An Roinn Oideachais agus Eolaíochta

 

Department of Education and Science

 

Whole-School Evaluation

REPORT

 

 

Our Lady of Mercy Secondary School

Ozanam Street, Waterford

Roll number: 64971W

 

Date of inspection: 11 April 2008

 

 

 

 

Whole-school evaluation

 

Introduction

 

1. quality of school management

1.1 Characteristic spirit of the school

1.2 School ownership and management

1.3 In-school management

1.4 Management of resources

 

2. Quality of school planning

2.1 The school plan

 

3. Quality of curriculum provision

3.1 Curriculum planning and organisation

3.2 Arrangements for students’ choice of subjects and programmes

3.3 Co-curricular and extracurricular provision

 

4. Quality of learning and teaching in subjects

4.1 Planning and preparation

4.2 Learning and teaching

4.3 Assessment

 

5. Quality of support for students

5.1 Inclusion of students with additional educational needs

5.2 Guidance and student support in the whole-school context

 

6. Summary of findings and recommendations for further development

 

7. Related subject inspection reports

 

 

 

 

Whole-school evaluation

 

A whole-school evaluation of Our Lady of Mercy Secondary School, Waterford was undertaken in April, 2008. This report presents the findings of the evaluation and makes recommendations for improvement. During the evaluation, the quality of teaching and learning in four subjects and in the school’s special educational needs programme were evaluated in detail. Separate reports are available on these. (See section 7 for details).

 

 

Introduction

 

Meán Scoil Mhuire na Trócaire, more commonly referred to as Our Lady of Mercy Secondary School, was officially opened on 1 September 1977. Its inception represented another landmark in what can be described as a significant tradition of educational provision by the Sisters of Mercy in Waterford City. 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.

 

 

St. Otteran’s, the first Mercy School in Waterford City, was opened on 20 August 1900. It was built to provide a primary education for the young children of the local parishes. In the following years the school continued to expand and develop. In 1935 it was decided to open a ‘Secondary Top’. While the school officially remained a primary school, this allowed for the preparation of students for the Intermediate and Leaving Certificate Examinations. In the 1960s, and in response to social and demographic trends in the city, the Mercy Order decided to build two new schools at Military Road. As a result, the Holy Family Junior School and Our Lady of Mercy Primary School were opened in February 1965. With the advent of free secondary education in 1967, the Mercy Sisters decided to establish a secondary school. This vision manifested itself in the founding of a school at Ozanam Street. This original building is still home to Our Lady of Mercy Secondary School, although an additional floor has been added over the years to accommodate increasing student numbers and a changing curriculum. Ozanam Street is centrally located, within a ten minute walk from Waterford city centre. It is surrounded by mature town housing. A major new housing development has commenced in Gracedieu, a nearby city suburb. Mercy Secondary School is located one kilometre from Presentation Secondary School and two kilometres from St. Paul's Community College.

 

Our Lady of Mercy Secondary School is an all-girl, voluntary secondary school. When the school first opened its doors it enrolled 450 students. Enrolment peaked in the early nineties at 850. Currently the school caters for 616 students. It caters for students from a wide geographical area. In addition to providing secondary education to students from the inner city, the surrounding suburbs and from the bordering county of Kilkenny, the student body is also representative of 31 different nationalities, providing for students who have originated in countries as near as England and as far as Brazil. The school’s main feeder school can be found on the same campus. Ninety-eight percent of the sixth-class students of Our Lady of Mercy Primary School transfer to Our Lady of Mercy Secondary School. On average, students from another sixteen primary schools within a twenty kilometre radius make up the rest of the first-year intake.   

 

A relatively substantial number of the teaching staff are past pupils of the school. This is significant, as it indicates a strong loyalty to the school, as well as an admirable respect and appreciation for its traditions. One of the school’s greatest claims to fame is that it is home to the Wildcats basketball club, its student cohort traditonally providing much of the talent of this team. In 1990 the school was designated disadvantaged. However, it was not included in the 2006 Delivering Equality of Opportunity in Schools (DEIS) project. In recent times, Our Lady of Mercy Secondary School, Waterford has had to come to terms with a number of traumatic events. Despite this it is a very happy place in which to work or study. This is a tribute to the humanity and cohesiveness of all members of the school community.  

 

 

1.         quality of school management

 

1.1          Characteristic spirit of the school

 

A very strong consensus exists amongst management, staff, parents and students in relation to the characteristic spirit of Our Lady of Mercy Secondary School. Consistently, when asked to describe this spirit, the various partners cited qualities such as care, concern, inclusiveness, loyalty, support and respect. This is summarised and clearly articulated in the school’s recently revised and soon to be ratified mission statement, ‘To educate our students to achieve their full potential in an inclusive and Christian environment’. Set against a backdrop of increasing cultural diversity, it is significant that whilst this mission statement embraces the concept of inclusion, the school remains loyal to its founding traditions and its associated Christian values. It is acknowledged that this represents a respect for and appreciation of the past, together with a recognition of the changing face of the school and the local community and the need to respond to this. This short, yet all-encompassing mission statement is accompanied by a series of declarations which detail the vision behind the statement. These, very commendably, place a strong emphasis on the promotion of the holistic development of all members of the school’s community as well as excellence in relation to teaching and learning. Furthermore, they highlight a concern for respect, care and compassion for every member of the school community. In addition, they recognise the role that the school needs to play in the ongoing search for a more loving, peaceful and just world. The latter suggests a global consciousness that is to be admired. 

 

While these words, both spoken and written, provide a strong indication of the school’s characteristic spirit, it is the actions manifested in the school’s many practices, procedures and policies, that allow for the communication of the school’s spirit to all concerned. Central to the school’s policies, practices and procedures is, however, the style and quality of the inter-personal relations evident amongst and between all members of the school community. These relations, which are characterised by an admirable degree of compassion, fairness, honesty, openness and respect, are the very embodiment of all that has been outlined previously. Clearly, it is on this that the characteristic spirit is founded and it is on this that the spirit rests and grows.

 

1.2          School ownership and management

 

The board of management in Mercy Secondary School is properly constituted. It comprises eight members who are representative of all nominating bodies, namely the trustees, the parents and the teaching staff. As is set down in the manual for boards of management of voluntary secondary schools, one of the trustees’ nominees acts as chairperson to the board, with the principal acting as secretary. Following the amalgamation of five religious congregations, the school is now under the trusteeship of CEIST. The mission and core values of CEIST strongly resonate with the school’s own mission and vision. This is noted as very positive. It was clear from the discussions held with the board that the new trustees, as the Sisters of Mercy did before them, are seeking to support the board and the school principal in matters pertinent to the perpetuation and development of the school.

 

The current board is in the second year of its three-year term of office. A percentage of the board members have served on the board previously. The members recognise and appreciate how this allows for an appropriate degree of continuity from one board to the next. In combination with the addition of new members every three years, the board composition suggests a good balance in terms of experienced and new members. Training is appropriately availed of on an ongoing basis. The board meets six to seven times per annum. In advance of each meeting agendas, together with the minutes of the previous meeting, are issued to all members. Minutes also issue to CEIST. The finance sub-committee, who meet once every term, submit a finance report at every board meeting. All of the above is consistent with best practice.

 

Clearly, the members of the board of management of Mercy Secondary School demonstrate a healthy working relationship. The members are very clear on their collective role. In summation, the members see their overriding function as one that seeks to optimise the resources available to the school in the best interest of the advancement and attainment of all students. Simultaneously, assurances were provided that student welfare dictates all board decisions. Decisions are reached in a very transparent, consultative manner. Open discussion relating to all matters raised at board meetings seeks to ensure that decisions taken are based on the consensus of the members. It is very rare that members will have to vote in order to determine a required action or stance. The principal endeavours to keep the board members up to date in terms of legal obligations that arise out of the various relevant Acts and Circulars.

 

Strong lines of communication exist between the board and the various education partners. The chairperson acts as the conduit between the board and the principal in between board meetings. The principal acknowledged the value of this interaction in terms of the support and advice provided by and offered to him in relation to the day-to-day management of the school, a responsibility which has been appropriately devolved by the board to the principal. A report is delivered by the principal at each board meeting. This seeks to inform board members of school activities, both planned and completed. This insight allows the board to formally recognise and acknowledge student and staff involvement in a myriad of activities and projects. It also fosters the attendance of board members at upcoming events. This is proving invaluable in terms of promoting stronger relations between the board members and the staff, students and parents. An agreed report from each board meeting is provided to staff. The parents’ nominees also provide an oral report to the members of the parent’s association. As a means of further enhancing communications with the general parent body it is suggested that, and as indicated by  Section 20 of the Education Act (1998), the board prepares, publishes and circulates an annual report on the operation and performance of the school, with particular reference to the achievement of objectives as set out in the school plan. The school website should be explored as a medium to support publication and circulation of this report.

 

The board has arranged for the preparation of a school plan. Currently the board sees the identification of developmental priorities for the school as a responsibility of the principal, deputy principal and teaching staff. Considering the board’s overriding function, as outlined previously, it is suggested that board input in this regard could be strengthened. The board oversees the development of all school policies. Members also review, discuss and contribute to the various policies during the drafting stage. The majority of required policies have been adopted and ratified by the board. It is encouraging to note that one of the remaining required policies, the whole-school guidance plan, has been identified as a priority for development. It is recommended that the board also spearheads the formal documentation of the school’s practices and procedures relative to the two remaining required policies, namely attendance and participation and data protection. Although not required by statute, but rather by Department of Education and Science (DES) Circulars, serious consideration should also be given to the formal documentation of the school’s policy in relation to students’ use of the internet. Guidelines for the development of this policy are available to download from the website of the DES at www.education.gov.ie. The website of the National Centre for Technology, www.ncte.ie, may also inform in this regard. There is a lack of clarity in terms of the ratification and review dates relevant to each, individual school policy. It is advisable therefore that some consideration be given to providing both dates on all school polices. The provision of a proposed review date will also help to ensure the systematic and cyclical review of all polices. Once again, the school website should be explored as a forum for the publication and circulation of all school policies.

 

1.3          In-school management

 

The principal of Mercy Secondary School is, in the most positive of respects, synonymous with the school. The pivotal role that is played by him in relation to the management and operation of the school is fully recognised and acknowledged. His supreme commitment to the school, his appreciation of and care for his staff, and his interest in and concern for all students is plain to see. The principal is ably assisted in the day-to-day running of the school by the deputy principal, who was appointed to the role just under two years ago. A former teacher in the school, he is also very dedicated and works diligently as a member of the senior-management team. While the principal and deputy principal have very clearly defined roles, their partnership approach to the overall management of the school is very evident. A number of systems support this collaborative approach, the key one being the arrangement of a formal, senior-management meeting every morning. This meeting, which is supplemented by a number of informal meetings over the course of each school day, has given rise to a very open system of communication between the principal and deputy principal and allows for an easy, yet constructive interchange of information that is relevant to the day-to-day management of the school and is essential to its smooth operation. This practice is highly commended. In addition, both the principal and deputy principal demonstrate clear leadership qualities. Their combined leadership style resonates strongly with what academics refer to as ‘transformational’ leadership. This is where the leader or leaders take a visionary position and inspire people to higher levels of motivation and morality. Both members of the senior management team are deserving of much credit and praise for this extremely positive finding.

 

Management and leadership roles are also distributed at middle management level, with post-holders being afforded every opportunity to pursue and direct various projects and initiatives. The middle-management team is composed of nine assistant principals and fourteen special duties teachers. The duties attached to the school’s post schedule are reviewed on an ongoing basis. The degree of flexibility evident in terms of the post-holders’ willingness to change their assigned duty in response to a newly identified or emerging need is quite exceptional. Much credit is due to the post-holders for this level of adaptability and their openness to change. They, very commendably, recognise these traits as essential to, and in the best interest of, the school going forward. All posts have clear and identifiable duties attached and post-holders are carrying out these assigned duties in an efficient and effective manner. The senior management team facilitates an informal review of posts and the duties attached to them on a regular basis. The contribution that the members of the middle-management team make to the smooth operation of the school is very clear. The members of the middle-management team fully recognise the collective managerial role that they play relative to the progression and development of the school, as do the principal and deputy principal.

 

One of the most positive features of Mercy Secondary School is its systems of communication which, quite significantly, are mainly informal in nature. This approach is proving effective in Mercy Secondary School and can be deemed to be working because it is founded on an atmosphere characterised by friendliness, generosity, openness, positivity and understanding. This is evident at all levels but is particularly noteworthy amongst the teachers themselves and between them and the senior management team. Communication is further supported by the organisation of a number of formal meetings. This includes regular meetings of the senior management team with key personnel or groups, for example with the year heads and the pastoral care team. In addition, formal staff meetings, which take place approximately twice a term, are also organised. Staffroom notice-boards and, as required, staffroom announcements also seek to keep staff informed. It is clear however, that the most powerful mechanism of communication in the school is that which takes place on an on-going and informal basis, as people enter in the morning, as they go about their work during the day and as they leave every evening. This constant communication, which can take place anywhere and everywhere, speaks volumes about the school’s personnel, and their commitment to providing the best possible service to the students of the school, while supporting one another in the process.

 

Both the board of management and the members of the senior management team in Mercy Secondary School are very supportive and extremely encouraging of teachers’ continuing professional development (CPD), with requests to attend in-service training never refused. This is commended. This is in direct response to what has been recognised as teachers’ deep commitment to their own CPD. Their conscientiousness and interest in this regard are applauded. Subject department structures and staff meetings facilitate a sharing of information garnered with other subject teachers or, as appropriate, with the general staff body. The deputy principal plays a pivotal role in the induction of new staff members into school processes and procedures, supported by the various and relevant subject departments. A staff handbook is being developed with a view to summarising, for both new and existing staff members, the school’s key policies and procedures. The intention to include a section on teaching and learning in the school is highly commended and fully encouraged.

 

Mercy Secondary School was found to be operating a very open enrolment and admissions policy. The systems in operation are grounded in the principles of equality, diversity and inclusion of all students, including those with special educational needs, those from disadvantaged and minority backgrounds and those for whom English is a second language. The diversity of the student population bears testament to this finding. As a result, it is strongly advised that the school’s written policy be reviewed with a view to removing any potentially discriminatory elements that relate to the enrolment of all students, but in particular those with special educational needs. The policy would then, in effect, reflect the open enrolment practices that are evident in the school.

 

The school’s code of behaviour has recently been revised. This followed a redefining of the roles of both year heads and class tutors, both of whom play central roles in the management and evaluation of the code. The fact that the year heads move up through the school with the year group originally assigned to them is a significant factor in the success of the code in the school. A similar system operates in relation to the class tutor. The code is clearly presented and outlines expectations relative to punctuality, attendance, general behaviour and classroom behaviour. It also details the procedures that apply when dealing with minor and major offences and provides examples of what might constitute each. The intention to include the code in the new student journal is commended. The fact that the school has never expelled a student, that suspensions are rare and that detention levels are relatively low, indicates a very healthy and successful approach to the management of student behaviour in Mercy Secondary School. It is quite likely that this can be attributed to the fact that the school’s code of behaviour was described as running parallel to its pastoral care structures. To explain, students that contravene  the code of behaviour are often provided with some level of subtle pastoral intervention, be that offered via a subject teacher, a class tutor, the year head, a member of the guidance department, the home community liaison teacher, the pastoral care team or maybe even the principal or deputy principal. The possibility of any staff member providing this intervention is particularly commended. The contribution that the quality of staff-student relations makes to positive student behaviour also has to be highlighted here. Assemblies, which are organised and delivered by year heads on a monthly basis, are used to communicate with the student body, affirm students’ efforts and achievement and reinforce expectations with regard to student behaviour. As appropriate, class tutors emphasise messages delivered at assemblies at classroom level. Students’ council representatives spoke very favourably of the code, recognising its role and its value in terms of ensuring a safe environment and an equality of access to teaching and learning for all students. This was noted as remarkably mature on their part.

 

The recognition and acknowledgment of positive student behaviour is facilitated in a number of ways, for example, at assemblies, during class tutor interactions with his or her assigned class group and over the intercom via principal’s announcements. The annual prize night is another forum for such recognition and acknowledgement. This event seeks to highlight student participation and achievement in a myriad of areas including academic, non-academic, artistic, environmental, musical, social and sporting pursuits. The range of areas recognised as part of this night is highly praised. In September 2007 the school introduced a programme for first-year students, which was designed to promote aspects of positive behaviour. The programme’s emphasis was on the inculcation of positive values in relation to behaviour and homework. This venture proved very successful. Management and staff’s work in this regard is to be commended.

 

Attendance is carefully monitored by subject teachers each morning and afternoon. Their efforts in this regard are supported by the development of roll sheets which are collected from the staffroom on a twice-daily basis. The school has established very good systems for recording the information arising from this monitoring. To this end, a number of post-holders have been deployed with responsibility relative to this task. This seeks to ensure a guarantee of full accountability in relation to students’ attendance levels. This is applauded. A memo relative to students’ attendance, which is prepared by the office staff, is made available to staff each day. In addition to the recording of students’ attendance levels, much time is also given over to analysing and evaluating attendance patterns. While all teachers have an obvious role to play in this regard, it is, in combination with the year heads, one of the key duties of the class tutors. They are supported in terms of providing intervention relative to poor attendance by a number of other individuals including the home school community liaison teacher and one of the guidance counsellors. In this regard, the primary aim of such intervention is the encouragement of better or more consistent attendance. This support system is also commended. In instances where an inadequate explanation is provided for student absenteeism, parents are contacted. Special attendance structures are devised in the case of serious student illness or trauma. While overall attendance levels are satisfactory, a small percentage of students demonstrate erratic or irregular attendance patterns. When exploring the documentation and development of an attendance and participation policy, as referenced in section 2.1, it is suggested that consideration be given to the inclusion of strategies that either are being used or might be used to further encourage attendance amongst the small cohort of students who are more inclined to be late or absent.

 

The students’ council in Mercy Secondary School, which has been in existence since 1997, plays a very active role in the life of the school. All year groups, with the exception of first year, are represented on the council. Following the receipt of three, supporting-teacher signatures on their nomination paper, students can put themselves forward as an election candidate. Candidates are elected to the council by their peers. Votes are counted using the proportional representation (PR) system. The process is deemed to be both fair and democratic. In the interest of fairness, equality and total representation the council is considering the possibility of offering a place on the council to a student that might represent the growing number of international students enrolling in the school. This vision is to be commended and, in the short-term, is something that is encouraged. Weekly meetings help to facilitate the communication of students’ ideas in relation to enhancing and improving school life. This degree of commitment is to be praised. The council’s role and functioning has been clearly defined and documented in its constitution. The council members recognise, first and foremost, the key role that they can play and have played in representing students’ views and thereby improving the school’s atmosphere, facilities and conditions. The council’s recognition of this as their primary role is very positive. The council is also very active in terms of fundraising. One of its most successful ventures, a public fashion show, was undertaken in conjunction with the parents’ association. Both groups spoke very positively about the project. Such collaboration is highly commended. Their fundraising efforts also provided for a music bursary for a student attending the school. The students’ commitment to this project is very admirable. As appropriate, the council members have been consulted in relation to certain school policies, for example, the healthy eating policy and the substance use policy, as well as in relation to aspects that may have a direct impact on their school lives, such as the new school uniform. The facilitation of this input by management is applauded and further encouraged. The combined confidence, enthusiasm, insightfulness and maturity of the council members did not go unnoticed. They are in every way a tribute to the school and to their parents, and represented themselves and their school in a very positive light. On an annual basis, the school also appoints two students to the roles of head girl and deputy head girl. These two students have a central role to play in the representation of the student body at all school events. From their meeting with the inspection team it can be concluded that this is a role that they are very justified in holding. The appointment of prefects and student mentors, and the school’s provision for a Meitheal group, also provide for student involvement in various aspects of school life. Once again, management is to be commended for its promotion of student involvement at these levels, with each making significantly positive contributions to students’ experience of the school on a daily basis.    

 

It is very clear to see that the management and staff of Mercy Secondary School support and encourage parental involvement in their daughter’s education. This is nowhere more evident then in the fact that the school, since its inception in 1977, has advocated the establishment of a parents’ association. In the same way that it is significant that a percentage of the teaching staff are past pupils of the school, a large number of the current parents’ association members also attended the school. As a means of spreading the workload, accessing new approaches and ideas and building an association that is representative of all parents, the association is conscious of the need to continue to expand and vary the number of parents involved. Their intentions in this regard are acknowledged and praised. The association, which is affiliated to the national association, meets very regularly, often every four to six weeks. The association sees their key role as one of support to the principal, deputy principal, teaching staff and parents in general. It is clear, from the comprehensive annual reports spanning the last three school years, that the parents’ association makes a significant contribution to the life and work of Mercy Secondary School. The association was involved in, for example, consultations with CEIST, the formulation of a healthy eating policy and the organisation and facilitation of a student exchange with Lisneal College in Co. Derry. The association also assists in terms of the very valuable task of fundraising. In fact, understandably, the association cited the raising of €33,000 in three months as its most significant achievement to date. This money helped to repair the damage caused to the school by a fire in January 2005. This project is indicative of the dedication, energy and sheer determination of the school’s parents’ association. On annual prize night the association makes a presentation to the student who ‘most embodies the spirit of the school’. This, in combination with the projects that are embarked upon in conjunction with the students’ council, is highly commended for its fostering of parent and student relations, working together for the betterment of the school. Management is very appreciative of the work of the association.

 

Parents are very happy with the overall level of communication between the school and home. This is facilitated by a number of means, for example, phone-calls and letters home, newsletters, articles in the local media, information meetings that focus, for example, on curricular issues, and annual parent-teacher meetings. The school’s website is also used as a means of communicating with parents and the wider community. Collectively these various mediums have two key purposes, first and foremost to provide important information and, secondly, to celebrate achievement. Management also encourages parents to come to the school to discuss any matters of direct concern to them. The school, while it encourages the making of appointments, operates an open door policy that seeks to accommodate parents who are anxious or concerned or simply need some information. This flexibility is to be commended.  

 

While the intention to increase the school’s links with the community and outside agencies has been identified by the school as an area for development, a number of notable links already exist. This contact and cooperation seeks to support students and facilitate their wide-ranging needs. It also seeks to expand their perceptions of the local, national and global community. Many of the contacts made also strive to provide for students with additional educational needs in areas such as transfer, induction, progression and retention. The school’s work in this regard is acknowledged and highly praised.

 

As will be highlighted in section 2.1, the school engages in self-evaluation and review on a constant basis. There was evidence of this even as the inspection team engaged in dialogue with the various groups met as part of the whole school evaluation. This penchant is, in essence, the driving force behind the schools’ progression and development. Clearly, the focus of such activity is the improvement of student outcomes.

 

1.4          Management of resources

 

For first, second, third and Transition Year (TY) students, classes in Mercy Secondary School commence at 9.00am and conclude at 4.10pm. The morning break lasts for ten minutes and one hour is allocated for lunch. This creates a teaching week of thirty hours. This provision, which generously meets the requirements of Circular M29/95 (Time in School), is highly commended. For senior-cycle students, with the exception of those who have opted to study the Leaving Certificate Vocational Programme (LCVP) classes commence at 9.00am and conclude at 3.30pm. The same break and lunch times outlined previously apply. This provides the majority of senior-cycle students with twenty-six hours and forty minutes of instruction time per week. This timetabling arrangement falls short of what is required to ensure that all students have access to twenty-eight instruction hours per week. It is recommended that, in line with Circular M29/95, this situation be remedied. The school indicated that it would be addressing this matter and making adjustments to the timetable for future years or seeking additional resources to address the matter if this adjustment would compromise essential course provision.

 

In the deployment of teaching staff, management seeks to assign staff to subjects and class groups according to their qualifications, expertise, experience and interests. Management expressed some frustration with teacher allocations systems and procedures in relation to this task. Each school management authority is required to organise its teaching timetable and subject options having regard to pupils needs within the limit of its approved teacher allocation. The rules for allocating teaching resources provide that, where a school management authority is unable to meet its curricular commitments, the DES will consider applications for additional short-term support. These requests are often met through the provision of curricular concessions. Management’s frustration stems from the fact that final allocations, which include curricular concessions, are not issued to the school until late August or even September. Management highlighted how the lateness in the finalisation of the allocation makes it very difficult to deploy staff so as to ensure that the learning needs of all students are being met in the best possible way. This may, in part, be identified as the basis for recommendations made in relation to staff deployment in section 5.1 and the associated delivery of learning support, resource hours and support to students with English as a second language. Management’s concerns and frustrations are noted. To conclude, it is important to state that the general deployment of staff in Mercy Secondary School is satisfactorily used to achieve the academic and pastoral aims of the school. It is appropriate at this point too to acknowledge the commitment, enthusiasm and professionalism of the school’s teaching staff.

 

The school building and grounds are maintained to a remarkably high standard. This stems from the dedication, hard work and interest of the school’s caretaking and cleaning staff. Their efforts in this regard are acknowledged and affirmed. The very important roles that they and the administrative staff play in terms of the fulfilment of their assigned duties, as well as with regard to the contribution they make to the pastoral care of students and staff, is deserving of much recognition and praise.

 

Mercy Secondary School houses a range of impressive facilities spread over three floors. The building provides a number of subject specialist rooms such as two science laboratories and a physics laboratory, a technical graphics/design and communications graphics room, an art room, three home economics rooms, a music room and a religion room. In addition, it accommodates a general purpose area with a canteen attached, a gym that houses a state-of-the-art basketball arena, a reasonably well-stocked library, as well as a number of offices and meeting rooms. The recent addition of two bright and very spacious classrooms is to be commended and is indicative of management’s ongoing planning for the development and enhancement of the school plant. The main staffroom is on the ground floor with a work room also provided on the third floor. A lift ensures access to all floors for all students and staff members. Base classrooms, which are provided for all year groups, are well organised and maintained. What is most significant about these rooms is the large volume of student work that is displayed on the classroom walls. A cross-section of subjects is represented. This is highly praised as it fosters a cross-curricular approach to teaching and learning. The corridors in the school are enhanced through the display of prints, students’ work, photos depicting past events and achievements and notice-boards that are designed both to inform and provoke reflection and considered thought. 

 

While in general subjects are not allocated budgets, requests for resources are rarely refused. A number of the programmes operating in the school are provided with a budget that is commensurate with the requirements of the programme. The extension of this to the newly introduced Leaving Certificate Applied (LCA) programme is suggested for consideration.  

 

The school accommodates a well-equipped information communication technology (ICT) room, housing twenty-eight computers. This is available for general use through a booking system. The technical graphics/design and communication graphics room also houses a suite of computers which makes provision for seating students at individual, computer-aided design (CAD) workstations. Software installed on the computers in this room, NetSupport School 8, allows the teacher to oversee students’ work from the monitor located at the teacher’s desk. It also provides for teacher intervention and input. This is most impressive and is noted as a very valuable piece of software. ICT equipment has been provided in a number of other rooms, for example the two LCA rooms, the resource and learning-support rooms, the Traveller students’ room, the music room and the school library. This dispersed provision, which supports students’ independent research, study and learning, is commended. All classrooms are networked and have broadband access to the internet. Teachers’ access to ICT equipment that might support teaching and learning in students’ base classrooms is, however, somewhat limited. Planning for the greater incorporation and use of ICT as a natural part of teaching and learning has been identified as an area for development in the appended subject inspection reports. It is recommended therefore that, in order to support teachers in implementing such recommendations, and as finance becomes available, a plan for the future resourcing of ICT in the school be drafted. In the short term this might include, for example, plans to make a number of ‘floating’ laptops and data projectors available for use by subject teachers. In the medium term, for example, it might make provision for the installation of ICT equipment in a number of other specialist rooms. In the long term, the possibility of providing a mobile ICT classroom might also be investigated. The main staffroom houses two computers along with the required supporting ICT equipment. It is suggested that some consideration be given to providing something similar in the staff workroom, located on the third floor of the building. 

 

Much work has been completed by management and staff with regard to health and safety. A safety statement has been drafted, ratified by the board and published. It is very clear that this statement is revised on an ongoing basis. This is commended. A safety officer has also been appointed. As appropriate, the contents of the statement are communicated to staff, students and visitors. It is recommended that all specialist subject rooms or facilities should be audited in relation to health and safety and a subject-specific safety statement prepared for each. These statements should be included as part of the school’s overall statement. Staff involvement in the drafting of these statements is paramount, as they possess a level of expertise and experience that would assist in the identification of hazards, the determination of the associated levels of risk, as well as in the establishment of required control measures.

 

A Green Schools group is well established in Mercy Secondary School, with its involvement in this national initiative dating back to 2000. This group fosters the interest and involvement of students who are concerned about the environment. Their work is monitored and supported by a number of interested teachers. The success of this group is nowhere more evident than in the fact that the school was awarded its third green flag in May 2007. This followed on from projects relating to rubbish, energy and water. Work is currently underway in relation to the attainment of a fourth flag which will focus on transport. This achievement and its associated whole-school involvement is worthy of much recognition and praise.  

 

 

2.         Quality of school planning

 

2.1          The school plan

 

For a long number of years, Mercy Secondary School has been engaged in various planning initiatives that would have resonated with what is now formally referred to as School Development Planning (SDP). In fact, the approaches and activities that have become synonymous with SDP, but in particular the culture of self-evaluation and review that the process promotes, have been practiced in the school for a number of years. The school’s progress and development since it’s inception in 1977 is indicative of this. In the school year 2004/2005 the school embarked on a formalisation of the school’s planning processes. The following year input was received form the School Development Planning Initiative (SDPI). The decision at this point to engage with this initiative is applauded, as is its continued engagement with the SDPI and its associated personnel. As a means of spearheading and directing the process in the school, a number of whole-staff planning days were organised. This is commended. Some of these sessions have benefited from the input of the personnel attached to the SDPI together with other qualified personnel. Members of the school’s own staff have also been called upon to address their colleagues at these sessions. This is particularly positive as it acknowledges the wisdom and experience of what essentially is the school’s own experts.

 

Whole-staff sessions, together with an overriding sprit of collegiality which permeates all staff relations and interactions, have contributed to the consolidation of what can only be described as a very strong ‘working group’ culture in Mercy Secondary School. This is fully accepted in the school as the only modus operandi for the task of planning. SDP is very positively perceived by staff members. This perception can be attributed in the main to the understanding that this approach guarantees that everyone is enabled and facilitated in terms of contributing ideas, expressing concerns and making suggestions. As an approach, it is recognised as all inclusive and one that facilitates open and constructive dialogue. These perceptions, in combination with the fact that professional attitudes, positive relations and reflective thinking are fostered and promoted in the school, has meant that the concept and practice of school development planning has been fully embraced by management and staff in Mercy Secondary School and that much progress has been made. Much credit is due to all concerned for this very positive finding. 

 

In and around the same time that the school engaged with the SDPI, subject departments also initiated work in relation to the development of formal subject plans. Four, short years later, much work has been completed in this regard. The cross-section of subject plans reviewed as part of the whole school evaluation were found to be well developed. This is consistent with the findings attached to the series of subject inspections completed in tandem with the whole school evaluation. Teachers’ work in this regard is commended and fully encouraged. 

 

Currently the deputy principal, with the assistance of three staff members and the support of the principal, effectively co-ordinates the school’s planning activities. A very strong team spirit guides and directs the work of this group. This is not surprising, as a similar spirit was evident amongst all groups that were met as part of the inspection process. Under the guidance of the school planning team, and as alluded to previously, the initial planning work focused on the documentation of the school’s practices and procedures relative to all aspects of school life. All relevant details are housed in the school plan under the following headings; School Profile, Curriculum, Student Care and Support, and Organisational Policies. When read in its totality, this provides a very good overview of life in Mercy Secondary School. The school’s work in this regard is very highly praised. All of this work feeds into the permanent section of the school plan, which at this point is very well developed. Almost all of the required policies have been drafted. Details relating to the two remaining required policies and policies required by Circular can be found in the last paragraph of section 1.2. In addition, some of the policies that have been prepared have been inspired by the school’s own circumstances and needs. This is particularly commended. Confirmation was provided that, in compliance with Post-primary Circular M45/05 and Circular 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 (including all new staff); and that management has ensured that all staff are familiar with the procedures to be followed. A designated liaison person (DLP) and a deputy DLP have been appointed in line with the requirements of the guidelines. The stated intention to eventually publish the contents of the school plan on the recently revamped school website is fully encouraged.

 

As a means of condensing the school’s completed planning work to date into one concise document, it is recommended that some consideration be given to the adoption of a recording system that would summarise, for each year, the completed elements of the school plan, the remaining areas requiring policies and the identified priorities. Ideally, the identified priorities would be accompanied by a set of action plans that specify responsible persons, assigned tasks, remits, desired outcomes, targets and time-frames, and required resources. Provision should also be made for a more formal and documented monitoring and evaluation of these action plans. All of this would, in turn, feed into the developmental section of the plan, which has been prioritised for development in recent times. This approach would assure clarity and accountability for this very significant aspect of SDP work.

 

School development planning work in Mercy Secondary School is based on a well-established framework. In general, feedback from staff planning days initiates work in an identified area. Following this, focus groups are established whose role, in conjunction with the school planning team, is to work on each identified area. One member of the school planning team sits on each focus group, effectively acting as group co-ordinator and as the conduit between the focus group and the school planning team. A board member, as well as parent and student representatives, has also been included as part of these focus groups. This is noted as best practice and is therefore further encouraged. Whole-staff involvement at various points is also facilitated, as is the contribution and input of all board members. The approach, which reflects best practice, is highly praised.

 

One of the most significant outcomes of SDP, as identified by the management and staff of Mercy Secondary School, is the sense of ownership that it has created amongst all the members of the school community in relation to the school’s policies and practices, as well as the scope it has provided for total involvement in the identification of developmental priorities and total commitment to the realisation of such priorities. It is very clear that in recent times the school’s focus has moved from the need to develop and produce a school plan, to planning so as to ensure a good standard of student learning and therefore improved outcomes. This reflects the school’s vision, as enshrined in its mission statement. Following this recognition some of the more recent projects embarked upon include the phased introduction of mixed-ability teaching and the introduction of LCA. While such projects are relatively new to the school, there are clear indications that both have resulted in identifiable improvements in retention and achievement of students. More recently again it was decided to prioritise the development of a homework policy, a review of the school’s code of behaviour and to instigate an action plan on inter-culturalism. All of these derive from the desire to improve student outcomes. This is wholly consistent with that which lies at the heart of SDP and is therefore viewed as very positive.

 

 

3.         Quality of curriculum provision

 

3.1          Curriculum planning and organisation

 

The provision of a broad and balanced curriculum is central to curriculum planning and organisation in Mercy Secondary School. In addition to the established Junior Certificate and Leaving Certificate programmes, the school also offers a Transition Year (TY) programme, the Leaving Certificate Vocational Programme (LCVP) and the Leaving Certificate Applied (LCA) programme. The number and range of subjects offered to students, and as detailed in the following two paragraphs, is also very impressive. This comprehensiveness, both in terms of programme and subject provision, is acknowledged and commended. 

 

Junior Certificate students study ten core subjects. This includes Gaeilge, English, Mathematics, History, Geography, Physical Education, French or German, Civic, Social & Political Education (CSPE) and Social, Personal & Health Education (SPHE), the tenth being Religious Education, which is offered as an examination subject in the school. Students can also choose to study three optional subjects from the following list of six; Art, Business, Home Economics, Music, Science and Technical Graphics. In the main, each subject was found to be appropriately timetabled, in accordance with syllabus recommendations or relevant DES Circulars.

 

A small number of areas have, however, been identified for development in relation to the timetabling of junior cycle subjects. The first relates to the timetabling of Physical Education. Currently, in each of first, second and third year, Physical Education is timetabled for two single periods. In participating in the implementation of the Junior Cycle Physical Education (JCPE) syllabus, and in order to meet the aims of the syllabus, schools are expected to comply with the provisions of Circular M15/05. This recommends provision of a minimum time allocation of two periods a week at junior cycle, timetabled together. Reflecting on the bigger picture, schools are also charged with the promotion of a positive attitude to Physical Education and with encouraging participation in physical activity among all age groups, thereby helping to foster a physically educated population who will be equipped to attempt to defy the unhealthy consequences of a sedentary lifestyle. On this note, it is interesting that a number of students cited the single period as a discouragement to participation in physical education lessons. They were of the opinion that the timetabling of Physical Education in this way compromised the amount of actual exercise time available to them and therefore, for some, did not appear to be ‘worth the effort’. It is recommended therefore, that the current provision for Physical Education be reviewed and that every effort is made to seek to ensure compliance with the recommendations of Circular M15/05. The second identified area for development relates to the school’s formal provision for SPHE. As per Circular M11/03, all first, second and third-year students must be timetabled for one period of SPHE per week. As currently this is not the case, it is recommended that the timetabling of SPHE in accordance with the Circular recommendations be addressed when timetabling SPHE in the future. The final area for development relates to the spread of students’ contact with a subject over the daily or weekly timetable. This finding and the accompanying suggestion is also relevant to the timetabling of some senior cycle subjects. In the case of a number of class groups, students’ contact with one or more subjects is heavily weighted, for example, to the first or second half of the week or, to morning or afternoon periods. Whilst acknowledging the difficulties in timetabling, it is suggested that some further attention be given to ensure a balance in terms of the allocation of subjects to morning and afternoon classes, as well as to the spread of students’ contact with the subject over the weekly timetable.

 

All students preparing for the established Leaving Certificate study Gaeilge, English and Mathematics. They will also be timetabled for Religion unless they select Religious Studies as a Leaving Certificate Examination subject. If the latter is the case students are allocated three study periods rather than attending the non-examination religion class. This is an issue in terms of Circular M29/95 (Time in School), as study periods are not recognised as instruction time. This needs to be addressed when timetabling in the future. Senior cycle students study four of a possible fifteen optional subjects. This includes: Accountancy, Art, Business, Biology, Chemistry, Design and Communication Graphics, Economics, French, German, Geography, History, Home Economics, Music, Physics and Religious Education. The fifth-year timetable provides two periods per week whereby students can access Guidance, Health Education, Physical Education, Computer Studies, one of the LCVP link modules or a study period. It would appear, however, that this arrangement does not guarantee access to all of these subjects for all students. As a result, it is suggested that this system be reviewed, with a view to ensuring an equality of access for all students to all available subjects or, as needs pertain, the implementation of a reduced option list. Building on the findings highlighted in the previous paragraph in relation to Physical Education, as well as the associated observations and recommendations, the school’s current provision for this subject at senior cycle is also worthy of some exploration and discussion. In sixth year, Guidance is rotated against non-examination Religion.

 

The school offers an optional TY programme. Interested students are invited to apply for a place on the programme and are interviewed. While an applicant is never refused a place, the process helps to ensure that students’ reasons for choosing TY are valid, that they are suited to the programme and that they are committed to participating fully in all organised activities. This approach is commended. In the spirit of TY, the programme offered seeks to provide for an appropriate balance between academic endeavours, personal development and recreational pursuits. The core programme sees students studying twelve subjects namely, Gaeilge, English, Mathematics, Religion, History, Physical Education and French or German, as well as Art, Choir, Computer Studies, Enterprise Education and Guidance. Home Economics, Science, Development Studies and Women’s Studies are also provided on a modular basis. A triple period one afternoon a week is used to accommodate the organisation of a series of workshops covering topics as wide ranging as matrix training, film-making and salsa dancing. Four weeks’ work experience, together with two weeks of a social awareness programme, are also provided for students. Individual teaching plans for the majority of subjects or modules that are offered as part of the TY programme are contained in the TY plan. Every effort should be made by all concerned to ensure that dated copies of all programmes are submitted to the co-ordinator for filing in this overall plan. Programme plans should continue to be reviewed and updated on a regular basis. Best practice is where subject departments, as opposed to the individual subject teacher who may be timetabled for TY in any one year, take responsibility for this review, together with any revisions that might be deemed necessary. As part of programme planning, the co-ordinator, together with the staff involved in teaching TY students, are encouraged to explore the use of portfolio assessment, along with other alternative approaches to assessment, as a means of determining the progress and achievement of participating students.

 

LCVP has been offered to the students of Mercy Secondary School for approximately ten years. Following a presentation to parents, interested students complete an application form but, as is the case in TY, it is good to note that applicants are never refused. A co-ordinator is in place to oversee the implementation of the programme and, together with two other teachers and one of the Guidance Counsellors, seeks to provide a quality programme for participating students. Uptake in the programme is described as healthy, with approximately twenty-five students participating each year. It is noted that in sixth year there can be a slight fall-off in the numbers of participating students. This could be due, in part, to the fact that on two days of each week, LCVP students have a longer school day than those not doing LCVP. This needs to be addressed, as such a practice could be having a negative impact both in terms of overall uptake levels and, more specifically, in terms of the trends identified in sixth year. As a means of enhancing the role of the teachers of the vocational subjects in terms of the school’s LCVP programme, and to promote its cross-curricular elements, some consideration could be given to the organisation of an information session designed to highlight and emphasise the vocational subject aspect of LCVP.

 

In the last two years, and in an attempt to provide for the needs of all presenting students, LCA was introduced onto the curriculum in Mercy Secondary School. Management and staff are commended for this recognition and the associated provision. As is the case with the previous two programmes, interested students complete an application form. Like prospective TY students and for similar reasons, they too are interviewed in relation to their application. Once again, this is considered good practice. The organisation and planning of the programme is being successfully facilitated by two co-ordinators. Systems are in place to meet programme objectives. Careful timetabling, incorporating blocks of work experience, supports the delivery of the curriculum. The inclusion of a weekly period for the personal reflection task in years one and two is commended. Both co-ordinators spoke of the very positive impact that the school’s LCA programme has made on the general school experience of participating students. This, together with one hundred percent retention levels, provides a clear indication of the success of the programme in the school. The fact that the teachers involved in the teaching of LCA are representative of a cross section of the whole staff in terms of experience is indicative of the drive, enthusiasm and commitment of the staff in Mercy Secondary School, as well as their genuine interest in providing every opportunity for students to achieve to the highest possible personal level.

 

Three years ago, mixed-ability teaching was introduced in first year. It replaced a system of banding which had operated in the school for many years. This decision was taken for a number of reasons, many of which focused on equality, inclusion and students’ self-esteem. All first-year students are allocated to classes that are formed on the basis of mixed ability. In second and third year, Gaeilge, English and Maths are concurrently timetabled to facilitate the creation of higher and ordinary level class groups. This timetabling approach is commended. Student placement in Gaeilge, English and Mathematics is based on a common examination either at the end of first year or the beginning of second year. Any students wishing to study a subject at their chosen level, despite being advised otherwise, are not precluded from doing so. At the time of the whole school evaluation, mixed-ability teaching was being reviewed in the school. The general feeling of staff and students was that its introduction had proved very positive. Management and staff are encouraged in their efforts to seek to sustain this very desirable approach to teaching and learning.

 

A well-established level of collaboration within subject departments, as well as between subject departments, facilitates active curricular planning and review. Management is very supportive of the work undertaken by facilitating subject department meetings during term time, through the organisation of in-service days inspired by staff discussion or request and by a willingness to discuss the plans and concerns of individual subject departments. In assessing any proposed alterations or introductions relevant to curriculum organisation, management is careful to consider and highlight the educational value of each proposal, the availability of resources, both human and material, the implications for the timetable and the possible impact on provision in other subject areas. This very considered approach is to be commended. 

 

3.2          Arrangements for students’ choice of subjects and programmes

 

The management and staff of Mercy Secondary School, together with the systems and procedures they have put in place, seek to maximise students’ choice in terms of subjects and programmes. While being mindful of the availability of both human and material resources, together with the viability of providing a subject or programme, every reasonable effort is made to facilitate students in their choices. The philosophy behind the school’s approach to this whole area is one that seeks to ensure that ‘the experience of teaching and learning will be a positive experience for all’. Much credit is due to all concerned for such foresight and vision.

 

All subject blocks constructed, both in first year and fifth year, find as their basis students’ collective preferences. All relevant students are invited to complete an option-subject survey. The outcomes of each survey, which are inputted into a computer, are analysed. This leads to the production of subject blocks which satisfy the preferences of the vast majority of students. In the finalisation of subject blocks, and as appropriate, every effort is also made to seek to provide for the ‘minority’ subjects, such as Physics, Economics and Technical Graphics. The school views this as essential to providing a balanced curriculum that promotes equality of educational opportunity and equality of educational access. Following decisions made with regard to subjects, and within a reasonable timeframe, the school exercises an admirable degree of flexibility in the case of students who seek to change an original option subject choice. The approach, in its totality, is found to be very equitable and extremely student-friendly. Much credit is due to the school and to all concerned staff members for such a finding.  

 

The school fully recognises that if the exercise of choosing subjects or programmes is to be meaningful, it is essential that students and their parents receive as much information and guidance as possible, relative of course to the choices that they are required to make. As a result, the school is very proactive in the provision of such information. An open night, which is organised on an annual basis for all incoming first-year students, is designed to inform in relation to the curriculum offered in the school. Printed matter relative to the subjects and programmes offered are provided to all students and their parents. Teachers attend on the night to answer any specific queries. In addition, students are available to provide another important perspective. This is followed by the organisation of an interview night where students, who are committed to enrolling in Mercy Secondary School, and prior to making their final subject choices, are provided with one-to-one guidance in relation to subject choice. Furthermore, should any students or parents require any additional assistance or advice or have any remaining concerns, they are welcome to make an appointment to meet with one of the school’s Guidance Counsellors. This very comprehensive and supportive approach to initial subject choice is highly commended and in its current construction and organisation is compensating for the fact that the school does not operate a taster programme. That said, it is suggested that this decision be reviewed on a regular basis.  

 

Once again, prior to entry to senior cycle, students and their parents are kept well informed in relation to the task of subject and programme choice. The Guidance Counsellors conduct aptitude tests to assist with the decisions that need to be made. An information evening for parents, together with the provision of presentations regarding subject and programme choice to each third-year class group, as well as the issuing of a very comprehensive senior cycle guide relating to subject and programme options at senior cycle, seek to ensure that sufficient information and advice is made available to all concerned. Once again, if needs be, students can arrange to meet the Guidance Counsellors on an individual basis. Clearly, both at junior and senior cycle levels, the guidance department makes a significant contribution to this very important aspect of school life. As a result, the work of this department is acknowledged and very highly praised.

 

3.3          Co-curricular and extracurricular provision

 

When planning and providing for co-curricular and extracurricular activities, every effort is made by the staff in Mercy Secondary School to seek to provide for a range of student interest, talent and ability. They are strongly supported and facilitated in this task by the senior management team and the members of the board of management. The activities that are organised for and the opportunities offered to students are wide-ranging, seeking to provide for the aesthetic, cultural, local, social and sporting interests of the student cohort.

 

The majority of the activities, be they co-curricular or extracurricular, are provided for on a voluntary basis by the teachers. This additional commitment and dedication is acknowledged and commended. A percentage of the activities are subject-led and therefore planned and provided for by subject departments. This includes provision for field trips, theatre visits, trips to concerts, outings to museums and heritage centres, gallery visits, guest speakers, visits to the Gaeltacht and foreign excursions, with each occurring over a cross section of subject areas. Students’ participation in competitions, both local and national, is also promoted and fully encouraged. New opportunities are also constantly being examined. A number of links with outside agencies, designed to promote and support this area of school life, have also been established, and efforts are made on a continual basis to foster and further develop these links. It is very positive too that funding is available for students whose financial circumstances might otherwise limit their ability to participate. 

 

An annual ski trip has been organised in the school for the last ten years, taking place during the Christmas or February mid-term breaks. To date, destinations visited include Austria, Finland, Italy and more recently New Hampshire in the United States. A dedicated school website, www.mercyski.com, has been set up to provide information about each planned trip, as well as to file photos and video clips relating to previous trips. 

 

Music enjoys a very high profile in the school, inspiring students’ involvement in a myriad of different activities and projects. The school hosts a traditional band, a string orchestra and a flute ensemble. A music week, initiated by Waterford Institute of Technology (WIT) and facilitated by the school, has assisted and supported students in the composing and performance of their own musical compositions. Lessons in piano, flute, tin whistle and guitar are also organised and provided in the school.

 

The school supports the organisation of ‘Encounter Weekends’, an experience which the students spoke very positively about. These weekends, which are run by the Gracedieu Retreat Centre, seek to develop students’ personal and leadership skills. It was very clear that the benefits accruing from students’ experiences at these weekends will impact on them for years to come. Every year, in association with International Women’s Day, a ‘Seachtain na mBan’ is organised in the school. With a view to highlighting women’s role and position in society today, both locally and globally, and to celebrate and recognise the achievements of women, a number of activities and events are organised. This includes daily ‘thought-for-the-day’ intercom announcements, workshops, guest speakers, project work and competitions. The awareness that is being fostered in students as a result of this week and its associated events and activities is highly praised.

 

Athletics is one of the key sporting activities of the school. The city’s regional sports track is used for training. Students compete at a number of levels, for example, the county championships and the Munster championships, as well as the outdoor track and field championships. Basketball is a very prestigious sport in Mercy Secondary School due in the main to the school’s very close connection to the renowned Wildcats Basketball Club. The school is in fact, home to and therefore synonymous with the club. On-site facilities to support the school’s provision for basketball are very impressive, so much so that RTE regularly broadcast from the school. Students participate in the ‘A’ section, the highest standard in Ireland, and currently the school hosts four teams namely, seniors, cadettes, second years and first years. Mercy Secondary School’s provision for camogie dates back to 1998. Since then, the school participates in the Munster championships and leagues on an annual basis. While the school does not have a full playing pitch it enjoys the generosity of many GAA clubs in the wider community. Historically, Mercy Secondary School has experienced much success in both local and national sporting competitions and events. This can be attributed to the commitment of both students and staff, as well as to their respective talents and expertise. It would appear that the majority of students’ participating in extracurricular sporting activities are very much inspired by the competitive aspect of participation. While emphasising that this is not viewed as a negative finding it is suggested, as an area for development and linked to the recommendation made in relation to the school’s provision for Physical Education in section 3.1, that an investigation and implementation of measures designed to encourage greater student participation on the additional or sole grounds of recreation be considered.

 

Staff and students are fully aware of the positive impact of such provision, with both groups highlighting the very favourable contribution that involvement in co-curricular and extracurricular activities makes to overall relations and students’ general experience of school life. Management and staff are encouraged in their efforts to sustain and develop this very important and significant part of school life.

 

 

4.         Quality of learning and teaching in subjects

 

4.1          Planning and preparation

 

A good degree of collaborative planning was observed across the subject areas included in the whole school evaluation. In all subject inspections, the presence of a designated co-ordinator, with various organisational, State examinations and planning duties, was commended. In most cases, a good culture of holding departmental meetings a number of times each year, having formal agendas and retaining minutes of decisions taken has been developed. It has been suggested that, in instances where only one subject teacher exists, some consideration be given to engaging in formal collaboration with teachers in related subject disciplines. Where such teachers seek to avail of opportunities to engage with similarly qualified teachers that are external to the school staff, this is also acknowledged and commended. Where formal meetings have not been as frequent, for various reasons, and where the use of agendas and minutes has not been consistent, these have been recommended to management and the subject department for active consideration.

 

All subject departments included in the whole school evaluation presented planning folders, most based on the school development planning (SDPI) template. Within individual subject departments, some very good general ideas were identified, including the provision for an annual review of progress or of State examination uptake levels and results in two subjects, and the holding of common examinations for mixed-ability classes in other subjects. A core recommendation across a number of subject inspection reports was that departmental planning meetings should seek to focus as much as possible on the sharing of practice, ideas and resources designed to facilitate the continuous development of teaching and learning.

 

Some very good departmental consideration of planning for TY modules, where relevant, was also applauded, with a recommendation for the development of a TY module in another subject discipline also being made. The commitment of management and teachers to ensuring the attendance of teachers at up-to-date continuing professional development (CPD) courses in most areas evaluated was applauded. With subject budgets generally being determined on a needs basis, as finances allow, the high degree of departmental planning which has gone into organising student trips and activities, visiting speakers and participation in school competitions was applauded.

 

At individual levels, teachers have engaged very successfully in planning and preparation. Most have developed outline yearly work schemes, with a number presenting individual lesson plans as well. In some subject areas, the inclusion of such yearly schemes in the departmental folder has been applauded as sensible practice. A fine commitment to the generation of handouts and general resources for use in class was noted. Where group work and pair work were observed, as was the case in a number of subjects, a very good focus on self-directed learning, as well as good planning for practicalities like seating arrangements, participation and feedback delivery has been evident. In some instances, good planning for the inclusion of topical issues, or of ICT use in class was noted, while planning for the broader development of ICT use in mainstream classrooms has been encouraged in other contexts, naturally as time and resources allow.

 

4.2          Learning and teaching

 

In each of the subjects evaluated, the standard of learning and teaching was commended. The overall quality of teaching observed ranged from good to very good. On occasions, the specialist knowledge of individual teachers with regard to learning and teaching methodologies was highlighted and it has been suggested that such insights be further discussed and shared among teachers. In all subjects, lessons were well-paced and structured, with lesson content appropriate to students’ interests and abilities. Teachers demonstrated an awareness of the need to match classroom practice to the differing needs of the students. In many instances the learning intentions of the lesson were shared with students at the outset and, at times, written on the whiteboard for students to see. This was lauded as good practice.

 

Several references were made to the teachers’ ability to instil in students an enthusiasm for the subject and a positive attitude towards the learning process. Teachers are commended in several subjects for encouraging students towards self-directed learning and problem solving. Where teaching material was made relevant to students’ lives and experience, this was also praised and, in other instances, encouraged. Examples of good practice were in evidence and these included the use of active-learning methodologies such as pair work, group work and collaborative learning. The focus on such relevant, student-centred learning was highlighted as very effective in many instances. The further extension of ‘learning by doing’ strategies rather than teacher-focused delivery is encouraged in some subject areas. The effective use of information sheets, diagrams, photographs, wall charts, concrete models, visual aids and the use of information and communication technologies (ICT) for some assignment work, are also deserving of praise. Resources were efficiently used in all subject areas to support learning and teaching. 

 

The appropriate use of both global and directed teacher questioning was commended in several subject areas, and in one subject, students’ questioning of teachers was noted as being purposeful and respectful. Classroom organisation enabled teachers to move around the room and interact with students as required. Instructions were clear, and group or pair work was carefully organised. It was particularly noted that interactions among students themselves were always positive and supportive. Students listened and engaged with one another and clearly benefited from the experiences of their fellow students.

 

Overall a very pleasant and positive classroom atmosphere was noted in lessons. Teacher-student rapport in almost all instances was excellent, with high levels of student interaction with their teachers. Teachers were warm and consistently affirming of students’ work, ensuring that students were safe in the knowledge that what they had to say would be listened to and respected. Interactions were generally pleasant and relaxed and students were purposeful and fully engaged in the activities of the lessons visited. The positive practice of displaying students’ work and other subject-related materials on classroom walls was noted in several of the subject areas. This is commended for the visually stimulating environment it seeks to provide, as well as for the recognition and encouragement it offers students.

 

In all subject areas it was evident that students were achieving to an appropriately high standard and in keeping with their level of ability. In all subject areas they displayed an enthusiasm for and interest in their learning.

 

4.3          Assessment

 

The range of assessment modes being applied in the school is comprehensive, including in-house examinations at Christmas and summer, mock examinations in preparation for State examinations, continuous assessment of students’ work and, where appropriate, regular class tests. The inclusion of continuous assessment marks in Christmas and summer results gives valuable recognition to students’ progress in many instances, particularly when the individual progress made by the student is acknowledged. It is recommended that the practice be extended, notably in Gaeilge, to reward students who make particular efforts to speak the language in class. In providing for the special educational needs of students, appropriate standardised and diagnostic tests are used to determine learning and inform teaching, while their progress is also assessed on a daily basis by subject teachers. In subject departments where common end-of-term and end-of-year examinations are set, this practice is acknowledged and applauded.

 

A wide range of suitable homework is regularly set and corrected in each of the subjects inspected. In many cases a formal subject-specific homework policy has been adopted. This is commended. In other cases, the school’s homework policy provides a firm framework for best practice, including the adoption of a differentiated approach to the design of homework. It is recommended, where not already the practice, that homework be annotated to reinforce feedback to students and to reaffirm their efforts. The pooling of assessment ideas by teaching teams is recommended.

 

Movement towards the introduction of new standardised tests will further facilitate good practice within the special educational needs department in the retesting of students. It is recommended that the findings from such retesting, together with other student gains, be shared with colleagues across the school. The practice of members of the special needs team presenting their findings to colleagues is encouraged in this context.

 

Records of students’ attendance and achievement were generally found to be well maintained. The introduction and universal use of a standard teacher diary might help to formalise a whole-staff approach to this area.

 

Contact with parents includes the posting home of reports following school examinations at Christmas and in summer. Contact is further maintained by means of parent-teacher meetings, parents are facilitated to meet with teachers on request and the student journal is often used to monitor assigned work and to communicate with home. Specific reference in reports to student effort, as well as achievement, is noted as very positive.

 

 

5.         Quality of support for students

 

5.1          Inclusion of students with additional educational needs

 

The appended inspection report on the evaluation of support for students with special educational needs, which includes the school’s provision for Traveller students, finds that the quality of supports for the inclusion of these students is of a high standard. The overall findings are very positive and the majority of recommendations resonate with already documented priorities that have emerged from the school’s own self-evaluation processes. This is very positive and most refreshing. 

 

The school engages in many inclusive practices which are based on a clear philosophy that informs and guides collective and individual actions. Among the main strengths identified, is the school’s special educational needs support team, including the Traveller support teacher, who work collaboratively with one another, with other teaching colleagues and with senior management. It is very clear that collaborative practice is a key focus of the school and the continued development of such collaboration both within and outside the school contributes to school improvement. A carefully managed transition from primary school is matched by a comprehensive range of assessment procedures which help initially in the identification of students’ needs and thereafter in terms of tracking students’ engagement, progress and achievement. In order to further promote the collaborative and whole-school response evident, it is suggested that the findings from retesting, along with other student gains, should be shared with colleagues in a manner that will inform teaching and promote learning in the mainstream classroom. The practice of members of the special needs team presenting to colleagues is encouraged and it is suggested that such good practice could be used to facilitate sharing of assessment information. All additional resources have been accessed and are used appropriately to promote quality learning in an inclusive environment.

 

Planning and preparation is a constant in the work of the teachers involved in the co-ordination of supports for students with special educational needs and Traveller students. Much of this work is conducted informally. In order to support this good practice it is suggested that a formal weekly timetabled meeting of coordinators be established. As appropriate, opportunities to attend regular formal meetings with senior management and with other colleagues, such as year heads and guidance counsellors, might also be considered. Required policies are in place and are implemented in an effective manner, with ongoing review a constant feature. The school recognises that the promotion of inclusive practices requires ongoing development. It is suggested that future policy formulation should take account of students who are exceptionally able and gifted.

 

One of the key recommendations in the appended report hinges on known provision being allocated to teachers when the school timetable is being constructed. Apart from the core group, it was reported that the numbers of teachers involved can fluctuate from year to year. Therefore, it is recommended that all known resource hours be assigned to teachers when the main school timetable is being devised. This will assist in maintaining a core group of teachers who can access ongoing training, while providing for consistency of approach as the students progress through the school. Such timetabling will also provide an opportunity to synchronise and evenly distribute designated planning time among the coordinators.

 

A stated aim of the school’s special needs policy is ‘to promote inclusiveness’ where inclusion is correctly described as a ‘process’ which involves all teachers working collaboratively. An example of this, and a notable feature of the school, is the constant reciprocal interaction between members of the special educational needs support team and the students’ mainstream teachers. The detailed resource pack, which each member of the support team receives when assigned to a new student, is deserving of much praise. The school recognises that supporting collaboration between teachers also requires ongoing whole-school access to, and application of, professional learning. The school has provided many worthwhile opportunities for whole-staff engagement with external presenters. In future planning, it is suggested that access to further supports and training such as those available from the Special Education Support Service website (www.sess.ie) may prove useful. However, it would be important to ensure that the sharing of existing internal and context-sensitive skills, already in use on a daily basis by staff members, is also promoted. Adoption of such a practice will also assist in promoting the school’s stated aim of nurturing a ‘community of learning’.

 

The school’s commitment to Traveller education is commended. Following the recognition, in 2001, of the poor participation of Traveller children, a working group was set up. This move is commended. Areas of needs were identified by the group and proposals were drafted. The result was the establishment of a Traveller support programme. This saw the appointment of a Traveller support teacher, which is funded by the accumulation of the additional hours granted by the DES for Traveller students, and the provision of a Traveller resource room. The introduction of both measures has proved invaluable in terms of fostering and encouraging traveller participation levels. Much credit is due to all concerned for such positive outcomes. An immediate challenge facing the school is how best to ensure optimal inclusive practices within the school. The school is well placed to achieve such goals and it is suggested that relevant DES guidelines will assist in this regard.

 

In recent times one of the school’s post holders was given special responsibility for newcomer students. This was in direct response to the staff’s identification of, as a priority area for development, the quality of the school’s provision for these students. This is applauded. This position is designed to provide specific supports to these students upon arrival to the school and over the course of the settling-in process, to assist in the identification of students in need of English language support, to co-ordinate the provision of such support and to manage, and to take responsibility for any administration work attached to overall provision for these students. Simultaneously, an intercultural group was established and an interculturalism action plan has been devised and put in place. The impetus for the establishment of this group stems from the school’s desire to heighten awareness and deepen whole-school understanding relative to the increasing cultural diversity of the student cohort. The vision behind both measures is to be commended, as is the pro-activity of both management and staff that both initiatives represent. All concerned are referenced to the recently published DES Intercultural Education in the Post-Primary School – Guidelines for Schools. This will help to inform the work of this group, while providing valuable insights for subject teachers relative to curriculum planning and delivery and the fostering of an intercultural classroom.

 

Due to a particularly large number of students requiring English language support this year, a big number of teachers are involved in the delivery of English language support to newcomer students, some of whom do not have any specific training or experience in language teaching. As a result, it is recommended that some consideration be given to the establishment of a smaller, more permanent, core team of self-selected teachers, who are interested in the delivery of English language support and who are committed to obtaining the necessary training designed to assist and support them in their work. Best practice is that this team would include teachers who are familiar with language teaching as well as with the English language proficiency benchmarks. A closer networking of the teachers that combine to form this team, as is very much the recognised culture of the staff in the school, would also help to build skills and confidence levels amongst teachers assigned to the delivery of English language support to newcomers. At this point, and in recognition of the newness of this whole area, the establishment of some structures designed to support this networking might also be deemed important. The adoption of a staff mentoring system and a number of formal meetings are two suggestions that could be explored. Leading on from the last point and bearing in mind that, essentially, all subject teachers need to be teachers of English language support in their subject classrooms, some consideration might also be given to the organisation of whole-staff in-service that would focus on the teaching of students for whom English is an additional language.

 

At all levels, and as appropriate, be it in terms of students with special educational needs, Traveller students, or newcomers to the school, the school engages with agencies and bodies that exist to support schools in their inclusion of and provision for students with additional educational needs. Similarly, as is the case with all students in the school, every effort is made to keep parents informed in relation to assistance provided and progress made. The school’s work in this regard is also highly praised.    

 

5.2          Guidance and student support in the whole-school context

 

The guidance department has pledged its commitment to the Mercy philosophy of education which is committed to ‘holistic development and to the achievement of the full potential of each student, particularly those who are disadvantaged or marginalized’. The guidance department recognises their work as an integral part of a whole-school approach to achieving this aim. This vision is to be commended. To this end, there is no doubt but that the guidance allocation for Mercy Secondary School, which consists of one full, ex quota post and a half post under the guidance enhancement initiative, is being put to very good and very full use. Clearly, the allocation is being used effectively to provide personal, educational and vocational guidance for all students, be that individually or in groups. Structured guidance programmes are delivered to all students in all year groups and in all programmes through a series of planned, intermittent inputs. In addition, and as required, all students have access to individual counselling. This seeks to support students who may be experiencing personal, social or behavioural problems. The members of the department also recognise that guidance and counselling has a part to play in the wider concept of the school as a caring institution. This perception is also applauded. There is a notable consciousness towards and recognition of the needs of students experiencing disadvantage, be that cultural, material, physical or social. A satisfactory level of contact with all class groups is being facilitated in a number of ways.

 

The school houses a well-developed and appropriately equipped guidance suite. The school library also accommodates a careers reference section. This, together with the provision of the necessary ICT equipment, facilitates an ease of access for students to data relevant to their careers and further education options. The provision of this facility is commended for its promotion of students’ independent research and learning. The members of the guidance department are highly committed to their own personal and professional, ongoing training and development.

 

The guidance department plays a significant role in relation to students’ transition from primary to secondary, enrolment, induction, aptitude testing, subject and programme choice, career choices, and, as required, referrals to outside agencies. The fact that the two guidance counsellors are members of the school’s care team allows for an easy interchange of information between key personnel such as the home school community liaison teacher, year heads, the principal and the deputy principal. One of the strengths of the guidance provision in Mercy Secondary School is the fact that a wide range of staff, either formally or informally, consciously or sub-consciously, are involved in the delivery of guidance and support to students. A number of measures have been put in place to support a whole-school approach to student guidance and care. A first year alert list, for example, compiled and developed by the members of the guidance department and circulated to all teachers each September, seeks to highlight information that would assist teachers in meeting the needs of first year students. This, together with other such measures, is highly commended.

 

It is clear that the support of and care for all students is central to the work of every staff member in Mercy Secondary School. Much of the provision for students in this regard occurs ‘on the ground, on a day-to-day basis’. The quality of the informal exchanges that take place between staff is a significant factor in the success of this inclusive approach to students’ support and care. That said, there are a number of identifiable features of school organisation that are highly focused on student support and care. Not in order of priority, these include the school’s provision for class tutors, year heads, a home school community liaison teacher and a care team. The class tutors and year heads who are, so to speak, at the ‘front line’, make a very significant contribution in terms of the provision of support and care and in the identification of ‘at-risk’ students. Their commitment to this aspect of their work is duly noted and applauded, as is their obvious concern for the students to whom they have been assigned. Words could not attempt to justify the impact and significance of the home school community liaison position in Mercy Secondary School. It allows for a supreme focus on students who are considered the most disadvantaged in the school. The participation, retention and achievement of students that the position facilitates, as well as the levels of parental interest and engagement that it fosters, could not be as effectively addressed in the school by any other means. Much credit is due to all concerned for the full and very good use that is being made of this allocation. The care team oversees intervention relative to students that may be identified as ‘at-risk’. Their role in this regard is proving invaluable.

 

It is suggested that a rejuvenation of the school’s provision for SPHE, based on the principles of best practice, would make a significant contribution to the school’s provision for the holistic education of its student cohort and the related aspects of support and care. Published subject inspection reports relating to SPHE could inform in this regard. These are available for downloading at www.education.gov.ie.  

 

Students supporting students is another mindset that is fostered in the school. A Meitheal group sees fifth-year students paired with first-year students, with group members playing a central role in the school’s induction programme. It was wonderful to hear students say that the reason they got involved in Meitheal was because they wanted to ‘give something back’. This generosity of spirit is very admirable. The school is deserving of much of the credit for this generosity of thought and time, which was so evident amongst the members of this group. Prefects nominated to the role by class tutors, also have a role to play in relation to student support. These senior students are assigned to junior-cycle classes and work in close unison with tutors of these class groups in order to encourage good behaviour, compliance with school rules, self-respect and respect for others, a sense of community, feelings of belonging and a class identity. In addition, the prefects are available to offer valuable support and guidance to students experiencing difficulties, directing them to other sources of help and assistance as needs be. Prefects to first-year class groups are very instrumental in making students feel welcome and at home. It is clear that the prefects have embraced their roles with open arms and are benefiting themselves too from the leadership skills it fosters in them. Finally, TY students act as mentors to a third-year, after-school, study group. The support and encouragement provided by the mentors to the students is proving invaluable.           

 

The school is encouraged in its intentions to prepare a whole-school guidance plan which will provide for the comprehensive documentation of the measures, structures and procedures that unite to provide a whole-school approach to guidance and care.

 

 

6.         Summary of findings and recommendations for further development

 

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.

 

 

7.         Related subject inspection reports

 

The following related Subject Inspection reports are available:

 

 

 

 

Published, September 2008

  

 

 

 

Appendix

School Response to the Report

Submitted by the Board of Management

 

 

 

 

           Inspection Report School Response Form

 

 

            Area 1 Observations on the content of the Inspection Report

 

The management and staff of Our Lady of Mercy Secondary School, Waterford, wish to thank all those involved in the Whole School evaluation process.  The professionalism and courtesy of the inspection team were appreciated, and helped reduce the inevitable tensions and anxieties associated with such occasions. In particular, the exceptional capacity for listening displayed by the team was noteworthy. All school participants regard the exercise as a worthwhile experience which has had a very positive impact on the life of the school.  The report affirmed many aspects of school policies practices and procedures, while suggesting improvements by way of well considered recommendations. The words of commendation in the report are acknowledged by staff and management and will serve to motivate and inspire all those involved in the school as they face future challenges.

 

Area 2   Follow-up actions planned or undertaken since the completion of the inspection activity to implement the findings and recommendations of the inspection

 

All recommendations have been noted and many have been acted upon already. Those in relation to SPHE have been implemented, while every effort has been made to allocate teachers to resource and language support classes while the timetable is being devised.  Moreover, a policy on internet use and data protection is currently being formulated and work has also begun on a whole school guidance policy. The issue of improved ICT is receiving active consideration, with a team of teachers engaged in addressing the matter. It is intended to have definite proposals presented to staff by October.  However, some of the recommendations require additional financial resources and in the absence of these progress may be delayed.  This fact highlights the most significant problem facing the Mercy–the under funding of secondary education. Nevertheless, Our Lady of Mercy Secondary School, Waterford, will continue to refer to this WSE report when evaluating aspects of school life and it will serve as an invaluable source of ideas when seeking to improve the experience of education of the whole school community.