An Roinn Oideachais agus Eolaíochta
Department of Education and Science
Subject Inspection of English
The High School
Rathgar, Dublin 6
Roll number: 60670L
Date of inspection: 28 September 2007
Date of issue of report: 21 February 2008
Report on the Quality of Learning and Teaching in English
This report has been written following a subject inspection in The High School, Rathgar. 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 subject teachers and the principal. The board of management of the school was given an opportunity to comment on the findings and recommendations of the report; the board chose to accept the report without response.
There is very good whole school provision for English from first year through to sixth year in The High School. First, third and sixth-year class groups have five lesson periods of English each week, fifth years have six lesson periods each week, second-year and Transition Year (TY) class groups have four lesson periods weekly. TY students also study modules on Media Studies and Creative Writing and take a course in Drama for half the year, all of which are complementary to English.
First and second-year class groups are formed on a mixed-ability basis. Those students who will do ordinary-level English in their Junior Certificate examination are placed into a separate ordinary-level class group in third year. There is generally only one ordinary-level class group formed as the majority of students sit English at higher level. Management provides an extra English teacher to teach this ordinary-level class group in third year which is very good provision. It was reported that the formation of the ordinary-level class group in third year works very well. The close cooperation of English teachers in planning their work together in first and second year facilitates the movement of students into this standalone class in third year. Concurrent timetabling of English classes is provided from third year through to sixth year which assists any student who may wish to change level as well as allowing for the organisation of whole year activities. TY students are placed in class groups on a mixed-ability basis which is commended. Students are banded for English in fifth and sixth year which is appropriate at this level. This means that the top two class groups are of similar ability and the next three class groups are also of similar ability. Again, the majority of students take higher-level English for their Leaving Certificate. On the whole, English classes are evenly distributed across the week, which is good practice.
Student access to levels is determined by examination results, teacher recommendation and student performance. There was evidence that teachers are flexible and judicious when it comes to student placement in class groups. Good practice takes place in that fifth-year students sit a common examination in early October to ensure that they are correctly placed in terms of their class group. Good practice also occurs in that classes generally retain the same teacher between first and third year and between fifth and sixth year.
All English teachers have English to degree level, with some having masters degrees. Some English teachers have attended a range of courses pertaining to English and many are members of the Association of Teachers of English. This is indicative of their commitment to maintaining their subject expertise. It was reported that there is a policy among English teachers of rotating the teaching of higher and ordinary level, which is a practice to be encouraged.
Co-curricular activities in English include the organisation of regular trips to the theatre and cinema, school visits from authors and film directors, participation in drama productions and drama festivals for both junior and senior cycle students and also participation in junior and senior public speaking and debating competitions. There is a junior drama production and a fifth-year play staged each year. There is also a debating society in the school and a film club. Students edit and contribute articles to the very impressive annual school yearbook “The Erasmian and Diocesan Times” and have participated in a range of writing competitions. The range of co-curricular activities in the school that relate to English is highly commended as is the commitment of the teachers to organising them.
There is good support for English by senior management. English teachers have access to resources to support the teaching and learning of English. Many teachers have their own base classrooms and these rooms contain televisions, videos and DVD players. There are also televisions and DVDs available on each floor of the school as well as data projectors and CD players. Provision is made available by management for updating and maintaining resources through an annual budget. There is good practice in that the resources available to support the teaching and learning of English are listed in the English plan. There is also a shared resource area which includes a video library. English classrooms were stimulating learning environments with many books, students’ book reviews and poetry work, student project work, key quotes and other posters and displays pertaining to English on the walls.
There is a school library which is available to students during, and before and after school. Teachers also bring class groups to the library by arrangement. A library committee assists the librarian in the organisation of the library and the work done in this regard is highly commended. The librarian organises many competitions and other activities to encourage reading. For example a prize is given to the best overall reader each year. There were many different displays in the library, which were created both in English classes and by the librarian to highlight awareness of contemporary and historical events. Events such as World Book Day and National Poetry Day are also celebrated. Class groups are brought to the library to learn how to do research and students are encouraged to borrow books. All students in the school have library cards.
The school has a sophisticated and up-to-date website. English teachers are well advanced in the use of information and communication technology (ICT) to support their teaching and students’ learning. Teachers have access to the school’s two computer rooms and there is Internet access in each classroom which was used to very good effect in some lessons. In addition, it was reported that all English teachers bring their students to the computer room for project work, research and other work related to English. This is highly commended.
All incoming first-years students sit a reading test in the April prior to their entry to assess their literacy levels. Students who receive the lowest scores are retested in the early part of first year. TY students are also tested in reading and those who score less than the tenth percentile receive learning support. It is commendable that those students with literacy support needs receive support from first year through to sixth year. The school has one ex-quota learning-support teacher and three resource teachers. Students are given extra support on a withdrawal basis. Paired reading is sometimes organised between TY students and students in need of literacy support.
There is a head of English in the school and there was evidence that English is ably coordinated. It was reported that time is made available by management during the September and November staff meetings for planning. Planning meetings are also held by English teachers at other times in the year. Agendas and minutes of these meetings are recorded which is good practice. There was evidence of very good team work and of close collaboration among the English department, which is highly commended.
There is a very good English plan available and it was clear that the process of planning is ongoing. This English plan is a comprehensive document which contains much of the information about the English department. A long-term scheme of work is available for each year group which includes the key skills that each group should achieve. In addition, the learning targets for each year group, as outlined in the Junior Certificate English syllabus, are included in the plan which allows for an incremental approach to learning from first year through to third year to be achieved. This is excellent practice. The plan also places an emphasis on cross-curricular work and there was evidence of the focus on this during the classroom visits.
English teachers collaborate closely to choose the same texts in first and second year. From then on some texts are chosen in common and others vary according to the needs and abilities of the class group. This is appropriate. A range of novels and plays is taught over the three years of junior cycle which is highly commended as it is in keeping with the spirit of the Junior Certificate syllabus and also prepares students for the greater challenges of the Leaving Certificate. Good practice was also seen in that there is a dictionary on the first-year book list and students are required to have a dictionary in class. Students study all genres in all year groups which is commended. It is suggested that the literary texts taught in second year be kept under review to ensure that they continue to meet the interests of the students, although there was evidence that many of these texts are brought to life by their teachers through various activities such as project work. The plan suggests that the Shakespearean play be covered in the third term of second year. Given that students also study a non-Shakespearean drama and novel in second year, as well as other genre, consideration should be given to deferring the teaching of this play until third year if time constraints arise.
The Transition Year English programme is very much in keeping with the overarching aims of TY and aims to focus on developing skills in oral and written English and to create an “awareness of a broader spectrum of English literature”. These aims as well as the methodologies outlined in the plan are commended. TY students of English study a range of genres in English and also complete projects. For example the ‘Crime and Punishment’ project involves students viewing a film about prison, reading newspaper articles on the topics of prison and crime, a visit to Mountjoy prison, and students debating the topic. This is an example of how cross-curricular links are created and how TY students study a range of genres in an innovative and interesting manner. TY teachers are commended for using a broad range of texts with their students.
There was evidence of good liaison between the English department and the special educational needs (SEN) and learning support department. For example, the Education Plans available for SEN students showed evidence of very good liaison with individual teachers. It was reported that the SEN teachers attend English meetings when necessary. Teachers are aware of those students with SEN and how to manage their needs in lessons. Information on how subject teachers can assist students with SEN is outlined in the ‘Information for Staff’ booklet. There is a strong awareness among English teachers of the need to assist SEN students by teaching the same topics at the same time, particularly in first and second year, so that students who are withdrawn for literacy support from different class groups are facilitated.
There is a very good emphasis placed by English teachers on reading. Students are required to write and present reviews on the books they have read and these reviews are often displayed.
The quality of teaching and learning in The High School was of a very high standard. All lessons had a clear purpose and a very good structure. Teachers were well prepared for their lessons and a wide range of effective resources was used. These included resources from the Internet, laptop and data projector, overhead projector and handouts. Instructions and explanations were always clear. Lessons were well paced and had a good structure. The whiteboard was properly used in all lessons to record key points made during the lessons and to present homework.
A range of highly effective teaching and learning methodologies was in evidence which led to active student involvement in their learning. Among the methodologies observed was the use of ICT, pair and group work, effective questioning, brainstorming and students making presentations. Effective group work was observed when students were put in groups to create advertisements in order to sell specified products, and when students, in groups, had to identify different themes, and characters who demonstrated these themes. This methodology led to lively and interesting classes where active learning was taking place.
In some classes ICT was used to enhance teaching and learning. For example, in one lesson a laptop and data projector were used to display to students some images which were related to their studied drama text. This was done as a pre-reading exercise prior to students commencing the study of the text and students had to discuss what the images represented for them. This gave the teacher the opportunity to introduce key concepts that would feature in the play. It also led to good discussion.
Very effective questioning was observed in all lessons. Teachers included all students in their questioning and asked both lower and higher-order questions which catered for all abilities in the classroom. Good practice was seen in that students were encouraged to back up their answers with evidence from their texts. There was evidence of teachers catering for the range of abilities in their classrooms by including all students in the lesson, reinforcing key points and vocabulary on the board, giving very good written and verbal feedback to students on where they needed to improve in their written work and giving individual attention to students when work was assigned for a portion of the lesson.
There was good practice in that the acquisition of vocabulary and the technicalities of language were seamlessly integrated into lessons. In addition, there was a strong emphasis on the integration of language and literature. For example, students were given the task of writing a letter from the point of view of a character in a text. Links were created between texts and with contemporary life which put students’ learning in context.
Students were given frequent practice in writing in different genres, for distinct purposes and for a variety of audiences. There was a strong focus on the student as a reflective practitioner of writing. An effective example of teaching the art of descriptive writing was observed where students were given an extract from the opening of a contemporary novel with some of the descriptive words blocked out. In pairs, the students had to come up with descriptive words that might be suitable to use in the extract. When students had this work completed and had given their suggestions to the teacher the original opening was displayed on the data projector. Students were then instructed to re-examine their first draft of a piece of assigned writing and include more descriptive words. As a result students were more reflective about their own pieces of writing.
There was evidence of students’ personal engagement with their texts. This was effectively seen, for example, through students’ response diaries which showed excellent engagement with poetry.
Students were fully engaged in their learning and lessons were lively and enjoyable. There was a very pleasant atmosphere noted in all lessons and students listened to each other as well as to their teachers in a respectful manner.
In all cases, lesson content and writing tasks were suitably challenging and there was a definite sense of an incremental approach to learning. There was very clear evidence of students’ learning in all lessons and students were challenged by their teachers to think critically and were able to discuss and respond maturely to the texts encountered in their lessons.
First, second and fifth-year students sit formal Christmas and summer examinations. Third and sixth-year students sit ‘mock’ examinations. These examinations are set externally and marked internally, which is commended. Examination classes also receive reports at Christmas based on continuous assessment. TY students are continuously assessed at Christmas and sit examinations in the summer. There was clear evidence that students are regularly assessed by English teachers during term also, through class-based tests and through the assignment of frequent homework. Teachers keep very good profiles of students’ progress. English teachers set common examinations papers with an agreed marking scheme where appropriate, which is commended. The school has a Homework policy which is reportedly currently under review. Students can avail of supervised study offered by the school. There is an annual parent-teacher meeting held for first, second, third and fifth-year students. Parents can also meet teachers by appointment throughout the school year.
The High School provides copies to all students in the school. Some of these copies are quite insubstantial although maintained to a good standard by students. It is recommended that the school consider providing manuscript copies or more extensive copies for the purpose of English. In some classes, students had hardback copies and also folders for storage of notes. This is very good practice.
All English teachers were aware of the criteria for assessment and state examination marking schemes. Students’ copies revealed that teachers gave students very good written feedback on areas where they need to improve, in line with best practice. Homework given was to a purpose and was a continuation and extension of work done in class. In addition, copies showed that often this work was of an enjoyable nature for students. For example, students had to illustrate, through drawing, different characters in texts, find images that reflected the mood of certain poems, create bookmarks based on quotes from their novel and write their own poems, often modelled on a studied poet.
An analysis of examination results is carried out on an annual basis for all subjects in the school and this is very good practice. There is a very high uptake of higher-level English in the school and results in English at both higher and ordinary level are very good. This is indicative of the very good work of students and their teachers.
The following are the main strengths identified in the evaluation:
· There is very good whole school provision and support for English in the school.
· A range of co-curricular activities in English is offered by the school.
· English classrooms were stimulating learning environments.
· The library, with its full-time librarian, is a well-organised asset to the school.
· English teachers use ICT to very good effect both in preparation for lessons and in teaching.
· Students receive extra literacy support throughout their six years in school if required and there is good liaison between the SEN and English department. English teachers catered for the range of abilities in their classrooms.
· English is ably coordinated in the school. There is good team work and close collaboration among members of the English department.
· The comprehensive English plan allows for an incremental approach to learning to be achieved.
· Students are given experience of a broad range of literary texts throughout their time in school and the programme for each year group is commended.
· There was a very good quality of teaching and learning observed. A wide range of effective resources and teaching methodologies was evident and students were actively involved in their learning.
· Lessons were lively and interesting and there was very good learning taking place, with students able to respond critically to their texts.
· Students were given frequent practice in writing, were frequently assessed and their homework was very well corrected with very good feedback given.
· There is a very high uptake of higher-level English in the school and results at both higher and ordinary-level are very good.
As a means of building on these strengths and to address areas for development, the following recommendations are made:
· In second year, the timing of the teaching of the Shakespearean text should be kept under review. In addition, the choice of second-year novel and non-Shakespearean drama should be kept under review.
· The school should consider providing more substantial copies or manuscript copies for students for their English classes.
Post-evaluation meetings were held with the teachers of English at the conclusion of the evaluation when the draft findings and recommendations of the evaluation were presented and discussed.