The motto at St Dominic’s is “Believe, Word Hard and Achieve”. The Ballyfermot, Dublin, school works extraordinary hard to support its pupils to live by that maxim but, in an area of severe socio-economic disadvantage, they first have to overcome more than their fair share of challenges.
That is why there was particular cause for celebration last September when Leaving Cert candidate Mary De Silva achieved the the school’s highest-ever CAO score of 601 points.
It’s not the only barrier that St Dominic’s smashed: for the first time, four of its sixth years received offers for Trinity College Dublin, and in courses that are the preserve of the top Leaving Cert performers: Pharmacy, Occupational Therapy and Law.
Described by her principal as an “exceptional and gifted student”, Mary De Silva (19) was born in Ireland to parents who arrived from Angola. Science lovers Mary and classmate Rania Khawer (18), whose parents came to Ireland from Pakistan, both had Medicine as their top choice, but are very happy in Pharmacy
Carley Sheil (19) was also thinking about Medicine until a school careers talk from a doctor. “She said if she was to do it all over again, she would look at different courses and she said Occupational Therapy was really rewarding. When I looked into it, I liked it a lot more than Medicine.”
Meanwhile, Ayla Lancaster is living her dream after getting her top choice of Law. “I am a planner and, hopefully, this time five years I will be studying to be a barrister.”
Principal Sarah Green shares the credit: “It is a community effort and a community priority to improve progression and realise the real potential of the young people of Ballyfermot to progress in education and break down barriers and inequality in education that stem from persistent educational disadvantage.
“The ambition and will is there, innovative practice is in place and constantly being improved upon but the challenges are very real and very complex and so progress is gradual with no quick fixes, just lots of sums of small measures and efforts to bring about change over time.”
It’s not only St Dominic’s. Ms Green says that by working closely with the other two voluntary secondary schools in Ballyfermot, St John’s College and Caritas College, they have realised their collective vision to improve outcomes for students in the area.
Prior to 2020, the highest points achieved by a St Dominic’s pupil was 451 and, while the average over the previous five years hovered around 200, in 2020 it rose to 276. The fall-out from calculated grades may have given them a fair wind, but according to Ms Green, the class of 2020 was academically strong.
The principal noted the higher percentage of students – 51pc – who sat at least four subjects at higher level. That doesn’t happen by accident but comes from a sustained effort to encourage pupils to raise their sights, and then support them.
If students don’t take subjects at higher level, they have no chance of garnering the points needed to compete for many CAO courses. But while higher level uptake is the norm elsewhere, for DEIS schools the process may have to start with instilling a belief in pupils that they can do it.
The supports offered at St Dominic’s go well beyond the classroom and seek to match what pupils in more affluent communities take for granted.
The Dominican Ministry Fund provides money for experiences such as Gaeltacht or other language courses, revision classes, after-school study and mobile devices.
St Dominic’s also benefits from the Aspire2 Student Support Programme, a corporate social responsibility project of DPS Engineering, which provides mentoring and work experience and financial supports for additional tutoring and after-school study.
A long-standing relationship with Allianz Worldwide Care has been central to its students being ‘college-ready’ – academically, socially and emotionally.
As students move on, the school and wider community continue to walk with them, anticipating hidden barriers to future achievement. Former principal Mary Daly oversees the disbursement of funding to students in further and higher education, ensuring they have money for basics such as travel, lab coats, books, technology, while the Ballyfermot Partnership assists with SUSI grant applications as well as funding for laptops.