An Roinn Oideachais agus Eolaíochta
Department of Education and Science
Fingal Community College
Swords, County Dublin
Roll number: 70121H
Date of inspection: 11 April 2008
A whole-school evaluation of Fingal Community College 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 three subjects was evaluated in detail and two subjects were evaluated in advance. Separate reports are available on these five subjects (see section 7 for details). The board of management of the school was given an opportunity to comment on the findings and recommendations of the report; the board chose to accept the report without response.
Fingal Community College is one of the twenty-four schools and colleges under the trusteeship of County Dublin Vocational Education Committee (VEC). The college opened in 1985 in response to population growth in the Swords area of County Dublin. The original college building was extended in 1997 to cater for the growing number of students. The college is co-educational and presently caters for 556 students. The students come from local primary schools in Swords and fifteen outlying schools. While the school is not involved in the Delivering Equality of Opportunity in Schools (DEIS) action plan, it is part of the School Completion Programme; this was reported to have a positive effect on retention levels in the school and on the numbers of students completing the senior cycle.
Fingal Community College places the student at the centre of all its activities. It was evident during the evaluation that concern for the holistic development of students underpinned all policies, programmes and initiatives in the school. However, although the mission statement contains a commitment to ensuring that each student achieves his or her full potential, it does not do justice to the ethos of care and support which was evident in the school during the evaluation and remarked upon by parents, students and the board of management. It is recommended that the wording of the mission statement be reviewed so that it fairly reflects the good practice already on the ground in this regard.
County Dublin VEC devolves responsibility for the day-to-day management of the school to the board of management. Regular contact with the education officer supports the board. The VEC also provides exemplar material for policy formation. The VEC representatives were appointed to the board in 2004. One parent and one teacher representative are elected to the board annually and each of these representatives serves for two years. The term of the parent and teacher representatives overlaps by one year and VEC representatives may see, during the five years of their term, four different teacher representatives and four different parent representatives. As a result there is never a completely new board. This presents significant challenges to the board in leading and managing school activities as a cohesive unit. The VEC provided training for VEC representatives immediately after their election to the board in 2004 but the different schedule by which parent and teacher representatives are appointed meant that they could not avail of this training at the same time. In an attempt to ensure all board members are elected for the same term of office and to allow all members to receive training at the same time, it is recommended that the school works with the VEC to review the scheduling appointments to the board of management
The board meets five times per year and the school principal is secretary to the board. The process by which representatives report back to their constituents varies. Teacher representatives provide a verbal report on each board meeting at staff council meetings or in the staff room at break time. It is important that the same agreed report should be made by all representatives. It is therefore recommended that time be set aside at the end of board meetings in order to agree the content of this report.
The board is currently compiling an annual report on the functioning of the school for County Dublin VEC. This annual report may also highlight areas of interest for the parents of students in the school. As a result, this may be a timely juncture for the board to review their reporting procedures to parents on the operation and performance of the school.
In the past, the school had a parents’ council. However, it is reported that in recent years it has become more difficult to encourage parents to become members. The principal has put in place an alternative mechanism to ensure that parents can contribute to the life of the school. It is praiseworthy that a parents’ support group has been formed following an invitation to individual parents to join. Any parent who wishes to join is very welcome and this group is actively engaged in policy development and the organisation of events for parents, for example, an intercultural evening. It is recommended that the board works with the general parent body to explore how other parents could be encouraged to be actively involved in the school and to reinstate the parents’ council as envisaged by section 26 of the Education Act, 1998.
In whole school planning, the board has identified developmental priorities for the school. These include policy development, intercultural provision for newcomer students, accommodation and the integration of information and communications technology (ICT) into teaching and learning. Policy documents are brought to the board for discussion. At the most recent board meeting an audit was carried out of the policies that have been ratified and those that are in draft form. It is recommended that the board formulates an action plan to prioritise policies for development, ratification and review. They should ensure that all partners are appropriately consulted in the review process and verify that the wording of policies reflects the good practices already on the ground.
Both principal and deputy principal were appointed to the school when it opened in 1985 and they have developed a very strong working relationship. They share mutual educational values and a common vision for the school. They work well together as the senior management team. They meet formally every day to co-ordinate the management of the school and planning meetings are scheduled throughout the year as necessary. Together they provide very good leadership to the school community. For example, they have identified the challenges the school faces due to its growing newcomer population and have led the development of initiatives designed to meet those challenges.
It was evident that the principal and deputy principal have a commitment to developing the leadership potential of assistant principals and empowering them to contribute to the school as effective members of the middle management team. Since September 2007, weekly meetings which focus on whole-school matters are held with the eight assistant principals. This is a very positive development and it has the potential to both enrich the school and provide valuable leadership experience for assistant principals. This team of assistant principals addresses matters of immediate concern such as discipline issues and also focuses on long-term development planning. It is praiseworthy that its members have looked at positive approaches to behaviour management and have made a presentation on this area to the staff council. Currently they are researching school reporting procedures with a view to revising the school report for students that issues to parents. The team is commended for its contribution to the school in this area. Attendance at these meetings is open to other members of staff who may wish to bring an issue for discussion.
There are thirteen special duties post-holders who assist in the management of the school in a variety of roles. The schedule of posts is reviewed annually by the post-holders together with the principal and deputy principal. While post-holders may retain the same duties from year-to-year, there is considerable flexibility to change the duties as the needs of the school change and this is good. The school is currently engaged in a review of the duties of each special duties post-holder. This process is being supported by the School Development Planning Initiative (SDPI) who gave a presentation to the whole staff in March 2008. In line with good practice, a sub-committee has been established to progress this review. Its members include post-holders and non-post-holders. It is recommended that the sub committee should examine the current schedule of posts and make suggestions for the incoming year based on the needs of the school and in line with Circular Letter 20/98. As has been the practice in the past, the principal intends to meet with each post-holder in order to agree the job description pertaining to his or her post of responsibility.
The school is a learning community where continuing professional development (CPD) for staff is encouraged and facilitated, within parameters agreed by the board, in-school management and the staff. A significant number of staff members have gained post-graduate qualifications. These developments are evidence of the positive commitment to CPD that exists. Fingal Community College provides an induction programme for new teachers and, in this regard, it has participated since 2004 in the Training the Trainers initiative run County Dublin VEC. These teachers acknowledged that this programme is very helpful. On their initial visit to the school they are also presented with a staff handbook which is updated on an annual basis. This is a very good way of keeping teachers informed of policies and procedures in the school.
Staff council meetings are held three times annually and are used to facilitate whole-staff discussion of school development issues including student management. Communication systems in place in the school are effective and include notice boards in the staff room, staff mail boxes and daily announcements on the school intercom. Staff members who met with the evaluation team consistently reported that communication was good between management and staff and that both the principal and deputy principal were very approachable.
During the course of the evaluation the inspectors commented on the good rapport between students and teachers and they reported that students were generally well behaved. The school has developed a code of behaviour that gives clear information on the school rules and outlines the sanctions which will be applied for serious breaches. In accordance with the requirements of the Education (Welfare) Act, 2000, section 23(2) the code also includes information on the suspension and expulsion of students. The code has been developed into a separate set of school rules which is currently the subject of consultation. It is recommended that the language of the code of behaviour be revisited in order to promote positive behaviour management. It is recommended that the document Developing a Code of Behaviour: Guidelines for Schools distributed by the National Educational Welfare Board (NEWB) be used in this review.
In line with current legislative requirements notably the Education (Welfare) Act, 2000 the school has a system in place to record student attendance. Unless the school has been informed, the year head or a member of the school administrative staff makes every attempt to contact the home when a student is absent. Notwithstanding these measures, it is acknowledged by management that poor attendance impacts negatively on the progress of a minority of students.
Senior students are given the opportunity to be elected as prefects. They are supported by a liaison teacher. Their responsibilities include monitoring students at break and lunch times and accompanying first-year students on some outings. The mentoring of some first-year students was added to the list of duties of some prefects this year. Prefects reported that the prefect system is popular and that they are respected by their peers. It is recommended that training be provided for prefects so that both students and the school can derive the best benefit from the system.
The student council is well supported in the school. In line with good practice, there is a liaison teacher who attends all meetings. The principal attends meetings once per month. The student council has had input into the school mobile phone policy and has met with the board to outline its achievements and plans. Its members are given a high profile in the school with the provision of a student council notice board and notices in the school newsletter. It is also planned that student council members be provided with badges in the next school year in order to further promote their profile. This is commendable. The student council canvasses the ideas and opinions of the student body, both through the provision of a suggestion box and the posting of the agenda for meetings on the notice board. However, it is not a democratic body as voting is limited to members only. It is recommended that the school progresses the plans already in place to democratise the student council. Further information can be accessed on the website of the Student Council of Ireland (www.studentcouncil.ie).
The school site leaves limited scope for additional building development. Good use is made of the physical resources available, for example, a number of small rooms are used to accommodate resource classes for groups of six to eight students. Specialist rooms such as the science laboratories and the metalwork and construction studies rooms have recently been refurbished.
Information and communications technology (ICT) facilities are good. Most subject departments have a data projector and some have an interactive white board. There are two computer rooms, one with twenty-four terminals and a smaller resource teaching room with eight terminals. All specialist rooms have PCs and all classrooms are wired for internet access. Some difficulties have been experienced in receiving the internet signal because the school is overshadowed by another building. This is currently being addressed.
The school is clean and well maintained. This reflects the dedicated work of the cleaning staff and commendably, the students are also actively involved in ensuring that school facilities are treated properly and with respect. To develop their community spirit, students are expected to commit to one-week clean-up duty in their turn and they are supervised by prefects. Students in examination classes are exempt from this duty. It was reported in the school that this system had encouraged a sense of personal responsibility for the environment among the student population. This growing sense of responsibility for the environment has led to the formation of a Green-Schools committee as part of the An Taisce Green-Schools programme. The student council has taken this on as a project. Its members are supported by their own liaison teacher, by a special duties teacher with responsibility for the project and by the teachers of Civic, Social and Political Education (CSPE). The administrative staff makes an important and valued contribution to the smooth running of the school’s daily routine and to the welfare of students.
Timetabling of classes is in accordance with requirements of the syllabuses. Care should be taken to ensure that a good balance is achieved between morning and afternoon class times.
Teachers are assigned to class groups based mainly on professional qualifications and experience. It is suggested that the allocation of teachers be monitored to ensure that the capacity of the school to deliver subjects at all levels is built up and maintained.
The school operates a book rental scheme for all year groups. This represents a significant financial saving for families. There is flexibility for teachers to acquire additional resources by making a request to management. It was reported that all requests within budgetary constraints are met.
The school has a health and safety statement framed on the Safety, Health and Welfare at Work Acts of 1989 and 2005. Co-ordination of this area is part of a post of responsibility in the school. In line with good practice, scheduled, timed fire drills have been held and recorded.
The school is at an early stage of formal school development planning. A number of draft policies have been developed and others have been identified by the board as priorities for development in the short term. The school has engaged with the SDPI. Historically, the principal and deputy principal were the architects of policy documents which were then brought to the staff and the board for discussion. Parental involvement in this process was facilitated through the parents’ council and students were consulted on matters such as the uniform. The planning process has recently been re-directed to allow for more meaningful engagement of the board of management, parents, staff and students in the development of new policies. An example of this is the thorough consultative procedure accompanying the development of the relationships and sexuality education (RSE) policy. The reinstatement of a parents’ council would facilitate improved communication with the parent body on policy matters.
Many of the policies currently available are undated and as a result it is unclear when they were ratified and when they are due for review. The school admissions and enrolment policy should be revisited to reflect the inclusive spirit of the school and current legislative requirements. Similarly, definitions of discrimination and racism should be included in the policy on bullying, harassment and discrimination. It is recommended that in the current review of posts, consideration be given to the development of a post to co-ordinate planning. The appointment of a post-holder as planning co-ordinator would provide support to the school in effecting planning progress. It will also confer status on the planning process in the school and recognise and reward the considerable efforts being made currently by a variety of individuals and small groups to develop policies.
Confirmation was provided that, in compliance with Post-primary Circulars M44/05 and 0062/2006, the board of management has formally adopted the Child Protection Guidelines for Post-primary Schools (Department of Education and Science, September 2004). 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 staff. As part of the induction process, new teachers should be briefed on the child protection guidelines. Management should give consideration to the provision of a brief presentation on the guidelines for all the staff at the first staff meeting each year. A designated liaison person (DLP) and a deputy DLP have been appointed in line with the requirements of the guidelines.
There are three curricular programmes on offer in Fingal Community College: the Junior Certificate programme, the Established Leaving Certificate (ELC) and the Leaving Certificate Applied (LCA). In previous years the school offered the Transition Year (TY) programme and the Leaving Certificate Vocational Programme (LCVP) but these were discontinued on the introduction of the LCA.
There is a broad range of subjects on offer to students across the programmes and timetabling arrangements are in line with National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA) recommendations. During the evaluation some parents and students expressed regret that Music was not available. Although senior management is currently not in a position to timetable Music due to staffing constraints, a very full extra-curricular programme is provided, some of which relates to music.
Commendably, Irish, English and Mathematics are concurrently timetabled in all year groups to allow the formation of classes corresponding to the levels available in these subjects for the certificate examinations. For all other subjects, the year group is divided into two bands. One class group is formed in one band and these students generally take subjects at higher-level. The second band comprises three class groups all of which are mixed ability and where some students may also take their subjects at higher-level. These arrangements are designed to facilitate as wide a choice as possible for students and to provide targeted support to more-able students. The school is very flexible in trying to meet the demand for subjects with a low uptake and as a result, it is commendable that subjects such as Chemistry, Applied Mathematics, Engineering and Russian are provided on the curriculum for Leaving Certificate.
The LCA programme is well co-ordinated by a post holder. The programme was reported as successful by all groups met. The school could now explore the potential of adding LCVP to the curriculum again as a means of giving students more flexibility and to broaden their career choice options. It should follow an analysis of how the existing programmes available to students at senior cycle are meeting the needs of the present cohort of students. Therefore, it is recommended that the re-introduction of the LCVP be considered.
Appropriate procedures are in place to provide information and guidance to parents and prospective students when making subject choices. Commendably, these include a number of open evenings and a comprehensive information booklet for parents. Individual counselling is provided to students to assist them in choosing programmes and subjects at times of transition.
There is appropriate provision for students to alter their choice of subject or level. The parents met with and the student council members interviewed during the evaluation indicated their endorsement both of the quality of advice offered in choosing subjects and of the change-of-option arrangements.
The school is highly commended for offering students a wide range of co-curricular and extra-curricular activities. A significant number of staff members are involved in providing activities which span sport, culture and social awareness. Activities take place after school or during lunchtime, using classrooms and the school gym. Team sports are facilitated on the County Council training pitches near the school and there is also support, such as rugby coaching, from local community clubs. The staff members involved in the provision of all the co-curricular and extra-curricular activities are commended for their enthusiasm and their commitment to providing these opportunities for the students.
Two subject inspections were conducted in 2007 and the reports arising from these evaluations also form part of the evidence base for this whole-school evaluation. It is good to note that recommendations from the earlier inspection reports have been implemented.
Formal subject planning in Fingal Community College occurs at set times throughout the year. In most of the subjects inspected the school facilitates the attendance of all teachers at formal subject department meetings. The teachers in all of the subjects inspected operate within a culture of collaboration and cooperation and regularly meet on an informal basis. In some instances the position of subject co-ordinator rotates and this is good practice. It is recommended that this approach be adopted by all subject departments.
Comprehensive subject department plans have been developed. These set out the policies and practices of the subject departments in relation to the organisation, provision, planning, teaching and learning, and assessment of their respective subjects. In most instances teachers have developed individual schemes of work. Best practice was observed where teachers used learning outcomes as the basis for their planning and where specific strategies and resources were identified to teach particular syllabus components. Best practice was also observed where individual subject planning documentation included elements of reflection and evaluation to be completed at the end of each lesson. It is recommended that the examples of best practice outlined above in relation to subject planning should be shared and developed across all subject departments and by all teachers.
The learning objectives were shared with the students in the lessons observed. Best practice in this regard occurred where the teacher wrote the aims of the lesson or the main topics to be covered on the board and then checked at the end to see if these had been achieved. Summary and recapitulation in a lesson is important to help students consolidate learning. It is important that all teachers ensure that they check and reinforce learning before moving from one phase of a lesson to the next. Student engagement was at its best when lessons were not teacher-led, when the teacher acted as facilitator and students were actively involved.
In all of the lessons observed, there was a very supportive learning atmosphere and good relationships had been established between students and their teachers. Effective use was made of student affirmation and students’ contributions were warmly welcomed. In a few instances, an imbalance between teacher talk and student activity led to the disengagement of some students. Classroom management, in general, was good and there were some examples of excellent management of students’ learning activities. Positive discipline methods were most effective in dealing with any discipline issues that arose. This very good practice is commended.
Teachers made considerable effort to enhance their physical working environments with a wide range of commercial and student-generated posters. This is commended as it creates a visually stimulating learning environment.
In general a wide range of assessment modes is used to monitor student progress in Fingal Community College. The modes used reflect the assessment objectives of the syllabuses. These include oral questioning in class, on-going teacher monitoring and the regular setting and correcting of homework. Some subject departments have the policy of setting end-of-topic tests. Formal examinations are held in November and May for all non-examination class groups and ‘mock’ examinations are held for third-year and sixth-year groups. Reports are sent home following these formal examinations. Parent-teacher meetings take place once a year for each year group.
Where appropriate, homework is set and corrected regularly. It some cases use is made of the principles of Assessment for Learning (AfL), where helpful teacher comments provide students with affirmation and, where necessary, suggestions for development. It is recommended that the use of AfL principles be extended to all subjects. Further information on AfL is available on the NCCA website (www.ncca.ie).
The school has an allocation of 4.41 whole-time teacher equivalents (WTEs) to meet the needs of the students with special educational needs (SEN). Very good use is made of this time to provide the required support. All students with special educational needs are placed in mainstream classes and a withdrawal system is used to provide support in small groups. In a minority of classes, team teaching is the method of support. It is commendable that the student support team in the school meets weekly and has put in place a number of strategies to facilitate communication with mainstream class teachers. These include a notice board with information on learning difficulties and special needs and a dedicated email address which can be used by teachers to contact members of the student support team.
Two post-holders co-ordinate the work of the student support team. They compile the learning support and resource timetable and ensure that assessment results and other student information are safely stored in a locked filing cabinet. The school has a draft policy on special educational needs which clearly outlines the procedures used to identify the additional educational needs of students. The special educational needs department has also written a development plan which describes in very good detail the model of educational support provision in the school and the roles of the key personnel with regard to educational support. It is recommended that both the development plan and the SEN policy be amalgamated to form a single, comprehensive, policy document. It was noted by inspectors that all members of the learning support team who provide support with numeracy also teach mainstream mathematics classes. Team teaching, where utilised, was reported as successful. Good communication exists between members of the learning support team and the mathematics department; this generally takes place on a daily informal basis. This good practice could be extended to all subject departments.
Physical resources to support the work of the special educational needs department are good. Modifications have been made to facilitate the needs of disabled students including a number of stair lifts and the provision of specialist toilet facilities. A number of prefabricated classrooms are used solely for educational support and the teachers have created an environment which is conducive to learning. All of these classrooms are equipped with ICT and they are networked. In addition, small classrooms are also available for use with groups of six to eight students. One of these is a fully equipped computer room.
The student population is representative of the local community and, in recent years, there has been a rise in the enrolment of students who do not have English as their first language. Currently, a quarter of students are newcomers and the school has been allocated three whole-time teacher equivalents to provide for the language support needs of these students.
The school is very well supported by Co. Dublin VEC which has facilitated a training course in English as an additional language (EAL) for more than one fifth of teachers in the school. A team of seven teachers meets weekly to plan their work and ensure that students are in an appropriate support class. This good practice is commended. The team also has a pastoral function to support the integration of newcomer students in the life of the school. It was noted during the evaluation that newcomer students are actively involved in the full range of extra-curricular activities and are members of the student council. Support is offered against Irish and some option subjects. A recent and welcome development is the number of newcomer students who wish to study Irish. This is strongly encouraged by the school and the team is exploring how best to provide support in English while accommodating these students. A Handbook for International students has been developed by the school and is given to all newcomer students at the start of the school year. This is a useful document as it contains modified school rules and school practices and procedures relevant to newcomer students.
The school has a very inclusive admissions and enrolment policy and welcomes the involvement of newcomer parents both on the parents’ support group and in the organising of two intercultural events annually. To celebrate and explore cultural diversity in Fingal Community College, the school has held an in-school variety show which encourages students to perform traditional songs, dances or readings from their country of origin. A second intercultural evening is held in the local hotel and this provides an opportunity for parents to meet and experience the different cultures within the school community.
The school has an allocation of 1.09 WTE which is now being used appropriately to provide Guidance. A full evaluation of the work of the guidance department was conducted in advance of this whole-school evaluation and a separate subject inspection report is available on this.
Guidance is provided on an individual basis to all first-year and third-year students. Arrangements have been put in place to facilitate a careers module in third year and the guidance counsellor has worked with third-year SPHE teachers to advise them on discussing subject choices with their classes. The guidance team includes the school guidance counsellor and a counsellor who has been employed under the School Completion Programme. They meet on a weekly basis to ensure that the relevant supports are provided to students.
ICT provision in the guidance room has improved since the subject inspection of Guidance and the guidance counsellor has been provided with a laptop that can be brought to class as necessary. Programmes such as Qualifax and Career Directions are available for students’ use on the terminals in the computer room. A small room has been provided for the counsellor. While they were concerned about the lack of flexibility in the seating arrangements in this space, both members of the guidance department acknowledged that the choice of room had been determined by a concern to respect students’ privacy. It is suggested that, as resources allow, the provision of alternative accommodation for counselling might be considered.
During the evaluation it was evident that care was a core value in the school and that all staff members are committed to supporting students. Students and teachers in the school also benefit from the support of a school chaplain. Some structures have already been put in place to identify students in difficulty, for example, each class group has a class tutor who has a strong pastoral care role. Year heads remain with their year group for their time in school, in most cases, and thus develop a very good knowledge of the students in their care. A part-time chaplain is available to meet the spiritual needs of students and two teachers facilitate a Rainbows group which supports students who have experienced a death, separation or other painful experience in their families. All these supports are very valuable and typical of the care ethic in the school.
SPHE is provided on the junior cycle curriculum. A detailed evaluation of the teaching and learning of SPHE is available in a separate subject inspection report attached to this report. Work has begun on the development of a relationships and sexuality education policy and it is currently at consultation stage. Completion of this policy at the earliest possible time is recommended.
The School Completion Programme is operated in a targeted but low-key way to provide a range of support services for students. For example, a breakfast club is open to all students and a homework club has been established as a transition project for first-year and second-year students. A second guidance counsellor has also been employed in the school. It was reported that this has been effective in retaining students until Leaving Certificate and promoting their interest in school. Good citizenship behaviours are encouraged in the school through the operation of a ‘Better School Programme’ which positively reinforces student attendance, good behaviour, homework and inter-class sporting activities.
Recently a care group has been established to co-ordinate the support programmes in the school. This is in keeping with best practice and has the potential to ensure that maximum benefit is available to students from the variety of care structures which are in place. It is suggested that this group should consider the development of a care policy which would provide coherence between the care initiatives already in place. As a first step, the work already begun in the school on devising a critical incident response plan should be completed.
The following are the main strengths identified in the evaluation:
As a means of building on these strengths and to address areas for development, the following key recommendations are made:
Post-evaluation meetings were held with the staff and board of management when the draft findings and recommendations of the evaluation were presented and discussed.
The following related Subject Inspection reports are available:
Published January 2009