An Roinn Oideachais agus Eolaíochta
Department of Education and Science
Subject Inspection of English
St Benildus College
Stillorgan, Co Dublin
Roll number: 60261R
Date of inspection: 2 March, 2007
Date of issue of report: 6 December 2007
Report on the Quality of Learning and Teaching in English
This report has been written following a subject inspection in St Benildus 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 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.
Provision of English lessons in junior cycle is satisfactory as English class groups in first, second and third year all have four lessons each week. Provision is good at senior cycle as Transition Year (TY) class groups have four English lessons each week and fifth and sixth years have five English lessons each week. The concurrent timetabling of English class periods for fifth and sixth-year class groups allows students the opportunity to study English at the most appropriate level. Concurrency is also used for whole year activities such as the recent screening of a film on the students’ course during a time when teachers were receiving inservice. This was a very good utilisation of time and is highly commended.
The manner of placement of students into class groups for English is commended. Students are placed in mixed-ability class groups up to the end of junior cycle and again in TY. They are then banded in fifth year. There are four higher-level class groups in fifth year. Two of these groups are made up of students who study English at a faster pace than the next two class groups. Students are placed in class groups in fifth year based on their results in their Junior Certificate English examination, their own preference and teachers’ evaluation of their ability.
Some junior cycle class groups have a predominance of their English lessons in the afternoons. One second-year class group has one double period of English which means that this class has no English on two days of the week. A more even distribution of lesson periods across the week and balanced between morning and afternoon is optimum for English lessons.
There is good whole school support for English from management in the school. Teachers reported many times on the support they receive from the principal and deputy principal. This is highly commended.
The deployment of English teachers to class groups is commended and school management is commended for the manner of deployment of its teachers. In addition, where possible and desirable, class groups retain the same teacher from year to year.
Students benefit from the opportunities provided to partake in a range of co-curricular activities pertaining to English. These include theatre outings, poetry lectures on aspects of the English course, visits to places of literary significance, involvement in writing competitions and debating. TY students also partake in a college musical. TY students study modules on both Communication Skills and Drama which are complementary to English. Cross-curricular links are also created between TY English and other modules which is commended as this is an underlying aim of TY. A creative writing publication based entirely on students’ work is published regularly by the school. The organisation of these activities for students by teachers is highly commended.
Teachers have participated in recent inservice both in and out of school on poetry, film studies and creative writing. In addition, the whole staff received inservice on mixed-ability teaching in recent years. It was reported that management has never refused reasonable requests for English resources. English teachers should agree early on in the school year what the needs of the department are in terms of resources. It was also reported that teachers have ready access to audio-visual equipment such as televisions, DVDs, data projectors and laptops.
There is a good sized school library in the school. However, this is not currently in use which is to be regretted. Some teachers have created book boxes for use with their class groups to promote reading. Students have to read a number of books and then write book reviews. This excellent practice should be extended into all first, second and TY class groups. English teachers have proposed the opening of the library to students at lunchtimes twice a week to promote reading. It is recommended that this proposal be put into action and that the library be developed so that it can become central to the life of the school.
There are two computer rooms in the school, both with internet access. As is to be expected in any school, some teachers have more skills in Information and Communication Technology (ICT) than others. An example of excellent use of ICT in English was seen in the development of a website which contains many sections including teaching and learning styles, how to study poetry, assessment techniques, samples of students’ work, teachers’ plans and much more. This is highly commended work and one that all teachers should be aware of and indeed access for use with their class groups. This is an example of the great potential for using ICT to enhance teaching and learning. Some teachers use ICT to create or download resources for use in lessons which is good practice.
There has, in recent years, been a renewed drive to support students with special educational needs (SEN) or learning support needs in the school. There is a co-ordinator and assistant co-ordinator of SEN and learning support. Both are qualified in the area of SEN or learning support. A fairly large team of teachers are involved in teaching SEN or learning support. It is recommended that more learning support or resource teaching be delivered by the specialists in this area. Good practice occurs in that the SEN team brief all teachers on how to work with the students with SEN in their classrooms. In addition, individual education plans are created for each student with a contribution from each relevant class teacher. SEN students or students in receipt of learning support benefit from extra support if necessary until the end of sixth year. These students receive lunchtime homework support every day and parents are encouraged to engage in paired reading with them. Students with literacy support needs are identified prior to and on entry to the school in first year. If they are two years or more behind in their reading they receive extra support in English each week. The very good work done in the area of support SEN and learning-support students is highly commended.
The position of co-ordinator of English is a special duties post and as the execution of this post is taken very seriously the English department is very ably co-ordinated. The English department has met formally on a number of occasions. Some of this time was provided by management and some time was arranged by English teachers themselves. Agendas are set and minutes recorded of these meetings. Minutes of English meetings reflect good discussion on a range of topics to promote and develop English. Such topics include discussion on the use of library books, students wishing to change level in fifth year, setting of common papers for examinations and more.
Collaborative subject planning has been initiated and work is in progress on developing a long-term plan for English. The department aims to develop a plan for each year group based on specific learning outcomes. This is commended as it means that teachers will aim for students to have gained the same key skills or learning outcomes at the end of each year, while allowing teachers the flexibility to teach literary texts that suit their particular cohort of students. The plan developed to date includes agreed learning outcomes and themes for the study of poetry in junior cycle. Some teachers’ individual plans are also developed around learning outcomes and have outlined teaching methodologies. These plans could form the basis for the overall English plan.
The English department should aim to develop a succinct plan with overall aims for the teaching of English in the school, as well as the key skills and learning outcomes, as already being developed, for each year group. It is suggested that each year plan should also give guidelines on the number of poems, short stories, letters, essays etc that should be taught in each year. A list of suitable texts for considered use could also be included. The plan could include a list of teaching methodologies which should be developed by all English teachers collaboratively. In this way, the good practice observed in the majority of classrooms would be shared. The plan should also include an overall assessment and homework policy.
It is commended that all students study a novel in first year. In addition, students study both a novel and play in second year or across second and third year. All students, regardless of their level study a Shakespearean play which is commended. A range of short stories is also studied which is good. English teachers should aim to introduce new material, be it a novel, second play or extra short stories as well as poetry into their third-year course to avoid third year becoming mainly about revision. There was evidence that some teachers are already doing this which is good practice. The range of comparative texts chosen for use in senior cycle is also commended. However, as outlined in the English Leaving Certificate syllabus, it is necessary to teach a third comparative text for ordinary-level students. Overall, English teachers change their choice of literary texts to suit the tastes and abilities of their class groups rather than using the same texts from year to year. This willingness to change is highly commended.
There is a written TY programme available for English. The school’s aims for the TY English programme are to create an awareness of the world through different literary media and to prepare students for the Leaving Certificate. Although one of the aims is to prepare students for the Leaving Certificate it is commendable that non-Leaving Certificate material is used as a policy among English teachers. The TY plan for English does not fully reflect the very good work and range of activities engaged with by most TY classes. For example, most TY classes also do a range of poetry. Where students do not study poetry in TY, it is suggested that they do so. There was evidence that, in keeping with the guidelines for TY, the study of poetry by TY students is undertaken in a ‘significantly different’ manner which is commended.
In order to facilitate the movement of students between levels in fifth year, teachers have agreed that common course material will be taught until Christmas. This is very good practice. It is recommended that English teachers set a common examination for fifth-year students at Christmas to ensure that students are correctly placed.
The English department has developed a resource library which contains a sizeable amount of resources such as sets of books, DVDs and videos for use in English lessons. All English teachers have a list of these resources. This is very good practice. Sets of quite a wide range of books for use with TY English class groups are also available in the TY room.
A group of teachers from different subject areas comprise a cross-curricular mentor group. Members of this group observe each other’s lessons with the overall aim of engaging in self- evaluation and hence improving their teaching. This team is currently focussing on developing and evaluating the benefits of the introduction of ICT in their classes and it is as a result of this that the English website has been developed. This is innovative and is highly commended.
The majority of English teachers presented their plans for the year which clearly outlined the work to be covered by students. This work formed a basis for some very good teaching observed by these teachers.
Eight English class groups were visited over the course of the evaluation. It was not possible to evaluate teaching and learning in one of these lessons due to the fact that the entire lesson involved students’ reading silently from newspapers.
The standard of teaching was very high in the majority of lessons observed. In these lessons there was a very clear purpose to the lesson with the teacher sharing the aim of the lesson with the students. This had the effect of students being engaged in their lesson from the outset as they were able to see the intention of the lesson. It is suggested that, at the end of the lesson, the students could also be questioned on what they had learned during the lesson if time permits in order to evaluate if the purpose of the lesson was realised. An effective example of a well structured lesson involved students initially reading and interpreting a poem, then working in pairs to examine what the poem said about roles of men and women and then comparing the poem to a contemporary song to show how roles have changed. It was reported that the next lesson would involve a debate on the issue.
Most teachers were well prepared for their lesson. Teachers often prepared or downloaded from the internet resources for use in the lesson or for consolidation of learning. In many lessons, resources such as audio or audio-visual versions of drama or poetry were used to bring texts to life for the students. There is good practice in that students see film versions of written texts to reinforce learning as opposed to being a substitute for the written word. In addition, use of handouts guided students through the main points of what they were reading and watching thus allowing them to read critically. When teachers were well prepared for their lesson, the pace of the lesson was appropriate. Best practice was seen when the core textbook was used as a resource as opposed to the only source of teaching material. The board was used well to record key points in some lessons. This is important, especially for students of lower ability. In some lessons there was good use of differentiation. For example, individual students whose first language was not English were given specific work to do.
In a couple of lessons where the teachers did not share the purpose of the lesson with the students it was unclear what the main point of the lesson was and the lessons lacked structure. In such lessons the pace was either too slow or too fast and the lessons were disjointed. It was not always clear what the teacher wished to achieve in these lessons. Such lessons need to be carefully planned, so that students are aware of what the lesson is about and learn in an incremental way. In these lessons also there needs to be opportunities for discussion or else the classes will lack dynamism.
When students engaged in one activity without teacher input it was not possible to evaluate teaching or students’ learning. Students should not be engaged in silent reading of newspapers or other material on a weekly basis. Although it was cited that students read the paper to develop their essay writing skills they had not written any essays for the year. However, there are opportunities for teachers to use such resources for a portion of the lesson and to direct students to aspects of the newspaper, for example the editorial, so that good discussion or modelling of writing could take place afterwards.
Very good questioning was used in lessons to determine students’ prior learning and to challenge them to think more clearly about what they were doing. Teachers often asked questions of specific students to ensure that all students were on task. Some asked a number of questions of individuals to ensure understanding and to keep them on task. Best practice in questioning was seen when teachers not only asked questions to check students’ prior learning and to check understanding but asked questions to challenge students to develop their thinking. There were some excellent examples of effective questions leading to self-directed learning as skilful questions led students to analyse their texts more closely. This is excellent practice. Students were also given time to answer questions which is good practice. Teachers also made some very good points to students to develop their thinking further and in many lessons students asked questions of their teachers.
Teachers were very knowledgeable about their courses and many imparted excellent knowledge during their lessons. The students were often given the opportunity to participate in their learning through answering questions. Students were engaged in all lessons but opportunities to hear their contributions could have been developed in some lessons. Strategies for students to participate more in their learning could include working together to discuss issues and work out meanings of texts in pairs or groups for a portion of the lesson, role play, oral presentations etc. Planning documentation is evidence that this type of work does occur at times, for example students are set work in groups to examine key issues in comparative texts. In addition, pair work was observed in one lesson. However, it is recommended that students become used to working this way from first year. In this way, students can also learn from each other as well as from the teacher and when working together for a few minutes, the teacher can give individual help where necessary.
Most classrooms are student based, although most fifth-year class groups do not have a base classroom. In student based classrooms it is recommended that teachers make a greater effort to surround students with a stimulating learning environment. There were good efforts made in some classrooms. In these rooms, posters and students’ work on various aspects of the course were displayed. Excellent practice was observed in that these displays were the basis for teaching and learning. In this case one wall was described as a ‘working wall’ where displays of material currently in use in teaching and learning were seen. Once these were used they were moved to the back wall of the classroom. Students benefit from a print rich environment, especially one where key quotes or key words are displayed as was observed in one lesson.
Students are encouraged to write their own poetry and short stories, which is good practice. Examination of copies showed that some teachers have developed the good practice of using literary texts as the basis for students to write creatively and functionally in a range of genres including diary entries and letter writing. For example, students had written Shylock’s diary entry, developed a newspaper front page based on events from their novel, and wrote letters from the point of view of characters studied. This is excellent practice. Very good practice was seen when teaching drama, as instead of simply asking students to write a summary of the scene, students were given open ended, higher order questions which ensured that they had to revise the particular scene in detail. Much assigned homework was of an enjoyable nature, for example, students had to make up advertisements for different products. Students’ homework also took the form of predicting events or speculating about scenes. This is good practice. Good practice was also seen when students’ personal responses were stressed.
Teachers also created links between texts and between different aspects of the students’ course which put learning in context. There were some very good examples of teachers’ language in the classrooms being examples of good practice and showed that there were high expectations of students who modelled this language in their work and verbal contributions in class. Good practice was seen where students were asked to spell words that teachers or students mentioned in different contexts and good dictionary use was observed when new words were introduced.
There was a good student teacher relationship in lessons. Students were very well behaved and teachers were generally affirming of all students. From interaction with students there was evidence of student learning in most lessons. Students were well able to discuss their courses and make sophisticated comparisons between texts. This was particularly so where students were involved in their own learning. There was evidence from the evaluation that where teachers were enthusiastic about their subject matter and students, the students responded with equal enthusiasm, showed respect for their teachers and were clearly learning. Many teachers proved themselves to be very reflective practitioners.
An analysis of examination results reveals that there is a very high uptake of higher-level English in state examinations at both junior and senior cycle. In addition, students achieve very well in their chosen level.
Examination classes sit ‘mock’ examinations. Non-examination classes sit formal end of term tests except TY students who are continuously assessed on their class work and project work. Common examinations are set for first-year class groups and the English department is planning to set common papers for other year groups also. This is to be encouraged. It does not mean that teachers will have to teach the same texts, although it means that they may have to agree when to cover certain aspects of the course. English teachers should also develop common marking schemes for these examinations. First, second and fifth-year students receive reports twice a year at Christmas and in the summer. Examination classes receive reports in October and after the ‘mock’ examinations. There are parent-teacher meetings held for each year group except TY.
The English department is aiming to develop an overall English homework policy. This is to be encouraged. It is recommended that this policy include guidelines on frequency of homework, especially longer pieces of written work for each year group. It could also include a policy on use of copies or folders. Best practice was seen when separate copies or parts of copies were used for each aspect of the course or when students used folders divided into aspects of the course for storage of notes. The use of manuscript copies for English work, which was observed, is also excellent.
Examination of students’ copies showed that in general, students were assigned frequent and appropriate homework. This is important for developing and reinforcing learning. Most teachers carefully mark homework and give excellent feedback to students on areas where they need to improve in English. However, there was evidence that some students’ copies were not being frequently corrected and that more homework needs to be given. It is important that students get frequent homework from first year onwards and that they get formative feedback to develop their learning. In fifth and sixth year, best practice was seen when students were aware of the discrete criteria of assessment. In many junior cycle classes the students are also given criteria for assessment of their work. It is also important that when allocating homework it should be jotted on the board for students to record in their journals. There is a policy of tutors and parents signing the journal which is good practice. The good practice of students being asked to redraft corrected work was also observed. The use of peer assessment is also good and used appropriately as the teacher then corrected the students’ work. In addition, TY student evaluate the overall TY course which is commended.
Students’ assessment marks in English are available on the web for parents and students to see, as part of the mentor group work. Parents and students receive grades and comments on their son’s work. This is being trialed in English and another subject. The website also contains sample answers and assessment advice on where students gain and lose marks. This is good practice.
Students were well profiled by teachers which is commended. The higher diploma students are also working with certain students to ensure that they are organised for their lessons which is commended.
The following are the main strengths identified in the evaluation:
As a means of building on these strengths and to address areas for development, the following key recommendations are made:
Post-evaluation meetings were held with the teachers of English and with the deputy principal, at the conclusion of the evaluation when the draft findings and recommendations of the evaluation were presented and discussed.