An Roinn Oideachais agus Scileanna
Department of Education and Skills
Subject Inspection of English
Sandford Road, Dublin 6
Roll number: 60530S
Date of inspection: 8 May 2009
Report on the Quality of Learning and Teaching in English
This report has been written following a subject inspection in Gonzaga College. 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 studentsí work, and had discussions with the teachers. The inspector reviewed school planning documentation and teachersí written preparation. Following the evaluation visit, the inspector provided oral feedback on the outcomes of the evaluation to the deputy principal and subject co-ordinator. 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.
Gonzaga College is a Jesuit school for boys and was established in 1950. It has a strong academic tradition and offers three curricular programmes: the Junior Certificate, a compulsory Transition Year (TY) programme, and the established Leaving Certificate. The present senior management team was appointed in 2007 and some changes in school structures have taken place recently, including an increase in the number of base class groups in each junior cycle year, and TY from three to four.
Five teachers form the English department in Gonzaga, and almost all have a very substantial timetable commitment to the subject. This consolidates delivery of the subject and is commended. Four of the five teach both junior and senior cycle English. Teachers joining the department may be deployed initially only in junior cycle, depending on their level of experience, but the general pattern is of deployment in both cycles. For this reason, the appropriateness of the term Ďsenior teacherí, encountered in some planning documents, should be examined. It is good practice that teachers take both junior and senior cycle classes, as it supports a view of English as a continuum of skills and knowledge development from first year to sixth. English classes normally retain the same teacher throughout each cycle, and this is good practice.
English is timetabled four times a week in the junior cycle and in transition year. Fifth and sixth year classes have five lessons a week, usually a lesson every day. A lesson per day is the optimal number and distribution, and this should be borne in mind when planning the timetable. The number of lessons offered in the junior cycle is therefore less than optimal for the subject. Consideration could be given to the introduction of a fifth lesson in first year at least. It is the foundation year of the three-year Junior Certificate syllabus, and an English lesson every day would provide students with an opportunity to learn and practise the skills that are central to the syllabus. Latin is a core subject in the schoolís junior cycle and, while this places some constraints on timetabling, the study of Latin should enrich the studentsí experience of English and is to be supported. There is excellent timetable provision for English and related areas including film, drama and rhetoric in TY.
Students are placed in mixed-ability class groups according to alphabetical order in first year, and remain in these for the junior cycle. These base classes are changed in transition year in the interest of varying the group dynamic. All students are expected to take English at higher level in the certificate examinations, and exceptions to this are very rare. English classes are not set into ability groups in the senior cycle, as might be expected given the schoolís academic profile. It is suggested that the basis of class formation be reviewed from time to time, as a means of supporting reflective practice and ensuring that desired educational outcomes are being achieved, even if no change is made. English is not timetabled concurrently except in TY. Serious consideration should be given to the introduction of concurrent timetabling of English in fifth and sixth year for a number of reasons: to provide enhanced opportunities for collaborative planning; to facilitate whole-year and inter-class activities; to allow for common assessments, both continuous and summative; and to open up the possibility of different systems of class formation.
In transition year, concurrent timetabling has been used to deliver a modular English programme in three ten-week blocks, with students having different teachers for each module. For 2008/09, arising from the change from three to four base class groups, a non-modular programme in which classes retain the same teacher for the year has been trialled. A mid-year review of this arrangement has taken place, and an end-of-year review is scheduled. The schoolís management and the English department are commended on showing a willingness to introduce change and to reflect on its impact. Although both arrangements have merit, it is worth noting that a modular delivery is particularly suited to the aims of the TY programme. The programme guidelines and other material on the Second Level Support Service web site (www.slss.ie) should be consulted as part of the review process.
New library and theatre facilities for the school are nearing completion. The school employs a librarian, who works closely with the English department. Class groups, individual students and teachers frequently use the library for research, reading assignments and private reading for pleasure. A strong tradition of drama exists in the school and it has been admirably supported through the building programme and staff appointments. It is suggested that audio recordings of plays would be a helpful additional resource to support the study of Shakespearean drama in the junior cycle in particular. The use of information and communication technology (ICT) is well developed and is supported by wireless broadband, data projectors and an ePortal system. Commendably, school management has identified teachers with a particular interest in using ICT in the classroom and has facilitated them in sharing ideas and good practice with colleagues.
School management has facilitated continuing professional development (CPD) for staff, both at a whole-school and individual level. It was noted and is commended that special educational needs and differentiation have been among the areas covered recently. The school also supports initial teacher training through offering experience to student teachers, and there was evidence of a supportive mentoring system for student teachers in the English department.
School development planning is an ongoing and well-documented process in Gonzaga College. A written action plan for 2008/09 has been drawn up, identifying a number of goals, and linking them to actions, relevant personnel and timeframes. This is exemplary practice. In the sphere of teaching and learning, the plan outlines action in the area of special educational needs, assessment and homework, guidance, and the ePortal system.
Subject plans for English, however, are not reviewed annually and those made available during the inspection were drawn up in 2005. They broadly reflect current practice, except in transition year. The written Junior Certificate plan is in fact the official syllabus document, with a brief indicative list of texts appended. It was clear from the 2008/09 book list, and from observation and discussion during the evaluation, that teachers plan their junior cycle programmes, including the texts to be studied, individually. This practice created particular challenges in 2008/9, when the junior cycle years were re-formed into four base class groups. The Leaving Certificate plan is a specific and reflective document, although prescriptive only in stating that all classes study Shakespeare as the single text. It provides a good basis for ongoing review and development, and should be used as such. The TY programme plan included in the English planning file sets out in very good detail the aims, objectives, indicative content and methodologies, and modes of assessment pertaining to the modular programme, but not the revised programme for 2008/09.
The commitment of teachers to the subject and to their students is acknowledged and highly commended, as is their collegiality. The manner in which the department has discussed, agreed, and reviewed changes in transition year this year demonstrated good practice. Nonetheless, the evaluation findings clearly indicate that ongoing collaborative planning is an area for development in the English department. The overarching rationale for a change of practice in this area has already been identified by the school management and by members of the English department: namely, the desire to ensure that students achieve the best possible learning outcomes. It is recommended, as a first step, that the existing structures supporting collaborative planning be reviewed and altered as necessary. These include the role of co-ordinator, which is voluntary and rotating, in line with good practice. It would be beneficial to agree a comprehensive description of the role, with a term of office of perhaps two years. This description could then be included in the subject plan. A schedule of formal meetings is also in place but may need to be extended.
A revised plan for English in the junior cycle should be given priority. This plan should identify and link learning outcomes, course content, teaching and learning methods, and forms of assessment, and place them within yearly and termly timeframes. Ongoing review and yearly updating will ensure that the plan remains a live document. It is advisable that teachers agree on certain novels, plays and poems, while leaving scope for individual choice to reflect studentsí needs as well as teachersí preferences. In this regard, work done by one member of the department in gathering together a collection of poems for the junior cycle could be developed on a collaborative basis. A plan that both reflects and informs practice in English for the TY programme should also be drawn up, and should build on and adapt the existing documents as necessary. With regard to the Leaving Certificate programme, it is suggested that the English department select one common text for the comparative study in all classes, work collaboratively on materials and approaches and then review the practice.
The members of the English department did not make themselves available for group feedback following the evaluation. Particular attention should therefore be paid to the above recommendations on collaborative planning resulting in agreed programmes of work, which were discussed with senior management and the subject co-ordinator during the evaluation.
Nine classes were visited during the evaluation, covering all years, levels and programmes offered and involving all members of the English teaching team. At the time of the inspection, classes were revising the yearís work and therefore the emphasis in most of the lessons observed was on the recall of material, rehearsal of skills and reinforcement of key points. The teaching observed displayed a depth and breadth of subject expertise and lesson topics were presented and explored in an assured and often stimulating manner. Students were for the most part receptive and actively engaged in their learning, and showed themselves to be capable of lively and articulate participation in class activity and discussion. Teachers should, however, bear in mind the need to balance teacher and student talk and to avoid an overuse of teacher exposition.
Lessons were well planned and excellent materials had been prepared in many instances. Good lesson structure ensured that a substantial amount of work was covered and that transitions from one lesson segment to the next were smooth. One senior-cycle lesson, for example, included a short performance by two students prefaced by an introductory discussion and followed by student critique and analysis. In some of the junior cycle lessons observed, group work was built very effectively into the lesson structure. Lesson pacing varied but was for the most part well judged, balancing forward movement with the necessary level of recapitulation.
A wide variety of teaching and learning resources was used in the lessons observed. In a junior cycle lesson, the board was used in an initial revision session to gather key points about journalistic writing. Work sheets were then distributed to pre-arranged groups, mirroring in layout the points on the board and leaving space for the groups to add to the work already done. This approach provided very good visual reinforcement and linking of prior and new learning. It was noteworthy that a number of lessons used the studentsí own work as a teaching and learning resource. This was done in various ways: class discussion and appraisal of studentsí written work; very well-managed feedback at the conclusion of group work; and students as actors and audience in a lesson on drama.
ICT was effectively used for a number of purposes. A transition-year lesson on the topic of the reliability of on-line sources of information looked at downloads from web sites and blogs as well as hard copies of online newspaper articles, and included downloads to mobile communication devices to emphasise the opportunities and perils of ready access to information. In a junior cycle lesson, the data projector was used to display clearly the layout and content of formal letters, using real texts as models, and also to reinforce a commendably rigorous treatment of the key points of report writing. In further developing the use of the ICT resources available, it is suggested that the area of visual text and the relevant critical literacy skills be further considered.
Language skills were practised in the context of the literary texts being explored, and this integrated approach is commended. A junior cycle class working on the novel had the opportunity to practise speaking and listening skills through effective group work, and to practise skimming and scanning reading skills. Planned written work arising from the work in class included an extended response on the theme of conflict, and also a report-writing exercise based on an incident in the novel. Good practice was also observed in the area of note taking: students readily jotted down points made during group feedback or arising from class discussion. This practice emphasised peer learning and was supported, in a number of instances, by teachersí reminding students that the work and ideas were theirs. The practice of reading skills, including the skill of reading aloud, formed an element of some lessons. Where students are known to be more hesitant readers, it is helpful to ensure that the material they are asked to read aloud is familiar to them. In the case of a first encounter with a text, it is better that the teacher or a willing and competent student read it for the enjoyment and understanding of all.
Questioning, class discussion and discourse were appropriately challenging for the most part. They underpinned the development of higher-order thinking skills of analysis and inference, and assisted students to perceive points of comparison and contrast. Many students clearly had a high capacity for active listening, especially in the senior cycle where this skill was most called upon. However, this capacity is not shared by all, and the practices that encouraged high levels of student discussion and direct engagement with the text or task were observed to be very effective. It is therefore recommended that the subject department identify a range of methods and strategies to support all styles of learning. In particular, the very good participative and group-work practices already in place should be shared with all members of the department and applied wherever appropriate.
Good revision strategies were observed and it was noteworthy that these gave an appropriate emphasis to the relevant skills, rather than mere recall of content. For example, class discussion of the texts was used to reinforce key elements of the short story genre and the comparative study which students had already encountered. Students were able to work from the particular text towards an engagement with concepts such as theme, setting and viewpoint. They were then guided in their discussion of these concepts to refer to the text for illustration. This method was effective in reminding the students of the need to balance and link the general and the particular in their text-based written work.
Students generally displayed very good levels of recall, and there was evidence of a high level of learning arising from the work done in most of the lessons observed. Much of the written work reviewed was of a high standard. Teachers have high expectations of their students and expressed general satisfaction at studentsí levels of attainment. The English department and school management have discussed the levels of attainment of the most able students and are committed to ensuring that they fully reflect studentsí potential.
Classroom management was very good throughout, and was principally established through a focus on purposeful and productive work and an affirmation of studentsí efforts. The prevailing classroom atmosphere was one of respect between teachers and students. Some teachers have their own base rooms and, in all classrooms visited, attention had been paid to the creation of a classroom environment that was print-rich and visually stimulating. Teachers of English who do not have their own base rooms should be facilitated by assigning them to the same classroom for English as much as possible.
Almost all the lessons observed involved specific tasks for students, either individually or in groups, and these were carefully monitored, with teachers circulating to check on progress and give assistance where required. Questioning was used in a targeted way to assess recall and comprehension, and to test studentsí ability to pursue a line of reasoning to a sound conclusion.
A wide selection of studentsí work, including copies, folders and examination scripts, was made available during the inspection. The material reviewed indicted that a very good volume of work was set regularly, including a commendable number of extended writing tasks and of imaginative assignments. The good practice of setting extended written tasks as a component of house examinations was also noted. Limited use was made of textbook assignments in the junior cycle, and this is as it should be.
There was evidence of exemplary practice in giving feedback to students on their work. Written comment affirming effort and attainment and pointing out specific areas for further development was given in the case of all substantial written work. The copies and folders showed clear evidence of studentsí progress over the course of the year. The fact that the evaluation criteria applied in the Leaving Certificate were very familiar to students and were used extensively be teachers is further evidence of good practice and is consistent with the principles of assessment for learning.
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:
A post-evaluation meeting was held with the co-ordinator of English and the deputy principal at the conclusion of the evaluation when the draft findings and recommendations of the evaluation were presented and discussed.
Published May 2010