Friday 14 December 2018

Case study: Cistercian College

'We take a helicopter approach to education'

Cistercian College students Jack Gilligan, Sean Liffey, Christian Fehilly, Adam Lambkin and college principal Gerry Grealish
Cistercian College students Jack Gilligan, Sean Liffey, Christian Fehilly, Adam Lambkin and college principal Gerry Grealish
Wayne O'Connor

Wayne O'Connor

Less than a year after the school was threatened with closure, Cistercian College, Roscrea, has gone on to cement its place as one the country's top-performing secondary schools.

It is one of a handful of schools to have maintained a 100pc record of sending pupils to third level since 2009.

This time last year, Cistercian College's future looked very different. Student numbers at the renowned school were reported to be down by 45pc over a 10-year period and just nine new first years had been confirmed for the start of the 2017-2018 academic year.

However, parents and former pupils rallied. A financial gap was plugged, new money streams pledged and a plan devised to open the seven-day boarding school to day pupils and five-day boarders.

The school has adapted and changed. It has pupils from every province and 23 counties in Ireland. It now houses 170 students in total - the majority boarding. It has 14 day pupils, who come in at 8am every day before heading home at 8pm. They get meals on campus with their classmates and take part in all of the extra-curricular activities - sports, music, art and debating - enjoyed by those who stay on campus.

"We are changing people's perceptions of Irish boarding schools," Cistercian College head of admissions Seamus Hennessy told the Sunday Independent.

"A dedicated teaching staff and support staff help us achieve the excellence that students need. But, the parents' association, the board of management and the dynamic finance committee have secured our future, not just for the next generation, but also for generations to come," he says.

The school is determined to continue its proud tradition of producing well-rounded students who go on to achieve academic and personal excellence.

Past pupils include former Taoiseach Brian Cowen, former Tanaiste Dick Spring and the successful racehorse trainer Willie Mullins.

"It is in an idyllic setting. As a teacher arriving every morning to work, when you drive through the gates, there is nowhere like it. As the seasons change here you can grasp life on a seasonal basis.

"You can see the abbey lands and the college lands change from autumnal colours into daffodils and the arrival of spring. There is no dawn chorus like it and, on the 800-acre grounds of an abbey, it is idyllic and it is a safe location."

Academic achievement is delivered with what Mr Hennessy terms a "helicopter approach" to education.

"It has always been one of our goals to have excellent academic success but not at the risk of people not developing.

"We believe in a strong holistic education for the development of the whole person - not just the academic element of life - whether they are sports people, musicians, public speakers, debaters or interested in drama.

"Students thrive and flourish when there are other aspects of life available to them. We want to meet students and their particular strengths and develop those as well. If they flourish in one element of their life it gives them the encouragement and confidence to carry that into other aspects of life too. We are looking at it from the point of view that we are hovering over everything, not just academics."

Rugby players and hurlers play the violin together, soccer players take part in debates with those who have a flair for the arts.

The student body takes part in an in-house musical every year and decamps to the University of Limerick Concert Hall annually for a gala concert in front of a crowd of up to 1,000 people.

Mr Hennessy says prospective first year students are invited to the college every October during a weekend when the rest of the student body returns home. This gives them an opportunity to explore the inner workings of the school and allows them a sense of what it is like to study and live there.

He says this is the crucial first step to make sure students get all they need from the school.

"We have an unrivalled focus but there is a lot more to education than achievement. We want to give people a good grounding and then, hopefully, they will go on to pursue a good career."

Sunday Independent

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