Case study: Ard Scoil Ris, Limerick
'There are high expectations but there's a great deal of compassion too'
Synonymous with producing heroes from the world of sport, politics, and entertainment, Ard Scoil Ris - located on Limerick's affluent North Circular Road - is also one of the country's best performing non fee-paying schools.
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It has a near 100pc progression rate to third level, continuing a long academic tradition first instilled by the Christian Brothers, and now under the banner of the Edmund Rice Schools Trust.
There's an impressive list of past pupils including former president of the European Parliament and MEP, Pat Cox, and Munster, Ireland and Lions rugby legend Paul O'Connell.
The school underwent an €11m facelift in 2014, and now boasts five-star facilities for its population of 744 students and 50 teaching staff. The school's two gyms, modern science labs, and IT rooms are a far cry from the original temporary classrooms which greeted the first students on September 10, 1963. There's also a 140-seat multi-purpose theatre in the offing.
The school's rich rugby and GAA history is proudly displayed in photographs along the walls of the modern light-filled campus, including the faces of rugby stars like Sean Cronin, Dave Kilcoyne, Mike Sherry and Mossy Lawler, as well as Limerick hurling stars Cian Lynch, Shane Downing, Kevin Downes and Declan Hannon - who have all helped to fill the school's trophy cabinet with silverware.
Former Fianna Fail TD, solicitor, and executive director of Unicef Ireland, Peter Power, and ex-Irish Olympic rower Sam Lynch are also past pupils - as are two ground-breaking performers whose uniquely Limerick act has attracted great acclaim. The sculpture of a "horse" relaxing "outside" in the school courtyard hints that this too was the former stomping ground of Blindboy Boatclub and Mr Chrome, better known as The Rubberbandits.
School principal Tom Prendergast is proud of the school's high-achieving academic tradition, as well as its emphasis on fun and holistic learning.
"The students see that they can have a good, fair, humorous relationship with the staff. There are high expectations but there is a good degree of compassion.
"It's a balance between the academic and the extra curricular. You can have somebody with fantastic qualifications and first class honours, but you want them to have that balance of being able to work as part of a team that contributes."
Mindfulness is also something Mr Prendergast champions in the school. "It's all about raising awareness of students' own mental health," he says.
"We have a Togetherness Day. We take the whole school community off the academic timetable. They come in in their own clothes and they sign up to do yoga, mindfulness, colouring in, karaoke, soccer, hurling…
"It's also about students trying things they haven't before. They seem to enjoy it. It's about positive mental health and well-being."
Students also get to travel abroad on learning programmes.
"We have two students in Geneva at the moment with Edmund Rice International. They're based in the UN and are learning about advocacy.
"We have students who go to India every second year as part of the India Immersion Programme. We send 12 students and four teachers over to Kolkata and they would visit with Edmund Rice Schools, Edmund Rice-run organisations, and do fundraising for different projects there.
"When the students return they say that it's been a transformative experience."
As well as experiencing different cultures and learning about world social affairs, students also get to develop their own passions. "We organise rugby tours for Transition Year (TY) students. They've been to South America and South Africa.
"In two weeks there'll be 40 TY students and their teachers heading to Portugal to go surfing. They'll also visit Lisbon," he adds.
Music is taught as an optional subject from first year to sixth year as well as part of the TY programme.
Mr Prendergast emphasises the "significantly high number of students progressing onto university and third level education" and "the school's long-established strong academic record of excellence."
Ard Scoil Ris is also linked in with scholarship programmes at various third level institutions around the country because of the students' high grades.
Some within the most recent group of Leaving Certificate students were awarded Quercus and JP McManus Scholarships.
"This year we would have had eight students receive university scholarships from Trinity, UCD, DCU, and Mary Immaculate College," he says.