An Roinn Oideachais agus Eolaíochta
Department of Education and Science
Subject Inspection of English
Killinarden Community School
Date of inspection: 10 February 2006
Date of issue of report: 22 June 2006
This Subject Inspection report
This report has been written following a subject inspection in Killinarden Community 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 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.
Killinarden Community School is situated in south-west outer suburban Dublin, close to Tallaght town centre in an area of continuing and rapid development. The school’s catchment area is very contained and almost all of the students are able to go home during the hour-long lunch break. In keeping with the ethos of community schools, the school serves the local area in a number of ways and is developing facilities which will enhance its provision of education to the adult community. The school is very well maintained, bright, clean and spacious, and the wealth of student art work displayed in the corridors and congregation areas adds greatly to its pleasantness and attractiveness.
Nine teachers are involved in the delivery of English in the school, and one of these is also the co-ordinator for learning support, a special duties post. Students are banded on intake on the basis of primary and pre-entry testing, and the school deploys staff in such a way as to create small class groups for students likely to need greater individual attention. Thus the four first- year classes are divided into six groups for English, and the five second- and third-year classes are divided into seven groups. In all cases, the class groups formed from the lower bands are smaller in size and have six lessons rather than five every week. This results in very good provision for English in the junior cycle and in a commendably integrated approach to literacy support. In each year of the junior cycle, one or two class groups are following the Junior Certificate School Programme (JCSP).
Students taking the established Leaving Certificate have five lessons every week, one every day. This is good provision both in number and distribution. The situation for Leaving Certificate Applied (LCA) is somewhat less satisfactory, with three lessons a week rather than the optimum four. It is recommended that this be reviewed in the context of the provision for English throughout the school and that, if possible, an additional period be given to LCA.
Concurrent timetabling of English applies within the bands in junior cycle and for all fifth- and sixth-year classes. This enables students to change classes where desirable, and accommodates students switching levels in third year and in the senior cycle. It is also beneficial when planning certain activities, such as the viewing of a film or inter-class debates. The school is to be commended for providing this level of concurrency and the English teaching team should use it as fully as possible.
The resources in the school to support the delivery of English include audio-visual (AV) equipment, teacher-based classrooms and a comfortable reading room, which is well stocked with a good range of accessible books and which provides an attractive environment for personal reading and for read-along and shared reading activities. In developing the audio-visual resources, the school management should bear in mind that the DVD format offers great versatility and accessibility for the study of film. Film is now an integral part of the English syllabus for all the programmes taught in the school, and therefore the English teaching team has a particular need for the relevant equipment.
The school has a computer room with 25 personal computers (PCs) and it is also a participating school in the Laptop Initiative. ICT plays a significant part in literacy support and in the LCA programme.
There is a good-sized library space, with a small number of books. This has been identified as a priority area for development, and the school plans to use funding from the DEIS initiative to bring this facility into full usefulness. In addition, a new building on the school campus, which is to be used to further the school’s service to the wider community, will provide increased accommodation for learning support and resource. The school’s plans in this regard are admirable.
There is a commendable emphasis on continuing professional development among the English teaching team, and management has facilitated training and attendance at courses in such areas as resource teaching and literacy development.
Co-curricular and extra-curricular activities have had a particular focus on reading and drama and have included visits from theatre companies, trips to the theatre and reading initiatives such as ‘Drop Everything and Read’. Management and staff are to be commended for organising and facilitating these events.
Planning for the teaching of English has been placed within the context of school development planning and a number of meetings have been held in the current academic year with a view to developing a subject plan for English. There has been a good tradition of collaborative planning among the English teaching team, and the subject has a voluntary co-ordinator whose duties include calling and chairing meetings and circulating information to the team. It is suggested that the team agree among themselves a fixed term of office for the co-ordinator, and it may also be helpful to draw up a rota to assist in the smooth handover from one holder to the next. In the interests of continuing professional development, each member of the team should experience the co-ordinator role and all should be involved in deciding the appropriate functions and responsibilities.
At present, there is evidence of a high level of individual planning and preparation by the teachers of English. The move towards more collaborative planning has already begun, and this is a welcome development which will help to rationalise the work of the team and to further strengthen the delivery of the subject. In order to develop subject planning usefully, it is best to see the subject plan as a work in progress rather than a finished product. The subject plan should also emphasise the acquisition of skills, and not confine itself to a series of tasks to be done.
It is recommended that the plan for next year include descriptions of successful methodologies and suggestions for new strategies that the team would like to try out. Templates for book or poem reviews and text worksheets that have proved useful can also be included in the year plan, continuing the very good individual planning practices already in place, and creating a bank of shared resources. Additions and amendments can and should be made to the plan as the year progresses, and each teacher should have a copy. The year plan can then be discussed and amended at subject meetings. Such a plan is also of great assistance to those delivering learning support and resource teaching, formalising communications between those involved and enhancing the opportunities for reinforcing key skills and concepts.
The team is to be commended for the commitment shown in arranging a number of informal meetings to allow teachers to discuss issues as they arise and to arrive at joint decisions. Also commendable is the good practice of holding formal meetings at the beginning and the end of the year to facilitate forward planning and to review the year’s work. These meetings naturally involve such matters as decisions on texts and student placement in classes. However, it is suggested that teachers might also see these as opportunities to stand back, as it were, from the details of subject delivery in order to consider what might be called the ‘big picture’ for the subject. A useful way to approach this might be to identify as aims and objectives the skills and learning outcomes appropriate to each year, level and programme, and to plan the programme for the term or year around the achievement of these aims. The openness to new ideas and the dedication of the team provide an excellent basis for this more critical and visionary approach to planning.
A high level of individual planning was observed among the teachers of English. Most teachers routinely make out plans of work, and keep records of student progress, copies of house exams set, and copies of worksheets and other resources used in class, in individual folders. All of this is commendable.
The school has an allocation of 3.98 whole time equivalents (WTE) for learning support, .54 WTE for language support for international students and five special needs assistants. There is a learning support co-ordinator and this is a post of responsibility. Students requiring learning support are identified through pre-entry testing both within the main feeder schools and in Killinarden Community School itself. There is good liaison with the primary schools and this means that a more complete picture of incoming students than would be provided by test scores alone can be formed. Students in receipt of learning support are re-tested in third year to inform applications for reasonable accommodations in the Junior Certificate examinations.
The concurrency and staff deployment arrangements outlined in the first section of this report are key aspects of the school’s organisation of learning support. These arrangements apply specifically to English and Mathematics. Since the learning support co-ordinator also teaches English and a number of the other teachers of English have undertaken various levels of special needs training, there are very good links between teachers of English and the learning support team. As part of continuing professional development, regular staff development sessions are held, and the learning support co-ordinator has used these to inform all the staff of learning support issues. This is good practice. It is suggested that the school might contact the Special Education Support Service (www.sess.ie) for an input on methodologies for differentiation.
Learning support is very well resourced, apart from the matter of space which is now being addressed. Although there is no specific budget, funding has always been made available when resource needs are identified and materials requested. For example, a dyslexia screener has been obtained recently, following a request from the learning support co-ordinator.
Another aspect of support for students in the school is the Workshop which began as an emotional and behavioural support unit and which has evolved into another form of learning support, with an emphasis on literacy and numeracy, and also on expressive subjects such as art and metalwork. It would perhaps be timely to consider what needs might now be met through the Workshop, and the Workshop co-ordinator and the school’s care team may find it useful to seek advice on this from the SESS and other services offered by the Department of Education and Science.
Management and staff are to be especially commended for the way in which various initiatives to support literacy have been developed in a way that links school, home and community. For example, a literacy pack is brought by the home-school-community liaison (HSCL) co-ordinator to the home of each incoming first year student. In addition, read-along sets are given to a number of parents and students for use at home, and are left with them for three weeks. The Literacy Development Project is another initiative which began this year and which involves parents and students working for fifteen minutes each week night on handwriting and spelling with materials provided by the school. All of these testify to the very high level of commitment and service to the students and to the wider school community shown by management and staff.
Eight lessons were observed during the course of the inspection. Lesson planning was evident in the way that relevant resources had been prepared and specific tasks had been identified, and also in the way that many classes began with a brief review of previously studied material so as to link it with the new work. Best practice was observed where a clear statement of the aims of the lesson was made at the outset, and where the stated aims were then referred to regularly to give the lesson focus. The pacing of lessons was student-friendly, allowing time for questioning, writing and other activities, while generally maintaining a sense of progression.
The standard classroom resources were used well and the teaching team showed a very good awareness of how a well-organised use of the board can assist student learning. For example, the board was used to record the key points of class discussion and students were given time to note these down. New vocabulary was written clearly and was generally placed in one area of the board to avoid visual confusion. Lessons were not over-reliant on textbooks; they supported the learning process rather than dictating it. Additional materials prepared by teachers were generally suitable and useful, and included photocopies of poems, word sheets containing vocabulary to assist in describing characters, and text ‘jigsaws’ which pairs of students put together as a way of revising a studied poem. It was noted that teachers reflected on the effectiveness of these materials and on how they could be adjusted or used differently to improve learning outcomes; such self-reflective practice is commendable and will greatly assist the kind of learning-orientated planning mentioned in the previous section.
Teachers used a variety of methodologies including pre-reading discussion, writing activities, silent reading and reading as performance. The first of these was used effectively to introduce the topic of a poem to students and to get them thinking about the human experience that inspired the poet. The strategy of silent reading by students worked particularly well where the pattern “read, respond orally, read again” was used. In this way, misreadings by students can be used constructively as part of the learning process. It should be noted that students are very well placed to write their responses having worked through a poem or other text in this way, and it is recommended that focused writing, which will allow students to record their responses in a more considered way, should be the regular outcome of this activity. A class group studying a play provided a very good example of reading as performance, an approach which encourages students to consider how voice and gesture can suggest character and motive. Again, this approach places students in a good position to write vividly about key aspects of drama. Where students may be less able to manage a dramatic reading themselves, the use of audiotape is recommended
Questioning was used in a number of appropriate ways: to check on student understanding and recall, to elicit responses to texts or ideas, to help students to stay on task and to lead them towards a more careful reading of the text. Students also asked questions looking for clarification or further information, and these were dealt with sensitively. Questions testing grasp and recall were generally addressed to named students, and this is sensible. The more open questions seeking responses rather than factual answers were put more generally. It is important to give students sufficient time to form responses to such questions, and it is suggested that teachers let students know that they should take time out to think before responding to these questions. It is also important to bear in mind that there are many equally valid responses to such questions, and it is important that students learn to distinguish between the factual answer which is right or wrong, and the personal response for which the criterion must be: is it well supported by the text?
There was a commendable emphasis on vocabulary building and dictionary use, and advice on appropriate dictionaries was sought by the school and given by the inspector. Considerable emphasis was also placed on the terms for various figures of speech and poetic devices, and students generally showed a good understanding of these. However, there is a danger that the terms themselves will become the salient point in their minds, rather than the effectiveness of the particular figure of speech in context. Some delightfully phrased responses to poetry were heard during the course of the inspection, and it is very important that these informed personal responses be given a higher value in classroom discussion than the identification of figures of speech without any sense of personal engagement. As a general rule, emphasis should always be placed on the effect achieved, and not simply the figure of speech used.
The relatively small class sizes allow each student to receive considerable attention and assistance where appropriate, and there was very good support for students who looked for help with tasks that they were working on in class. There was a good emphasis on linking previously studied material with new work, and students were led towards making these links for themselves through open questioning. In order to ensure that students are as actively engaged in their own learning as possible, it is recommended that texts and materials be appropriate to the students’ level of attainment, challenging enough to arouse interest and stretch skills, but not dauntingly difficult. In order to assist students to produce longer pieces of writing, it is suggested that they be given a structure or framework consisting of phrases they could include in their work, words that might trigger ideas, or headings that would help organise the work into paragraphs.
It was observed that the rapport between students and teachers was good. While students were initially a little more hesitant in responding than would be the norm, the overall impression was of a relaxed and supportive learning environment. Classroom management was effective, firm but not repressive. The rooms themselves are bright and attractive, with displays of student work, themed displays relating to particular texts, posters and very prominent fluorescent sheets containing key words for the subject.
Student learning is informally assessed through classroom questioning of named students and observation of student work carried out in class with the teacher circulating to check and assist. Setting and marking of homework occurs regularly. Best practice was observed where homework was given a comment, pointing out what had been managed well and suggesting how the work might be improved. It is recommended that teachers say in advance to students that they will be looking at capital letters and full stops, for example, so that students develop a habit of self-checking for basic errors. This technique can also be used to develop more sophisticated writing skills, such as varied sentence length or richer word use. In all cases, students should be aware of the particular skill that teacher comment will focus on. The website of the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment contains many useful suggestions in relation to assessment for learning, which can be accessed at www.ncca.ie. It is recommended that, in the current drawing up of a homework policy, management and staff decide on the desired aims and outcomes and consider what whole-school practices will be most likely to achieve these.
Formal assessment of students takes place twice a year, at Christmas and in May, and reports are sent home after these examinations. It is recommended that, in line with the greater collaboration already mentioned, common papers be set as far as possible for these house exams. Parent- teacher meetings are held annually for each year group, and the school journal is also used for communication between home and school. Students in examination years take mock examinations in spring. Classwork and homework for these students should be modelled on the kinds of questions that appear on the Junior and Leaving Certificate papers to reinforce student learning of the necessary skills, and students should be aware of the criteria that will be applied. The Chief Examiner’s Reports are very helpful in this regard. The aim of the English teaching team and of school management to encourage students to achieve at the highest level of which they are capable is commendable. The pilot project, Access College Education (ACE), which is being steered by the guidance counsellor, and which offers small bursaries and a structured study programme to a number of students identified as potential high achievers, is an excellent practical demonstration of this aim.
The following are the main strengths and areas for development identified in the evaluation:
· Good provision is made for English, with effective timetabling and staff deployment.
· Individual planning and preparation are good.
· Students are learning in a caring and supportive environment.
· Students are assisted and encouraged to work to the best of their ability.
As a means of building on these strengths and to address areas for development, the following key recommendations are made:
· The English teaching team should plan more collaboratively and should base their planning on desired learning outcomes and the development of student skills.
· Greater emphasis should be placed on developing the students’ ability to make an informed personal response, both orally and in writing.
· The homework policy under development should identify and be grounded in the desired aims and outcomes of student work.