St. Clare’s Primary School and Nursery in Belfast has achieved the Inclusive School Award.
Warm and Welcoming
St. Clare’s Primary School and Nursery is a Catholic Maintained School and is situated in the heart of West Belfast in an area of social deprivation. I had the privilege of visiting St. Clare’s Primary School and Nursery Unit. It was a warm and welcoming school where exceptionally well behaved, enquiring pupils enjoy a broad and outward looking education enhanced by extra-curricular activities. St. Clare’s Primary School is a setting that proudly caters for the educational needs of all the children that walk through its doors. It is a Catholic school community united behind a core purpose and goal, to do the very best for all the children in its care. The incredible atmosphere I witnessed in the school is based upon outstanding relationships between staff, pupils and parents. I could see the importance and celebration of teamwork, the respecting of each other’s roles and recognising the wide range of individual talents and expertise. In the celebration of partnership, the staff, Governors, parents and pupils work in unison to create an educational setting which enables all of their pupils to grow in wisdom, understanding and mutual respect, ‘Dream, Believe and Achieve’.
Skill, Perseverance and Determination
As of March 2020 there were 468 pupils ranging from Nursery to Primary 7 (this number is again higher in September 2020). St. Clare’s Primary is an amalgamation of three local schools, St. Catherine’s, St. Paul’s and St. John’s. This was a first visit for the assessor to the school in order to assess The School for IQM’s Inclusive School Award. The church towers of the stunning Clonard Cathedral are located only a couple of hundred yards away from a school where the business of education, with highly successful outcomes, happens with skill, perseverance and determination from both staff and pupils. The school site was built in 2005. There are 76 members of staff, comprising a Principal for both the Primary and Nursery School, 1 Vice Principal, 16 full time teachers, 4 part-time teachers, 1 SENCO, 1 EAL Teacher, 1 Nurture Teacher, 2 secretaries, 14 Learning Assistants, 1 Nurture Assistant and 3 Nursery Assistants, 1 Building Supervisor, 7 cleaning staff, 2 breakfast club assistants, 10 lunch time assistants and 10 kitchen staff. Approximately 65% of pupils attending St. Clare’s are entitled to free school meals with 36% currently on the SEN register. St. Clare’s is a very effective school and makes outstanding provision for its ethnically diverse community. Pupils achieve very high standards as the teaching is very good or outstanding and the work they do is demanding yet perfectly pitched to ensure challenge is appropriate. St. Clare’s staff take full account of their pupils’ varied life experiences and needs and then they get to work.
Supporting the Inclusion Agenda
Throughout the assessment there was clear evidence of some excellent inclusive practice, driven by the Principal, Head of School, senior leaders and all staff within the school. The inclusion agenda at St. Clare’s is wholeheartedly supported through an ethos of well embedded values and there are good structures and systems in place to ensure an open dialogue with all stakeholders to continue to improve the experiences for all pupils. At St. Clare’s the SLT do not work in isolation. The creation of a distributed leadership style has allowed many staff to develop across the school, to the benefit of the organisation as a whole. The involvement and commitment of the whole staff are significant reasons for the school’s success. Inclusion is not just another initiative at St. Clare’s, it is who they are.
Conviction and Unity of Purpose
There was a welcoming and friendly approach from all staff, pupils, parents and all members of the school community throughout my very enjoyable assessment. My observations and involvement with pupils throughout the assessment clearly demonstrated that they are ambassadors for the school. Their exemplary manners, behaviour and comments reflected their pride in belonging to St. Clare’s Primary School. Throughout the assessment everyone spoke with conviction and unity of purpose as to the inclusive nature of the school, thereby substantiating the school’s impressive SER and supporting documentation, which was considered as part of the assessment.
A Lively and Friendly Community
St. Clare’s Primary School is a lively and friendly community where pupils achieve very high standards in reading, writing and mathematics. Pupils have a huge voice in the school, they are listened to and are keen to learn. The staff constantly look for ways to improve the quality of their teaching, are imaginative and make challenging demands of pupils. There are very good arrangements in place to support all pupils and care for them and the school has a strong partnership with parents and carers. The school is well governed and self-critical. They know what they do well, where its challenges lie and how best to tackle them. They have shown a high capacity for improvement and an ability to sustain their own high standards. The outstanding quality of teaching and imaginative teaching methods foster determination to succeed in their children.
Pupils’ behaviour in and around the school was excellent, this is because there is a comprehensive and consistently applied positive behaviour system in place which rewards tolerance, kindness, friendliness and a willingness to ‘have a try’. Pupils know that bullying and behaviours such as the use of hurtful language are wrong and have been shown the impact it can have on others’ feelings and achievement.
The Importance of Wellbeing
The wellbeing of all stakeholders is of great importance in St. Clare’s Primary School. Senior Leaders have created a school with an open-minded, accepting and inclusive atmosphere. Everyone is well cared for and well supported in their respective roles, both professionally and at a personal level. In fact, most people with whom I spoke commented on the positive ethos within the school and numerous comments were made about the warm and friendly atmosphere, happy people and the fun experience in all aspects of school life. To produce such a culture and have it robustly tested during a pandemic, is noteworthy and highly commendable.
Challenging, Fulfilling and Happy Educational Experiences
Another key to this success is the staff’s detailed knowledge of the needs of its community and their ever-changing social demographics. Shared Education, Parental Workshops, Extended Schools Programme, Summer Schemes, Breakfast Club and 123 Club etc. Staff consult parents and carers fully and they take steps to ensure the pupils are supported and are able to thrive and achieve as well as they can. This involves a high level of tolerance, empathy and support. Communication with families is strong, frequent and effective. The school ensures that all its communications convey respect and value to all types of family. All stakeholders have a sense of belonging to the school and inclusion is well embraced so that each pupil is valued for their individuality and can develop their enquiring minds and spirit of curiosity through participating in a range of challenging, fulfilling and happy educational experiences to reach their full potential. As one Governor put it, ”St. Clare’s is a school at the heart of our community. With the community acting as the heartbeat of the school.”
A Clear, Shared and Child Centred Vision
The strategic leadership of the school is outstanding. There is evidently a collegial approach to school improvement that is based on a clear, shared and child centred vision. From my visit and discussion with teachers, it was clear that leadership at all levels display the same pastoral approach, fostered by the Principal and Vice Principal and that their enthusiasm means they effectively work together with the whole school community to problem solve and surmount challenges. The Leadership Team at St. Clare’s Primary School complement each other well, they are realistic about the context they work in but are proud of their achievements. One Senior Leader whilst discussing inter/intra relationships with the team said, ‘our staff will always be our most valued resource. So we must listen to them, invest in them and develop their capabilities as best we can.’
Total Commitment and Enthusiasm
The assessment, which was meticulously organised by the IQM Coordinator included a series of formal and informal meetings with the staff, Governors, parents, community representatives and pupils. There was also an opportunity for a tour of the school, involvement in a number of school experiences and an examination of a number of key school documents. The culture at St. Clare’s is very strong. A productive, strong and highly inclusive culture that focuses on ensuring effective and enriched teaching for learning for all pupils. Their child-centred ways of working are unyielding and unrelenting, there was total commitment and enthusiasm for the priceless work that they do.
A Haven and a Safe Place to Learn
The interviews with the Principal, Vice Principal and SENCO in particular evidenced how the school are taking strategic action. Termly, they host multi-disciplinary meetings with stakeholders and outside agencies that enable the school to prioritise pupil well-being, improve levels of safeguarding, deliver bespoke mental health support, and author a recovery curriculum that meets the context they find themselves in. This ensures that for all of their children, St. Clare’s is a haven and a safe place to learn. This is invaluable work.
Stronger Families, Stronger Communities
The brilliant cross-community MUMO partnership is an outstanding example of the horizons which a primary school can achieve – Stronger Families, Stronger Communities. The school and all those who walk through it are working off stronger foundations due to this partnership. Working closely with Springfield Primary School and St. Clare’s Primary School, the partnership and its brilliant team of workers at the coal face have managed to fund and support vital interventions such as Lego therapy, curriculum support, parental liaison and phenomenal work allowing children to make a positive transition through both schools and beyond into the wider world. The passion of which all stakeholders spoke about both the detailed workings of MUMO and its ripple effect and impact told this assessor that the future of this once divided area of West Belfast is in good hands. The changing of hearts and minds of the local residents is well and truly underway and this assessor lifts his cap to all those who are making it work. To say it is inspirational does not do it justice. Local people are making real change happen in ways that many of our elected politicians could not. Well done.
Promoting Inclusive Practice
Working seamlessly with these projects is the school’s self-evaluation process signposting future improvements and their impact on the pupils’ learning. A detailed, consultative Transitional School Development Plan outlines both the school’s priorities for 2020-21 and those set out by Minister Weir and the Department of Education. The School Development Plan identifies commitment to promoting inclusive practice. Documents were well presented and evidence was chronicled and well signposted by the Inclusion Coordinator. The school purchased The Back on Track PDMU resource for all teachers to follow in order to prioritise health and wellbeing of their pupils. As the Vice Principal himself told me,
‘Mental health and wellbeing of everyone is front and central of our plans going forward. We must succeed in this field and turn a huge corner, it’s too important an issue not to!’
This kind of attitude permeates the walls and floorboards of St. Clare’s, it was everywhere. This ensures that inclusion at St. Clare’s Primary School and Nursery is not just something that the staff do, it is something that they breathe.
Loud, Vibrant and Significant Pupil Voice
Joy and celebration are important for all pupils and the voice of every pupil in this school is loud, vibrant and significant. This assessor was able to scrutinise books, pupil audit/questionnaires and what was clearly noticeable was that self and peer assessment at St. Clare’s is about benchmarking and improvement. It enables both SLT and students to independently assess their own and other students’ progress with confidence rather than always relying on teacher judgment. When students’ self and peer assess, they are actively involved in the learning process and their independence and motivation is improved. This is a school that clearly evidences focus, energy and enthusiasm in its commitment to the growing reality of inclusion for all.
An Exciting and Stimulating Environment
The Principal and SLT make the most of the spacious building and its grounds to accept the diversity of needs of pupils and create an exciting and stimulating environment for all its learners, in order to ensure that all children are welcomed to St. Clare’s Primary School and Nursery Unit. Most eye-catching of all for this assessor was the ground-breaking nurture room and the powerful narrative behind its evolution. The staff have driven this project forward through some outstanding fundraising initiatives and the legacy of their foresight will be felt in the children that have been cared for by them for years to come.
The provision in the nursery unit is excellent. The staff have implemented a range of improved approaches to planning for learning, observing and recording the children’s progression across each area of the curriculum and the provision for special educational needs, all of which are impacting positively on the learning experiences and outcomes for the children. The open-plan layout which exists in the nursery unit creates purposeful opportunities for the children to make independent choices, to self-manage and to develop working relationships with children across both classes. I had a discussion with the Nursery Unit teacher about the work involved in managing two sessions during a pandemic and just how efficient she and her team had to be with managing the turnover safely and in a time bound manner. Terrific work and leadership from them all.
Knowledgeable and Articulate Pupils
Further evidence of the inclusive practice of the school was provided to this assessor as he was led on a Learning Walk by the Principal and IQM Coordinator, pointing out the colourful noticeboards and explaining the relevance of each headline title to school life. Halloween art was the flavour of the month in the Foundation Stage. They were particularly proud of the art work on the walls, the children learning in open-door classrooms, in small groups in shared spaces and the significant references to Rights Respecting articles on the walls. A large eye-catching noticeboard reminded everyone that the school celebrates the sporting achievements of everyone and across many pursuits, interests and curriculum areas. Any pupils I spoke with made it clear that they are very proud of their school and the opportunities afforded them. The pupils are knowledgeable and articulate. They were able to give a balanced report of the school environment pointing out the work of teachers to provide a beautiful outside area and the journey of change that the premises had undertaken in recent years.
Disseminating Effective Practice
In St. Clare’s the children are given the opportunity to take responsibility, show initiative and enhance their talents. This was observed during the learning walk and by evaluating the partnership between the Shared Education/MUMO schools. They are now very familiar with their partner schools. For the teachers it continues to provide professional development opportunities and share pedagogy. Shared Education has enabled staff to access TPL regularly to identify and disseminate effective practice in shared education.
Positive Encouragement of Staff
While the children are encouraged in a positive way, so too are the teaching and support staff. In particular, the appreciation for the classroom assistants is very apparent. In fact, there are aspects of the school’s wraparound provision that could not happen without the commitment of the support staff. Their roles are fully integrated into the curriculum and credit for their work was consistently emphasised throughout the two days. It was a pleasure to meet with a few long-serving assistants and the pride they felt at working in St. Clare’s really resonated with the assessor. Sport (Gaelic Games in particular) gives children at the school, the opportunity to promote participation, practice and competition.
Governors are Committed to Inclusion
There is a wide range of expertise on the Governing Body, they are well led and their commitment to the inclusive ethos is evident in discussions. They attend the school regularly and have a consistent monitoring timetable related to the school improvement plan. The infectious child-centred and ‘can-do’ enthusiasm of the Fr Devlin and The Friends of St. Clare’s Team rubbed off on the assessor and it was a joy to meet with such great people.
Inclusion Values Permeate Everything
In St. Clare’s Primary School and Nursery Unit inclusion values permeate everything they do. It is entirely child centred and listens carefully to the pupils’ voices. Parents also feel valued for their contribution to the life of the school and in turn appreciate the dedication of all the staff in the education of their children. Parents I spoke with could not stress strongly enough just how much the school had supported and improved the quality of outcomes that their children were achieving. The diverse needs of pupils in a large primary school also has its challenges for staff but the emotional attachment to their school community, the enthusiasm, professionalism and hard work are also the foundations on which inclusion is sustained. The parents of the children in St. Clare’s Primary School and Nursery Unit wanted to express their gratitude to the school for all that they do.
Inclusive Practice, Energy and Aspiration
In summary, St. Clare’s Primary School is an excellent example of inclusive practice, energy and aspiration for all members of the school community. The SENCO leads inclusion with an integrity of purpose as she strives for continuous improvement for the learning community within St. Clare’s Primary . She presented a wealth of evidence that showcased the daily inclusive practice, energy and aspiration for all members of the school community. The Principal further drives inclusion with the courageous and forward-thinking belief that complacency, a pandemic or lack of funding can never influence the integrity of purpose in striving for continuous improvement for the learning community he leads and serves. This school stayed open for Key Worker children and vulnerable children during the spring lockdown, I think that speaks volumes about the child-centred team of educationalists working in St. Clare’s Primary School.
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