School profile: Giving students a voice in a digital year

St Mary’s Secondary School, Charleville, Co Cork


School type: All-girls, voluntary secondary, Catholic ethos

Principal: Maighréad Finn (acting)

Medium of instruction: English

Subject options: French, Spanish, music, business studies, art, home economics and materials technology (wood) are among the junior cycle options, while at senior cycle students can also choose from accounting, business, all three science subjects, history, geography, and the Leaving Cert Vocational Programme (LCVP). Computer studies is a core junior cycle subject.

Interesting fact: Founded 1840, St Mary’s is one of the oldest established second-level schools in the country. It formerly shared a site with a fever hospital, which was closed in 1855 with the proviso that if an epidemic broke out, it would be available as a hospital again, but the building was ultimately condemned in 1965.

Like all schools around the country, St Mary’s, a small, rural school with just under 300 pupils, faced a dilemma last March. How could they provide remote learning for their students and still keep them engaged?

Maighréad Finn, acting principal, says they had two particular strengths: digital infrastructure and student voice.

“We value technology in teaching & learning with two trolleys of devices. Students continue to use their textbooks in class but have access to a Microsoft Surface Go or Chromebook. All students have an email to access G Suite for Education which gives students apps to help them complete their classwork and CBAs. They also have access to Google Classroom which allows teachers to share resources, notes and homework. Students can upload their completed work. Teachers used Google Meet during the school closure to teach classes online, and this ensured that no tuition time was lost by students.”

Finn says that the school is acutely aware of both the risks and opportunities posed by online learning. “We introduced a Digital Media Literacy Class in Junior Cycle and we participate in Safer Internet Day while our Transition Year students have trained as McAfee (cyber safety) ambassadors.”

A good school provides more than a tokenistic outlet for student voice, and St Mary’s has worked to ensure that its students are heard.The students in St Mary’s are currently working on a trouser option for the girls’ uniform.

“Our student council is elected annually by students, and they bring forward initiatives to our principal, board of management and parents’ association,” says Finn. “The council works with our wellbeing coordinator to ensure a student-centred school. We created a sensory garden for our students to lift our spirits during this challenging time. Students suggested a non uniform day and they can decorate their classroom for Christmas. These opportunities for leadership prepare students for later life. Indeed, many have gone on to win leadership awards.”

The school encourages active citizenship through global citizenship education activities in CSPE while Transition Years undertake a global citizenship education module. “We work closely with Worldwide Global Schools,” says Finn. “Our school was proud to receive the Global Passport Award in 2020.”

Students at the school take part in fundraising and volunteering, and raised over €5000 for PPE for local nursing homes during the first lockdown. The school has won 110 camogie titles, 31 All Ireland A titles and regional Munster titles and 2 All Ireland titles in Basketball. “Soccer and Athletics are strongly encouraged in our school while other sports such as horseriding are keenly supported,” says Finn. “Many of our past pupils played intercounty football and camogie. We also have a wellbeing programme which allows students to enjoy hiking, walking, orienteering and other outdoor activities. First years enjoy a dedicated well being class and a buddy system with transition years where COVID 19 friendly bonding activities are encouraged.”