An Roinn Oideachais agus Eolaíochta
Department of Education and Science
Subject Inspection of English
Riversdale Community College
Blanchardstown, Dublin 15
Roll number: 70081V
Date of inspection: 23 January 2007
Date of issue of report: 26 April 2007
Report on the Quality of Learning and Teaching in English
This report has been written following a subject inspection in Riversdale Community 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. The board of management 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 to this report.
Riversdale Community College provides English in the Leaving Certificate (LC), Leaving Certificate Vocational Programme (LCVP), Junior Certificate (JC), Transition Year (TY), Junior Certificate School Programme (JCSP), and English and Communications in the Leaving Certificate Applied (LCA) programme. Timetabling allocation is good. Five periods are provided in the LC programme. Transition Year and LCA students have each four lessons a week. Four lessons are allocated to two of the first year groups in the upper ability range and five in years two and three of the junior cycle. The school is particularly commended for the way it targets students with literacy needs. Those following the JCSP programme have six lessons in each year of the junior cycle. Another first year group has five lessons. In addition to this provision, extra lessons are targeted at all those who need them. Distribution of lessons is good on the whole.
Junior Certificate and Leaving Certificate classes are both banded and set. Access to higher level is determined by assessment at entrance and teacher observation. Class groups retain the same teacher from year to year. Concurrent timetabling for both Leaving Certificate classes and the two upper sets in each of the three years of the junior cycle facilitates movement from one level to another. It is understood that, on occasion, teachers have also availed of concurrency for team-teaching activities. This is commendable and further opportunities of this kind could be sought. Uptake of higher-level English is low but contextual factors should be taken into account. Ordinary level students achieve good outcomes in the junior cycle.
Currently, there are nine teachers of English, with a broad range of experience. Some are predominantly involved in the learning support department and there is a good level of liaison between the two departments. A fully qualified learning support teacher co-ordinates the work of the learning support department. The school has three special needs assistance (SNAs) and it is reported that they are an effective and integral part of the learning support team.
The school has a growing cohort of international students and this presents challenges to the school, given that some students arrive either late in their education or at irregular periods during the academic year. Language support is delivered mostly by one teacher but others are involved both in a teaching and co-ordinating role. Five staff members have availed of a VEC-provided skills enhancement programme in the area of language support and this is commended. However, further continuous profession development (CPD) should be provided for all staff members in the area of language support. The school should, in the first instance, liaise with Integrate Ireland Language and Training (IILT). In addition, useful information and materials are available at the IILT website, www.iilt.ie, including advice on integration, assessment, reporting to parents, and the English language proficiency benchmarks for non-English-speaking pupils at post-primary level.
Access to resources such as audio-visual equipment is good and management facilitates all reasonable requests for materials such as books. Access to information and communications technology (ICT) is, on the whole, good. The school has two computer rooms, one of which is in regular use by Vocational Training Opportunities Scheme (VTOS) students so that access is not so freely available. However, the other room can be booked. The school also has five data projectors and there is access also to a laptop computer. The teachers’ workroom is equipped with three computers. However, there is scope for development in the provision of ring-fenced ICT equipment (both hard and soft ware) for the learning and language support departments. An audit should now take place and a needs analysis should be carried out. While teachers of mainstream English use ICT facilities for personal research, it is not routinely used in the teaching and learning of English and it is recommended that this matter be addressed.
Given the large number of international students, many of whom have specific language needs, the provision of a designated and fully equipped language-support room should be investigated. Many, but not all lessons are conducted in one classroom at present but the teacher is also peripatetic. The school’s library is, in reality, a storeroom for books because the adjacent space that could have provided a viable learning centre has been partitioned off for the music department. Consideration could be given to transferring the music room to an alternative area of the school, so that the library could function as a practical space, equipped with ICT facilities, for class groups to read for pleasure, to carry out project work and to engage in independent research and learning. The library should be a central strand in the school’s literacy policy. For library development, contact the School Library Association in the Republic of Ireland (SLARI) and also, www.library.ie, which provides information and further links, for example, the School Library Association of Britain (http://www.sla.org.uk/).
Riversdale Commnity College provides after-school study for examination classes. Students are encouraged to enter writing competitions, and to submit material to the school magazine and this is highly commended. They are also taken to plays and, in the past, have visited the Dublin Writers’ Museum and the Gate Theatre. This year, some TY students will be attending the Abbey’s production of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar and additional events around this production.
In Riversdale Community College, subject departments are at present engaged in the devising of subject relevant homework policies within the framework of whole-school planning. The English department has a co-ordinator, is well organised and meets regularly, both formally and informally and has put a plan in place. To map progress and engage in action planning, English department meetings should have agendas and minutes should be kept. Targets should be agreed and set. A timescale for implementation and review should also be clear in the plan. As a focus for development, it is recommended that the English department examine ways to increase the uptake of Junior Certificate higher-level English. It is also recommended that the development of students’ oral language competence be prioritised.
There is no co-ordinated, department-wide approach to reading that would ensure consistency and, while there is good practice an individual level, there is no cohesion so that practice varies. It is reported that, in some cases, reading for pleasure is encouraged and that students bring in their own books or are given books from the library. This is commended. Good practice is in evidence in those classes receiving literacy support. For example, teachers use boxes of books and implement a structured reading programme with a varied and appropriate range of books of specific interest to the student cohort. Paired reading is also practised. Approaches of this kind could be extended to all classes and tailored to the needs of each group. It is recommended that a department policy on reading be written up and implemented consistently across all programmes and at all levels. For information on the promotion of reading and related topics, access the Second Level Support Service (SLSS) website at www.slss.ie.
A good range of texts is covered in the junior cycle. It is recommended that the department review the choice of texts to avoid widely studied Leaving Certificate texts in the junior cycle and very popular junior cycle texts in Transition Year. Choice of fiction and drama should be regularly reviewed and updated. While the existing book-rental scheme may impose some restriction on choice, forward planning should help to meet these challenges.
The Transition Year programme in English is in need of immediate review. Currently, there is an over-emphasis on preparation for the Leaving Certificate, using a traditional, narrow, text-based approach. Transition Year is compulsory and this gives the department an opportunity to ensure that all students benefit fully from both the variety of content and possible approaches, including assessment, that are characteristic of the programme. In the first instance, the department should look to the SLSS and to other schools in the VEC system. In consultation with management, the department could consider introducing a creative writing module either as a stand-alone unit or as an integral element of the TY English syllabus. A writing programme could lead to the production of a TY creative writing magazine. In addition, the TY English programme could involve students in the organisation of a school-wide Arts Week with cross-curricular themes.
Drama and fiction were the subject matter in hand in most lessons, while the LCA groups were studying unit one of the fourth module, The Poetry of Popular Song. Lessons were, in most cases, well planned. The learning objective was clear (but implicit) and the time was efficiently used in most cases, with a constant focus on that objective. Best practice was noted where a range of activities was planned to give variety to learning experiences and where time was given for in-class writing activity that gave teachers an opportunity to circulate and assist students. Resources prepared for lessons were apposite and included text (handouts and textbooks), wall-mounted photographs and audio-visual equipment (not deployed, due to technical difficulties). The board was also used. Use could be made of audiotapes of texts to assist reluctant readers in classes of weaker ability. The exit phase of lessons is an area for general development as this is an opportunity to check whether outcomes have been achieved and to consolidate learning.
Text was central to the lessons with, typically, students and teachers reading, while the teacher regularly interjected explanations or questioned the groups in order to assess understanding. In mixed-ability settings, and particularly where there are students with literacy and language needs, it is advisable to prepare students for a text by teaching keywords through a pre-reading activity. In general, there should be more emphasis on vocabulary building (oral and written) and this is best done in the context of the novel or play in hand so that the integration of language and literature is at the core of every lesson. The teaching of basic skills such as spelling, grammar and punctuation should also be grounded in the text. Good practice was noted in the teaching of critical analysis skills in some lessons through comparison or search for evidence.
Critical terms, for example, setting and suspense, were taught through the text in one instance, and students were encouraged to apply their understanding to a second text. This is commended. However, student autonomy should be promoted by allowing students to find the evidence themselves or in a collaborative exercise with peers (for example, in pairs). Good practice was noted where students were invited to express their personal responses to texts. LCA students had a good understanding of their well-chosen material and were confident in their use of the key terms expected of them. This represents good practice.
The board was used well in most lessons, for example, to organise answers and to convey clear instructions. Very good practice was also observed when mapping techniques such as “spidergrams” and “T” charts (for comparative work) were drawn on the board to teach organisational skills. Students’ responses to well chosen questions were written on the board to form a rubric for an answer.
It is recommended that, in general, greater use be made of active learning methodologies in order to cater for different learning styles. To develop their oral and communication skills, students could be given the opportunity to make oral presentations in class and debating could be encouraged. Other activities such as group work, role-play, interviews, hot-seating, the invitation of visiting speakers, computer-based learning and other drama in education exercises could be used. Interactions between students and teachers were lively in some classes and humour was used to good effect. Links were made to students’ experience in order to generate empathy and clarify understanding. Good engagement was noted where students were encouraged to express their views and some good answering was noted in many classes observed.
Imaginative writing was noted in some copybooks and this is commended. This good practice should be extended to all, and an emphasis on aesthetic and creative writing should be stressed at all ability levels. In order to teach writing with an emphasis on process, it is recommended that computers be used as a tool to learn the skills of drafting and editing. In tandem with this, it is recommended that students keep portfolios of their writing in various genres, (electronically and in hard copy) including drafts of their work at different stages. These could then form a resource in their preparation for examinations. Other ways should also be found to integrate ICT into the teaching and learning of English, for example, ICT is a useful tool for assigning students’ independent research projects and for the generation of presentations.
Lower order cognitive questions were used to recall earlier material and to check understanding of new text or instructions. These questions were used effectively for diagnosing difficulties and clarifying areas requiring reinforcement and review. Sensitivity was shown to students’ difficulties and meaning was teased out. In many cases, there was a balance between global questioning and questions specifically targeted at individuals. However, in a minority of cases, most of the questioning was aimed at the class as a whole so that some students were passive and either chorus answering resulted or a minority of more confident individuals answered on behalf of others. It is recommended that questioning practice be reviewed to ensure that questions are aimed at a variety of levels, that they are sequenced in such a way that every student makes a contribution during the lessons, taking into account the relevant ability of the group as a whole and individuals with specific language needs. In all cases students should be given adequate time to formulate and express their answers. In this regard, very good practice was noted in a lesson observed, where there were lively and well paced question and answer sessions to ensure that every student was on task and where there was a balance between questions addressed to the group and to named students and where meaning was teased out.
Students’ folders contained a variety of support notes in some classes. Students’ questions and observations were treated with respect and understanding. Lessons were taught in a well-organised learning environment. Discipline was generally very good and lessons were purposeful in all cases. In a very small minority of cases, student enthusiasm was such that more assertive individuals did not listen to or respect the views of their peers. In such instances, students should be reminded of the need for courtesy without compromising their natural spontaneity. Small class groups were a particular advantage in some lessons, allowing students to receive individual attention during writing exercises. Some of the classrooms visited were used as a resource in themselves and a stimulating learning environment was created through attractive wall displays. In others, much more could be done, particularly where teachers are classroom based and therefore have more autonomy.
Homework is assigned in all classes and good assessment practice was noted in many cases. Examples of good practice were observed in the use of assessment for learning where students were given useful advice to help them develop their skills. Good practice was also noted where work was dated so that students and teachers were able to track progress over a period. In some copybooks, however, work was assigned and in few cases, not assessed. Since this could act as a disincentive to further effort, it is recommended that assessment practice be reviewed in a departmental context and that clear, specific practices are agreed and implemented. Question sessions in class also provided an opportunity to assess the success of learning.
Assessment of learning takes place in the context of in-house examinations and these are held twice a year. JCSP assessment is in line with the guidelines for the programme. While engaged in the completion of their tasks for assessment, LCA students receive additional support through the learning-support department. This is commended. In general, the range of assessment modes could be extended in all programmes and useful advice is available through the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment at www.ncca.ie.
While good record keeping was noted in most cases, the practice was not universal and this is a matter that should be addressed. Accurate records provide a basis for student profiling and enable teachers to given useful information and advice to students, parents and to other relevant professionals. In particular, informed choice of levels and programmes in the progression from junior to senior cycle is made possible through the maintenance of reliable records and are an important addendum and/or corrective, in some cases, to Junior Certificate examination results.
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.
Submitted by the Board of Management
Area 1 Observations on the content of the inspection report
The Department of English at Riversdale Community College was happy overall with the content of the inspection report which highlights the quality of teaching and learning evident within the classrooms and in addition the dedication of the teachers of English to their students and this subject.
The recommendations by the inspector were a welcome addition to the various policies and practices already in place within the English Department. A number of them have been addressed since the inspector’s visit. Others are being reviewed and implemented, as suggested. There will be an on-going appraisal of all needs and necessary changes at the following Department meetings.