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The School

Monday, 18 January 2010

"The School is a new land mark documentary series for RTÉ Television following the students and teachers of St Peters College Dunboyne over one academic year. Award winning company Scratch Films began filming the series in September 2008 after months of careful negotiations with County Meath VEC. Never before has an Irish school given such unlimited access to film makers, allowing camera crews to document every aspect of school life.

Principal Eamon Gaffney was initially reluctant to open the doors of the school he built up from nothing fifteen years ago. But he felt his staff had nothing to hide, quite the opposite in fact, here was a great school, producing great kids, ready to make a great contribution to Irish society. He knew it was important for parents to see the commitment his staff gave to all of the students, to highlight the role they play in shaping well rounded individuals. And even though sometimes they are tough, they are always fair.

Over the next ten months, series directors Liam McGrath and Paula Rouse, accompanied by producer Tony Deegan, began documenting every aspect of school life at St. Peters. But in order to capture the vitality of the school they needed to take a unique approach; so they set up diary rooms inviting students and teachers to speak their minds to un-manned cameras. They trained the students to use the equipment, encouraging them to record school life through their own eyes. And all the while the students filmed themselves; the series directors filmed the students. And together, they have created an insightful, touching series, capturing a year in the life of The School.
The three part series is spread across the three school terms; Episode One begins in September and follows the students until December. Episode Two picks up in January until March and Episode Three records school life from April until June 2009.

A number of students re-appear across the series, giving viewers the opportunity to follow the ups and downs of their school year. Band members like Adam and Donal, who just seem hell bent on stretching every rule in the book for their last year of school life. Or fifth year Conor, whose months of rehearsals are jeopardised by illness on the eve of the school musical; or the pressure felt by sixth year students including Claire and Niamh, who are about to confront one life changing exam.

Other stories include students coping with dyslexia and behavioural problems, a school break-in, parent teacher meetings and a constant stream of students who refuse to follow a strict uniform code.

But the series also reveals another side of school life, the men and women who share the responsibility of teaching these young students. From dedicated young teachers like Ms Caroline Toole, to veterans like Mr Robert Gannon, a teacher with thirty years of service, to deputy principal Ms Maureen Murray and the important work of school councillors like Jimmy O'Connell.

Episode one

It's term one in The School. First years assimilate to their new found lowly status while third and sixth years gear up to an important exam year. Deputy Principal Maureen Murray enforces the school's strict uniform policy and James, a third year recently diagnosed with dyslexia, struggles with discipline issues.

Episode Two

RTÉ EDUCATION: Term two begins at St Peter's in Dunboyne. Third and sixth year students prepare for their mocks.

It's term two in the school. As third and sixth year students undertake their mock exams there's a break-in at the school. And with just a few days to go before opening night, the lead in the school musical goes down sick. Can Adam learn an entire musical is less than a week?

Episode Three (tonight's show)

"It's term three in the school. The students receive their mock results with just six weeks to the Leaving Cert exam. Mr. Gannon announces his retirement. Will Adam be allowed perform at the awards ceremony after more disciplinary problems"?

Today we have Vice Principle Maureen Murray of St Peters College, Dunboyne and two of her pupils Cian O'Mahony and Mairead Waters. They have taken part in a three part series about school life in Ireland. The final episode is to be aired tonight at 9.35pm on RTE ONE.

Maureen Murray

How did the programme come about?

We were approached by a TV company in Spring 2008. The original idea was open as they were looking at a number of schools. Principle Liam Gaffney and a couple of councilors teased out ideas about what kind of show we could do and they teased out all ethical issues that would be involved. Then we came to a tentative agreement that only with the staff and the board of management would we go forward with anything. We met the staff and then we got initial agreement and then we had a second meeting later on that year.

Were you reluctant to take part in the series?

On a personal level I may be a bit naïve. I am so convinced how great this school is - not about me but about how great the pupils are. I wanted the public to see all the activities that the pupils take part in. It is such a microcosm of society and I think we are 15 years ahead of society in the experiences we have in some ways. I really do think these pupils will be running the country in the future. I didn't have any major worries about taking part as our school has so much going for it.

Reality TV can be a very dangerous game were you worried that the pupils may regret taking part in the series when they got a bit older?

I have a knot in my stomach - I am worried for them. I am nervous for them - you can't predict the future. I know it was balanced fairly in the programme but to be honest you always worry for the children.

Do pupils come back and visit?

Yes they do - maybe not as much as you would like but that is life - people move on.

Can you tell me a little bit about St Peter's?

It started back in 1994 with Principle Liam Gaffney with only 70 pupils and now we have over 900 pupils and about 80 staff members. It's all a group effort from the teachers to the cleaners - it takes everyone to make the school a success.

How do you find working in a mixed school? Do you find it's more beneficial?

I am convinced that co-ed is wonderful. I think they benefit emotionally, socially and academically. Some people say they don't do as well but to be honest I think they do just as well. Children who are academically focused they will do well no matter where they go - it is the middle group that I feel blossom by being in a co-ed school. I think it stands to them when they go to college and out in the real world. Anyone who says 'ah they will be too focused on the boys in the school' - that's not true no matter whether you lived in an igloo you are still going to be interested in boys. Being in a single sex school would not stop that. That issue has never been a problem here.

What's the number one problem you face with the pupils on a day to day basis?

Teachers deal with the day to day problems of not doing homework being done and the odd disruption. When they get to me it's because it's an ongoing problem or if there was a particular blow up. From September to October I tend to deal with students changes their options for college. They could come to me 3 or 4 times over a few weeks. I also deal with a lot of students doing projects for transition years. I also meet a lot of parents who might have some concerns. I have a very broad role in the school.

On Uniforms.
Uniform is a symbolic expression of discipline. I think it's important and it shows the respect for themselves and for others.

Do most of your pupils go on to third level?
About 80% go on to third level.

Because of the recession do you notice that the pupils are worried about their future?
I suppose it hasn't hit the pupils yet. I think the 6th years are concerned as they are making their choices for college. I tell them to put down what they want to do - don't change it because of the economy.

I tell them they will be in college for another 5 years and the economy will change - it's just the nature of things. They are conscious of the fact that their parents don't have much money. They are being very mindful of not wasting money - in practical ways they are switching off the lights and turning off the heaters to save money.

We meet the Pupils:

Mairead was in the social innovators project and they won the national prize with their book 2015.

Cian is a great musician. He has a huge broad level of interest in social justice in Amnesty and human rights. He wants to do business in college and he will be honest and say that he wants to earn money.

Cian- 6th Year Leaving Cert Student

Were you happy to take part in this series?
I was delighted to take part in it. At the beginning I was a little bit apprehensive - I am a part of the student council and we came forward and said that we were nervous that the programme may take conversations out of context. The production company kept the student council in the loop and we were very happy with it in the end.

I didn't have a problem with the programme at all. I have no regrets. I think when you are doing your video diary you really don't expect to be shown on TV. I think that's why you can be so honest.

What is school life like for an 18 year old?

What I would say is what most students would say - school is great if you didn't have classes. Our school has so many extra curricular activities - we have a rugby team, a Gaelic team, a debating team, human rights group, traditional band groups, a rock group - just so many various things to get involved in.

Have you got into trouble in school?

Of course I have - what student hasn't. I have been lucky enough to keep out of trouble - the school tries to help you rather than just give out straight punishment.

If you could change one thing in school what would it be?
Get rid of the Leaving Cert - get continuous assessment instead. I wouldn't change the actual school - it may not be 100% perfect but no school is.

Are the teachers approachable in your school and do you feel they are fair in their punishments?
I find they are so approachable - I don't know what it is about our school but as stupid as this sounds they are all so lovely. Especially when you get to senior level you get to know the teachers much better.

Do the teachers act differently when they are caught on camera?
I didn't find that at all. There were no cameras in the classroom as such - it was a normal learning environment.

Are you looking forward to leaving school or are you worried?
I can't wait for college. I'm not looking forward to the actual leaving cert. I am hoping to do BESS in Trinity.


Were you happy to take part in this series?

I was very happy to take part in the series but I never dreamed it would be any way as big as what it turned out to be. Even in terms of the length of the programme, I didn't think episodes were going to be an hour long and that it would be so big! Over the period, we started to forget that the cameras were there and the crew became a part of the furniture. The crew became just part of the gang and we got to know them more as people, so whilst I was aware they were there, the novelty wore off after a while

What is school life like for a 17 year old?

I think it can be tough. The education system is not totally fair, in that it's such a leap from TY (transition year) to 5th year and there's soooo much studying to do when you hit 5th year. It's a bit like a smack in the face. It's hard, but I suppose you get used to it.

Have you got into trouble in school?

I was called to the principal's office to be told about this interview and didn't know where it was..

Has it been weird seeing yourself on TV? Do your regret anything you did/say during the series?

Yes, very weird. I never thought they'd put certain stuff in, you like when you say or do things and you think, they'll never use that. The next thing you see it on tv and you're mortified! I don't' think I have any regrets though- although they did always manage to pick a day to film when I didn't have my hair done.

I wanted to be really careful in terms of the YSI (Young Scientist Ireland) project and be sure that I acknowledged everyone involved. It was a huge collaboration so I wanted to be sure we didn't leave anyone out.

Mairead was heavily involved in the YSI project, which was done in collaboration with another school.

If you could change one thing in school what would it be?

I'd bring back the snazzy blazers the senior cycle used to wear. I was raging when they got rid of them- I used to think they were really cool and that all the junior cycle students would bow down to those who wore them!

Are the teachers approachable in your school and do you feel they are fair in their punishments?

I've never experienced the wrath they showed on the show, especially in the 1st episode. I've never really seen them doling out punishments like that. They're always very encouraging with me and are usually really enthusiastic. I'm not a genius or anything!

Do the teachers act differently when they are caught on camera?

I don't think so, although some of the students totally do. It's like they act up for the cameras. I think the teachers are fairly the same, yes some of them do sing all the time in the corridors.

Are you looking forward to leaving school or are you worried?

I'm really looking forward to it. I've seen lots of other people's experiences and can't wait to have my own. I'm really looking forward to college life - not being spoonfed any more and lots of parties! I can't wait to get out of my uniform!

What do you hope to do when you leave school?

I really don't know yet but I think it will be something Biology related. I've just helped my sister fill out her CAO form and it's not easy!