Report on visit to St. Mary’s College Blackburn
Date: Friday 9th March.
By: Andrew Blanch, Pippa Brady and Thomas Crehan.
St. Mary’s College is now a modern college managed by Kevin McMahon (Principal) and Frank Dixon (Deputy Principal). The majority of the students are taking the A levels, or in their first year; AS-levels. The college also maintains a link with Liverpool Hope University, provides vocational programs, offers adult evening classes and has a nursery on site.
Our visit began with mass in the school chapel by Father Myles. It is usually held at 8:30am every Friday morning. It was a nice opportunity for us to meet some of the staff and talk to Father Myles about his experience in the College. We were informed that the Muslim students in the school have their own prayer room in the chapel and are always welcome to attend mass.
After mass, Hilary Corrigan started the tour of the college. We were able to see the modern facilities available to the staff and students like the new Science building, the Enterprise centre and the Performing Arts centre. We were also able to see the St. Mary’s staff in action. We found them to be extremely positive, proactive and professional. They were also very welcoming and delighted to meet their Irish cousins!
In the late morning, we were presented with an excellent opportunity to sit down with St. Mary’s College Principal Kevin McMahon. Kevin discussed the following points with us:
1. Managing Diversity: The fact that around 35% of the college’s numbers are Muslim presents some challenging issues for Kevin and Frank. They have been very accommodating when it comes to the students’ religious beliefs as they allow the Muslim students a prayer room in the Chapel. However, it has been written into the school policy that Muslim students are not allowed to wear the burqa due to security and communication issues. Kevin stated that the majority of the parents are supportive of this but there have been incidents at parent teacher meetings where the Mothers will insist on wearing the burqas. However, Kevin stated that the school will facilitate the meeting of parents that do not want to remove their burqas by meeting them outside of the school grounds.
2. Maintaining high student numbers: One constant objective for St. Mary’s is to maintain, and if possible, increase their student numbers. Kevin stated there is a lot of competition from other colleges in the area. There also have been recent cut backs in travel grants and a 20% reduction in the school capitation grants which has discouraged students travelling to attend St. Mary’s. It was also good to see that Kevin and Frank are upholding the Marist ethos, as seen in the college’s entry requirements. Students must have at least 5 C grades for entry to the college; where as other colleges in the area only accept students with at least 5 B grades. Kevin accepts that having lower grade entry requirements does allow a larger group of students to apply to the college, but at the same time the college is promoting inclusivity and providing opportunities of education.
After lunch we then met one of the main tutors Paddy who spoke to us about the pastoral system in place in college. It was very clear that the pastoral team have created an extremely supportive environment for the students. The structures in place includes; two main tutors (Paddy and Julie), fourteen tutors working under Paddy and Julie, a chaplaincy team and a special education coordinator who meet students with special educational needs. A big focus for the pastoral team is also to provide advice on career guidance to the students.
We were also very impressed by the clear existence of the Marist ethos during our visit. We noticed the following points;
1. The iconography was a subtle presence throughout our tour.
2. The chapel has open access for the students throughout the week with Friday mass being inclusive to the whole school.
3. The Muslim students have the facility of the prayer room and wash facilities during the week.
4. The St. Mary’s staff are extremely positive and enthusiastic both in their teaching and interaction with the students. The college is very much “student centred”. We were also impressed by the open areas available for the students to study and socialise in.
5. The college also organises a “Leaver’s Mass” for outgoing students. This mass is attended by the Catholic and Muslim students, along with their families.
We were also given the opportunity to sit down with a member of the Ethnicity and Diversity team. It was interesting to learn that:
1. Culturally, Muslim girls are not allowed to mix with boys. The girls have a very strict upbringing and school for them can provide independence which they would not receive at home.
2. Business and Science subjects were very popular amongst Muslim students, whereas the Arts were not as popular. This is due to the fact Muslim families would hope and expect their children to move into Business or Science areas when they go to University.
In conclusion, we feel the visit to St. Mary’s College in Black burn was both very positive and fulfilling due to the following factors;
1. We were able to see the similarities and differences between our three Marist schools in Ireland and St. Mary’s College.
2. It was inspiring to see such a positive, enthusiastic and innovative staff working for the students.
3. We discussed with Kevin the possibility of establishing more links between the three Marist schools in Ireland and St. Mary’s College. For example, it is hoped that the St. Mary’s staff will come to Ireland next November for the annual soccer competition between the three Marist schools in Ireland.
4. It was excellent to see the Marist ethos being promoted by the management, staff, students and parents.
Above all, we were made to feel very welcome throughout the trip and hope to return in the future.
Andrew, Pippa and Thomas.