An Roinn Oideachais agus Eolaíochta
Department of Education and Science
Subject Inspection of English
O’Connell Secondary School
North Richmond Street, Dublin 1
Roll number: 60440R
Date of inspection : 12 October 2006
Date of issue of report: 22 February 2006
Report on the Quality of Learning and Teaching in English
This report has been written following a subject inspection in O’Connell Secondary School. 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 subject teachers. 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.
O’Connell Secondary School has a long tradition in Irish education dating back to 1878. English is offered in the following programmes: Junior Certificate, Leaving Certificate, Leaving Certificate Vocational Programme (LCVP) and English and Communications is taught in the Leaving Certificate Applied (LCA) programme. O’Connell’s also offers a repeat one-year Leaving Certificate programme. Timetabling allocation for English is good and particularly commended is the school’s targeted approach to those who need literacy and language support. While all classes in the junior cycle receive five periods of English per week, a large number of additional lessons are allocated to students whose mother tongue is not English. Those requiring learning support, whether Irish or international students, are provided with additional lessons, either in small groups or on the basis of individual withdrawal, according to their needs. First-year and second-year groups have two additional library classes per week. In the senior cycle, Leaving Certificate students are allocated five periods of English in each of the two years of the programme. This is adequate to meet syllabus requirements. Those taking the LCA have four periods in fifth year and five in sixth year and this represents good provision. As the student task element of their LCA programme, fifth year students have four drama classes per week and the subject area complements English. A combination of setting and mixed ability is used in O’Connell School and a number of factors, including personal consultation with parents and guardians, are taken into consideration when placing students in classes.
In O’Connell School, class numbers are generally small. This academic year, the sixth-year Leaving Certificate students have been allocated to three classes, thus creating even smaller units and therefore students can receive individual attention. Uptake of higher-level English is low, however contextual factors must be taken into consideration. Nonetheless, it is a matter that requires attention, given that the numbers taking higher-level English in the junior cycle have fallen very significantly in the last five years. This has a consequent effect on Leaving Certificate uptake and on career paths. It is recommended that the school and the English department evaluate the current level of higher-level uptake in the junior cycle and that a planned, targeted approach be adopted to address this issue. In general, the raising of student expectations should be regarded as a priority.
In the last ten years, O’Connell’s has seen significant demographic change and a very large minority of its student cohort is international. The school is meeting the challenge with enthusiasm and commitment. The Department of Education and Science allocates forty-four hours language support per week to the school. While international students are integrated into regular class groups, there are two discrete immersion classes in third year, one of which requires a high level of language and literacy support. The second group is targeted at this year’s Junior Certificate examination in a limited number of subjects taught by a core group of five teachers. The class receives a substantial number of additional English lessons. The aim is to motivate those whose skills are developing at a faster pace and to optimise their opportunities in the senior cycle. This is commended. International students taught in small groups or receiving individual attention are withdrawn from Irish lessons. It is reported that paired reading is practised with students from a nearby school who have received training in the teaching of English to speakers of other languages.
A significant minority of O’Connell students present with literacy needs. The school has a learning support allocation of seventy-five hours per week. In addition to a qualified learning support teacher, seventeen members of the teaching staff provide numeracy or literacy support. Given this level of involvement, the school should adopt a targeted approach to continuous professional development in the area of literacy and numeracy support. The school has a formal plan for learning support and individual educational plans are in the course of being completed. Those requiring literacy support are identified through contact with feeder primary schools, through psychological assessments and through the school’s own assessment procedures and instruments. On-going assessment of those in receipt of literacy support occurs and targets are set for individual students. Strategies such as paired reading assist students and the LCA programme is provided for those students who would most benefit from it. The language support teachers liaise with Integrate Ireland (IILT).
Team teaching is used in some classes and students benefit from the individual attention that this approach is designed to ensure. Allocation of teachers to senior cycle classes depends on circumstances. It is important to ensure that the teaching of higher-level English is rotated in order to widen the pool of expertise available to the teaching of the subject and to plan ahead for retirements. There is good access to resources such as audio-visual equipment and the school has two computer rooms with sixteen computers in each. A booking system is in operation. In addition there is access to laptops and software through the learning support department. A data projector is available. While ICT is used by LCA students and for individual research, it is not integrated into the teaching and learning of English on a whole-class level or in a concerted fashion. This is a matter that should be addressed in the context of departmental and individual planning. A resource room, managed by the learning support teacher, is available to the teachers of English and this is well organised and provides a good level of support. The school has a drama room. While there are budgetary restrictions, reasonable requests for resources are met.
The school has a library and under the Delivering Equality of Opportunity in Schools (DEIS) initiative, it will receive considerable enhancement. This is a very promising development and now would be an opportune time for the English department to develop and document a reading policy. There is already an emphasis on reading in O’Connell School. In addition to the library classes mentioned above, reading is encouraged in class. Audio books are also available.
Extra- and co-curricular activities support the teaching and learning of English. Students attend the theatre and participate in drama. The first-year students are involved in debating and compete with five other inner-city schools. As part of their tasks, LCA students visit a newspaper.
In order to help integrate international students, the school holds an international week each year and organises a variety of cultural activities around this. A summer school lasting six weeks and free of charge is operated for international students and has grown in popularity within and outside the school. The international summer-school students produce their own newsletter
The English department has a strong collaborative ethos and the team shows great willingness to share resources. The English department meets at least once a term on a formal basis and informally as need dictates. There is a co-ordinator and a beginning has been made on a department plan. This is laudable. However, more work needs to be done both on individual and departmental planning. It is recommended that the plan for English be completed and advice and templates are available at www.sdpi.ie.
Since Higher Diploma in Education students are engaged in the teaching and learning of English, it is recommended that the role and responsibilities of the student teacher be clearly defined and that standardised procedures, with a strong emphasis on mentoring, collaborative planning and assessment be adopted. This is also of particular importance where classes are shared.
In general, there is good liaison and collaboration with the learning-support and language-support departments and this should be formalised through departmental meetings, all of which should be minuted.
Texts are jointly agreed at senior level and there is some concordance at junior level, but individual novels or plays are selected on the basis of their suitability to the class group. In the lessons visited, it was noted that texts used were appropriate to the learners and were both challenging and stimulating. Care should be taken to ensure that the number of texts chosen for all groups reflects syllabus aims and objectives. A school book-rental scheme is in operation.
Class content was appropriate to the relevant syllabuses and covered such areas as composition, fiction and poetry. Most lessons were well planned and in a few cases, were exemplary in both choice of material and the imaginative use of resources. In the lessons visited, the objective was implicit rather than stated. It would be helpful for students if the expected learning outcome were written on the board and a review period built into the end of the lesson to check that the outcome had been achieved. The final section of lessons was used to assign homework, and tasks were imaginative and linked clearly to lesson content in some cases. However, it was noted that this activity displaced review of learning objectives so that some lessons lacked closure. In most of the lessons visited, pace and content were appropriate to the class group and the lesson time was efficiently used. In a very few cases, content and pace should be reviewed to ensure that both are measured to the level of the class group so that material is not unnecessarily repeated from previous lessons, that the material chosen is sufficiently challenging and the syllabus is delivered in good time.
When new material was being introduced in the lessons visited, links were forged with earlier learning. In a pre-reading activity, interesting historical background was introduced to contextualise a poem and students were engaged by this. Where content was continued from previous lessons, typically, question and answer sessions ensured that homework had been completed and difficulties were clarified. Questioning strategies were used also to monitor understanding during the lesson. In many lessons there was a fair balance between global and individual questioning and in the best lessons questioning was sequenced to ensure that each student was able to answer. Good practice was noted where all students were included in question and answer sessions, where students were given sufficient time to respond and where they were encouraged to develop their answers. This is of particular importance when the learning intention is to nurture analytical thinking and therefore sufficient time is essential to structure oral responses and marshal evidence. In a very few cases, however, individual students were not given such time, student autonomy was undermined and other students were allowed to intrude, to answer out of turn or to dominate the question and answer sessions. Questioning strategies should be reviewed and amended in such cases.
Composition was taught and there was appropriate emphasis on the features that characterise specific genres such as report and essay writing. A variety of exemplars could be provided to reinforce concepts. In a few junior cycle classes, very good practice was noted where appropriate writing frames were distributed to students. Clear instructions were given so that the students fully understood how to use these effectively. It is advisable to ensure that writing frames are differentiated in mixed-ability classes. During writing activities in lessons, teachers circulated to assist individuals and to check that all students were on task. Teachers also questioned students to diagnose difficulties. Students were well organised and purposeful in their writing activities. The keeping of a portfolio of writing should be encouraged in all class groups and more emphasis could be placed on imaginative composition in general.
Excellent practice was observed where junior cycle students were challenged and engaged by imaginative poetry complemented by an audio version of the poem they had read and discussed. Listening skills were developed in the course of the lesson and students were afterwards encouraged to make imaginative personal responses and to compare the reading and audio experience. Student enthusiasm was particularly noted. In senior cycle, similar practice was observed: students had the opportunity of listening to an audio version of the novel they were reading and they found this very helpful in deepening their understanding of the text. Such a strategy is also of assistance to either reluctant readers or to students whose first language is not English. Students were then given an opportunity to discuss the text they had experienced. Such good practice should be extended to all classes. The development of oral skills should be integrated into all aspects of the teaching and learning of English in O’Connell School. It should be noted that the development of an awareness of the student’s own personal response to texts and the ability to analyse and justify that response is a syllabus requirement. In most cases, students’ questioning received encouragement and, indeed, teachers took the opportunity thus afforded to lead on to discussion.
The board was used effectively to record key points in most lessons. Key literary terms were used in a lesson visited and it was not entirely clear that these were fully understood. Care should be taken to ensure that all students fully understand such terms and that they can use them with understanding and ease.
Folders and copies generally indicated that a fair body of work has been learned. Exemplary practice was noted in a junior cycle class where folders were maintained to a very high standard and this indicates that organisational skills are being taught. However, in a small minority of cases, both the quality and quantity of work in copybooks are incompatible with the demands of level and syllabus and learning is not taking place at the appropriate pace. This is a matter that should be addressed as a priority.
Most of the classrooms visited created a print-rich environment. In a couple of instances, excellent classroom organisation represented good modelling for students. In some classrooms, consideration could be given to a reconfiguration of seating, perhaps on an occasional basis, to facilitate more group work. Many of the classrooms had attractive posters that enhanced the atmosphere and created a stimulating environment. In the classes visited, there was, in general, an orderly learning environment and high standards of behaviour were expected in all cases. Teachers also showed sensitivity to individual needs in almost all cases and there was a very good rapport between teachers and students. In the best lessons visited, students were actively involved and enthusiasm and enjoyment was of particular note in a few. In most, student effort was affirmed and students were challenged and given space to express themselves.
Formal in-house assessment takes place four times a year – in October, December, March and May. Mock examinations are also held and these are set and corrected mostly by external examiners. In such cases, it is important to ensure a correlation between teacher and student expectation and the results provided by external sources and that such outcomes are evaluated. Common assessment is not practised and this could be considered in order to ensure standardisation. While records of homework assessment were kept in some cases, this was not universal and this is a matter that should be addressed since accurate record keeping assists in student profiling.
While homework was conscientiously corrected in many cases, the practice was not universal and this is a matter for concern. It is recommended that the department agree a number of substantial written assignments appropriate to syllabus and level and that there be common agreement on high standards of execution and presentation. Assessment practices and procedures should be harmonised, should be robust, and the emphasis should be on assessment for learning.
Learning outcomes, including examination results, should be regularly evaluated at departmental level and, if necessary, strategies should be adopted to remediate identified weaknesses. In the event of two teachers sharing a class, it is recommended that assessment be monitored on a continuous basis and that the teachers meet regularly to evaluate student progress so that any issues arising can be addressed. Records should be meticulously maintained by all those involved in the teaching of a class.
The good practice noted in a few cases of very well maintained folders and copybooks should be universal. Good assessment practice was noted in some cases where meaningful assignments were regularly set, corrected, dated and annotated with affirming and encouraging comments and where records were kept. This is highly 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 principal at the conclusion of the evaluation when the draft findings and recommendations of the evaluation were presented and discussed.