An Roinn Oideachais agus Eolaíochta
Department of Education and Science
Subject Inspection of English
Firhouse Community College
Firhouse Road, Dublin 24
Roll number: 70140L
Date of inspection: 18 and 20 October 2006
Date of issue of report: 22 February 2007
Subject inspection report
This report has been written following a subject inspection in Firhouse 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 the 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.
Firhouse Community College is a co-educational school maintained by Co. Dublin VEC and located in the outer suburbs of south Dublin, close to Tallaght town centre. The school is sited on an attractive and well-maintained campus which is complemented by the welcoming and well-ordered atmosphere within the school. Its catchment area is relatively contained, and students come from local authority and private housing estates which are close by. The school has a long-established place within the community, and avails of local amenities including the Civic Theatre and the Tallaght branch of the county library to add to the educational experiences offered to the students.
Nine teachers are currently involved in the delivery of English in Firhouse. The school management and the teaching team recognise that this relatively large number creates some logistical difficulties for subject planning. However, they support the view that teachers should maintain contact with their degree subjects (usually two) and this means that most teachers of English have a considerable involvement with other subjects. This is of course widespread practice, and simply requires that care be taken to ensure that all those involved in the subject communicate with each other regularly and are working within the subject plan. (The very good level of subject planning in Firhouse will be discussed in greater detail in the next section of this report). It is also advisable to ensure that teachers of English take at least two class groups for the subject and that a significant number of teachers take English both in junior and senior cycle. The school is to be commended on the provision made for continuity of teacher for each class group, and on the policy that teachers take class groups across a range of levels and programmes.
Fifth year and sixth year have five English lessons per week, with two single lessons on one day rather than the optimal one per day. However, English is timetabled concurrently in both years and this makes considerable demands on timetabling. It is commendable therefore that concurrence is well used, not only to ensure flexibility in class formation and to facilitate students who wish to change level but also to accommodate team-teaching and whole-year activities. LCA students have an optimal four lessons per week. There are three periods of English per week in transition year, augmented by modules in related areas such as film studies. In the junior cycle, there are four English lessons per week, running concurrently in each year. The inspector pointed out the desirability of five lessons, one per day, particularly in the light of the school’s commitment to literacy development and the significance of competence in English for student attainment in a range of subjects. It is acknowledged that the provision of concurrence, the formation of some relatively small class groups and the range of subjects in the junior cycle have an impact on English timetabling. However, it is suggested that the subject department and senior management consider the merits of increasing the number of English lessons in junior cycle in order to promote the development and reinforcement of essential skills.
Classes are organised on a mixed-ability basis which is carefully managed on intake to ensure that each class group is representative of the entire year. This is most commendable and reflects a lived ethic of inclusiveness and equality within the school. There is a strong emphasis on encouraging students to have the highest realistic expectations of what they can achieve. Accordingly, decisions on levels for Junior Certificate are deferred until third year, and the aim is that most students will cover a volume and quality of material suitable for higher level. This report acknowledges and affirms the commitment and conviction of management and teachers that has created such a positive and successful approach.
Support on an individual or small group basis is given to students who have been identified as having literacy difficulties. A small number of students work within the Junior Certificate School Programme, but this group is a discrete group only in third year. The resources available for literacy support include an allocation of 44 hours, two specialist rooms, a small office, a learning support library and a budget which is managed so that needs can be met as they arise. The whole-school commitment to literacy support has informed the provision of staff training within the school, with input from the JCSP Support Service and in-service for a number of teachers in the Dublin West Education Centre. The good practice in literacy support and literacy development observed during the inspection deserves acknowledgement and praise.
English is well resourced in the school. Class sets of books are available through the book rental scheme, book boxes and class libraries support reading for pleasure, and a very good range of reading material is available to assist literacy development. The school has a library to which students have access and which is also used for study. Its stock has not been updated recently but there are plans at present to create a “reading corner” using JCSP funding. The material pertaining to the JCSP demonstration library project (see www.jcsp.ie ) should be consulted to inform developments in library and reading facilities. Audiovisual equipment, including CD and DVD players, is available. Given the importance of film and media in the various English syllabuses followed in the school, ready access to audiovisual equipment is essential, and the organisation of such access should be reviewed regularly.
Higher Diploma student teachers are assigned a “link teacher” who is responsible for ensuring continuity of the programme in classes where teaching is shared. This is most commendable. Strong whole-school support for continuing professional development was evident in the provision of whole-school in-service, the facilitation of teacher participation in relevant courses and support for teacher membership of the subject association.
A very wide range of co-curricular activities that extend and deepen the students’ experience of English is provided in Firhouse, including visits to the theatre and cinema, participation in Model United Nations and competitive debating, visits from theatre companies and a writer in residence programme. The commitment shown by management and staff in facilitating all of these is noted and warmly commended.
School development planning (SDP) is at an advanced stage in Firhouse, with a number of working groups and committees addressing various aspects of the school plan. The school’s engagement with SDP over a number of years has led also to a strong culture of planning at the level of subject departments. In the case of the English department, this is evident in the high level of organisation and good documentation seen in the course of the inspection.
There is a co-ordinator for English who is not a post-holder and the position rotates over an agreed time. The co-ordinator’s duties are also agreed and include chairing meetings, keeping records of decisions made and liaising with senior management. The English department meets formally at least three times a year when time is set aside at staff days, and more informal meetings take place regularly. The agenda for formal meetings typically concern the drawing up of agreed schemes of work, choice of texts, and assessment arrangements. However, the records of such meetings convey not only careful attention to practical details but also a constant awareness of the bigger picture for the subject in terms of the aims and objectives of the syllabuses. Such an approach is most commendable.
The planning of the English programme is very thorough. It involves good collaborative practice in drawing up schemes of work within specific timeframes and in ensuring an appropriate level of consistency in the work done with different class groups. The strong department structure provides a good support for student teachers and teachers new to the school, and the work shared between student and link teachers is carefully documented in the school plan. The plan also lists the resources available – sets of books, films, audiotapes and so on – and a range of teaching methods and strategies to be employed.
It is clear from minutes of department meetings that good review practices are in place and, in discussion with the inspector, the teaching team were at ease in talking about and reflecting on the work of the subject department. In further developing the very good subject planning that exists, the teaching team should particularly focus on the development of students’ skills and should make specific links between the material being covered and the skills being taught through it. For example, the skill of drawing inferences from a text can be attached to the reading of a novel in junior cycle. The existing grid included in the subject plan showing the term’s work for each year could be usefully extended with a column headed “Skills”, and the teaching team could discuss and agree the range of skills to be targeted in each term.
A short overview of the planned transition year programme for English has been included in the subject plan. Its emphasis on the development of skills, on cross-curricular work and on creativity and innovation was noted and is commended. It is suggested that a more detailed description of planned learning outcomes and appropriate teaching strategies would be helpful. Planning for LCA is structured around the key assignments and the good strategies to encourage effective time management by students were noted and are commended. An integrated strategy for the development of students’ word processing skills, which would involve input from the computer studies department and the English department, would be a worthwhile addition to LCA planning.
While the school is cautious about changing core textbooks and other texts in order not to impose too great a financial burden on parents, a good stock of books has been built up and appropriate choices of texts have been made. There was no evidence of an over-dependence on textbooks in structuring class work; instead there was an exemplary level of individual planning, involving in particular the preparation of resources and strategies appropriate to the objectives of the individual lesson. Very good individual long-term planning was also evident.
The programme for learning support is well planned and arises from a well-informed commitment to meeting the needs of all students. The school has two qualified learning support teachers, both of whom also take mainstream English classes. Students who have been identified as requiring literacy support are withdrawn from classes (mainly, but not exclusively, Irish or French) and seen on a one-to-one basis. Individual education plans have been drawn up for these students and these are made known to all the relevant teachers. In addition, subject departments have drawn up lists of key words and terms in their subjects which provide a helpful focus for subject-specific support. A number of teachers who have a particular interest in assisting students with literacy or numeracy difficulties are involved in providing support to students with resource hours. The team meets both formally and informally to ensure a consistent and informed approach to the delivery of support. Where appropriate, the JCSP is used as a supporting structure for students who might otherwise have difficulty in staying the course. A whole-school approach to literacy development is evident from the in-service on differentiation strategies which has taken place, and the planned in-service on a holistic approach to reading.
Eight lessons were observed during the course of the inspection. They were delivered in a competent and assured manner, and were well structured and productive. Most began with an explicit statement of the objectives of the lesson giving the material to be covered and the learning activities the class would be involved in. Clear statements about learning outcomes, for example, “By the end of the lesson you will be able to…”, were seen to be particularly helpful in focusing students’ attention. This very good practice should be followed as widely as possible. Lessons were generally well structured, and in all cases the pacing was exemplary, unhurried yet creating a forward momentum.
Resources and teaching materials, both those in common use and those less frequently encountered, were effectively and imaginatively used. They included the blackboard, textbooks, dictionaries, handouts and materials for group work, audiotapes and concrete objects to assist understanding and visualisation. Use of the board was especially well thought out, and complemented the clear lesson structure. It was noteworthy that teachers were conscious of the board as a visual record of class work and discussion, and they ensured that key points were recorded clearly. Where the board was used for new spellings and vocabulary, these words were written in a separate area. This simple strategy to avoid visual clutter is commended and should be used at all times. Vocabulary building through consulting the dictionary was also a well-established practice in a number of lessons. More unusual resources were also used effectively. The preparation of envelopes containing themed sets of words facilitated a junior cycle group creative writing exercise, and a senior cycle class was enlivened by the use of actual objects (a pot plant, a doily) to assist the students in exploring a poem.
Effective use was made of audiotape where the class listened to a recording of a poem read by the poet herself. The use of audiotape is particularly recommended for the study of Shakespearean drama, where the language may create difficulties for students in speaking the lines themselves. When using audiotape for drama, it is recommended that students be asked to visualise the gestures, positions on stage, lighting and so on that they would consider appropriate. This approach reinforces the fact that they are engaging with a drama and emphasises the theatrical elements of a play which are frequently lost in film adaptations.
Most commendably, the teaching strategies used were predominantly those that promote active student engagement in the work. These included an approach to writing involving pairs working as writing partners who read each other’s work and made comments and suggestions. This helped to give purpose to the process of drafting and proofing, and made students alert to the idea of individual style. An entertaining exercise, also part of this approach, involved the teacher reading aloud the work of unnamed students and the class guessing the writer and explaining why. Very good group work was also observed. Students knew their groups and were familiar with the need to be clear as to their instructions, including time allowed and final outcome required. They generally worked well and productively in groups and presented the work of the group in a lively and engaged way at the end of the exercise. It is suggested that students presenting work to the class be encouraged to stand and so gain experience in speaking to a group. Most students who were asked to read in class did so confidently and in some cases with a striking dramatic sense, and their contributions were affirmed by their peers and teachers. In considering how they might add to the range of methods and strategies already used, the English department could focus particularly on ways of building students’ confidence and belief in their own capacities.
There was a very good balance between teacher talk and student talk, and the good questioning strategies observed contributed to this. Good, well-paced questioning of named students was used to help link new topics with work already done, and to test recall of facts. Questions demanding a more considered response were put in a more measured way, and students were encouraged to formulate a detailed and thoughtful reply rather than a hasty answer. Good use of leading questions, which alerted students to possibilities they might otherwise overlook, was also observed. Questions that invited students to predict what might happen next were effective in engaging students’ attention in the unfolding plot and also in gauging the level of their grasp of the text. It was noteworthy that students were confident about asking questions themselves and were encouraged to respond individually and to be ready to support their own views. The emphasis on questions that led students to think more deeply and to analyse the text more closely was commendable, and the frequent use of such higher order questioning is commended and should be extended wherever possible.
Effective classroom management created an environment that was orderly, purposeful and conducive to learning. Lessons were notably well structured, and clear instructions and comments kept the students on task and mapped their progress through the various topics and activities. Warmth and mutual respect were evident in the rapport between teachers and students in all years. It was also noteworthy that while whole-class management was very competent, teachers displayed a strong sense of the students as individuals. First names were always used, teachers dealt sensitively with students in need of particular attention, and good teacher movement allowed for one-to-one interaction as well as effective monitoring of the whole class. Classrooms themselves were also used well as resources. Student seating generally facilitated group work and monitoring of individual students. Many classrooms had very attractive displays of student work, and this form of publication is a very effective reward for students’ efforts in redrafting and perfecting written work. The provision of a print-rich and visually stimulating environment through the display of posters, photographs, books, word games and key-word charts was noted and is commended.
The high level of ongoing assessment of students’ progress through questioning and through monitoring of students’ work in class has already been noted as very good practice. There was frequent affirmation of students’ efforts by acknowledging and praising students’ responses and work. Equally clear was a sense of high expectations and, especially with senior students, an emphasis on accuracy and fullness of response. In a number of cases, the folder or portfolio system was in place, and this allowed students to see clearly how their work was progressing and gave them a strong sense of achievement. This was particularly effective in the case of students with literacy difficulties for whom evidence of progress and improvement is crucial.
Very good practice in the area of homework was observed. Assignments were given in good time in each lesson so that students could ask questions and note the work accurately in their journals. From an inspection of students’ copies and folders it was clear that work is set regularly and is marked promptly. This is most commendable. In many cases, very helpful written feedback was given to students and this practice should be extended to all substantial written work. It is also recommended that students be asked to check their own work very carefully before handing it up, and a little time could be given to this at the beginning of the lesson before copies are collected. This is a particularly useful exercise for third-year and senior students as it reinforces for them their responsibility for the accuracy and good presentation of their work.
Regular testing of students of a more formal kind takes place throughout the school year. Good planning practices in relation to assessment are in place, including the preparation of common papers as appropriate and the sharing of this responsibility among the teachers of English. House exams are held in November, in March and at the end of the school year. Formal reports are sent home after these, and there are parent-teacher and parent-tutor meetings for each year group. The school has been proactive in ensuring a very good level of contact between home and school, by means of regular newsletters, parent information evenings and the work of the home school community liaison co-ordinator.
The following are the main strengths identified in the evaluation:
Provision and whole-school support for English is generally good in relation to timetabling, deployment of teachers and availability of resources. The commitment to mixed ability teaching is impressive.
Provision for learning support and the planning and implementation of the programme are of a high standard.
There is a commendable level of planning for English involving effective collaboration, forward planning and review.
The English classroom is a well-managed and supportive environment in which active and engaged learning is happening.
Very good assessment practices are in place.
As a means of building on these strengths and to address areas for development, the following key recommendations are made:
The subject department and senior management should consider the merits of increasing the number of English lessons in junior cycle, to assist in the development and reinforcement of essential skills.
In further planning for English, there should be a particular focus on the development of skills, and on strategies that will build students’ confidence.
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.