An Roinn Oideachais agus Eolaíochta
Department of Education and Science
Subject Inspection of English
Scoil Mhuire Community School
Clane, County Kildare
Roll number: 91372D
Date of inspection: 7 and 8 May 2008
This report has been written following a subject inspection in Scoil Mhuire Community School, Clane. 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 in writing on the findings and recommendations of the report, and the response of the board will be found in the appendix of this report.
Scoil Mhuire Community School is a large co-educational school situated in a small town in Kildare which is now within the Dublin commuter belt. It has a mixed rural and suburban catchment and, in addition to providing mainstream second-level education, also delivers a sizeable adult education programme. Very high rates of use of the school buildings and facilities by the community were reported.
Eleven teachers form the English department in the school. Seven of these have a substantial English timetable, taking at least three class groups. This consolidated delivery of the subject enables teachers to view the teaching and learning of English as a continuum of skills and knowledge development, and is therefore a commendable approach to deployment. It is school policy for teachers to retain the same class groups within the cycles, and this is also good practice. A review of teachers’ timetables showed that teachers are generally deployed by senior management in both the junior and senior cycles and teach a range of levels. Uptake of the optional Transition Year (TY) programme which has recently been reintroduced is rising, and four teachers take English or drama within the programme. At present, the same teacher is taking English and Communication with both years of the Leaving Certificate Applied (LCA) programme, but rotation is reported to be the usual practice. Deployment which extends the range of expertise and experience within the department is commended.
The timetable makes excellent provision for English both in the number and distribution of lessons. All years have an English lesson every day and six lessons are provided in fifth and sixth year. The provision of four lessons per week for LCA is optimal.
The general principle of mixed-ability formation has been adopted in the junior cycle, and this is commendable. Class groups for English in the junior cycle correspond to the tutor groups, which are formed on the basis of the modern language options chosen by students. This has created some class groups with a gender imbalance, and school management is mindful of this. Concurrent timetabling in third year facilitates the creation of an additional class group, which is team-taught with the assistance of the learning support department and is prepared for the Junior Certificate examination at an appropriate level. The team-teaching approach is commended. The number of TY class groups has increased to three in the current year, and it is recommended that the possibility of concurrent timetabling of English be considered for future years, as it facilitates whole-year activities and the delivery of modules by a number of teachers. English classes are set in fifth and sixth year, and designated higher or ordinary level. Placement depends largely on performance in Junior Certificate English, although it was reported that ability and attainment in TY are also taken into account. TY documents relating to assignments and assessment should reflect this commendable policy. Concurrent timetabling in fifth and sixth year facilitates student movement and whole-year activities and this is commended.
The school operates a system of teacher-based classrooms, and almost all teachers of English have their own rooms. Very good practice in creating stimulating and print-rich learning environments for English was observed in the classrooms visited. Particularly commendable was the display in many rooms of students’ work related to studied texts or genres of writing. The presence of books both for reference and recreational reading was also noted in a number of classrooms. The continuance and further development of these good practices is to be encouraged. Teachers without a base room are timetabled to teach in the same rooms wherever possible and this is helpful.
English is well resourced in many respects, although some areas for development were identified and discussed with senior management and the English department during the evaluation. Classrooms generally have fixed audio-visual equipment, and one English classroom has a data projector. Planning documents list a range of available print, film and digital resources, and identify the need for a communal storage area for these. Commendably, this need has been addressed and the storage area provided should further facilitate good practice with regard to collaborative preparation and the shared use of resources. Further development of the available audio resources, particularly drama recordings, is recommended. There was evidence of good use of information and communication technology (ICT) in the preparation of teaching materials, and good use was made of the data projector.
The school has no library at present, as the designated space is used for other purposes. There was some discussion as to future provision, and senior management signalled a willingness to look at the space available. The promotion of reading both for recreational and research purposes is best pursued at a whole-school level, although it has a particular relevance to the aims and objectives of the various English syllabuses. Reference to materials and strategies developed within the Junior Certificate School Programme (JCSP) would be helpful, in particular the range of reading initiatives and the Demonstration Library Project. The Irish branch of the School Library Association should also be contacted. Their web sites are www.jcsp.ie and www.slari.ie.
A commendable variety of co-curricular activities that enhance the students’ experience of English is provided. In addition to theatre and other outings, and visits from guest speakers, students engage in debating and take part in poetry and writing competitions, the annual school play, and the production of a yearbook.
Planning for the subject and at an individual level is well established in the English department. Records of meetings indicate a focus on the drawing up of subject plans, and discussions on resources, class formation and special needs. The members nominate a co-ordinator for the subject and the position is rotated each year. The role essentially entails the organising, chairing and recording of meetings which are held on a formal basis twice a year, and by arrangement among the department at other times. Consideration should be given to extending the term of office to two years, in order to allow each incumbent to review current practice and develop the role. With this in mind, it would be useful to agree a description of the co-ordinator role, and to include this in the subject plan. It may also be helpful to consult the planning section of the Inspectorate composite report, Looking at English, in order to inform the ongoing development of the subject department.
Plans for each programme have been drawn up, in varying detail. All plans made available broadly follow the template drawn up by the School Development Planning Initiative (SDPI). The plan for junior cycle English is the most detailed and corresponds closely to syllabus aims and objectives. To further develop the good practice noted, the emphasis should be on ensuring that planning informs and assists teaching and learning, and therefore the more specific it is the better. It is therefore recommended that the junior cycle plan be revisited with reference to the draft rebalanced syllabus document, available on the NCCA web site (www.ncca.ie). This sets out explicit learning outcomes, and provides an opportunity to clearly link these with specific texts chosen and to show how the outcomes will be achieved through the methods and approaches planned. This process can then inform a review of the other programme plans.
Very good resources had been prepared for the lessons observed. A practical focus of subject department planning is the collaborative preparation of resources, common assignments and assessments, along with a means of ensuring that all teachers have access to them. Electronic storage of these resources is recommended, as it provides ease of access and allows templates and writing frames to be created, adapted and shared.
Teachers discuss text choices and agree on an anthology textbook for junior cycle. They choose from a range of novels and dramas, and the school has a book-rental scheme to supply texts to students. Appropriate choices have been agreed from the Leaving Certificate prescribed lists. In choosing texts for study in TY, the teaching team is advised to bear in mind that learner autonomy is an important objective of the TY programme, and texts chosen should be challenging but accessible in order to meet this objective.
During the evaluation, teachers expressed concern that the mixed-ability setting in the junior cycle militated against the study of Shakespearean drama, as all classes would contain some students who would find it too difficult. It is recommended that a range of approaches be taken to the study of Shakespeare in the junior cycle. Students could be introduced to stories and characters in first year, perhaps through the very good animations and graphic texts available. Audiotapes could assist the reading of a play in second year, and the focus should be on essential details of plot and character, and on developing a better understanding of theatre. Deciding what students must, should and could know allows a differentiated approach to Shakespeare, and this is commended to the English department for their consideration.
Ten lessons were observed in the course of the inspection, covering all years, levels and programmes and involving nine of the eleven members of the English department. The quality of teaching and learning observed was generally good, and in many instances teachers effectively communicated their enthusiasm for the subject and students responded with interest. Classroom management was good in all cases, and a supportive and pleasant atmosphere prevailed.
The resources used included well-assembled handouts with words and images downloaded from the Internet, recordings of writers reading their work, material viewed on data projector, and photocopies of texts and assignments. These resources were observed to assist student learning in various ways. In a junior cycle lesson, students read and listened to a poem with well-chosen accompanying images that gave the topic immediacy and stimulated them to engage with the theme and viewpoint. In another junior cycle lesson, students began by listening to a recording by Roald Dahl which was then used effectively to introduce the concept of bringing writing to life. Excellent use was made of the data projector to show scanned copies of formal letters with the key features labelled, providing an accessible model for students’ own writing. In senior cycle lessons, handouts with well-considered prompt questions facilitated group work on the comparative study and on poetry.
While lessons were well planned, in some instances more material had been prepared than could be managed within the lesson time. In structuring the lesson, it is important to build in time for students to get to grips with new material and concepts; otherwise the value of the resources prepared cannot be fully exploited. However, pacing was generally effective and well-matched to the class group and topic.
A variety of teaching methods was observed, embracing both traditional and innovative approaches to the teaching and learning of English. Where direct instruction was used, it was varied with other approaches and the material was delivered competently, with questioning of and by students to ensure understanding. Teachers read poems and other texts to the class as a way of introducing new material, and making it more accessible. This was effective, as students were encouraged to respond and were affirmed when they did so. Thus, a good balance of teacher and student talk was maintained even where direct teaching was the chosen approach. During the evaluation, the issue of personal response as referenced in the syllabus documents and in the certificate examinations was discussed. The key points to bear in mind are that personal response should show engagement with the text and be supported by it, and should reflect an age-appropriate level of understanding.
Some examples of pair and group work were observed. These were most effective where students had a clear grasp of the task and where there was value in collaborating rather than working individually. A three-step “think, pair, share” approach, which guides students from individual to whole-class work, and makes pair-work meaningful, would further develop students’ speaking and listening skills as well as providing a good structure for student-centred work. The strategy of giving different tasks to different groups and having a plenary reporting session was observed to work well in a senior cycle lesson. Co-operative learning in which clear roles are given to students in each group is an approach which teachers might find useful when further developing group work, especially in a mixed-ability setting. The Second Level Support Service web site should be consulted for further information (www.slss.ie).
A good range of questioning strategies was employed, encompassing basic questions to check on understanding and recall, and more searching questions designed to extend and deepen students’ grasp of the topic. A lesson involving students in role-play provided a good illustration of the use of questions to help students analyse what they were observing. The topic, successful interview techniques, was investigated and reinforced very effectively through students’ responses to well-placed questions. Another imaginative use of questioning was seen where a junior cycle class was asked a series of prompt questions to help them recall their early school years, preparatory to a creative writing exercise. In these cases and others, the level of student response was impressive.
Good attention was paid to the development of students’ writing skills in a variety of genres, including letters, reviews, and memoir and opinion pieces. An integrated approach to the teaching of language and literature was observed where the studied text was used as a model or stimulus for students’ writing, and this is good practice. The building of vocabulary was also addressed commendably in a number of ways: through use of the dictionary in class; through the creation of “word banks” relating to a particular theme; and through good modelling by the teacher of more sophisticated language in a context that made it meaningful to students. In extending the work on improving writing, it is suggested that students be given writing frames to help them organise and structure their work and to encourage them to write at greater length. Using “writing frames” as an Internet search will locate a number of useful web sites.
The expectation that students would apply themselves and work productively was established in each lesson, and a focus on learning was maintained. Students were asked to reflect on and articulate what they had learned at various stages in the lessons, and summing-up sessions to conclude lessons helped to consolidate and affirm learning. In a senior cycle lesson, students who had prepared talks on poets of their choice delivered these and managed the subsequent open discussion in a good illustration of peer learning. An excellent instance of pre-reading was observed in which students responded to the title of an as yet unread poem by a poet they had studied. They brought their knowledge to bear and were greatly affirmed by the accuracy of their predictions, and were then able to address the poem itself with great confidence and insight. This approach was seen to engender a high level of engagement with the text, and is warmly commended.
Good assessment practices were noted in relation to classwork and homework. A number of lessons observed began with a check on reading or writing assignments, or on previous learning to ensure that students were able to recall and use it. Questions with this purpose were addressed to named students, and teachers also used targeted questions as a way of involving as many students as possible. Teachers generally stood so that they could survey the whole class and monitor students’ levels of participation and attentiveness. This is good practice.
The selection of students’ copies and folders examined in both junior and senior cycle classes contained a good volume of work, with the normal variations depending on diligence and ability. There was evidence that work was set and corrected regularly. The assignments set were appropriate and teachers are commended for affording students the opportunity to write extended compositions. Some imaginative assignments were also noted, and in some cases there was a commendable emphasis on writing in different genres. Teachers are advised to ensure that assignments set following classwork allow students to use the work of the lesson, thereby reinforcing learning.
Very good instances of developmental feedback were noted, where students’ efforts were affirmed and specific suggestions for improvement were made. The demands made in relation to the monitoring of students’ work in English were discussed during the inspection. It is recommended that the English department discuss a policy on assessment to complement the school’s homework policy and to apply specifically to English. This should include the sharing of criteria with all students so that they know what is expected of them, and the practice that no work should be submitted before it is re-read and corrected.
Teachers maintain records of students’ attendance and work, and have a teacher’s journal for this purpose.
The following are the main strengths identified in the evaluation:
· Senior management has made excellent timetable provision for English both in the number and distribution of lessons.
· Very good practice in creating stimulating and print-rich learning environments for English was observed in the classrooms visited.
· Planning for the subject and at an individual level is well established in the English department.
· The quality of teaching and learning observed was generally good, and in many instances teachers effectively communicated their enthusiasm for the subject and students responded with interest.
· The expectation that students would apply themselves and work productively was established in each lesson, and a focus on learning was maintained.
· Good assessment practices were noted in relation to classwork and homework.
As a means of building on these strengths and to address areas for development, the following key recommendations are made:
· The development of a school library, along with a whole-school policy to promote reading, should be pursued.
· Year plans should be developed so as to link explicit learning outcomes with the texts and methods chosen.
· A range of approaches should be taken to the study of Shakespeare in the junior cycle.
· It is recommended that teachers discuss a policy on assessment to complement the school’s homework policy and to apply specifically to English.
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.
Published December 2008
Submitted by the Board of Management
Area 2 Follow-up actions planned or undertaken since the completion of the inspection activity to implement the findings and recommendations of the inspection
It is planned to look for an area in the school to set up a small library.
Subject Department have taken on recommendations and will make any changes as soon as possible.