Monday 26 June 2017

'Happiness is key to students fulfilling potential'

Focus on pastoral care: Principal of Kilrush Community School, Rock Kirwin. Below, right: a music class takes place in the school. Photo: Brian Gavin
Focus on pastoral care: Principal of Kilrush Community School, Rock Kirwin. Below, right: a music class takes place in the school. Photo: Brian Gavin

David Raleigh

The pace of life around the pretty market town of Kilrush, overlooking the Atlantic in south-west Clare, is charmingly slow.

However, inside Kilrush Community School, a brisk wind is filling students' sails, with a major increase in numbers moving on to third level.

In 2009, 51pc of students from the school attended a third level institution. The figure for last year is almost double that, with a 100pc feeder rate.

At Kilrush they tell you that the key to their success is "student happiness".

Surely, there's more to it? Well, there is, but as principal Rock Kirwin explains, the main focus has been to make students happy before getting them to study.

"We have students reaching top points at the very highest level, but our focus here is not just on the very top students - there's a major emphasis on pastoral care, in terms of student happiness," Mr Kirwin says.

The fact that Kilrush, which like so many other small rural communities suffered in the economic storm, has performed so well, even as a designated disadvantaged (DEIS) school, makes the story of Ireland's 'most improved school' even more extraordinary.

"We have a pastoral care team which meets once a week and works with individual students who have particular issues or difficulties," the principal says.

"It would be the responsibility of this care team to address those [issues] if it is affecting a student's sense of security and happiness. If a student isn't happy in school they're not going to fulfil their potential. That's a foundation stone here."

It's one of a number of measures teachers implement to ensure a good relationship with their students.

Mr Kirwin offers another example: "When there were cutbacks in terms of career guidance [teachers], there was no diminution of career guidance in this school... because that would be a central plank in terms of our pastoral care - the needs of our students and the supports they might require."

He says the reason for the increased numbers attending third level can also be attributed to the Post Leaving Certificate (PLC) course run at the school.

It provides students with more time to consider their options before deciding their next move.

"We have found it very beneficial and a vital help for students who are bridging that gap between second and third level. Some of our students have tended to do that course because they have some element of indecision about third level, or they feel they are not ready for it yet. It's proving a very successful route into third level," adds Mr Kirwin.

Having been at the helm of school operations for the past 25 years, he has seen the children of past pupils come and go. In fact, he confirms, depending on numbers sitting their Leaving Certificate exams over the years, "we would always have had between 50pc and 70pc of students going on to third level".

But where are they going, and why?

The principal explains: "Because of our geographical location on the west coast, there would be quite a number going to the colleges in Limerick and Galway, and Tralee IT. But they would also be spread throughout the country, from Donegal to Dublin to Cork."

There has been a noticeable uptake of engineering courses, and an increased appetite for apprenticeships.

"With the demise of the Celtic Tiger, apprenticeships were something of a disaster, but thankfully we've noticed a slight increase in boys and girls taking them up. It's very appropriate for certain students to go into those areas."

Some believe music to be the soul of life, of language and of the heart. It's an ethos shared by Kilrush, given that the area has a vibrant traditional Irish music and set dancing scene.

Gaelic games is another extra-curricular activity they are keen on participating in.

I leave Kirwin busy preparing students for a special concert in the hall, which will be filmed and released as a DVD in September, marking the school's 25 years of service to the town.

"It's choir music, traditional Irish music, contemporary music and dance," says Mr Kirwin.

He jokes, in his musical Cork drawl: "We'd have to have the dance in west Clare, of course - they couldn't do without that - they'd have to have a few Clare sets."

Sunday Independent

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