Moving with the times to achieve real success
Uniquely positioned in a corner of Co Offaly along the River Shannon with a catchment covering three counties in three different provinces, Banagher College Colaiste na Sionna's success is in no small part due to its response to the shifting economic landscape of the Midlands region.
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At the helm as the school has risen steadily in the tables over the past eight years has been principal Paddy Scales.
The affable headmaster served as deputy principal before taking up the main post in the newly built state-of-the-art school. An advocate of PPP (Public Private Partnership) projects, Mr Scales explains that the school, which opened its doors in 2010, was purpose built following the amalgamation of two local schools, St Rynagh's Community College and La Sainte Union Secondary School in 2007.
The school's 552 students come from largely rural parts of counties Offaly, Tipperary and Galway.
"If you were to look at the economics of the Midlands, it wouldn't have really benefited from the boom when that boom hit," Mr Scales explains.
"Historically the big employers and the big draw for students would have been the ESB and Bord na Mona apprenticeships and there would have been a lot of families that had a strong connection with all of those.
"They ceased in 2007, 2008 or 2009 and the school would have put an emphasis on saying to students: 'look, the apprenticeships aren't there. College is the option, so you now have to look at that pathway'," he says.
"They would have seen neighbours, brothers, people they knew, who would have got good apprenticeships and the only option for them was to go to Australia. We would have promoted and, even with the help of the likes of Banagher Precast Concrete, would have given scholarships to promote STEM (Science Technology Engineering Maths) subjects, because even at our worst there was still job opportunities for students who qualified in STEM subjects. There was a demand for those," he says.
"Because there is an agricultural flavour to the area, there would always have been a number of students going to agricultural colleges."
He notes that agricultural colleges such as Gurteen and Mountbellow are now linked with Galway Mayo IT (GMIT) and Athlone IT (AIT).
"By going to those colleges you are actually a student of AIT or GMIT and you are coming out with your Level Eight (degree). That is taking students who were going for an agricultural experience leaving third level with a qualification in agriculture," Mr Scales explains.
While noting concerns about PPP school builds following UK company Carillion's collapse, Mr Scales says he is still largely in favour of the model. He explains that Banagher College has a management company who will look after any issues for the next 25 years, easing the workload for the board of management. He points to the "excellent" facilities at the new school which is equipped with three IT rooms, four science labs, two home economics rooms, a PE hall, a fitness suite, and other facilities.
"A new school with the facilities and resources definitely has to help. It is positive for students, it is positive for parents and it is positive for the staff as well," says Mr Scales.
He praises the 45 members of staff who teach at the school and work together with an all-encompassing team approach. In particular, he notes the work of the school's careers department.
"It is easy to say we are offering 21 subjects[at Leaving Cert] but there is no point in offering them unless you can offer them at the highest level.
"We have a strong careers department that works very well with the students and devotes a lot of time to them.
"They organised a number of career fairs in the school. We had somewhere between 40 and 50 exhibitors. All of the colleges came here and actually exhibited in the hall.
"Parents came with the students, they walked around and they could go to each of the colleges, each of the trades and all the different places. They were able to get first-hand information from the speakers from the colleges."
These events have been taking place in Banagher College for the past three years and he credits them with helping the school increase its throughput to college because parents and pupils are more informed ahead of making course choices.
Aside from academic pursuits, the school offers a wide range of extra curricular pursuits. After school hours, the place is a hive of activity with sports taking place on the grounds.
The school has strong connections with the University of Limerick and NUI Galway but, due to its central location, its students can be found at colleges nationwide.
"The facilities are there, the will of the teachers and students to get involved is there, and we would regard ourselves as being competitive. It is healthy and it also helps students to integrate when they go into college."