An Roinn Oideachais agus Eolaíochta
Department of Education and Science
Subject Inspection of English
Ballymahon Vocational School
Ballymahon, County Longford
Roll number: 71690F
Date of inspection: 31 March 2006
Date of issue of report: 26 October 2006
This Subject Inspection report
This report has been written following a subject inspection in Ballymahon Vocational School. 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 one day 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; a response was not received from the board.
Ballymahon Vocational School is one of four post-primary schools maintained by County Longford VEC. It is one of two co-educational schools in the town of Ballymahon and its intake comes from the town itself and the surrounding area. The school has a significant majority of male students and is keen to attract a more gender-balanced intake through an expansion of the range of subjects offered. It has a welcoming and warm atmosphere and its two main buildings are well maintained. A considerable ongoing effort is made to ensure that the accommodation and facilities provide a pleasant learning and social environment for the students.
Six teachers, including the principal, are involved in the delivery of English in the school. Three of these teach only one class group and only one teacher apart from the principal is timetabled for more English than any other subject. This deployment of the teachers of English may have a bearing on subject department planning and this will be dealt with in the next section of the report. There are two class groups in each year of the junior cycle and in the final Leaving Certificate year, known as fifth year. There is one Leaving Certificate Applied (LCA) class in each senior cycle year. At the moment, there is only one group in the first Leaving Certificate year, known as fourth year, and the school acknowledges the challenges this presents in devising a course that will suit the range of ability in the group and that can accommodate both Ordinary and Higher Level students. It is intended that there will be two class groups next year and this will be a more satisfactory arrangement. The school is commended on its provision of concurrent English timetabling for the two fifth year groups.
In other respects, provision for English is very satisfactory. Junior cycle students have a period of English every day. Senior cycle provision is most generous, with an optimal four periods per week for LCA English and Communications and six periods per week, including a double period, for English in fourth and fifth year. The number and distribution of English lessons is exemplary.
The school operates a policy of streaming ab initio in junior cycle. Decisions on placement are made following assessment tests and are also informed by reports from the feeder primary schools with which Ballymahon Vocational School has strong links. This subject inspection report gives due recognition to the difficulties that subject setting or concurrent banding would create in timetabling, and also acknowledges the school’s commitment to serving all its students well. Nevertheless, it is recommended that the possibility of mixed ability, in first year at least, be considered. A number of agencies including the Special Education Support Service and the Second Level Support Service may be approached for specific assistance in the area of differentiated learning (www.sess.ie and www.slss.ie.)
Classrooms are assigned to teachers and most teachers of English have their own rooms. Good practice was observed where these rooms were considered a resource in themselves and were used to display good illustrative material, student work, posters and word charts. The stimulating effect of a print-rich classroom should not be underestimated. The TV and VCR/DVD equipment is operated on a booking system and the school has a data projector which provides an excellent resource for film studies and the viewing of film as text. Teachers should use this resource as much as possible.
The library is housed in one of the classrooms and has become under-stocked. It is suggested that, in the interests of fostering the habit of reading in students and as resources permit, an emphasis should be placed on building up the library, especially with the many very good publications, both fiction and non-fiction, aimed at the reluctant or hesitant reader. Initiatives such as Drop Everything and Read, involving the whole school in sustained silent reading for perhaps twenty minutes, are recommended as very beneficial, and can provide students with the excellent role model of teachers reading for pleasure.
School management encourages and supports continuing professional development, and teachers have attended courses on special needs and on areas related to English in the Carrick-on-Shannon and Athlone Education Centres. Co-curricular activities, including visits to the theatre, are organised regularly and students also regularly contribute articles of school news to school and local newspapers. Management and staff are commended for facilitating and promoting such activities.
Although a relatively large number of teachers are involved in the delivery of English in the school, the small size of the school and a tradition of co-operation among the staff mean that there is good communication on practical areas of subject planning such as choice of texts. During the inspection, the setting up of a more formal subject department structure was discussed with management and staff and was recommended by the inspector. This would involve the appointment of a co-ordinator on a rotating basis and the establishment of formal meeting times. It is suggested that this issue be revisited in the context of whole-school planning and in the light of the staff deployment already mentioned.
With some input from the School Development Planning Initiative (SDPI), subject planning is ongoing in the school. In the case of English, these plans tend to focus on the material to be covered, and they reflect the teachers’ concerns about the choice of appropriate texts and the need to cover all aspects of the course. The following suggestions are intended to assist in the development of the subject plan to make it a helpful and practical resource and to assist in forward planning and in review. The willingness of management and staff to discuss planning issues and their concern to meet the needs of their students through effective planning demonstrate a very caring and committed approach.
The subject plan for English should be regarded as a process rather than a product. For example, decisions on texts can be made on a phased basis, particularly in relation to the comparative study in the Leaving Certificate syllabus. In fact, as the teachers themselves have said, it is sensible to gauge a class’s response to the first text before making further choices. Another good strategy is to involve the students themselves in the choice of film by giving them a taster from each of the films on offer, and seeing which one makes the most appeal to them as a comparative text. This works particularly well after the students have read the first comparative text.
Teachers expressed an awareness of and a concern about the need to build students’ competences in key skills such as critical reading and accurate writing. It is recommended that, in developing the subject plan, the teaching team should move the focus from texts and materials to skills development and desired learning outcomes. This means that, for example, the planned study of a play would highlight key dramatic concepts such as conflict and irony and would identify students’ understanding of these as the desired outcome. It is also recommended that the subject plan would take an integrated approach to the study of texts and the development of students’ reading and writing skills so that students come to see that all reading involves comprehension and that all their writing involves composition skills.
Leaving Certificate Applied students were away on the inspection day but there was evidence of good planning for the programme, including ongoing efforts to build up a good bank of resources for English and Communications. Those involved in teaching the programme have no formal meetings but there is regular informal contact and discussion. Again, it is recommended that the desirability of formal meetings be considered in order to assist, amongst other things, in an “across the board” approach to issues such as absenteeism which have a bearing on the whole programme.
In relation to short term planning, the lessons observed had been carefully prepared, as was evident in the teachers’ setting out of the material to be covered and in the impressive ease with which they drew on relevant background information in their discussion of writers and texts.
Three lessons, one in junior cycle and two in senior cycle, were observed during the inspection. All were well prepared and conducted competently and professionally. They were also well structured and began, commendably, with a brief statement of topic and aims. The amount of material to be covered had been judged with the needs and pace of work of the particular class in mind.
The teaching style was characterised by a supportive attitude towards the students. For example, in senior cycle, where the group was in the very early stages of reading a nineteenth century novel, the teacher provided a detailed and helpful spoken commentary in response to the class’s initial difficulty with the unfamiliar language and style. As the students become more familiar and confident with the narrative, the teacher intends to increase the pace and will expect more independent work from the students. It is suggested that this good strategy could be further supported by pre-reading discussions to get students thinking about possible developments in character and plot.
In junior cycle similar support was given to students to enable them to express a personal response in a structured way. Students were affirmed in their knowledge of the text and were encouraged to describe the pictures or images it created in their minds. This oral work provided a good stimulus for a written response to a question from a past examination paper which contained the word “image”, a concept that was now familiar and manageable. Such methods provide very good support for students.
Questioning was used effectively to elicit a more focused response from students and to help students towards certain perceptions. This is good practice as students will have a stronger recall of points they have worked out for themselves than of information passively received. Students were also sufficiently interested and confident to ask questions themselves, and these were thoughtful and contributed well to class discussion.
Significantly, teachers conveyed a strong sense of their own interest in the texts and writers they were dealing with, thus providing the students with very good models of personal response. They pinpointed for students aspects of good writing such as the telling use of detail in the poetry of Longley and Heaney, and in Eliot’s Silas Marner, and conveyed the effectiveness of such writing through their own enthusiasm. Even where students were inclined to be unresponsive, their curiosity about the writer was stirred by the strongly personal treatment of the text.
There was a good emphasis on student writing in class, ranging from annotating their own texts with explanation or comment to beginning a written assignment to be completed for homework. Annotation encourages thoughtful and active reading and is very helpful for revision. As students progress through a text, they should be encouraged to annotate for themselves. Beginning a homework assignment in class is a very useful strategy, especially for less able students who can be set on the right track and given encouragement to continue and complete the assignment.
In general, and in line with the recommendations on skills development made in relation to subject planning, methodologies which discourage passivity in students should be preferred. Individual or pair work obviously requires planning if it is to be successful but the advantage is that templates or writing frames prepared for one lesson can be shared and used again. Pre-reading exercises focus students’ attention and help them realise what they already know about issues that the text deals with. Even the simple strategy of using an audiotape for the reading of a novel or poem can encourage in students a more direct and lively engagement with the text. The Second Level Support Service (SLSS) can be approached for suggestions and advice in relation to active learning (www.slss.ie).
Teachers used questioning and the monitoring of students’ work in class to assess the level of student understanding of the topic in hand. A patient and affirming approach was taken where students indicated that they did not grasp a particular idea, and teachers are to be commended on the support they give to students in this regard.
The school has policies on homework and on communication between home and school which are soundly based and aimed at improving and monitoring student progress and encouraging independent work. The student journal is a key feature in these policies, and students were observed noting down homework in their journals as required.
Good practice in relation to beginning the homework assignment in class has already been mentioned. This should lead to more accurate and substantial work. Whether the work has been done in class or at home, students should take responsibility for checking their own work before handing it up, and it may be found useful to set aside some minutes at the beginning of the lesson to allow students to do this checking and correcting. Student work of a high quality was seen during the inspection. All students should have a clear sense of the standard of presentation required.
Classroom tests are given at Christmas while house exams at the end of the year are formally timetabled and take place in the assembly area. Mock examinations take place in spring and most papers are externally sourced and marked. Where students have been granted reasonable accommodations by the Department, the school makes every effort to mirror these in the mock examinations. Reports are sent home twice a year and parent-teacher meetings are held annually for each year. Management and staff are to be commended for the special arrangements they have made to accommodate parents and students in relation to parent teacher meetings and mock exams.
The following are the main strengths and areas for development identified in the evaluation:
Provision for English is very good in relation to the number and distribution of lessons.
There is good communication among the teachers of English but there are no formal subject department structures.
Teaching is characterised by a supportive and committed approach to the subject and the students.
As a means of building on these strengths and to address areas for development, the following key recommendations are made:
The possibility of creating two class groups in first year Leaving Certificate should be pursued.
Steps should be taken to set up a formal subject department.
Emphasis should be placed on active and differentiated learning methodologies, and the support of the SLSS and the SESS should be sought.
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.