What makes a great secondary school?

Afric McGlinchey wanted to know how pupils at a Co Cork school are picking up awards worldwide

The two biggest gifts you can give your child are: life, and an education. You’ve done the first bit. Now comes the next – selecting a good secondary school. Make the right decision and you could be setting your child on the road to a love of learning, a college education and a successful career. Choose unwisely and who knows. Talk about pressure. You can do you research but what should you be looking for? The elusive recipe for school success is difficult to convey. While parents of course want a school that excels academically, they also want the best possible fit for their child – and that’s tricky, as Fergal McCarthy, the principal of Kinsale Community School, knows. “When sixth class students come to the school, we emphasise three rights,” he said. ‘The right to learn. The right to be happy. And the right to be different.’

Kinsale school has been in the news frequently in recent years, thanks to the success of their students in being awarded grand prizewinners at the Google Science Fair in San Francisco this year, the Young Scientist of the Year accolade three times and also winning first place at the European Union Contest for Young Scientists in 2012. ‘The quality of teaching and learning is the main reason why our school has achieved such a high standard,’ said Mr McCarthy.

“This is due to our dedicated, caring teachers.”

Emer Hickey, one of the recipients of the Google award, agrees. “Our teacher lived in Cork and had a new baby, but he even came in on Saturday mornings to mentor us.” And what if you’re not interested in science? “The school offers a comprehensive curriculum that appeals to all profiles of learners,” said Mr McCarthy. “It focuses on each child achieving their own potential.”

One example is Nathan Barlow, who is interested in film-making, and was given the chance to make a send-off film for the retiring principal. “They even paid me!” he laughed. “The musicals are awesome too. The teachers go all-out for those.”

Sport is another area where the school encourages individual preferences. “I know some people who are interested in golf, so they started a golf team,” said Emer. “Also an equestrian team. It’s really good. If someone has a particular interest, the PE department tries to support it. They have table tennis and hockey, as well as GAA and soccer – and the basketball team has just won the all-Ireland.”

Of course, results count. But unlike some schools that do a lot of hand-holding, the Kinsale school approach is to promote self-reliance. “Our teacher, Mr O’Sullivan, encouraged us to read beyond the curriculum,” said Cian Hamilton, who is now at college studying product design. “It was like college, researching for our essays. The teachers generally wanted us to be responsible for our own learning. They treated us like adults.” Certainly, the school produces results well above the national average. “Last year 3% of the students received over 600 points,” said Fergal McCarthy. “The national average is .3%. And 14% of our students were in the 500-545 bracket, as opposed to the national average of 6.8%.”

The key, according to Nathan Barlow, is communication. ‘You could joke around with the teachers,’ he said. “But we still called them Sir and Miss, out of respect.” His friend, Richard Hogan agrees. “They’re very likeable, so you’re willing to work hard. There’s a good balance between being relaxed with the students and being strict. They definitely get the students’ respect.”

Teachers are actively engaged with parents on a regular basis too. “As well as the parent-teacher meetings, parents are kept updated monthly in 5th year,” said Emer. A parent who asked to remain anonymous was also impressed with the school’s zero-tolerance policy with regard to bullying. “My son was being bullied. He didn’t say anything to us, but it was spotted at school and his teacher called us. They dealt with it swiftly.” Emer agrees that the school’s policy is very effective. “Once a year we are given a presentation about bullying and what to look out for. There are also prefect teams, who have a responsibility to report anything they see,’ she said. Transition Year is often considered an easy year, but the Kinsale students are kept busy. “We got extra qualifications,” said Cian. “ECDL, a First Aid Cert, GAA teaching cert. and also self-defence. And we did extra languages – Spanish, French, German, even a little Polish.” Nathan Barlow adds, “We also got involved with the community. I taught an elderly woman computer skills.”

But the highest premium they place, according to Mr McCarthy, is on each child being happy. “A happy child is undistracted and focused on their learning,” he said. That’s certainly true for Emer. “I’ve only had good times in school,” she said. And really, what more could a parent want for their child?

Top tips for choosing the right school

Dedicated teacher support: good schools champion great teachers. They grow them. They choose teachers who have a natural rapport with their students. They provide their teachers with mentors, instruction and discussion of best practices.

Focus on social, physical and emotional student growth: look for a school where all aspects of development are considered.

Nurturing of student’s individual talents and interests: choose a school where the teachers know the students individually, and can identify their talents/strengths.

Climate of high expectations: does the school set a high bar? When a teacher expects a high standard, students usually rise to the challenge.

Active family involvement: select a school that regularly interacts with the parents/guardians.

Supportive environmental conditions: pick a school that offers open spaces and light classrooms, where there are recreational areas, lockers, safety from harm.


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