether it is career, educational or personal. Access to the counselling service is through referral by parents, management, classmates, teachers or self-referral. Staff members expressed confidence that students in need are identified and are fully supported. Where necessary the services of external agencies, such as the Health Service Executive or the National Educational Psychological Service are sought. Communication between the guidance service and parents is often facilitated with the principal as intermediary. Counselling in the school is further supported by an informal voluntary chaplaincy service.
Careers education is timetabled for one period per week for senior-cycle year groups only. For junior cycle students, guidance lessons are provided during a three-week period in the second term of third year. This is used for aptitude testing and the provision of information on programmes and subject choice. All students in third year and transition year have an individual meeting with the guidance counsellor to discuss their subject choices while sixth years are met for two individual career meetings. A guidance programme is not timetabled in first or second year and the guidance service for junior cycle students is therefore limited. It is recommended that the guidance counselling service have some formal contact with first-year and second-year students, perhaps with the co-operation of the SPHE teachers. This would be especially important during first year to support them in their transition from primary, in giving them information on how the school’s services can support them and details of how to access the services. It is recommended therefore, that first-year students have a formal introduction to the guidance service. Given the time constraints on the service it is suggested that consideration be given to some external initiatives, such as the Rainbows programme.
Trips are organised to careers ‘open days’ for students in TY, fifth year and sixth year. These include visits to the Carlow and Waterford Institute of Technologies, University College Dublin and a Career Paths day in Carlow. Parents are informed in advance and their permission for attendance is sought. All dates for visits are posted in the staff room. Detailed records are maintained by the guidance counselling service. Records are made in every career interview. At the end of each year a summary record of the times and dates of counselling sessions is submitted to management.
While students are very well supported through the various student support structures and through the guidance counselling service, overall it was found that guidance provision is more of a series of discrete supports rather than an integrated service for all members of the school. Guidance should be a whole-school activity that is integrated into all school programmes and should be an integral component of all care elements of the school. Therefore, formal liaison between the guidance service and the SPHE department during SDP meetings is recommended. While some cross-curricular planning was documented in subject plans there is limited integration of guidance with subject departments and the TY and LCVP programmes. Liaison between the guidance department and the subject convenors and programme co-ordinators should also be developed through SDP.
To assist in student support, class teachers meet pastorally with their class group for six minutes each morning, representing a consistent level of contact. This includes monitoring overall student and group well-being as well as management issues. An important feature of the student support system in the school is the way in which the class teachers and year heads endeavour to always encourage their students, to acknowledge achievements and to develop a class spirit. For example, class teachers incorporate group bonding exercises during the year and each year group goes on an annual outing. The particular year head and class teachers stay with their groups from second year through to sixth year, with the exception of some movement during TY. This is a distinctive way of building key relationships and maintaining ongoing awareness of individual students.
Ongoing and informal communication between class teachers, year heads and subject teachers helps to identify any students in need of support. Internal communication systems for reporting on individual issues as they arise are reported to be successful. This combined with the immediacy of response by relevant personnel, often the principal, is effective.
Regular meetings take place between the year head and class teachers in co-ordinating the student support system. These meetings take place formally at the start of every staff meeting and at other times. Year heads give a summation of ‘issues’ to the whole staff on their year at the staff meeting. This is a valuable means of providing essential information to other teachers and enables a team approach to dealing with issues. However, the guidance counselling service is not currently featured at these meetings, and in order that to integrate this service in a more formal way into the student support system, rotated attendance by the guidance counsellor at these meetings is recommended.
There is very good quality of care provided through the Meitheal mentoring programme. The programme involves ten sixth-year students who have been empowered to provide leadership to the first year groups, to look out for their overall welfare and to ease their transition into secondary school. Some of the initiatives undertaken in this regard are particularly successful. Meitheal leaders take an important role in identifying any incidents of bullying and liaise with class teachers, as appropriate. Meitheal leaders report that the school has gained immensely from the introduction of this programme and that students are able to approach them and to speak up if they have issues.
Good initiatives for promoting healthy eating are in place. A very well-organised breakfast club is established and availed of by up to eighty students. This provides students who arrive very early to school to avail of healthy food and supervision in a warm environment as well as opportunities for social interaction. Teachers have noted that since its introduction five years ago that it has been effective in improving behaviour and performance for some students. The service is well co-ordinated and aided by volunteer teachers. By conscious agreement of the whole staff, and as an outcome of the annual Healthy Eating Week, only healthy options are available in the food and refreshments provided in the school shop and vending machines. In addition, students are not allowed to leave the premises during the day. Such efforts exemplify the quality of care provided.
The following are the main strengths identified in the evaluation:
· There is a united and deeply committed senior management team who run the school in partnership, with respect and with a distinct openness of communication.
· A collective spirit of commitment and co-operation is evident among teachers in adhering to the school’s core values and in overall school development.
· Assistant principals and programme co-ordinators have been empowered and enabled to contribute productively to middle management.
· A notable sense of celebration is infused into school life with student achievements acknowledged in a variety of ways, creating a positive atmosphere within.
· A well-organised student support structure is in place striking a good balance between discipline, pastoral care and individual student progress.
· Internal communication systems for reporting on issues as they arise are effective.
· The involvement of parents is central to the life of this school. Very good systems are in place for clear, effective and regular communication with parents.
· The school has just been extended and refurbished to a high standard.
· ICT is being applied to facilitate the management and administration of the school.
· With the notable exception of Physical Education, the school provides a balanced and particularly broad curriculum that is appropriate to the needs of the student intake, with good access to all subjects and programmes.
· An excellent range of extra-curricular and co-curricular activities are provided in the school and participation in these is high.
· The system of analysing the outcome of formal school-based assessments for third and sixth years is an excellent means of monitoring student attainment.
· The commitment to providing for and meeting the needs of students with special educational needs is commended.
· There is good quality of care provided through the Meitheal programme, the student council and the healthy eating programme.
As a means of building on these strengths and to address areas for development, the following key recommendations are made:
· The timetable must be revised to provide for the minimum of twenty-eight hours of instruction for students per week. The practice of allocating study periods to Leaving Certificate students must be discontinued.
· The board of management should be more proactive in identifying needs, instigating action plans and monitoring progress for ongoing school development and improvement.
· The school should access externally provided professional development in the areas of Assessment for Learning and Differentiation and should use the experience available within the staff to provide in-school training in both ICT and SEN.
· Physical Education should be timetabled for all class groups and the RSE programme should be provided for senior cycle students in line with best practice.
· Desired learning outcomes should be developed for each student with SEN and disseminated to each staff member dealing with those students.
· A whole-school guidance plan should be put in place as a matter of urgency. This should encompass an increase in the service for junior cycle students and greater integration between the guidance service, SPHE and the student support system.
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:
· Subject Inspection of English – 2 October 2007
· Subject Inspection of French – 22 October 2007
· Subject Inspection of Metalwork and Engineering – 24 October 2007
· Subject Inspection of Physical Education – 24 October 2007
Published June 2008
Submitted by the Board of Management
Area 1 Observations on the content of the inspection report
The Board of Management and the Borris Vocational School community welcome this report.
We are happy that the report is accurate, extensive, fair and balanced.
We are delighted that the report acknowledges and affirms the good practices and high quality of teaching and learning in Borris Vocational School.
The recommendations which will help us to build on our strengths are appreciated and much work has been done to address these areas for improvement.
Area 2 Follow-up actions planned or undertaken since the completion of the inspection activity to implement the findings and recommendations of the inspection
The Board of Management has met to discuss the WSE report and have arranged to meet again in September 2008 to formulate long and short term objectives for the board.
External professional assistance in the area of Learning and Differentiation is being arranged for the first term of 2008/2009.
A draft Guidance Plan has been drawn up and the task force set up to coordinate the Plan is continuing to work on completing the Plan as a matter of urgency.
Physical Education is being introduced to the Senior Cycle on a phased basis and will be available to all 5th year students in September 2008.