An Roinn Oideachais agus Eolaíochta
Department of Education and Science
Subject Inspection of English
Scoil Mhuire Secondary School
Athy, Co. Kildare
Roll number: 61640H
Dates of inspection: 7 and 8 March 2006
Date of issue of report: 22 June 2006
This Subject Inspection report
This report has been written following a subject inspection in Scoil Mhuire Athy. 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 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.
Scoil Mhuire is a voluntary secondary school for girls under the trusteeship of the Sisters of Mercy. It has a shared campus with Scoil Eoin, a voluntary secondary school for boys, and the two schools are due to amalgamate in 2007. During the inspection, the amalgamation was discussed in the context of subject planning and resources. The school is being well maintained and has a bright and welcoming atmosphere. All classrooms now have broadband access.
Four teachers are involved in the delivery of English in Scoil Mhuire and, for three of these English is their main timetabled subject. This consolidated delivery has clear advantages for subject department planning in that collaborative work involves a relatively small number of people, and this favourable situation should be fully exploited. Timetable arrangements for English are generally very good both in the number and distribution of classes, with all classes having five English lessons, and all but one having English every day. It should be noted that the optimal distribution is a lesson every day, and this is especially desirable in first year where crucial skills are being developed. This should be borne in mind in drawing up next year’s timetable. The very high level of concurrency of English on the timetable is commendable, and the possibilities for inter-class activity which this permits should be fully used.
The school operates a mixed ability system from first year to fourth year, and thereafter higher and ordinary level classes are formed. These classes are generally smaller than those in junior cycle, with three teachers deployed in fifth and sixth year as opposed to two in first and second year. This has certainly created a favourable and attractive situation for senior cycle students as was the intention, but its impact on the whole-school provision of the subject should be considered, particularly given the mixed ability system in place in the junior cycle. While mixed ability classes are most appropriate in first and second year where students with a range of ability can work productively on the same tasks and texts to develop the core skills, third year brings with it the question of levels for Junior Certificate and so may require a different approach. Specifically, it is advisable that the current second year consisting of two large classes be regrouped into three next year. The English teaching team should discuss the relative merits of continuing the mixed ability system into third year or creating higher and ordinary level classes, taking the ability spread and the dynamics of the cohort into account.
Because of the optional transition year programme (TYP), fifth year contains a mixture of students who have come straight from third year and those who have taken TYP. This is of course the case in all schools with an optional TYP. In the current fifth year in Scoil Mhuire, the unusually high number of students repeating the year added a further ingredient to the mixture. The issue of repeat students is of particular concern in English because of the rolling nature of the prescribed course. It should be noted that all applications to repeat the year must follow the procedures set out in the Department’s circular M2/95, available on the Department website www.education.ie.
English is generally well resourced in Scoil Mhuire. Teachers have their own classrooms and in almost all cases these have been developed as resources for the subject with displays of student work, helpful charts, attractive posters and other illustrative material. This is very good practice. Almost all rooms have integral TV and VCR or DVD facilities. To maximise their use, it is suggested that all the prescribed Leaving Certificate films and a suitable range for junior cycle and transition year be obtained as a shared resource for the teaching team. The education team at the Irish Film Institute (www.ifi.ie) could be contacted in this regard. In addition, a collection of audiotapes of plays, novels and poetry would be a beneficial addition to the resources for English.
There is at present no designated library space in Scoil Mhuire, although there is in Scoil Eoin. However, books are a visible presence in most classrooms, and one classroom has a particularly handsome and well-filled bookcase. In order to provide a lending library for students, a set of cupboards holding books appropriate to the different years has been placed in one of the common areas, and these are opened under supervision to allow for student access. This is a commendable initiative.
A book rental scheme was put in place for the present first year students and it is planned to extend this for next year. The scheme provides an excellent service for students and their parents, and it is suggested that the parents association be approached to assist in the logistical aspects of the scheme.
Scoil Mhuire provides a good range of co- and cross-curricular activities in the area of English. Theatre and cinema visits are organised regularly, and debating, public speaking and film studies are part of the transition year programme. Management and staff are commended for facilitating and organising these activities.
School planning with the assistance of the School Development Planning Initiative (SDPI) is at an early stage. The next phase of planning will naturally focus on the amalgamation.
There is evidence of good written planning on an individual basis by the teachers of English but there is no formal subject department and no co-ordinator. A certain amount of subject planning has been undertaken involving the drawing up of year plans for junior cycle, and a subject department meeting took place while students were taking mock examinations in February of this year. In relation to the amalgamation, there have been discussions with the teachers of English in Scoil Eoin to draw up a joint booklist for first year, a sensible step taken in good time. Further work on subject planning would be a practical preparation for the necessary collaboration between the English teaching teams, and all the suggestions in this section are made to this end.
The present junior cycle plans are useful documents although they focus on texts and topics more than on skills and outcomes. The subject plan should be seen as a work in progress which is constantly reviewed and amended, rather than as a finished product. It should also emphasise the acquisition of skills, and the development of these skills through the work undertaken in each year. The more specific a plan can be about learning outcomes, the more useful it is. For example, the statement “The students will be able to draw inferences from a text” is more helpful as an objective than “Comprehension skills”.
The subject plan should also be viewed as a shared resource, gathering together the experience and ideas of the teaching team. It is recommended therefore that the plan for next year include descriptions of methodologies that have worked well and new strategies that the team could put to the test. Templates for book or poem reviews and text worksheets that have proved useful can also be included in the year plan, continuing the very good individual planning practices already in place, and creating a bank of shared resources. Additions and amendments can and should be made to the plan as the year progresses, and each teacher should have a copy. The year plan can then be discussed and amended at subject meetings. Such a plan is also of great assistance to those delivering learning support and resource teaching, formalising communications between those involved and enhancing the opportunities for reinforcing key skills and concepts.
As a practical measure to assist in both long term and short term planning, the English teaching team should consider nominating a subject co-ordinator. In discussing the role of co-ordinator, they should bear in mind a number of important functions. These include the dissemination of relevant information from the DES, SEC or other bodies to all teachers in the English team; the convening of meetings of the team and arrangements for keeping records of decisions made; the development of collaborative practices which will lighten the individual workload for teachers, especially in preparing teaching resources and house examinations papers. In addition it would be helpful to discuss what might be an appropriate term of office and whether a rota would assist the smooth handover from one holder to the next. A discussion of all these issues would be particularly beneficial for the ongoing good delivery of English in the school.
In relation to other programme planning, a detailed transition year plan describes the areas to be covered, texts and materials to be used and modes of assessment. The breadth of the course outlined is commendable, but while it is appropriate that there be a focus on developing skills that are useful to the Leaving Certificate student, the texts used should not be Leaving Certificate texts. This is particularly important where TYP is optional. The Second Level Support Service (www.slss.ie) will have helpful suggestions to make about suitable texts.
Six lessons were observed during the course of the inspection. All were delivered competently and the engagement of teachers with the subject was clear, as was their rapport with the students. Lesson content was appropriate and there was evidence of good planning where illustrative materials had been prepared and where teachers readily referred to background information in their exposition of the topic. In general, lessons were well paced, although teachers should bear in mind that any analysis of a text should be appropriate to the purpose of the reading and the level of the class, and should avoid over-analysis. In most cases, lessons began with a brief statement of aims, giving students a sense of focus. This is good practice and should happen in all lessons.
Resources were used well, indeed in some cases excellently. These included the use of a piece of fabric to illustrate the central metaphor of Yeats’s “Had I the heavens’ embroidered cloths”, and of copies of an unseen poem to enrich the students’ reading of a studied poem. The choosing of resources with a particular learning outcome in mind was complemented by the way in which they were employed, and this imaginative use of resources should be developed. Where texts are visual, as in media studies, the material should be of high quality, drawn from a real context, such as magazine or TV advertisements, and selected for its appropriateness to the learning outcome.
A good sense of continuity from one lesson to the next was created through the linking of new material with material previously studied. In one case students were prompted to consider the mood of one poem by comparing it to the last poem they had read. In another case student recall of key terms in media was tested by their ability to use them in analysing a new text. This linking strategy was used in a more general way to provide points of reference for the bigger issues that were discussed, such as ‘national identity’ or ‘love and loss’. Short focused writing tasks would be a good means of reinforcing these links for students. In another well-used strategy, the first task in a lesson related to previous learning, such as a quick spelling test or a check on the progress of a longer assignment, and then the class moved on to the main work of the lesson.
The board was used effectively in a number of lessons to gather points arising out of class discussion, to record key terms or tricky spellings and to organise class work. Students reading a poem for the first time were assisted by some simple exploratory questions noted on the board. A useful extension of this practice is to use the board to record pre-reading questions, thus giving students a focus in their reading, and providing a framework for a written response. This works particularly well for the reading of film. Whatever its purpose, work on the board should be clear and well organised so that students can follow it easily.
Although questioning was used to some extent to check on student recall and understanding, it was principally a means of engaging the class in discussion and inviting response from them. It was noteworthy that most students took part in discussion and listened to each other, and teachers were obviously used to a good level of response from the class and encouraged students to express their views. The fact that teachers provided a model for informed personal response in the way they commented on texts has clearly been helpful to students and is very good practice. This sense of the teacher as engaged reader was a strong and positive aspect of classroom practice.
There was evidence of a good level of student learning in the quality of class discussion, the ability of students to carry out the tasks required, and the readiness with which classes settled down to work. Students had with them or were quickly given the necessary materials and a sense of purpose was established early in the lesson and was well maintained. When working in pairs or groups, students stayed on task, and the ensuing whole-class discussions were productive. In interaction with the inspector, students demonstrated a good grasp of the relevant material and a willingness to express and support their own views.
The standard of student engagement and understanding expected was high, and this is commendable. However, care should be taken to give students time to form their own views and to affirm them in their efforts. It is also important to ensure that the certificate examinations do not overly influence how areas of the course are taught. Too early an introduction to examination criteria may cause unnecessary difficulties for students.
Classrooms were conducive to learning. The atmosphere was warm and supportive, and classroom management displayed a good combination of authority and friendliness. The clear expectation was that students would be co-operative and positive in their behaviour, and they were. In all cases the physical environment was well ordered, and in most cases it provided a stimulating and print-rich resource.
Assessment is an integral part of the teaching of English in Scoil Mhuire and includes both ongoing monitoring of student classwork and homework and formal written testing at Christmas and the end of the school year. Questioning is used in class to assess student recall and understanding, as is student participation in class discussion. Where students are given group or individual tasks in class, it is the practice for the teacher to circulate, checking on progress and giving assistance where necessary. This is commendable.
Homework is regularly set and monitored. It was noted that in many cases helpful comments aimed at improvement were written in students’ copies and folders, and it is recommended that all substantial written assignments be used in this way to aid improvement and to use assessment as a means of furthering student learning. Further information on assessment for learning can be obtained on the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment website (www.afl.ncca.ie).
In-house Christmas and summer examinations take place for all years except third and sixth years. These sit mock examinations in February which are externally sourced and marked. Teachers should ensure that these are consistent with the relevant syllabuses and with the official certificate examination papers, and particular attention should be paid to the wording of questions. In relation to in-house examinations, it is recommended that common papers be set for all classes taking the same level in the same year. This will boost the collaborative planning practices among the teachers of English and will ensure consistency. It should be noted that this does not require all classes to study the same texts as there is no prescription of texts in the junior cycle curriculum, and choice and openness are integral to the Leaving Certificate syllabus. The focus should therefore be more on skills than on texts in planning and assessment.
Teachers keep records of student attendance and progress, and this is good practice. The student journal is used to record homework and is also a means of communication between home and school. Reports on students are sent home twice a year and parent teacher meetings are held twice a year for third and sixth year and annually for all other years.
The following are the main strengths and areas for development 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.