Transition year comes of age in Tipperary


TRANSITION YEAR may be new in many schools, but at St Mary's Secondary School in Nenagh, Co Tipperary, they have been doing it for 21 years. The school was among the first three chosen to pilot the Transition programme when it was announced by the then Minister for Education, Dick Burke, in 1974 and they began teaching it in September 1975.

The school has just marked the 21st anniversary with a special week of events including a visit from a Greenpeace campaigner. When E&L visited, the enthusiastic campaigner was telling the students that, as toilets go, the dry toilet approached the Utopian ideal. After discussion of electric motors for ventilation, the uses of the residue for compost and other technical details, it was time for questions.

Did the Transition Year students want to know more about sewage treatment, water conservation, Chernobyl, Brent Spar, the Sea Empress, nuclear testing or Government policies? No, their thoughts were firmly fixed on action and adventure. "How do you get to go out on an action?" "Were you ever arrested?" "What happens to the people who are arrested?" "Were you on the Rainbow Warrior?" "How many boats do Greenpeace own?" Lisa Mooney had to own up to never being arrested but her disappointed audience was consoled to hear an account of how she chained herself inside the Chinese embassy ("Where were the keys?") lying on the road outside the French embassy and climbing on the roof of a Shell petrol station.

Meanwhile, the other half of the Transition Year class was in the "general purpose" room grilling a Concern volunteer about where exactly the funds go. The students had raised more than £600 for Concern before Christmas. The girls also wanted to know about the special feed that was used in the famine in Baidoa and about how the grain crops fared.

Meanwhile, a leaflet, which the Americans had airdropped in Somalia prior to their arrival, was being passed around the room. It showed the helicopters, the Americans landing and one American shaking hands with a Somali, denoting he had come in peace. The problems of literacy and language were discussed. Then, it was lunch time, and the more active students, adjourned to an open area where six colourful images of the famine, painted by previous Transition Year students, looked down on the lively Siamsa.

Among other events, the packed week included an ecumenical ceremony, a workshop on Northern Ireland given by Thomas Gallagher, SDLP councillor for South Fermanagh, a photography workshop, as well as the Greenpeace and Concern presentations. On the literary side, Donal Taheny gave a poetry workshop and local author, Marjorie Quarton, spoke about the living writer.

Nora Hogan, business studies teachers, explains that Transition Year students had already taken part in a "Young Enterprise" competition run by the county board. Projects included producing flavoured ice creams, coasters, seat belt covers and satin pillows. Later in the year, a mini company will be set up and will go into full scale production for a fortnight.

The celebrations for the 21st year included a workshop given by a past pupil, who had set up her own business supplying chemist shops with cosmetics and presentation packs. A silversmith also gave an exhibition.

"The idea is to bring the reality of business to the girls. And it will lead on into the mini company," explains Hogan. Business studies at senior cycle is practically oriented, she adds, and the experience gained in Transition Year will help the students later.

Mary Morgan, vice principal, says that Transition Year in the school has grown from the original class of 20 in 1975, to 75 students today. It is still optional and about one third of the students usually decide to go straight into senior cycle. Members of the original class of 1975 - the first ever Transition Year group in Ireland came to a special re union in the school last Friday.

The history of St Mary's secondary school stretches back to 1914 when it was founded by the Mercy sisters. The school was housed in the Round House, formerly the governor's house. A school board of management was set up in 1988. There is also a parent's council now and an active student representation council.

In 1989, a lay principal, Gerry Cronin, was appointed and he says that he came into a school with a very active and creative staff. He says that he often mentally blesses Sr Helen O'Donoghue for her foresight in introducing the Transition Year. "Curriculum development is the best form of in service training for teachers," he quotes.

The school has operated both VPT programmes and the Senior Certificate in the past. It is now planning to provide the Leaving Certificate Applied Programme.

AN all girls school with about 700 pupils, St Mary's offers technology in the Junior Certificate and Gerry Cronin says that the new senior cycle curriculum in technology will also be introduced, when it is complete. The £5,000 grant for a technology room was not exactly adequate, he says wryly, and resource wise, they are struggling. There is a special education class which caters for pupils of post primary age and the school also has a remedial teacher.

In addition to the academic side, sports are very important as evidenced by Cronin's hoarseness. He blames it on the cold weather and the shouting at last week's Munster final. "The school is one of the strongest in Munster, when it comes to camogie," he confides, modestly. It is also to the fore in athletics. Pupils can also participate in hockey, tennis, badminton, soccer and basketball. Back in Transition Year, it's time for a traditional Irish music workshop with Peter Browne of RTE radio. Two students are adjusting a camera at the back of the room. They are going to record a portion of each workshop or presentation and, using the school's editing equipment, put together a short video of the events.