An Roinn Oideachais agus Eolaíochta
Department of Education and Science
Subject Inspection of English
Saint Columba’s College
Whitechurch, Dublin 16
Roll number: 60320H
Date of inspection: 7 December 2007
Date of issue of report: 22 May 2008
Report on the Quality of Learning and Teaching in English
This report has been written following a subject inspection in St Columba’s College. It presents the findings of an evaluation of the quality of teaching and learning in English and makes recommendations for the further development of the teaching of this subject in the school. The evaluation was conducted over two days during which the inspector visited classrooms and observed teaching and learning. The inspector interacted with students and teachers, examined students’ work, and had discussions with the teachers. The inspector reviewed school planning documentation and teachers’ written preparation. Following the evaluation visit, the inspector provided oral feedback on the outcomes of the evaluation to the warden (principal), sub warden (deputy principal) and subject teachers. The board of management of the school was given an opportunity to comment on the findings and recommendations of the report; the board chose to accept the report without response.
All year groups, except second year, have five English lessons a week, which is good provision. English class groups are mixed ability from first year through to sixth year and all examination year students follow the higher-level English course until at least their ‘mock’ examinations. Decisions regarding levels are then made in consultation between teachers and students, which is good practice. English lessons are concurrently timetabled in senior cycle which facilitates team teaching and whole year group activities; for example, English teachers sometimes exchange classes to teach their favourite topics in Transition Year (TY), fifth and sixth year which allows students to experience different teaching styles and perspectives. In addition, during the last term, English teachers agree a revision timetable with different teachers revising different topics and students can choose which ones to attend. These practices are highly commended.
English teachers have developed a policy of deliberately timetabling class groups with a different English teacher, where possible, in first, second and third year. The philosophy behind this is to allow students exposure to a range of teaching styles and teachers’ interests. As there is a clear rationale behind this policy and it is working well, it is commended. Senior cycle students retain the same English teacher from fifth year into sixth year.
There is a very impressive range of co-curricular activities pertaining to English available to the students in the college. This array of activities includes: an annual ‘Voices of Poetry’ evening where students read their own and other poems; guest speakers; Transition Year Speeches, where selected students present speeches to the entire school; the Shakespearean society; theatre trips; entry into a range of competitions and writing awards. The English department is involved in many drama productions and enters students into a range of drama competitions; teachers and students staged a production of ‘Dancing at Lughnasa’ this year and a Shakespearean play is produced every second year. A ‘Poem of the Week’ has been launched quite recently with the chosen poem, often written by Columban students, posted on notice boards and read to English classes.
There is very good whole school support for English in the college. The English department has been allocated a generous budget, and is therefore very well resourced. There is a very good library in the school and the college funds payment of a librarian. The library is well stocked and well organised. Events such as World Book Day are celebrated and English teachers have developed strong links with the library. Students must use the library to research topics for their extended essay in TY and the library and English department collaborated to develop a new project called ‘MP3 Shakespeare’ which involved the transfer of audio versions of Shakespeare to encourage students to listen to Shakespearean drama on their MP3 players. The library’s publication ‘The Submarine’ gives students opportunities to write reports on books they have read and other articles and contributions.
Most English teachers have their own rooms and these were very well resourced in terms of audio-visual equipment. There are plans to install computers, data projectors and interactive whiteboards in classrooms to enhance the use of Information and Communication Technology (ICT) in teaching and learning. These plans are commended. Already ICT is used from time to time with some class groups for teaching and learning and it is used by students for drafting and editing their work and for researching assignments. Classrooms presented as stimulating learning environments as most of them contained a wide range of books and posters relevant to English and displays of students’ work.
The English department is highly commended for its excellent website. It is updated on an almost daily basis and has attracted visitors from all over the world which is not surprising as it is so innovative. The website displays the course material for each year group. It contains a blog for students to send their work to teachers, and is a platform for students to display their writing in different forms such as poetry, reviews and essays. Teachers and students also use it to recommend books and other genre. It generates an interest among students in formal writing and gives them opportunities to write for a wider public than their teachers. The website also directs students to other useful sites. A striking feature of the college is the many opportunities that students have to display their work, including the blog and college publications, such as ‘The Columban’ and ‘The Submarine’. Students are also entered for a range of other writing competitions.
Students are tested on entry to the school to determine their literacy levels and identify those in need of support. Teachers also identify students who may be in need of extra support. Students are withdrawn in small groups or on a one-to-one basis for learning support. Students receiving extra literacy support are tested three times each year to ascertain improvements and there was evidence that students’ literacy levels improve as they progress through the year and school. This is not surprising given the strong emphasis on reading and on developing these students’ literacy skills. The SEN department communicates regularly with parents and staff about students with certain needs. Students receive support through to sixth year if necessary. This is commended.
The English department is very ably coordinated by the head of English. Formal meetings, facilitated by management, are held at the start of each term and an agenda is agreed and minutes kept of each meeting. The minutes reflect excellent discussion, real collaboration and a very enthusiastic and reflective department. In addition, the range of activities which are offered and planned in an organised manner, are testament to the innovation and dedication of the members of the English department, who are constantly developing new ideas to cultivate a love of English among students and to develop their skills in English. For example, in response to the Department of Education and Science publication ‘Looking at English’ teachers introduced a poetry copy for junior cycle students in order to encourage an individual response to poetry and for students to build up a repertoire of poems. The fact that the learning-support co-ordinator attends some of the English department meetings and in particular the first meeting of the school year is very good practice. English teachers are in constant consultation regarding their subject.
English teachers make joint decisions on all texts taught. Students in all year groups are encouraged to read independently and, in junior cycle, their book reports form part of the overall in-school examination mark. All first years study a set novel, second-year class groups study a novel and a drama, and third-year class groups study another Shakespearean drama, a modern drama and a novel as well as reading three novels independently. A strong reading culture has been developed in the school, which is highly commended. Book lists are given to all year groups to promote the reading habit. English teachers incorporate structured reading time into their English lessons, especially at junior cycle. Students are also expected to read independently from third year. The range of poetry that students are exposed to is also highly commended. Good practice was also seen in that poetry is studied thematically. Overall, English teachers are commended for the range of novels, poems and drama taught and the co-curricular activities relating to English offered. Teachers also prepare very effective supplementary notes for students to assist learning.
The English teachers are commended for working in the true spirit of the Junior Certificate and Leaving Certificate English syllabuses in that the wide focus of English lessons goes beyond preparation for the examinations and prepares students for life.
The work planned for TY English is extensive and appropriate and gives students an excellent grounding in developing key skills which will assist them in preparation for their Leaving Certificate. TY students must submit a portfolio containing their ten best pieces of work and an extended essay, where three books on a similar theme are compared. They also study a novel, poetry and two dramas, one Shakespearean and one non-Shakespearean, formally in class. In addition, students have a House Speeches competition where two students from each house present a speech to the school. Those not participating are expected to write a review of the evening. English teachers are commended for ensuring that there is little overlap between texts taught in TY and in the Leaving Certificate. In addition, excellent practice takes place in that TY students evaluate the English course at the end of each year and their suggestions, if deemed appropriate for developing the course, inform the revision of the TY plan.
A range of opportunities are planned to give students a sense of responsibility for their own learning; for example, the TY extended essay, their portfolio of work, the preparation of book reports and the students’ portfolio of poems all contribute to the concept of self-directed learning. Excellent instructions are given to students on how to prepare for and present this work; for example, TY students are instructed on how to draw up a bibliography and how to reference texts for their extended essay, and an outline of the content of book reports is given to students.
The quality of planning by the English teachers in St Columba’s College is exemplary. English teachers collaborate closely, share suggestions and work for the good of their students. The minutes of meetings document the agreed work programme for each term. The English course, as determined by the English department, is also outlined on the website. Although the planning is excellent, the actual long-term planning document of the department could be expanded. It is recommended that the English teachers document more comprehensively the actual course content for each year group, especially at junior cycle. This document, which would be a useful document in the event of changes to personnel and as the basis for discussion, could include suggested poems, key learning outcomes or skills that each year group should achieve, available resources, effective teaching methodologies and the many activities offered to students.
The Special Educational Needs policy is commended. It outlines the various strategies taken by the school to support students and there is a strong emphasis on improving literacy skills.
The quality of teaching and learning observed was very good; this was evidenced by the high standards expected, the range of texts taught, the frequency of student assignments in a range of genre and the many opportunities for students to write.
There was evidence of very good learning taking place; for example, when new poems were being taught the students had a clear understanding of their meaning by the end of the lesson and this was due to the very good teaching strategies employed. Links were frequently created between texts, and between texts and contemporary life which put learning in context for the students.
The board was used well in all lessons to record key points made by students. In addition, there was a clear purpose or learning objective to each lesson, although the purpose was not always shared with the students. It is recommended that the purpose of each lesson be written on the board at the start of class and, at the end of the lesson, that teachers and students check to ensure that this purpose was achieved. The pace of most lessons was generally appropriate, although there was one instance where too much material was introduced.
Students were given many opportunities for oral participation in most lessons; for example, through students recapping on the previous day’s lesson, delivering speeches and engaging in discussion. Overall, there was very good student participation in all lessons. It was evident that students were used to discussion. They also assiduously recorded notes during lessons. Teachers also facilitated learning by their excellent questioning and very good relationship with their students. This effective use of questioning led to students exploring their texts more deeply. Questions were often higher order in nature and challenged students to think about what they were learning. Best practice was seen when teachers asked questions of named students as well as asking global questions.
There was commendable integration of new vocabulary into all lessons. Students were also familiar with literary devices. Teacher explanations were clear and unambiguous. Teachers often brought poems to life by their dramatic readings. Good practice was also seen in that students learned quotes from poems and drama texts.
Many strategies for dealing with the range of abilities inevitably present in all classrooms were in evidence. The classroom layout was conducive to learning as, in many cases, students were seated in an open square. There was a very good break up of tasks observed in double lessons, which is commended. Very good use of pair work was observed; students were put in pairs for a short while after the initial reading of a new poem to discuss their reactions to particular stanzas and these points were then recorded on the board in a plenary session. Other effective teaching strategies observed which incorporated differentiation included students correcting each other’s spelling, mind mapping, and discussing set homework for a few minutes at the end of the lessons. Because the students in the college are, in the main, high achievers, it is possible to lose sight of the less able students. However, differentiated homework is set for these students and extra classes are given to third-year and sixth-year ordinary-level students. Other strategies to facilitate learning for the less able student could include displaying key quotes and key words in classrooms, giving individual help when work is set for a portion of the lesson and giving students a sense of achievement appropriate to their ability by asking lower-order as well as higher-order questions of students.
The strong emphasis on developing students’ personal response to their texts is highly commended. Good practice was also seen when students were invited to comment on each other’s work. The four key skills of reading, writing, speaking and listening were observed to be thoroughly developed in English lessons. Good practice was also observed where students had to model a newspaper article when writing a news report. Students were given frequent written work in a range of genres. Language and literature work was often integrated; for example, students had to write diary entries from the point of view of characters in studied texts and wrote letters based on events in texts.
State examination results in English at both Junior and Leaving Certificate are highly commended. Students achieve very well in their chosen level. The ‘A’ rate and overall honours rate is extremely high, with the vast majority of students taking higher level. Good practice also takes place in that the English department submits an evaluation of these results to school management.
All year groups sit three formal examinations annually. Common examinations are set and a common marking scheme is agreed by English teachers, which is highly commended. TY students receive their end-of-term certificate in English based on their final examination, their extended essay, their work portfolio and teachers’ assessment of their effort and commitment. Examination classes sit ‘mock’ examinations, and sixth-year ‘mocks’ are marked internally by a different English teacher than the one that teaches the particular student, in order to ensure complete impartiality. A one-to-one debriefing takes place between teacher and student to give feedback on the results of these ‘mocks’. All students also receive ‘effort’ grades on a fortnightly basis from their teachers which are based on their effort in class and on their written work. These are very good practices.
Parent-teacher meetings are held three times a year for each year group. In addition, a TY English evening is held annually where students display their work portfolio and their extended essay, and nominated students read out extracts from their work.
The English department awards five prizes throughout the year. Some of these are based on examinations and include the Shakespearean prize and the junior and senior forms’ English prizes in writing. Junior and senior cycle students are also awarded prizes for poetry writing. There was evidence that the standard of work submitted in these areas was very high.
Good practice was seen in that the English department has a specific homework policy. Students are given regular assignments in English; junior cycle students receive two pieces of written work each week and all senior cycle students, including TY students, receive one substantial piece of written work each week. There was evidence that this work is appropriate and sufficiently challenging for all students to make adequate progress. Students are also aware of the criteria of assessment. Students have folders at senior cycle and these were filled with a range of assignments and useful resources. TY students also have electronic folders. Some junior cycle students maintain folders as well as copies. It is recommended that all junior cycle class groups keep folders to store their notes and resources.
Teachers keep very good profiles of their students and class groups. All class and homework was corrected to a very high standard with excellent feedback given to students on areas where they need to improve in line with good assessment for learning practice.
The following are the main strengths identified in the evaluation:
· There is good provision of English lessons in St Columba’s College and there is very good whole school support for the subject.
· There is a very impressive range of co-curricular activities pertaining to English available to the students in the college.
· The English department has developed an excellent and innovative website. The website generates an interest among students in formal writing and gives them opportunities to write for a wider public than their teachers.
· A striking feature of the college is the many opportunities that students have to display their written work.
· There is a very good library in the school and the college funds payment of a librarian. The library is well stocked and well organised.
· There was evidence that students’ literacy levels improve as they progress through the year and school.
· The English department is very ably coordinated. The department engages in real collaboration and is very reflective. It is constantly developing new ideas to cultivate a love of English among students and to develop their skills in English.
· A strong reading culture has been developed in the school.
· The English teachers are commended for working in the true spirit of the Junior Certificate and Leaving Certificate English syllabuses in that the wide focus of English lessons goes beyond the examinations and prepares students for life.
· A range of opportunities are planned to give students a sense of responsibility for their own learning. The TY course is extensive and gives students an excellent grounding in key skills.
· There is a high quality of teaching and learning. This was evidenced through the high standards expected, the range of texts taught, the frequency of student assignments in a range of genre, the many opportunities for students to write and the excellent examination results.
· Common examinations are set and a common marking scheme is agreed by English teachers. Students are assessed on a regular basis. The English department has a specific homework policy. All students’ work was corrected to a very high standard.
As a means of building on these strengths and to address areas for development, the following recommendations are made:
· English teachers should document more comprehensively the actual course content for each year group, especially at junior cycle, as well as key learning outcomes, available resources, effective teaching methodologies and the many activities offered to students.
· Strategies to facilitate learning for the less able student should be employed in all lessons. This could include the purpose of each lesson being written on the board at the start of each lesson and checking to ensure that this purpose was achieved at the end of each lesson.
Post-evaluation meetings were held with the teachers of English and with the warden and sub warden at the conclusion of the evaluation when the draft findings and recommendations of the evaluation were presented and discussed.