An Roinn Oideachais agus Eolaíochta
Department of Education and Science
Subject Inspection of History
Pobalscoil na Tríonóide
Youghal, County Cork
Roll number: 91513S
Date of inspection: 23 April 2007
Date of issue of report: 4 October 2007
Report on the Quality of Learning and Teaching in History
This report has been written following a subject inspection in Pobalscoil na Tríonóide, Youghal. It presents the findings of an evaluation of the quality of teaching and learning in History 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 then to subject teachers. The board of management was given the 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 to this report.
Pobalscoil na Tríonóide, both in terms of its building and location, overlooking the Blackwater estuary, is a magnificently appointed new school. It opened its doors as Youghal’s community school in September 2006, following an amalgamation of the three second-level schools in the town. These schools were Loreto Secondary School, Christian Brothers Secondary School and Coláiste Eóin, a vocational school which had also operated an aonad lán-Ghaeilge (all-Irish unit) under its auspices. As History had a strong presence in all three schools prior to amalgamation, the new school is very well served with history personnel, currently having ten qualified teachers of the subject and two student teachers in its teaching cohort. This is an excellent resource. It is good to note also that the school was built with an initial allocation of three social studies rooms and, even though there remains some uncertainty about the eventual location of one of these at present, this provision is also a tremendous support to the teaching and learning of History.
As would be anticipated in a large new school building, there have been a number of problems and delays in relation to resourcing of History and other subjects. This said, very significant strides have been made, with teachers being allocated base rooms or subject-specific rooms equipped with personal computers, televisions and DVD players, screens, noticeboards and storage presses. The installation of blinds in classrooms is on the agenda for the near future, which is also applauded as this is a very open location which can cause problems for viewing of screens on sunny days. Management is highly commended for the amount of work done in a relatively short space of time in equipping rooms, and in supplying data projectors to several as well. While some rooms are still waiting for data projectors, portable alternatives have been provided. One of the social studies rooms has been equipped with a small suite of laptop computers for student use and assurances have been given that the fit-out of a number of computers in the more geography-oriented social studies room is also imminent, which is applauded as the relevant Leaving Certificate guidelines (Page 73) recommend this.
At present, History is timetabled for four periods per week over approximately half a year for alternating first-year classes, meaning that all classes have an average of two periods per week across the full year. This is low provision but is understandable in light of the school’s desire to give students a taste of as many subjects as possible in first year. As the timetable is currently structured, students have exposure to History for three months or so, then no History for the next similar period, or vice versa. This is a complication in terms of course coverage, however, as there is undoubtedly a deal of time wasted in getting to know students or trying to re-familiarise them with material when returning to History after a long gap. It is recommended that, even if the average time for first-year History cannot be increased beyond two periods per week, allocating two periods per week across the full year would be a better option for the sake of continuity and course coverage than this current half-year system offers.
Beyond first year, the amount of time allocated to History is broadly satisfactory. Second-year and third-year classes have three periods per week, with fifth-year and sixth-year classes having five periods. The subject options mechanism which has been put in place in fifth and sixth year sees all subjects offered in an open choice at first and then the subject blocks are identified on the basis of maximum preference levels. Management is applauded in that this is a very fair system. In the current fifth-year grouping, History has found itself opposite Art, Construction Studies, French and Biology, with all of the other subjects except Art being available elsewhere on the timetable as well. History has sufficient numbers in this block for it to have been broken into two class groups, so this system certainly does not appear to be detrimental to uptake levels.
It is very good to note that the optional Transition Year (TY) at the school is very popular, and that within it all students have a module of History. That this has an allocation of one late-afternoon double period for just seven or eight weeks duration is a cause of some concern, however, as it means that TY students have an average of just half a period per week of History across the full academic year. It would be preferable to have greater exposure for students to historical study in TY, with the options of linking with geographical studies, local and heritage-based studies deserving to be explored. The present system means that only one teacher is involved in TY, teaching four class groups in rotation. Moving to a full-year timetable allocation for such a social studies course would allow more than one teacher to get involved in TY historical studies and could obviously open the door to innovations like team teaching and cross-curricular work very readily as well. This is recommended for active consideration.
Prior to the amalgamation, History was a compulsory junior-cycle subject in the two voluntary secondary schools in Youghal. In addition, the vocational school had offered History as an option but anticipated making the subject compulsory in advance of the amalgamation, as outlined in a History subject inspection report from 18th May 2004. History has, indeed, been a compulsory subject for all first-year students in the initial academic year, including those in the aonad lán- Ghaelach. However, it is very disappointing to note that management has recently taken a decision to make History optional after first year. A central reason offered for this decision has been the desire to accommodate a very large range of subjects and a wide skills base among the school’s teaching staff. Both of these aims are highly creditable but should not be seen as being in conflict with the maintenance of History as a core subject to Junior Certificate. There are several significant issues around this decision which prompt concern.
It is important to state that, in making this decision to make History optional after first year, the school is not in breach of Department of Education and Science regulations. It also sought advice from the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment before making this decision. However, it is pointed out that such a decision is at odds with policy in all voluntary secondary schools, the clear majority of community schools and many community colleges as well. It is at odds with perceived best practice in almost all other schools of similar size and subject-range in the region, even in schools which operate timetables with fewer periods per week available on the timetable than the impressive forty-five periods at Pobalscoil na Tríonóide. It is also possible that making the subject optional in second year will mean that a viable class group may not be retained in the aonad lán-Ghaelach, where some tremendous work has been seen in the preparation of Gaeilge-based materials for students after first year.
Given the large student population in the school, it is not certain that maintaining History as a core subject, ideally for three periods per week, would affect the formation of class groups in other subjects. One positive point about making History optional after first year is that it is likely that four periods per week can be allocated to second-year and third-year history classes, as it would be in option blocks. This is a compensation for syllabus delivery but does not take from the fact that the recent decision will contribute to a narrower core junior curriculum from now onwards and challenges the notion of providing a broad-based liberal education. The very significant teaching and room resources which History has currently, in addition to general practice elsewhere, are reiterated as factors which ought to be re-examined whenever management comes to review its recent decision.
That the school serves a community steeped in history, and in living heritage-awareness, have also been pointed out. As previously intimated, the current half-year strategy employed in first year already limits the amount of course coverage possible. Making the subject optional from second year effectively means that many students could go through their entire second-level schooling without studying the key areas upon which Youghal’s heritage is built. Medieval life and trade, the Munster Plantation, Raleigh, Boyle and Cromwell are hugely relevant to Youghal’s history, as to national history. It also appears that students who have only studied History in the first term, by the time it has come to choosing whether to continue with it or not, have been much less inclined to do so than those who are actually studying the subject at the time that choices have been offered. Thus the combined effects of the half-year system and optional nature of second-year History system also deserve very careful review.
A large, newly created school, particularly one incorporating three previous schools, presents particular problems in the first year of operation when it comes to timetabling and marrying previous teacher-class allocations to the new set up. In terms of History timetabling, there have been significant difficulties, with a number of classes having unnecessary double lessons, two lessons close together on the same day or substantially late-evening timeslots. Management has readily accepted that this is a major area which needs to be revisited in timetable planning for 2007-8 and has fully acknowledged the anomalies in the present timetable.
It has been school policy that teachers of classes from the original three schools, which were facing into their final years before state examinations in the new school, would retain these classes. In most instances, this has happened and it is accepted that anomalies here should be a once-off difficulty. In planning for teacher allocation, management also took a survey of teachers’ preferred teaching subjects and, certainly, everyone teaching History is suitably qualified to do so. A little more consideration will be needed in future around the optimum level of the subject which teachers feel comfortable in teaching, as some people have ended up with undesirably low degrees of contact with History or are teaching levels which they had not anticipated teaching prior to the amalgamation. Again, management is thanked for acknowledging the need to take this into account in planning for 2007-8.
A very valuable support for teachers, in terms of planning and preparation, has come from management’s willingness to allow subject teachers to attend in-service training provided by HIST, the History In-Service Team. Management has also emphasised a willingness to support teachers’ membership of the Cork branch of the History Teachers Association of Ireland and this is certainly recommended here as an additional and invaluable support to the subject at any school. A further area where a collaborative approach to planning will be required between management and the history department is in the development of the school’s library. This is basically a shell facility at present, although the lack of a stocked library is offset somewhat by the excellent base room facilities in which most teachers store some subject-relevant books. It is recommended that the history department begin working on its book and periodical resource needs for the relevant library section, bearing the needs of Leaving Certificate research work in mind initially, and management is again thanked for its openness to reasonable resource requests from the department.
In turning more directly towards matters departmental, it is very good to note that quite a degree of cohesion and commonality has already been achieved by the school’s fledgling history department. A co-ordinator has been designated and, in the interests of sharing the workload, a recording secretary has also been appointed, with agendas, attendance lists and minutes being carefully recorded. In terms of a further agenda suggestion, it could be a valuable addition if part of any future meetings were to be allocated to the discussion of teaching and learning, perhaps involving the sharing of experiences and ideas which worked, and perhaps did not work, in different class contexts. The department has had three meetings in the current academic year, with the likelihood of a fourth before the year’s end. This is satisfactory provision. Some difficulties have been reported around getting all history teachers together simultaneously on planning days and this is an area which management is mindful of. The need to ensure that planning days involve minimum clashes between history meetings and meetings of other subject areas which involve significant numbers of history teachers is no easy task, again reinforcing the fact that History has a very substantial presence among the school’s teaching staff.
Among the suggestions which have been offered for future departmental planning work, more contact with the Cork HTAI and a needs-analysis of required library resources have already been mentioned. The development of links with the Youghal Heritage Week and with the local library service are other obvious opportunities which might be further explored. General subject profiling has and ought to be a consistent feature of the department’s work, with management being very supportive of the idea of setting up a designated ‘history noticeboard’, perhaps sited close to the history-designated social studies room. Such a noticeboard could be used to display items of local historical interest, materials relating to the relevance of History to careers, details about syllabus changes and requirements and, perhaps, items of topical interest with a view to capitalising on the human-interest nature of the subject and discipline. The fact that the revised Leaving Certificate history syllabus has subsumed Economic History, and has thereby made the subject more relevant to students who might have an interest in business careers, has been discussed briefly with one of the school’s guidance teachers during the inspection and is also something worth highlighting on such a noticeboard. The possibility of using the noticeboard for displaying details of in-house history competitions or of Cork history projects and competitions is also worth exploring.
A very high level of information and communication technology (ICT) resources is available in the new school, and a number of history teachers have considerable expertise in this area. As such, the collaborative pooling of resources, to include the scanning of any handout, pictorial or documentary sources which individual teachers have onto DVD or into a common networked folder would make a lot of sense. So too might the designation of different sections of the syllabuses, with each department member taking responsibility for finding new materials, audio-visual supports and so on relating to different topics over the course of a year or so. This could create a really enviable pack of resources for departmental use, with potentially up to twelve teachers available to focus on such work when opportunities arise. Such suggestions are offered not with the intention of adding to teachers’ workloads but in fact to assist everyone by means of preparative work which no individual could reasonably be expected to undertake alone. The department is congratulated on the high degree of cohesion already achieved in this initial year and such suggestions are offered as a means of building on this cohesion to benefit teaching and learning as much as possible.
Given the quite unique issues which can surround a three-school amalgamation, some excellent work has been done within history classes to smooth the transition from old schools to new. Rooms have been very well decorated and laid out in the main, with significant amounts of historical charts, posters and occasional student-generated resources. Most lessons observed contained both male and female students and no sense of one group dominating over another in terms of question answering or participation was found in any lessons. In situations where students with special learning needs were present, the manner in which teachers assisted such students was hugely supportive. In all classes, a very pleasant, natural atmosphere pervaded. Indeed, this was true of student-student and student-teacher interactions on corridors and in assembly areas as well, for which everyone at the school deserves considerable credit. In the specific context of history lessons, humour was always used appropriately, with the degree of local and topical references introduced by teachers in dealing with historical matters being impressive and deserving of continued application as a means of bringing the subject to life for students.
Lessons observed were built around considerable preparatory work by teachers. Handouts, prepared displays of materials, lists of relevant vocabulary, PowerPoint displays and overhead transparencies, as well as clear lesson structures were the order of the day in most lessons. Particular reference ought to be made to the work undertaken in developing resources for class in the aonad lán-Ghaeilge, with highly visual, tactile and verbal materials being very diligently prepared in the absence of more generic resources being available through Gaeilge. In most instances, teachers were also teaching material appropriate to where they might reasonably be at this stage in the different syllabuses. The tightness of first-year time provision has already been alluded to here. In addition, fifth-year history classes have accommodated students from three different school backgrounds, including at times students who have not studied History at all in junior cycle, so it has been an understandable challenge to cover material at the pace desired. However, all teachers have developed clear and appropriate plans for full syllabus delivery and these difficulties ought to be ironed out once the amalgamation has bedded in a little more.
Initial moments of lessons were dominated by teachers giving outlines of lesson objectives and reviewing previous learning, including assigned homework, before moving on. This was very clearly done in all instances and the only recommendation of note that might be considered here concerns using the whiteboard a little more consistently to give students a visual reminder of required homework answers, key learning targets and perhaps of important terms due to arise within the lesson. In mixed-ability teaching contexts, the visual reinforcement of verbal messages is always worthwhile. The level at which all teachers pitched lesson content was excellent, both in terms of the amount of material covered within lessons and also the language used. Occasional examples of teachers moving a little quickly through material have been fully accepted as being due to the changed dynamic of lessons during the inspection process itself. Rarely were any difficult words left unexplained and frequently such explanations were followed up by questions to students to make sure their understanding was as it should be.
In turning to questioning strategies in the main, it was good to note that a significant amount of lesson development revolved around teacher-student questioning. Occasional recommendations have been made about the need to vary questioning a little more, spreading questions as widely as possible between ‘volunteer’ and ‘conscript’ respondents, so to speak, and mixing higher-order and lower-order questions as much as possible. Overall, however, a very satisfactory focus in teaching through questioning was in evidence, with teacher monologues never featuring for long in any lessons and students given the necessary freedom to ask questions of their teachers when they required clarifications as well. Similarly, whenever short reading tasks were introduced, either by means of textbook or handout extracts, these were never overdone and always stimulated new questioning by the teacher, which is applauded. In some instances, getting students to take on in-class reading work a little more has also been suggested. This not only places more of the onus for work on students rather than on the teacher but also acts as a gauge for teachers to ensure that students’ understanding of the language of documents or texts is complete.
Very effective use was made throughout lessons of the prepared materials which teachers had put in place. Excellent handouts which focused on visual representations of social change in Youghal, core features of the industrial revolution or key revision topics were particularly useful in developing a degree of inter-activity within classes. Students were asked to examine photographs, for instance, and identify differences between early twentieth-century scenes and more modern ones on a work sheet by working in small groups and supported by the development of key headings on an overhead projection. Elsewhere, handouts and actual objects associated with industrial revolution were passed around for examination and brought a real sense of hands-on learning to the class. Given the time of year in question, it was appropriate that a significant revision focus was evident in classes due to sit state examinations shortly, with again the use of a handout being particularly effective where it sought to identify key words which needed recall and made students carry out on-the-spot research tasks in locating the relevant information in their textbooks. It was very impressive to note the degree of comfort which some teachers clearly felt in using ICT to a degree beyond which they had been accustomed to in pre-amalgamation contexts, and the mix of visual and verbal stimuli employed via such technology was also very well balanced. Where senior-syllabus focus was on documents or text-analysis, a very high level of such analysis was also found, building simultaneously on students’ interpretive skills as well as knowledge of historical content. The linkage of Irish social contexts with political developments was also very well established in the senior lessons observed, which is applauded as a means of teaching students about the connections between different fields of study within topics.
Retention strategies which were observed in some lessons included the maintenance by students of folders of handout materials and an interesting and valuable commitment to getting students to work on key personality biographies in senior cycle. In some lessons, it has been recommended that a little more of the onus vis á vis retention be placed on students themselves. Getting students to make and retain notes of key issues or develop spider diagrams of causes and consequences where appropriate would be worthy of consideration. Challenging students to complete response sheets on visual material they had examined, or to deal with simple crossword-style revision aids were seen to be very effective in helping students to bring their understanding and learning together and merit wider application. Occasional recommendations have also been made in relation to developing timelines in dealing with social change issues, and to the possibilities of getting students to generate forms of historical dictionaries or diagrams which can aid retention and revision when the time arises. Such recommendations have been offered as additional possible supports to learning where the commitment to student engagement and learning has been observed to be already at a very satisfactory level.
Management deserves to be congratulated for its efforts to develop solid and regular assessment policies across the school. A core policy which supports in-class assessment, monthly or termly tests as appropriate and Christmas examinations for all class groups, is already well established. State-examination classes sit pre-examinations in the spring, with all other class groups having formal summer examinations. Parent-teacher meetings are held each year for each class group and written progress reports have been sent home at regular intervals. Management is also actively considering means of furthering the cohesiveness of school assessment policies, with the recommendation that common assessment instruments, or even examinations for year groups which contain at least common elements, are strategies worthy of consideration in a school which promotes mixed-ability teaching and learning as a core part of its philosophy. History should sit very easily with such a common-assessment policy.
Within History specifically, a good culture of homework assignment has been observed from examination of students’ copies. Some such homework has been corrected in a formative, comment-based manner by teachers with most being done via oral review of homework in the initial stages of lessons observed. In some circumstances, recommendations have been made around using drawing tasks, or diagrammatic tasks to add a visual dimension to assessment in mixed ability contexts. Similarly, occasional suggestions have been offered in relation to developing students’ awareness of what constitutes a ‘significant relevant statement’, with a view to assisting them to develop good short answering into longer, paragraph-based answers or ‘people-in-history’ accounts for the Junior Certificate.
Some very good Leaving Certificate style correction of students’ answering has been observed, with an example seen where students have been encouraged to retain focus on what the question asks, rather than just the general theme of the question, being particularly pertinent advice. The emphasis on getting students to undertake small research project work as part of TY assessment in History is applauded as being in keeping with programme guidelines. Across all class groups, the commitment of teachers to oral questioning, as has already been discussed, has been a very important feature of informal assessment and should never be underestimated in terms of its value in gauging student understanding and retention. The feedback given by teachers in such in-class questioning, and occasionally in comment-based marking of written homework, have been very valuable elements of what should be called ‘assessment for learning’ and deserved to be persevered with as far as practicable.
The following are the main strengths 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 History and with the principal at the conclusion of the evaluation when the draft findings and recommendations of the evaluation were presented and discussed.
Submitted by the Board of Management
Inspection Report School Response Form
Area 1 Observations on the content of the Inspection Report
The school community of Pobalscoil na Tríonóide welcomes the contents and publication of the report issued by D.E.S. following a subject inspection of History, 23rd April, 2007. The Board welcomes the recognition given to the main strengths identified in the evaluation.
Area 2 Follow-up actions planned or undertaken since the completion of the inspection activity to implement the findings and recommendations of the inspection.
The Board of Management is committed in general to the implementation of the recommendations of the inspection;
Specifically the board is committing to
(a) All First year students studying History every week of the school year replacing the ½ year rota, and this has been put in place for 2007/08.
(b) All students studying History for the full school year in Transition Year, and this has been implemented for 2007/08.
(c) A full review of the schools ‘core curriculum’ after a 2 year period of implementation. (Board of Management)
(d) Appropriate time-tabling of History. History is timetabled 3 days per week at junior cycle and 4 days per week at senior cycle for every History Class, for 2007/08.
(e) Teaching preferences of staff will continue to be taken into account when allocating teachers to class groups/levels.
(f) Supporting History teachers in discussing teaching and learning, resources, and establishing links with local and subject-based outside bodies.
(g) The provision of a 3rd specialist History/Geography room in the school, ( in place for 2007/08)
The Board of Management thanks the D.E.S. for the opportunity to comment on the above report.