An Roinn Oideachais agus Eolaíochta
Department of Education and Science
Subject Inspection of English
Nobber, County Meath
Roll number: 71980O
Date of inspection: 28 April 2006
Date of issue of report: 26 October 2006
Report on the Quality of Learning and Teaching in English
This report has been written following a subject inspection in O’Carolan College, Nobber. 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 teachers and the principal. The board of management of the school was given an opportunity to comment on the findings and recommendations of the report; a response was not received from the board.
O’Carolan College, a community college under the management of Co. Meath Vocational Education Committee, offers a range of courses to cater for all levels of ability and interest. These include the Junior Certificate, the Junior Certificate School Programme (JCSP), the Leaving Certificate Vocational (LCVP), the Leaving Certificate Applied (LCA) and the Leaving Certificate (Established) programmes. The Transition Year Programme (TYP) was introduced two years ago and, at that time, it was compulsory. Consequently, no students are being presented for the Leaving Certificate examinations in 2006. Since 2005, the programme has been optional.
Generally, students are placed in mixed ability classes for English in first year and are set from second year on, based on students’ progress and teachers’ recommendations. Student placement in second year is carefully monitored through the first half-term and, where appropriate, changes are made. This monitoring is good practice, particularly as classes are not timetabled concurrently and this can make movement difficult. Students are encouraged to take the higher-level course and the uptake in the present second year group is very good. Those students with particular learning support needs are allocated places in a small class group from first year and are prepared for the Junior Certificate School Programme (JCSP). Students follow a reduced curriculum and the school is commended for its provision of extra English lessons for students in this programme.
A number of changes to how students are placed in class groups have been planned for next year. These are aimed at promoting and supporting the school’s commitment to the provision of an inclusive education and will see students with special needs and those taking the JCSP integrated across all class groups in first and second years. It is intended to extend mixed ability placing into second year next September also. School management have arranged relevant in-service support for the whole staff to facilitate these changes.
General resource provision for the teaching and learning of English is good. Most teachers have been allocated a classroom and these are equipped with TV and video. Good use is made of these to support teaching. It was evident that teachers also make use of the computer facilities in the school to access resource materials and notes that are used in the classroom. The plans in the school to provide internet access in all classrooms are commended and it is suggested that the teachers of English should explore how they can make best use of this technology to support the delivery of their subject.
The range of co-curricular activities available for students of English provides opportunities to acquire and practice both oral and writing skills. Students have the opportunity to participate in public speaking and recitation competitions and teachers arrange trips to the theatre to see professional productions of the plays being studied for examinations. A school magazine is being produced this year by the TYP class and they, together with other students, also have an opportunity to participate in in-school poetry competitions. The work done by teachers to facilitate these and other co-curricular learning experiences for the students is commended.
A very good collaborative spirit is evident among the teachers of English. In addition to three formal department meetings, they meet in their own time once a month to support each other in delivering the curriculum. As a result, subject planning at department level is well advanced. The documentation available indicated that teachers have used a number of planning templates to outline the content, resources and methodologies to be used by teachers of English through junior and senior cycles. It is recommended that, as the plan is developed, a single, agreed template should be used throughout. In addition, the inclusion of a description of student learning outcomes in the template is recommended as an effective way to shift the focus in planning from teacher activity to student learning.
The plan for English in the Transition Year Programme has a clear emphasis on performance and on the practical implementation of the skills and knowledge taught. It makes for an exciting and engaging programme and includes many opportunities to develop the independent learning skills of students. The plan for the LCA group ensures that they are given access to a range of materials which are suitably challenging and the inclusion of the study of a novel is commended. There was evidence of good cross-curricular co-operation in the implementation of the English programme for LCA.
Planning for literacy and language support is good. Close liaison with feeder primary schools and information received from parents allows the school to identify students with support needs and the JCSP is offered in the school from first year to a small class group who have been deemed to be likely to benefit from a reduced curriculum. This programme allows the school to provide additional time for support in English, which is provided by the resource teacher. In addition, some students are also withdrawn for further support in smaller groups. The school has implemented a number of JCSP strategies, for example, Word Millionaire, Make-A-Book, and paired reading schemes, to encourage students in JCSP to develop and practice literacy skills through reading. Support is also provided, on a withdrawal basis, to students following the other programmes available in the school.
There are a small number of students in the school who are receiving language support. Links with the feeder primary schools and a transfer programme provide opportunities to identify the level of competency in English and the school takes full advantage of this. Support is then offered, through separate English classes and, where necessary, on a one-to-one basis.
The Special Needs policy document reflects the commitment in the school to provide the fullest range of supports available to all students.
The teaching of English takes place in bright, airy classrooms and the teachers have created attractive displays of learning support materials and teaching aids. This is a very effective way of exposing students to a print-rich environment and the inclusion of their own work both rewards and motivates their efforts.
Teachers had carefully planned their lessons, as evidenced by the availability of relevant resources and the structure of each lesson. Good use was made of video, television and computers to support the work planned. In one case, a handout had been prepared because the teacher found that the students’ textbook was an unsatisfactory resource. In another, the teacher had gathered a number of samples of a text type, which were used to illustrate points made in class.
Lessons were well paced and directed and, in two cases, the teacher shared the learning objective with the class group. This is very good practice as it contextualises classroom activity and invites students to share responsibility for the lesson. New material was only introduced following pre-learning checks that established prior understanding of the topic. These included review of work done previously and the correction of homework. In some classes, the roll call helped students to settle down and established the learning atmosphere.
In all classes, teachers drew on a range of sources to find suitable and appropriate texts for study. Students work with a range of media and their appreciation of their texts is enhanced through seeing films or video recordings as appropriate. They also have opportunities to see live performances of the plays being studied. While finding a good fit between students’ ability and the level of challenge inherent in a teaching resource is not always easy, it is particularly important with less able students that handouts are accessible. In order to achieve this, it is suggested that teachers make full use of the range of support materials available on the internet, for example, or from the relevant support services.
Teacher instruction was generally clear and accurate and time was invested in ensuring that students understood the new vocabulary and concepts encountered. In one class, for example, good use was made of key word posters to ensure comprehension. Students’ confidence in using and responding to language is enhanced by encouragement when they speak in class and the teachers in O’Carolan College were very affirming of their contributions. In some instances, teachers were too supportive, allowing students to offer only the briefest of responses to questions. It is recommended that, when questioned, students should be given time to reflect before responding, to develop their answers and to engage with one another when they ask a question themselves, rather than have the teacher supply the answer.
Lessons observed provided ample opportunity to develop the independent learning skills of students. This was a particular strength of a class which engaged students in practical and production-focussed learning activities, including editing, picture cropping and layout design for a school newspaper. Very good use was made of group working to achieve a good match between the complexity of tasks set and the students’ strengths in a mixed ability setting. In another class visited, students were encouraged to respond to a poem before the teacher initiated a closer reading. In order to enhance the potential for independent learning during individual or small group work, it is suggested that the teacher should adopt a facilitatory role. In general, however, the opportunities to engage students as self-directed learners were under-utilised. Classroom activities, including discussion, were led by the teacher. Similarly, opportunities for students to see, read, listen and respond to one another’s work were few. It is recommended that the teachers of English should make greater use of group, collaborative and independent teaching and learning approaches to engage students.
There was effective classroom management in all classes observed so that discipline was sensitively maintained and there was a good working atmosphere. Students were kept on task throughout by appropriate lesson content and specific instruction. Teachers moved around their classrooms to check understanding and to support students.
Students in LCA are making very good progress through their assignments and are well-prepared for assessment at the end of the year. The collaborative teaching/learning approaches employed and the strong cross-curricular links evident in the planning for the programme have been effective in supporting students as they develop task attack and completion strategies and this is evident in the completed assignments in their folders. Students in the other classes visited demonstrated a good understanding of their texts and were able to answer questions at the appropriate level. However, the standard of work presented in homework copies was less good.
The potential of homework to make a significant contribution to learning is recognised in O’Carolan College and the school has developed a homework policy document. Work in some copies is very good and students are making good progress, for example, in LCA, where they have completed required assignments. However, teachers of English reported difficulties in motivating some students to attempt or complete homework assignments. It was evident in copies and notebooks that, while work is assigned, in some cases students’ responses are short and undeveloped and that insufficient practice in writing across all genres has been achieved. It is recommended that, as collaborative planning develops, the teachers of English should devise practical strategies to address this as a priority. Strategies that might be used include more frequent use of writing frames, sentence stems and skeleton answers for less able, reluctant, writers. Including a written exercise to be completed during the lesson period is another.
Teachers should consider whether all students would be motivated by an understanding of the purpose of homework assignments and by actively engaging them in deciding what should be set. Students may do better when, in addition to this, they have been involved in deciding the criteris which are to be used in assessing their work. Sharing the success criteria helps them understand what they are trying to achieve in homework and how to know when they have achieved it. Finally, students learn when they are given feedback about the quality of their work and advice about how to go about making improvements. Written feedback is more helpful if it is in the form of comments, not marks or grades. Teachers may find the NCCA Assessment for Learning website, www.ncca.afl.ie, helpful in this regard.
Reports on students’ progress issue four times a year to parents of students in junior cycle and TYP and on a monthly basis to fifth and sixth year parents. This allows difficulties to be identified early and addressed in partnership with parents. Formal examinations are held at Christmas and at the end of the academic year for all year groups. Common papers are written and these allow for comparison within each year group. This is commended as good practice as it facilitates careful planning to meet the needs of the students.
The following are the main strengths and areas for development 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.