An Roinn Oideachais agus Eolaíochta
Department of Education and Science
Subject Inspection of English
Moyle Park College
Clondalkin, Dublin 22
Roll number: 60121B
Dates of inspection: 20 and 21 September 2006
Date of issue of report: 22 February 2007
Subject inspection report
This report has been written following a subject inspection in Moyle Park 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 principal and the teachers of English. The board of management was given an opportunity to comment in writing on the findings and recommendations of the report; a response was not received from the board.
Moyle Park College is a school for boys, under the trusteeship of the Marist Brothers. The school was established in 1957 in Clondalkin and it draws its students from a relatively contained yet socially mixed catchment. The fine grounds and the impressive building are very well-maintained, and contribute to the school’s pleasant and welcoming atmosphere. Moyle Park has responded well to the changing educational needs of its students, offering a wide range of programmes and putting good structures in place to support all students. The school has been especially innovative in the area of ICT and its web site (www.moyleparkcollege.ie) is exemplary.
Twelve teachers are involved in the delivery of English in the school. All teach other subjects as well. Six have a substantial involvement with English, taking at least three class groups. The size of the English teaching team means that a strong department structure and good collaboration and communication are of particular importance. Their awareness of these needs was evident and the practices that have been established to meet them are discussed in the next section of this report. Teachers with a substantial involvement in English generally teach the subject across a range of year groups, levels and programmes. This is a commendable system as it extends and develops the pool of expertise and experience available.
Provision for English is good in the number of lessons timetabled for each class group. All junior cycle classes have five lessons per week. In the optional transition year there are three lessons of English and timetabled modules in related areas, such as journalism in the case of the current transition year. This is commendably in keeping with the spirit of the transition year programme. Both fifth and sixth year have five lessons per week. Students following the Leaving Certificate Applied programme (LCA) have three lessons of English and Communications whereas the optimal number is four. The decision to reduce the number from the original allocation of four was taken in order to increase the time available for practical subjects, and the teachers involved felt that three lessons were sufficient. However, it is advisable to keep the current allocation under review, and it should be borne in mind that the thirty-hour allocation per module mentioned in the guidelines on timetabling on the LCA web site (www.lca.ie) refers to the minimum recommended.
The optimal distribution of lessons, one per day, obtains in first, second and sixth year. In order to meet the timetabling needs of Science, third year English is currently distributed over four days, with two single lessons in one day. While this arrangement is acceptable, the school is to be commended on the efforts being made to return to optimal distribution next year. Most fifth year classes also have English distributed over four days rather than five, and fifth year English classes are fully concurrent on only one day. This situation has arisen out of the need to accommodate physical education in the senior cycle timetable. The school management recognises that it is not the optimal arrangement for English and does not continue it into sixth year. Indeed, considerable efforts have been made to timetable English concurrently and there is full concurrence in second, third and sixth year. Since concurrence makes considerable demands on timetabling, it is recommended that the English teaching team ensure that it is used to the full, not only to facilitate student movement but also for inter-class activities such as debating and public speaking, for common class tests or assignments and for English-related activities involving the whole year. A focus on this area in subject planning meetings could spark some innovative and useful ideas.
Students are placed in mixed-ability classes in first year. At the end of the year, they take a common test and are set in groups designated as higher or ordinary level for second year. There are between two and four class groups at each level, and the setting is not rigid. No final decisions on student placement are made at this early stage, and students may move from one group to another where that is considered advisable. This level of facilitation is commendable. The inspector discussed with the English teaching team the possibility of deferring any decision on levels until the end of second year, on the basis that the students are going through a phase of rapid development and may benefit from a longer time in a mixed-ability environment. The implications that this would have for planning, choice of texts, and teaching strategies are considered in the relevant sections of this report.
The school has plans to create a library once the provision of additional classrooms makes a space available. It is suggested that book boxes, particularly for the junior cycle, might be a good resource in the meantime and indeed these are often seen as a very useful adjunct where schools have a library, as they can be tailored to meet the specific needs of the class. Some Junior Certificate School Programme (JCSP) funds have been earmarked for the purchase of books to assist in the literacy development of JCSP students. It is recommended that the report on the JCSP Demonstration Library Project, Room for Reading, be consulted for further ideas on promoting reading among all junior cycle students.
The classrooms visited were generally well resourced, with bookshelves, display areas and audiovisual equipment. Teachers of English have access to, and make use of, the fine computer rooms, and it is suggested that the further use of ICT in developing students’ writing skills in particular be a feature of ongoing planning for the subject.
The school has a good culture of supporting the professional development of teachers, for example in releasing and funding teachers for training in learning support. Staff development days have encompassed a range of topics, most recently the issue of planning for assessment, facilitated by the School Development Planning Initiative, and a presentation on the JCSP from the JCSP Support Service.
A range of co-and extra-curricular activities is offered by the school, fostering the development of skills in debating, public speaking, drama and journalism. Theatre and cinema trips are arranged, as are excursions to places of historical and literary significance. This report acknowledges the dedication and commitment of staff in providing such a range of activities.
Moyle Park College has had a substantial engagement with school development planning and the current focus of the process is on the development of subject departments and of an assessment policy. A good structure has been created to facilitate planning for English. There is a co-ordinator for English and subject meetings are held every fortnight to facilitate collaborative planning. The minutes of these meetings record the issues discussed and the decisions taken. Documents relating to the work of the English department are kept in a file which is updated after each meeting.
The year plan for English broadly follows the template provided by the School Development Planning Initiative (SDPI). In addition to providing details of the material to be covered in different classes and the planned timeframe for the work, the year plan also lists effective methodologies and the resources available to the English teaching team. These add to the usefulness of the plan and make it more than just a scheme of work. In further developing the plan, it is suggested that the team focus particularly on the skills and learning outcomes as described in the various syllabuses. Particular attention should be paid to developing the core skills of speaking, listening, reading and writing in the programme of work for first year, as a firm foundation in these skills is essential to students’ progress.
The possibilities for subject planning and resourcing offered by the development of a school intranet are also being explored by the English teaching team. This initiative is still at an early stage but the creation of an English folder containing resources for different aspects of the syllabuses is an admirable use of ICT to assist collaborative planning and is warmly commended.
Moyle Park College operates a book scheme and sets of textbooks, plays and novels are purchased from which text choices are made. While the usefulness of an anthology-style textbook for the junior cycle was acknowledged, the teachers of English are aware of the limitations of these textbooks and have been active in creating and seeking out supplementary material. This is commendable. Sets of novels suitable for various stages of the junior cycle are available, as are sets of plays including Shakespearean drama. Text choices are made on the basis of the class’s ability, hence in second year a novel considered to be challenging may be chosen for the higher level classes. In the interests of keeping options open as regards the level at which junior cycle students will take Junior Certificate English, it is suggested that the English department consider setting the same novel for all second year classes. A range of short stories from the very accessible to the challenging could be read in addition to the novel and would prove helpful in gauging the levels of students’ understanding and analytical ability.
The programmes planned for transition year and for LCA were fully in keeping with syllabus aims and had an appropriate focus on developing students’ skills and engaging their interest. In the junior cycle, a small number of students follow the JCSP and the school’s policy is to integrate these students rather than teach them in a separate class, a commendable approach. However, all teachers should be aware of the presence of JCSP students in their classes. The JCSP is designed as a structure to support students who might otherwise have difficulty with the world of school, so the strategies developed for it should be used consistently in all the subjects taken by JCSP students. This applies particularly to the use of target statements which can be helpful to all the students in the class, not only those in the JCSP.
Individual planning by the teachers of English was of a high standard, as was clearly shown by the careful preparation of material and resources, and the way in which teachers were able to place the work of the lesson within the context of the year’s work, giving students a strong sense of purpose and direction.
Planning for literacy support is well established in the school which has an active and well-organised learning support team. Support is delivered to students on the basis of withdrawal where students are exempt from Irish or do not take a modern language, and a system of staggered withdrawal is in place for other students, so that they are not consistently missing out on any one subject. The size of withdrawal or special groups has been reduced in size and is now typically between two and four students. A systematic programme for literacy development is in place, and resources are continually being built up, with work in progress on a learning support library.
The school also has a language support team, looking after the needs of students whose first language is not English (ESL students). These students are assessed on arrival into the school, using tests devised by the team to ascertain levels of accurate usage, fluency of expression and oral competence. This comprehensive approach is to be commended. Individual programmes to suit the particular stage of language acquisition are followed and working with these students in small groups is the method rightly preferred over one-to-one instruction.
Eight lessons were observed during the course of the inspection. The pacing of the lessons was consistently good, with a very well-judged balance between forward movement and careful consolidation of the subject matter. All lessons were well structured and the time available was productively used. Most lessons began with a clear statement of the topic, often reinforced by a brief plan or key words written on the board. This is a simple but effective strategy for helping the students to focus at the beginning of the lesson, and its use should be extended. A statement of the topic that emphasises what students will know or will be able to do by the end of the lesson is especially helpful.
Good use of resources was observed during the course of the inspection. These included both staple resources such as the board and photocopies, and some less frequently encountered such as audio recordings and data projectors. The board was used helpfully as a means of gathering the key points of class discussion and organising the students’ responses under various headings. It can also be a very good means of reinforcing new vocabulary, and it is suggested that any challenging word used in discussion be recorded on the board, so that students can learn its appearance and spelling. Writing on the board should be both easily legible and well organised; work well laid out on the board serves students as a model of how to plan their own written responses. Photocopied material was used well, in one instance to provide students with a variety of texts and activities related to the medium of television, and in another instance to get students thinking about how a story might develop by showing them stills from a film of the novel they had just begun. This latter strategy was effective in arousing the students’ curiosity and encouraging them to predict likely events based on their existing knowledge.
Audio recordings were used in lessons on drama and the language of songs, and in the latter case effective use was made of the data projector to introduce students to the words of the song before they listened to it. It was good to see audio recordings used in the study of Shakespearean drama to assist students’ understanding of both the plot and the figurative language. The Junior Certificate syllabus emphasises the play in performance, and students benefit from an approach that lifts the play from the page to the stage. It is therefore recommended that students be encouraged to create their own mental images of the play while listening to the audio recording by asking them to think of the gestures, positions on stage and costumes that would be appropriate to the characters and situations. Listening to audio recordings can also open up discussions about interpretation, in which students can consider other ways in which lines might be spoken, and so on.
In all lessons observed, there was a commendable emphasis on encouraging students to engage with the topic and a very good use of a range of questioning styles for various purposes: to check on students’ understanding and recollection, to open up the discussion, and to lead students towards more considered responses. Direct questioning of named students ensured that those likely to lose focus were kept on task, and general questions were well managed so that chorus answering was avoided. It is important that students have a clear sense of the difference between quick questions testing their recall of facts and more complex questions which require some thinking time before a worthwhile response can be formulated. Other strategies used effectively to engage students included getting them to jot down their first reactions to a short text thus encouraging a more active response, and pre-reading discussions to give students a sharper sense of focus on key aspects of the text. Some well-managed pair work was also observed, and this is a strategy that might well be extended, but the careful preparation necessary should be borne in mind.
In most cases, students were given clear and helpful instructions about writing tasks to be done in class or for homework. Helpful templates had been prepared to assist students to structure their writing and to increase the likelihood of their producing fuller, more developed responses. This is a commendable strategy. It is suggested that the terms “writing scaffold” or “writing framework” be used when explaining to students how they should be used, so that they develop a sense that they must come up with their own responses while getting assistance in the challenging area of structuring and developing a substantial piece of work. The very good practice of publishing students’ work in the form of classroom displays was noted. The importance of providing such publishing opportunities to mirror the real-life outcome of the process of drafting and proofreading should not be underestimated. The very good practice of using ICT to teach editing skills to students was also noted and is to be encouraged.
Classroom atmosphere was universally pleasant and conducive to productive work, and both teachers and students are to be commended on the well-ordered, respectful yet friendly classroom environment. Students were willing to respond to questioning and to be co-operative and forthcoming in their exchanges with both their teachers and the inspector, and this reflected very well the strong esprit de corps that exists within the school.
In line with the strong emphasis on student learning in so many aspects of classroom practice, teachers were observant of the level of students’ participation in the lesson and understanding of the topic. Where students were writing in class, a very useful and worthwhile activity, the teacher circulated to check on work and give assistance as required. Questioning was used effectively to assess students’ understanding. Good training in dealing well with exam questions was also observed, and teachers should remind students frequently of the importance of reading questions carefully to ensure relevant and accurate answering.
Good practice in setting homework included ensuring that the work was closely linked with the work done in class, giving students time to make an accurate note of the work in their journals, providing clear guidelines on the structure and length of the assigned work and reminding students of the need to read over what they had written before handing it in. In monitoring homework, teachers circulated to check copies in class and asked students to read out their answers to short comprehension questions. Longer assignments were taken up and the students’ copies seen in the course of the inspection had helpful written comments from the teacher, both affirming good work and making suggestions for improvement. This is commendable. Students’ copybooks were well maintained and the practice of keeping folders divided into different sections was well established among the senior classes. The school’s provision of homework clubs and supervised study, in keeping with its commitment to ensuring that students are supported and motivated, is praiseworthy.
School exams take place at Christmas and summer. Common assessment takes place at the end of first year and a common marking scheme is agreed for this. This is good practice. It is recommended that the practice of common assessment be extended as far as possible, bearing in mind that, even where students are studying different texts, open questions modelled on those in the Junior Certificate and in the comparative study in the Leaving Certificate will accommodate this.
Good systems are in place to identify incoming students who may require learning support, and strong links with the feeder primary schools ensure a flow of information to the learning support team and the continuation of support for students already receiving it. While the information gathered from the range of assessments done is useful to the learning support team in meeting the students’ needs, it is recommended that teachers of first year be given a verbal report on students whose learning support needs have been identified, rather than a written one, at the initial staff meeting. Data generated from these tests on reading ages, and raw scores on verbal reasoning should be treated cautiously, and the learning support teachers are best placed to make the appropriate use of this information. Students receiving learning support who require special papers for in-house exams are catered for, and the ongoing monitoring of these students’ progress through re-testing and the careful keeping of records is part of the good structure of learning support in the school.
The programme of language support is naturally tailored for individual students who may be at very different stages of language acquisition. The language proficiency benchmarks developed by Integrate Ireland Language and Training (IILT) have been found useful in monitoring students’ progress. Links with IILT should be maintained so that there is a continuing dialogue and flow of information between the organisation and the language support teachers in post primary schools.
The following are the main strengths identified in the evaluation:
Provision for English is generally good both as regards timetabling and resourcing.
Collaborative planning, including the use of ICT, is a live and developing process for the English teaching team.
Teaching and learning take place in a constructive and caring classroom atmosphere.
Good assessment practices are in place and students’ progress is carefully monitored.
As a means of building on these strengths and to address areas for development, the following key recommendations are made:
Concurrent timetabling of English should be provided as fully as possible and further ways of using concurrence should be considered as part of subject planning.
Planning for English should be increasingly focused on the attainment of skills and should include concrete statements of desired learning outcomes.
The supports to assist students’ learning provided by the Junior Certificate School Programme should be used in all English classes which include JCSP students.
Post-evaluation meetings were held with the teachers of English and with the principal at the conclusion of the evaluation when the draft findings and recommendations of the evaluation were presented and discussed.