Tuesday 23 January 2018

Top of the class - so is this really Ireland's best school?

Pupils get little homework and there are no workbooks at a school with a perfect inspection report

Students St Catherine's First Class look at their scary sea monsters at a school exhibition
Students St Catherine's First Class look at their scary sea monsters at a school exhibition

It is a small little-known school on the northside of Dublin with many pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds.

St Catherine's Infant School in Cabra does not fit the conventional model of an elite establishment, but it can now proudly boast that it is one of the best schools in the country.

Inspectors from the Department of Education must have been flummoxed after their recent visit there.

For once in their lives they could not find anything wrong.

According to the department's unpublished 'Whole School Evaluation' report, seen by the Irish Independent, the school is as close to perfect as it is possible to be.

Government inspection reports of some of the best known fee-paying schools in the country, including Blackrock and Belvedere College, always show some room for improvement. But the St Catherine's report states baldly: "There are no key recommendations to further improve the quality of education provided by the school."

So what is the secret of the school's success? The principal Mary Irving and her fellow teachers have effectively used St Catherine's status as a school serving a disadvantaged community to drive up standards.

Visiting the school one is immediately struck by Mary Irving's enthusiasm -- and her willingness to use innovative teaching techniques to excite the interest of pupils.

"I was very pleased with the report," she says. "It shows that we have fabulous children and teachers in the school."

As a school that teaches pupils from Junior Infants to First Class, she sees her priorities as building literacy and numeracy.

She is particularly passionate about maths and the way it can be taught to young children. She herself did research on maths teaching at St Patrick's College of Education.

There are no workbooks used in the school, and little of the maths work is done on paper. Instead pupils learn using concrete examples from real life. The style is hands-on and active, rather than abstract.

"Research has shown that a lot of learning that is done in workbooks is superficial," says Mary Irving. "Children may get things right in the workbook, but when they to apply it to real objects, they cannot do it."

"The standard workbooks deal with a generic child. If teachers develop exercises themselves, they can be customised for the children. And therefore they are likely to be of greater interest.

"We really like to teach the children what numbers actually mean. So they may be taught using objects like beads, pasta shapes and dice, rather than doing sums in a workbook. We do a lot of counting games."

When I visited one of the First Class groups, the children were doing sums with the help of an interactive white board.

They gave their answers by walking up in turn and bursting a virtual balloon on the board.

"It is very important to us that the children enjoy maths, because that way they will learn," says Mary Irving.

The approach seems to be working, because the school's test scores in maths are high by national standards.

The school benefits from being part of the Department of Education scheme DEIS (Delivering Equality of Opportunity in Disadvantaged Schools).

As a result class sizes are much smaller than in standard schools. Typical numbers are 17 or 18 and no greater than 20. During the school day, teachers and their support staff teach groups as small as four or five.

'We like to divide the class up into groups of four or five for 20 minutes every day to teach Maths. The class teacher would take one of the groups, while three support teachers would take the other groups.

"The support teachers move from class to class teaching these small groups."

Mary Irving call this approach "micro-teaching".

"Having small class sizes is a huge benefit, but it is also a challenge. We are trying to move away from the lecture approach to teaching."

The history of St Catherine's Infant School, which was run by the Dominican order from its foundation in 1945 until 2006, shows how Irish education has evolved.

Mary Irving, who has taught in the school since she began working in the profession 21 years ago, says: "When I started in the school there were 35 pupils in a class. So it was really a matter of crowd control."

Earlier in the school's history there could be more than 80 pupils in a class.

Mary Irving has high expectations of children in St Catherine's, but she does not believe in giving a lot of homework.

"I think if children are spending a large part of the day learning in school, it is not necessary to spend a lot of time on schoolwork at home."

One of the challenges for the school is to integrate children from immigrant families. Twenty-five per cent of the pupils have foreign backgrounds.

"We have some children who arrive at the school with barely a word of English, and it is amazing to see how their language skills develop."

The school places a strong emphasis on teaching language skills through poetry, nursery rhymes and stories. There is a well-stocked library with an attractive array of story books.

"We would place a lot of emphasis on the quality of the language in the materials we use."

St Catherine's may have created little stir in its 65-year history, but the school's perfect inspection report is bound to excite interest from education researchers in the coming years.

Irish Independent

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