An Roinn Oideachais agus Eolaíochta
Department of Education and Science
Subject Inspection of English
Saint Aengus Post-Primary School
Mountrath, County Laois
Roll number: 71490U
Date of inspection: 16 May 2007
Date of issue of report: 8 November 2007
Report on the Quality of Learning and Teaching in English
This report has been written following a subject inspection in St Aengus Post-Primary School, Mountrath, Co. Laois. 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.
St Aengus Post-Primary School is a County Laois Vocational Education Committee (VEC) school. The school provides English in the Junior Certificate (JC) and Leaving Certificate (LC) programmes and in the Leaving Certificate Vocational Programme (LCVP).
St Aengus Post-Primary has been scheduled for amalgamation with two local schools in Mountrath. The date was originally set for 2008 but this has been deferred to 2009. A site has been made available beside the existing school. The schools involved have been proactive and meetings between all three have taken place. The English department has been in dialogue with fellow professionals from the other schools with a view to co-ordinating elements of their programme. This is very positive and should be encouraged. As St Aengus Post-Primary School is a participant in the Delivering Equality of Opportunity in Schools (DEIS) scheme operated by the Department of Education and Science (DES), it will add the Junior Certificate Schools Programme (JCSP) to its curricular provision. This is a very good development since the JCSP is ideally suited to meet the needs of many of St Aengus’s students. The methodologies and support materials for the teaching of English in the JCSP are innovative and imaginative and can also be transferred and adapted to students in other curricular programmes. The school is also in the course of planning to add the Transition Year to its provision. This is a positive development since students of English will benefit from an extra year in school and through a well thought out syllabus, they will benefit from enhancement of their writing and oral communications skills. In the long term, the amalgamated school might consider the benefits of the Leaving Certificate Applied (LCA) programme.
There are two class groupings in second year, fourth year (LC year one) and fifth year (LC year two). The number of students in individual classes is low and this is of benefit from a teaching and learning point of view. Where there are two English classes in a year group, these are streamed into “A” and “B” groups. The majority of students take ordinary-level English in the state examinations so that the “A” groups comprise a mixture of higher and ordinary-level students. Uptake of higher-level English is very low. Allowance must be made for contextual factors. It is reported that in some cases, poor student motivation and attendance contribute to low uptake at higher level. This is a whole-school and community issue and parents and the school should work closely together. A multifaceted approach is needed. The raising of students’ academic expectations should be the school’s priority.
Newcomer students are fully integrated into classes. Those who require language support are identified through interview and through testing and they are withdrawn from Irish to attend English language lessons. In some instances, students requiring language support are taught with students who have identified learning-support needs. Since the needs of the two groups are different, it is recommended that separate provision be made. Particular care should be taken to review the progress of language-support students on a very regular basis. Where progress has notably accelerated, they should be reassigned to an appropriate level without delay to ensure that this progress is maintained. It is recommended that those involved in delivering language support should liaise with Integrate Ireland Language and Training (IILT). Information is available at www.iilt.ie.
Students requiring learning support are withdrawn from subjects such as Irish and French; allocation to small class groups is also a strategy deployed. They are identified through testing and referral and the school has access to a National Educational Psychological Service (NEPS) psychologist. Contact is made with parents on a regular basis. Very good work is being done in the learning-support department and individual education plans have been developed for the majority of students in need of learning support. This is highly commended. Review of individual progress needs to take place on a regular basis. It is understood that testing took place at the beginning of the academic year, 2006-7 and this caused a slight delay in providing the necessary supports. However this will not occur in the forthcoming academic year, 2007-8.
Timetabling allocation for English is good with five single periods distributed over the week for the subject in each year group. In the LC programme, the teacher takes those attempting higher-level English for an additional two lessons outside the daily timetable. In third year, a small group is withdrawn for learning support on four days of the week, and the full class of sixteen students is integrated for the fifth. This is not ideal. Students should not be withdrawn from English for learning support. Team teaching could be considered as an alternative.
Provision for English requires review in the context of raising expectations. For example, at present, those attempting higher-level English in the senior cycle must attend additional classes either during lunchtime or after school in order to cover some aspects of the syllabus. This represents considerable dedication and commitment on the part of both teachers and students. However it is not conducive to optimum learning conditions. Since there are two year groups in each year of the Leaving Certificate programme, and numbers are low in each, one of these groups could be designated higher level. This arrangement could commence from September 2007 for incoming fourth years and the next year’s fifth years should be configured to ensure that as many as possible take higher-level English. To increase the numbers of students taking higher level in the junior cycle, management should investigate the possibility of allocating additional lessons to English.
The English team has access to resources such as videos, DVDs and television. There is a library in one of the classrooms and this is very well maintained and updated and all students have access to it under the supervision of their teachers. In the academic year, 2007-8, it is anticipated that a budget of 200 Euro will be made available to the department and this should facilitate the purchase of additional resources. The learning-support room is located centrally and is well resourced. The school has a computer room but information and communications technology (ICT) is not routinely integrated into the teaching and leaning of English. This is a matter that needs to be addressed.
The subject is taught by a balanced, experienced and dedicated team. There is ongoing commitment to continuous professional development (CPD). Teachers have been in involved in-service courses for the JCSP programme and have availed of courses through the Second Level Support Service (SLSS). Engagement with CPD is commended. As a focus for future development, the school as a whole could look at the theme of differentiation. The teachers of English liaise regularly with the learning-support department and this is very positive. Two teachers have a qualification in the area of learning support. A rather large number of teachers are involved in both resource teaching and learning support (six and nine respectively). The school has an allocation of just under two full-time equivalent posts for learning support, and a language support allocation of just under six hours per week. In order to ensure a fully cohesive service to those in need of learning support, consideration should be given to streamlining the team. The work of all those involved in resource teaching and learning support should be co-ordinated.
Co- and extra-curricular activities complement learning in the conventional classroom setting. In St Aengus Post-Primary School, students attend subject related events such as theatre and cinema outings. Further opportunities could be sought and the development of oral skills through drama and debating should be considered.
The school has engaged in planning activity. As an area for development, a literacy policy should be written up and fully implemented in the wider context of whole-school planning as literacy is a whole-school issue.
The senior English teacher acts as co-ordinator and the department meets once a term. Minutes of the last two meetings were presented in the documentation. The English teachers are in regular communication on an informal basis. A plan is being developed at the moment and the English department is using the School Development Planning Initiative (SDPI) template. This is a promising beginning and it is recommended that the plan now be completed. Ways of integrating ICT into the teaching and learning of English should be documented. Since two levels are currently taught in one class group, there should be a clear emphasis on differentiation in planning documentation. Teaching methodologies should be outlined.
As a primary focus for forward planning, the English department should investigate ways to increase the numbers of students taking higher-level English beginning in the junior cycle. It is recommended that the English department meet more regularly on a formal basis to complete the English plan, to review its implementation on an ongoing basis and to engage in action planning in order to increase the numbers of students taking higher level. It is suggested that these meetings be facilitated by management. An outline learning-support policy has been written and this should now be fully written up.
A good range of texts is chosen and the department has agreed the choice of first-year texts in consultation with the amalgamating schools. Reading is encouraged by teachers and in the junior cycle, some time is allocated for the exchange of library books and for independent reading. This good practice is commended and could usefully be extended to the senior cycle. It is suggested that the department develop a policy on reading and this should be included in planning documentation. Advice can be sought on reading and related topics through the SLSS website at www.slss.ie. Contact could also be made with County Laois library services, the School Library Association in the Republic of Ireland (SLARI), and the School Library Association of Britain (www.sla.org.uk/). Since the school is about to implement the Junior Certificate Schools Programme (JCSP), information on the JCSP library project is available at www.jcsp.ie and this would be an opportune time to acquire suitable resources through the JCSP support services.
Plans for individual lessons were presented in the course of the evaluation.
In the initial stages of the lessons, the focus was on routine tasks such as roll call and checking homework. Handouts and other resources were prepared. The board was used to good effect in most cases. Best practice was observed where the learning objective was explicit, students were given clear instructions and lessons were planned sequentially and in such a way as to ensure smooth transitions from one phase to another and to lead logically to achievement of the lesson objective. In a few cases, planning should be reviewed to ensure cohesion and clarity so that activities follow naturally one from another. To help achieve this, planned lesson outcomes should be shared with students and these should be written on the board.
Revision was underway in preparation for in-house and state examinations and good strategies were imparted to build confidence. Advanced reading skills were taught such as scanning material to extract relevant information; techniques such as the highlighting or underlining of specific words and phrases that would form an evidence base were learned. In one instance, students were given a study plan and this is of great assistance to those who find it difficult to organise their own programme of revision.
To engage students’ attention a variety of stimuli were used including music. In order to contextualise a poem students were asked to identify a location on a map. Details of a writer’s life made the text more meaningful. Links were also made with earlier learning and this is commended.
Efforts were made in lessons to encourage student participation. The learners read from texts. Pair work was employed and this not only encouraged collaborative learning but also allowed the teacher to circulate and monitor progress. Best practice was observed when the task was well defined and time-bound. Questioning strategy was deployed to good effect in the majority of lessons. Questions probed understanding of concepts: for example, students were asked to explain “theme” and this was very important in establishing a clear framework for the exploration of texts and the gathering of evidence. Individual students were targeted for questioning, keeping students on task, and allowing teachers to check understanding and recall.
Some students may take longer to formulate and express an answer orally or may be reluctant to do so. This should be factored into class activity. Sufficient time needs to be allowed to facilitate these students. Structured discussion should take place in order to deepen the learner’s appreciation and understanding of the material, and to develop a critical vocabulary and encourage confidence in the expression of a personal response. A brief relevant writing activity could be of assistance in helping students to organise their ideas. It would be useful to remind students regularly that a wide range of responses is possible. Key words written on charts are an effective way of building and reinforcing a critical vocabulary. In general, there needs to be a more structured approach to the development of students’ oral communication skills.
Particularly commended is the focus on the development of higher-order thinking skills in some lessons. Students were encouraged to think for themselves, to make inferences and to give examples to support statements. Through the comparison of two texts, they were asked to judge the quality of ideas and treatment of the subject. They were also encouraged to draw comparisons between the social conditions obtaining in the text, with those in contemporary life and to express a personal judgment as to which of the two would be more congenial to young people today. This good practice should be extended widely.
Copybooks examined indicate an appropriate emphasis on the learning and practice of writing skills in some cases. However, this was not universal. All students should learn to develop their repertoire of syntactical structures and to write fluidly and accurately. Students should be required to write full sentences by way of answers to comprehension questions. The use of writing frames should be considered for reluctant writers. Good practice was noted where students wrote in a variety of genres but, in a small number of cases, students should practise skills more regularly. Copybooks indicate that in most cases, a good body of work had been covered and exemplary practice was noted in some. To harmonise practice, the department should agree the number of substantial written assignments that should be completed by each year group and the emphasis should be on the development of skills and on encouraging a personal aesthetic response. Folders of notes were very well maintained and high standards were noted in some classes.
Classroom management was very good in all cases. Small groups ensured intimacy and students learned in a sensitive and supportive atmosphere. There was a very good rapport between students and teachers in the classrooms visited. The full integration of students with special needs is highly commended. A print-rich environment was noted in some classrooms and this is commended.
The school has a homework policy and the roles of teachers, students and parents are outlined. Homework tasks were set in all lessons observed. When setting assignments, assessment criteria should be shared with students. Very good practice was noted in a few cases where homework tasks set were linked in a thoughtful way to the lesson and they were imaginative in design.
In copybooks seen by the inspector in the course of the evaluation, good practice was noted where advice was given to students and assessment for learning informed monitoring. There were good examples of conscientious assessment and in many cases, homework was dated so that progress could be tracked. Especially commended is the affirmation given to students in many samples, as this encourages a positive attitude.
Formal in-house examinations take place at Christmas and in the summer term. Common papers are not set. This is an area that should be reviewed since common examinations harmonise practice and ensure cohesion. A common marking scheme should be agreed and moderation should take place to ensure consistency. Since class groups are relatively homogenous in St Aengus Post-primary School, there is no reason why common exams could not be set; differentiation can be integrated into the paper format. “Mock” examinations are held for the relevant year groups. Continuous assessment of learning takes place through the setting of regular class tests. Communication with parents is maintained through parent-teacher meetings, the school journal and personal contact as appropriate.
The following are the main strengths identified in the evaluation:
· The school will enhance its curricular provision by introducing the JCSP in September 2007 and is actively considering the TY programme at present
· The subject is taught by a balanced, experienced and dedicated team, open to new ideas and committed to the subject
· Timetabling provision is good
· Small classes ensure that students get individual attention and they learn in a supportive atmosphere
· There is a good choice of texts in the junior cycle
· The learning-support department has developed a good range of resources and has written up individual education plans for those who need them
· There is regular liaison between the English and learning-support departments.
· Reading is encouraged
· Students with special needs or those requiring language and learning support are fully integrated into the school
· Good assessment practice was noted.
As a means of building on these strengths and to address areas for development, the following key recommendations are made:
· The school and parent body should work together to raise students’ academic expectations and a variety of approaches should be explored
· A stronger focus on the development of writing and oral communication skills needs to be developed in all lessons
· It is recommended that lesson planning focus on the achievement of outcomes and expectations should be shared with students at the start of all lessons
· The existing outline learning-support policy should be fully written up and students should not be withdrawn from English for learning support
· There should be a clearer emphasis on differentiation in documentation and in practice.
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.