An Roinn Oideachais agus Eolaíochta
Department of Education and Science
Subject Inspection of English
Mercy Secondary School
Ballymahon, County Longford
Roll number: 63710M
Date of inspection: 7 December 2006
Date of issue of report: 22 February 2007
Subject inspection report
This report has been written following a subject inspection in Mercy Secondary School, Ballymahon. 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 in writing on the findings and recommendations of the report, and the response of the board will be found in the appendix of this report.
Mercy Secondary School provides English in the Junior Certificate (JC), Transition Year (TY), Leaving Certificate (LC) and Leaving Certificate Vocational Programme (LCVP). Students in the LC and LCVP follow the same English syllabus. At the time of the evaluation, Transition Year was unavailable as students were involved in a work-experience programme.
Timetabling allocation is very good for fifth and sixth years with six English lessons per week. Transition Year students have four periods, which also represents good provision. Second- and third-year students have four lessons per week: this is adequate. The periods are distributed evenly over the week so that the students have an English lesson on four successive days. Provision for first-year students does not represent good practice. Four periods are allocated but these are concentrated in the middle of the week with a lesson on Tuesday, two non-consecutive lessons on Wednesday and the fourth on Thursday. As a result, a considerable gap develops between lessons from Thursday until the following Tuesday. First year represents an important transitional period for students. Moreover, in first year, basic skills are learned that provide a foundation for the Junior Certificate and Leaving Certificate. Frequency underpins the incremental development of basic skills. It is recommended that provision for first year students be reviewed and that at the very least, English lessons be distributed evenly over the week. Best practice for all year groups provides an English lesson on each day of the week
Uptake of higher-level English is good in both the junior and senior cycles. Outcomes achieved are very satisfactory. The English department should keep level uptake under constant review given that some students may be overachieving at ordinary level in both the junior and senior cycles and this could suggest that they are capable of the higher-level. Students are assigned to higher- and ordinary-level classes as early as first year in Mercy Secondary School. It is recommended that the practice of assigning first years to ordinary and higher-level classes be discontinued and that first-year students be taught in a mixed-ability setting, starting in the academic year 2006-7. Ideally, the streaming or banding of classes should be deferred for as long as possible in the junior cycle. Classes are timetabled concurrently and this facilitates the movement of students from one level to another. This is commended as concurrency not only facilitates student movement but also provides opportunities for inter-class activities and team teaching and such opportunities should be fully exploited. Assignment to levels in the LC programme is based on a combination of JC results and student choice. Students retain the same teacher from second to third year and from fifth to sixth.
The school has a qualified learning-support teacher and others are also involved to a lesser extent. There is a policy in place and students in need of learning support are identified at entry through diagnostic testing and contact with feeder primary schools. In the selection of tests, care should be taken to ensure that these are norm-referenced for Ireland. Students are organised into small classes or are withdrawn from lessons. During the course of the evaluation it was learned that first-year students have not been receiving learning support. This represents very poor practice. However, it is reported that this matter is to be addressed in the short term and this is in keeping with the school’s stated philosophy of helping all students to achieve their potential “particularly those who are disadvantaged or marginalised”. Transition Year students also do not receive support. Students with identified needs should be prioritised in the learning-support plan in all year groups and the school should make adequate provision for all students who require literacy support. Those requiring additional supports in sixth year have the advantage of being assigned to small classes and this is commended. The school has a small number of students in need of language support and it is understood that these are withdrawn from classes for additional support. Those involved in the teaching of students whose mother tongue is not English are advised to liaise with Integrate Ireland Language and Training (IILT). Information is available at www.iilt.ie.
A committed and experienced team of seven teachers currently delivers English in the school. Staff members have participated in whole-school in-service for example teaching mixed-ability groups. A range of other special needs’ courses has also been attended. There is good access to resources such as audio-visual equipment and overhead projectors. An annual budget is made available to the department. It is reported that the school library is currently out of use due to renovations. This could afford the school a good opportunity to develop the facility. Contact should be made with county library services, and information can be found also at www.library.ie (the portal site for Ireland’s libraries). Other useful sources are the School Library Association in the Republic of Ireland (SLARI), and the School Library Association of Britain (www.sla.org.uk/). Information on the Junior Certificate School’s Programme (JCSP) library projects is available at www.jcsp.ie. Class libraries are available to the students in Mercy Secondary School.
The school has a computer room with thirty computers. There are two data projectors also. While some English classes access the schools information and communications technology (ICT) facilities, most English classes do not routinely avail of the school’s resources. However, there is a willingness on the part of the teaching team to engage further. Training has been made available to all staff members in the past and represents a very positive commitment on the part of staff and management to developing skills. It may be possible to provide further coaching, perhaps at individual level, in the future. It is therefore recommended that ICT be fully integrated into the teaching and learning of English for all class groups.
The learning-support department is well resourced and has a designated classroom .It is reported that there are plans to develop ICT resources and this is an area for development. Contact could be made with the Special Education Support Services (SESS) at www.sess.ie and with the Irish Learning Support Association (ILSA) at www.ilsa.ie.
Evening study is available. Students have the opportunity to participate in a range of co- and extra-curricular activities and these enrich the students’ experience of English outside the classroom. Students participate in debating and there is a junior debating club in the school. Mercy Secondary School students have achieved notable success in creative writing, with individuals having been awarded the highest accolades in short story and poetry competitions. This is highly commended.
The English department meets formally on the first day of the school term and two shorter meetings of an hour’s duration are held in the first and second term. The department also meets informally. At present, minutes of meetings are not kept and it is recommended that all formal meetings have agendas and that minutes are kept so that progress in action planning can be tracked. There is a co-ordinator and the department is considering rotating the role in order to devolve responsibility to each member of the team and to give each experience of leadership. A plan is now in place and this represents a great deal of collaboration on the part of the English department. The team should now review the plan, identify areas for development, for example, reading, ICT and assessment policies. The plan could also include information such as State Exams Commission (SEC) material, Department of Education and Science (DES) circulars and Looking at English: Teaching and Learning English in Post-Primary Schools, (DES, 2006). Resources available to the department should be updated on an ongoing basis. This would facilitate a needs’ analysis so that a targeted approach could be taken to the acquisition of resources.
The English department should now identify the continuous professional development (CPD) needs of team members. Areas such as ICT, teaching English to speakers of other languages and learning support are areas worth considering and the department should seek support from school management with a view to developing its expertise in a way that would benefit students in Mercy Secondary School.
In the junior cycle texts are chosen jointly with cognisance taken of level. In the senior cycle, teacher choice based on the class level and ability are the criteria. On average, two novels and a play are studied at higher level in the JC programme while one novel and one play are studied in at ordinary level. There is no reason why the number of ordinary level texts should not be increased, taking into consideration the interests and ability of students. Audio-books are a useful supplement (but not replacement) of the written text. Wide reading in a number of genres is to be encouraged for all students and the department should revisit syllabus guidelines in this regard.
There is a good level of informal interaction between the learning-support teacher and the English team. Team-teaching strategies could be considered as a means of developing the interface between the learning-support department and the English department.
Poetry, language and comprehension, comparative texts and drama were taught in the lessons observed and content in all cases was appropriate both to programme and level. All lessons were well planned and a range of resources was deployed to support teaching and learning. These included students’ texts handouts (poems, song lyrics, prose extract, exemplars and question sheets), film clip and props. Audio-visual equipment was efficiently utilised. The board was used to good effect in the lessons visited.
The objective of the lessons was usually implicit. Where a new piece of work was in hand, pre-reading activity involved either painting in the in the background of the text or making a link with earlier learning or personal experience. Instructions to students were clearly conveyed at the outset. It would be productive if specific learning outcomes were identified at the start of all lessons (expressed in “I can do” statements) and that the lesson’s key points were reinforced at the end of the lesson. Many lessons were characterised by a variety of planned activities and the transition from one phase to the next was managed well. Exemplary practice was noted in one junior cycle lesson where an imaginative range of experiences reinforced learning.
Particularly commended in many lessons observed is the development of language competence. Specific emphasis was placed on the students’ acquisition of a rich and expressive vocabulary. Sensitivity to the nuances of descriptive language was also cultivated and the writer’s technique was highlighted. In the best examples, the use of technical terms was clearly linked to the text and was designed to impart key critical terms to develop students’ critical vocabulary. Less effective is an undue emphasis on figures of speech for their own sake. Good practice was noted where a written exemplar was used in one instance to model the skills required for a genre and students were then given the opportunity to practise the technique.
Questioning strategy was generally good with levels sequenced appropriately to encourage all ability levels. A balance was generally maintained between individual and global questions and questions were used for a variety of purposes, for example, to check understanding, to encourage speculation or to elicit personal views. Questioning activity was synchronised frequently with the recording of students’ answers on the board in order to frame an overall class response. This is good practice.
Apart from recording student responses, good use was made of the board for a variety of purposes. In one example, graphic illustration not only clarified understanding but also particularly engaged students’ interest. In text related activities, graphic organisers were also used to good effect in order to review key points in a text or to assist in the development of analytical skills through a compare and contrast framework. This represents good practice and further activities are to be encouraged, for example, the use of the Venn diagram for comparing and contrasting, or text mapping (bubble maps, flow charts and timelines).
Drama techniques were used in one exemplary lesson. Students viewed a film clip of the play they were studying. After brief class discussion, they then acted out a key-moment. Appropriate props were used and afterwards, the participants were interviewed in their roles. Reinforcement of learning was particularly noted through the variety of activities used and students were aware of the essentially active nature of drama. In interaction with the inspector, students demonstrated excellence in their understanding of key themes and issues and their ability to cite evidence in support of their views.
Students demonstrated a competent knowledge of the subject in the lessons observed. Ideas were teased out and explored. This is good practice and could be extended further through the widespread use of personal response journals. Best practice was observed where discussion was encouraged and students were regularly encouraged to express their personal views and to activate earlier experience or knowledge. In a junior cycle class, student enthusiasm and creativity was clearly in evidence when innovative and imaginative suggestions were offered by the class to explain a mysterious text. While exemplary practice was noted in some lessons, more use could be made of active-learning strategies in a few. Copybooks examined indicate that a good level of syllabus related work has been learned. Students of all ability levels were challenged in most of the classrooms visited.
There was evidence of a print-rich environment in many classrooms. Posters, books and students’ own work created a stimulating learning environment. Students were, in the majority of cases, well organised and standards of behaviour were very good. There was a very good rapport between students and teachers in the classrooms visited and particularly commended is the affirmation and encouragement students received.
Formal in-house examinations take place twice a year. Junior Certificate and Leaving Certificate classes undergo mock examinations. Common examinations are not set and this is an area that could be reviewed in the interests of standardisation of syllabus delivery. Reports of student progress are sent home. The school journal is also used as a medium of communication. Records of assessment are maintained.
Standard of assessment in copybooks is generally good. Homework is set and, in most cases, conscientiously corrected. In the copybooks examined, a good range of syllabus related homework assignments are in evidence. In the senior cycle, there is an appropriate emphasis on substantial composition work.
Oral assessment is also practised. Typically, many lessons began with a review of earlier material and question-and-answer sessions were held to establish if previous work was understood. In a couple of cases, students read out their homework assignments to the class. This afforded an opportunity for instant feedback to individuals and difficulties could then be dealt with in an immediate context. Moreover, modelling of good answering was helpful to other students.
The best samples of homework assessment seen placed a strong emphasis on assessment for learning (AfL). Students received helpful feedback on their assignments through written comments from teachers. This good practice should be extended widely. Advice can be accessed through the the NCCA web site (www.ncca.ie). In one instance students were encouraged by way of written feedback to seek further advice from the teacher thus opening the door for oral feedback. This level of advice and support is highly commended.
The following are the main strengths identified in the evaluation:
Timetabling allocation for Leaving Certificate students is good.
A range of resources is available to the department.
Collaborative planning has been developed.
Students are generally challenged and high academic standards are set.
Good lesson planning ensured a variety of learning activities.
An imaginative approach is taken to methodologies in some lessons.
Students are taught in a supportive learning environment.
As a means of building on these strengths and to address areas for development, the following key recommendations are made:
Timetabling for first years should be reviewed.
First years should be taught in a mixed-ability setting.
Literacy support should be provided for all students who need it.
In the course of planning review, the English department should focus on developing its policies on reading, assessment and the use of ICT and should identify its CPD needs.
Minutes should be kept of all formal meetings.
ICT should be fully integrated into the teaching and learning of English.
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.
Submitted by the Board of Management
Area 1 Observations on the content of the inspection report
The first year English timetable was noted by Management as not being of good practice but unfortunately looking at the overall timetable for the six years, it was the best option for this year. All subjects and all years are taken into consideration when planning a timetable where staffing constraints have to be encountered.
We provide a broad curriculum at Junior Cycle with students sitting 12 exam subjects, which provide many students with the opportunity to study Art and Music. This however means that we are unable to provide 5 periods of English per week, as there simply is not enough time.
Our most senior learning support teacher, Mr Peter Curran whose untimely death occurred at the beginning of the term was also the Transition Year co-ordinator. He would naturally have provided learning support help through the many classes he had with TYP. We omitted to mention that his replacement is continuing this work. We provide a broad curriculum in the Transition Year Programme and it is widely acknowledged by parents that the majority of students especially the students with special educational needs develop a wide range of skills that boosts their self-esteem immensely.
Area 2 Follow-up actions planned or undertaken since the completion of the inspection activity to implement the findings and recommendations of the inspection
First year students who have been identified as having a special educational need (through assessment process already outlined) are now receiving the necessary support in literacy and numeracy – four class periods per week.
We are in the process of developing ICT in the Learning Support department. Plans are in place to have laptops as a key resource in the department for September 2007.