An Roinn Oideachais agus Eolaíochta
Department of Education and Science
Subject Inspection of English
Milltown, Dublin 6
Roll number: 60910F
Date of inspection: 8 February, 2007
Date of issue of report: 4 October 2007
Report on the Quality of Learning and Teaching in English
This report has been written following a subject inspection in Alexandra 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 subject teachers.
There are four English lessons per week provided to each junior cycle class group. This is satisfactory provision. Provision of English lessons in fifth and sixth year is good as these groups have five English lessons each week. Transition Year (TY) class groups have three English lessons each week which is satisfactory provision. In addition, TY students also study Videography and Creative Writing which complement English.
Concurrency is facilitated on the timetable for TY, fifth and sixth-year students. This allows for joint activities to be organised within school time as well as facilitating movement of students if necessary. In addition, English lessons are, on the whole, evenly spread across the week.
There is very good whole school support for English in the school. The six English teachers are facilitated to meet formally once a week to plan for their subject. Where possible, teachers retain their class groups from first year into third year and from fifth year into sixth year. The TY programme is taught on a rotating modular basis. In addition, the teaching of programmes and levels (if applicable) is rotated among all teachers which is good practice. There is also one Higher-Diploma student of English currently teaching in the school. There was evidence of good collaboration between mainstream and higher diploma teachers.
Students in all years are placed in mixed-ability class groups. Management is to be commended for seeking inservice on best strategies for teaching mixed-ability for all teaching staff in the school. It was evident from the inspection that English teachers have already developed very good teaching strategies in this regard. This year there are four class groups in first year. In order to give more individual attention to students with special educational needs or with literacy support needs, the school’s Education Committee proposed that from September 2007 there would be six first-year class groups with smaller numbers in each group. This proposal has been accepted and is an example of the school constantly reviewing its practices, moving forward and improving.
Students are fortunate to have a range of co-curricular activities pertaining to English available to them. Such activities include drama, public speaking, debating, writing competitions, guest speakers, and theatre and cinema trips. A festival of poetry and drama is organised, writing competitions are held, where students are encouraged to write short stories, essays and poetry, the junior and senior debating society is involved in various competitions and TY students also enter a film making competition. Students’ work is often published in the school yearbook The Alexandran.
Alexandra College is very much to the forefront of innovation in relation to Information and Communication Technology (ICT). Internal ICT training for staff is in place. All teachers have been supplied with laptops. A new ‘i-book’ initiative has just been introduced and is being piloted among all second-year students. These students have been given laptops/i-books. The teachers and students are encouraged to use these i-books in their classrooms. Many English teachers have skills in ICT and have shared any training received with their colleagues. They are aware of the potential of ICT in teaching and learning of English and the school is commended for introducing this new initiative. The school also subsidises post-graduate courses for teachers and teachers are facilitated to attend inservice.
Most teachers have their own dedicated English classrooms which are very well equipped with televisions, videos, overhead projectors, DVD players and data projectors and screens. These classrooms were stimulating learning environments. Walls were decorated with project work, posters and other material related to English.
A substantial English budget is available to the English department and English teachers have used this budget to obtain resources which will enhance their teaching and students’ learning. Evidence from planning documentation suggests that many resources identified by teachers as being desirable for English have been acquired. Most common resources are stored in one of the English teacher’s rooms for ease of access.
There is a school library which students have good access to during school, at lunchtime, during class library periods and after school. All first-year students are introduced to the library early on in the school year and every student in the school is issued with a library card. The school provides funding for a full-time librarian. The library is equipped with computers which are used by teachers with their classes and is well stocked with a range of books and DVDs. It is an attractive learning environment. The library is often the venue for hosting visiting speakers, many of whom are writers. Reading lists are issued for junior and senior cycle students and it was reported that there were 4000 books borrowed by students last year. There is a separate budget for the library. The library is central to the life of the school and its operation is to be highly commended.
Quite a large number of students, from first to sixth year, are in receipt of literacy support and a small number of students have Special Educational Needs (SEN). Two teachers deliver learning support and resource teaching in the school. An annual report on students with SEN is submitted to the College Council each year. The school also has a comprehensive learning-support policy which outlines the roles of all stakeholders from parents, to teachers to the board in relation to SEN students. There is a slot at staff meeting to brief staff about SEN and in addition twice monthly meetings of the care team in the school ensures that the needs of such students are being addressed. This good practice is highly commended.
The quality of planning by the English department is excellent and is commended in this report. Much work has gone into creating an English planning document which includes a laudable mission statement and aims for the teaching of English as well as a vision for the future. Indeed, at the time of the evaluation many priorities identified in this vision have been realised. The English department has identified the need to revise its mission statement and its aims and objectives and the department is currently working on planning for ICT and English.
The mission of the English department is “to foster each pupil’s potential as a thinking, sensitive, responsible, articulate and confident human being; and in this process impart a love of language and literature.” This mission aims to promote thinking, sensitivity to the written word, the responsibility to use it fairly and to encourage oral expression and promotes the remit of the English department as reaching “far beyond the needs of the Certificate examinations”. There was much evidence over the course of the inspection that the mission and aims of the English department are being realised.
The English department subject plan outlines what is being taught to each year group. Texts are chosen that are suitable for the whole year group and are reviewed each year. This is commendable practice. Teachers are complimented for the range of texts they teach to all year groups in the school. For example, all first years study two novels and many classes and year groups also read a number of books for pleasure and complete book reports on these. Second-year students study a novel and a Shakespearean play. Short stories are also taught throughout second year. The good practice of using a range of genres and texts to teach similar themes is used. For example teachers teach poems and short stories on the theme of war and teach love poems to complement the Shakespearean play. This is in keeping with the spirit of the syllabus and is highly commended. Third-year students study a novel by Jane Austen. A large and suitable range of poetry is also studied at junior cycle based around themes such as war, nature and love. The texts chosen for study in fifth and sixth year are also interesting and stimulating. English teachers in Alexandra College have ensured that the junior and senior cycle courses are broad and enjoyable for students and in this way realise the aims of the syllabus and the department. Students are also well prepared for state examinations.
The promotion of the reading habit from first year is a feature of the English department. Class groups are brought to the library to choose books for reading. Classes also generate their own recommended book lists. In one second-year class group visited, students will have read eight books over the course of the year. First-year students complete projects on Shakespeare. The standard of these projects was excellent. There is also an expectation that students will have and use a dictionary in class.
The TY programme is taught on a modular basis with five English teachers each delivering a module. The programme includes modules on Irish Writers, the Craft of Poetry, Drama, Shakespeare and Film Studies. TY students receive a broad experience of English, which will benefit them throughout life in keeping with one of the true aims of TY. As the TY English programme is taught on a modular basis, students often have different copies or pages for each module of the programme. It is suggested that students have one hardback copy for all of their English modules as then they will have, by the end of the year, compiled one valuable resource of what they have learned throughout the year.
The English plan includes a list of suggested teaching methodologies, an inventory of resources and emphasises the potential for creating cross-curricular links. The fact that all teachers cover the same texts gives students throughout each year group a sense of security that similar work is being covered in each class. To further develop the English plan, it is recommended that learning outcomes or key skills that each year group should achieve be identified. In this way teachers can ensure that not only are similar texts being taught but that the same key skills are also taught. This will ensure that an incremental approach to learning is achieved. The English plan should, over time, be developed into one style for the sake of consistency.
The English department is very ably coordinated. Nevertheless, it is suggested that the task of coordinating the subject be rotated among all English teachers every one or two years. Minutes of formal meetings are recorded and informal meetings are ongoing. Minutes are evidence that regular discussions take place on improving and promoting English in the school. While management has ready access to these minutes through the planning folder, it is suggested that minutes of key discussions be forwarded to management in order to create an immediate awareness of any issues around the subject.
English teachers liaise informally with learning-support and SEN teachers who occasionally attend the weekly English department meetings. Planning documentation and observation of teaching suggest awareness among English teachers of strategies for dealing with SEN students. This is commendable.
Teachers were all individually well prepared for lessons and had prepared or downloaded resources to supplement their teaching as necessary. These resources included PowerPoint Presentations, writing frames and overhead presentations. The English department recognise the potential of ICT and is exploring the use of strategies for its use among all year groups. Such strategies include students using ICT to research material for projects and other work, encouraging students to make PowerPoint presentations, using ICT for drafting, redrafting and editing work and writing book reports. Teachers are also planning to make notes available to students on the college intranet. This is commendable.
English teachers share ideas on an ongoing basis. There was evidence of sharing of resources, of much discussion around methodologies and overall the English department is congratulated for its excellent work, its commitment to working together for the betterment of its students and its ability to reflect and improve.
Students in Alexandra College receive a very high quality of teaching. All teachers are dedicated, committed to their work and innovative and they are commended for this.
In all lessons the teachers shared the purpose of the lesson with their class groups. Lessons were well structured, there was a good sequence of tasks, and a variety of activities was introduced into all lessons which kept students engaged and totally involved them in their learning. One example of good sequencing of tasks was observed when the teacher introduced the script of a drama text, invited students to dramatise it and then showed the film itself. In this way students’ interest was maintained throughout the lesson.
Links were created between literary texts and students’ own experience which put texts in context for students. Students were often invited to predict what was going to happen next. Links were also created with previous lessons to ensure understanding and continuity. In addition, very good links were also created between texts, especially when teaching the comparative mode.
A feature of all lessons was the active student involvement. For example, in many lessons students were engaged in group work for a portion of the lesson. Students were put into groups to plan for the dramatisation of a Shakespearean scene studied, to identify key moments in comparative texts and to find evidence to support descriptions of characters in a novel. In all cases, the group work was effective in ensuring active and enthusiastic participation by all students. Where students were working for a portion of the lesson, the teachers moved around the classrooms ensuring that all students were on task. Very good strategies for teaching mixed-ability students were observed during the inspection. All teachers were very aware of any student with needs and gave these students individual attention in a discreet way. Teachers made sure that all points of view were heard and ensured that the students’ voices were equally important in the classroom.
Students were encouraged to engage in discussion. It was reported that they are given opportunities to make oral presentations and there is also a strong emphasis on the development of writing skills. Writing tasks were integrated with reading tasks so that students, for example, had to write diary entries from the point of view of characters in a novel, and meanings of new vocabulary were seamlessly introduced into lessons. Integration of several language skills was observed when students, on completion of each chapter of a novel, had to update the main character’s diary entry, write out three new words learned and their meaning, identify new questions raised in the chapter and indicate three descriptions that they found particularly good. This excellent practice meant that students were studying language as well as literature and were constantly speculating and learning. Students are also encouraged to keep response journals when studying literature.
The use of questioning was appropriate and teachers asked a range of questions from lower to higher order which equally catered for all abilities yet challenged the good students. In addition, teachers were adept at inviting comments from students. The use of challenging higher-order questions encouraged students to think and to develop their thought processes. Such questions often involved speculating about the texts. Skilled questioning led students to think more clearly about their texts. In addition, best practice was observed when students were all included in questioning as opposed to just asking students with their hands up.
A range of resources was observed to be used in lessons including teacher-prepared handouts, ICT resources, audio versions of Shakespeare and DVD. These were all effective in maintaining students’ interest. Although students have a core textbook, this is clearly used as a teaching aid as opposed to the main resource in lessons. In all lessons, English was brought to life for the students. This was achieved through teachers’ enthusiasm for their students and the subject, by the interesting resources used and by the effective methodologies and subject matter. In all lessons, there was a very good student-teacher relationship, and teachers were totally aware of the dynamics and needs of each class group.
There was evidence of learning in all lessons. Students made very good points during the course of their lessons, and were totally involved in their lessons. In addition, the quality of their answers to questions put to them by the inspector was very good. Students achieve exceptionally well in both their Junior and Leaving Certificate English examinations. As already stated, the number of students taking ordinary level is very small but these students also achieve extremely well. School management analyses results for the board as well as for parents, and results are compared with national averages. This is excellent practice.
English progress is assessed through class work and homework, class tests, projects, oral assignments, including presentations, and research. Students’ copies and folders were maintained to a high standard. The policy of students’ having a hardback copy is commended. In addition, many classes had a folder for storage of notes, divided into relevant sections as well as soft back copies. Observation of these copies was evidence that they were well corrected and that students receive excellent feedback from teachers on where they need to improve. This formative assessment is a feature of all classes. In addition, there was evidence that students correct their mistakes and redraft and re-edit their work which is very good practice. Some teachers correct state examinations and there was a good awareness among all teachers of the marking schemes and criteria of assessment which were used very well in marking ongoing student work. Another feature of all lessons was the good monitoring of students’ progress. Each teacher maintained a record of students’ marks in class and homework as well as in examinations.
First, second and fifth-year students receive two full reports at Christmas and summer, based on formal examinations, and two progress reports, generally based on continuous assessment at mid-term breaks. TY students receive full reports at Christmas and summer and a certificate at the end of the year. This work is based on continuous assessment on completion of modules. Third and sixth years receive a full report at Christmas and a report at Easter based on their ‘mock’ examinations as well as a progress report at Halloween. An element of continuous assessment is often used in conjunction with formal examinations which is good practice. Common papers are set for in-house examinations with a common marking scheme. This is excellent practice.
Feedback to parents as a result of formal examinations is detailed and very informative and often gives parents great direction as to where students need to improve also. A parent-teacher meeting is held annually for each year group in the school.
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.