An Roinn Oideachais agus Eolaíochta
Department of Education and Science
Subject Inspection of English
Putland Road, Bray, County Wicklow
Roll number: 61800D
Date of inspection: 23 April 2008
Report on the Quality of Learning and Teaching in English
This report has been written following a subject inspection in Presentation College, Bray. 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, deputy principal and subject teachers. The board of management of the school was given an opportunity to comment on the findings and recommendations of the report; a response was not received from the board.
Second and third years have five English lessons each week which is good provision. First years have four lessons each week, which is satisfactory provision. Transition Year (TY) class groups have three lessons each week which is also just satisfactory provision; however, TY class groups also study a module on film making which complements English. Provision of English lessons is very good in fifth and sixth year as students have six lessons each week.
Students are placed in mixed-ability class groups for all years of junior cycle which is highly commended. Minutes of meetings of the English department reveal that the banding of students in third year is under consideration. However, as the present mixed-ability system is working well for students and teachers, it is recommended that the current situation pertain.
Students are again placed in mixed-ability class groups for English in Transition Year which is appropriate. This year, the TY teachers of English rotated the teaching of class groups among two or three teachers on a trial basis. This arrangement was found by teachers to be unsuccessful as it meant, given the nature of TY, that class contact with the group could be sporadic. Nevertheless, teachers are commended for their willingness to try new approaches and change their practices.
There is one standalone, ordinary-level class group in the current sixth year. The remaining students, all of whom are studying higher level English, are banded. In fifth year, there are three classes made up of students who achieved a ‘C’ grade or higher in the Junior Certificate examination. Those who achieved a grade ‘D’ are placed into two class groups where many students are attempting higher level but at a slower pace. There is also one standalone, ordinary-level class group in fifth year. Management provides concurrency on the timetable in fifth and sixth year which facilitates students who wish to change levels.
There is an even distribution of lesson periods across the week for all year groups, which is commended. As fifth-year and sixth-year class groups have six periods for English each week they have two classes on one day. A double period, instead of two singles, would be more desirable for English teachers if this is possible to organise within the exigencies of the timetable. Eight teachers currently teach English in Presentation College. They rotate the teaching of programmes and levels in a fair manner.
English teachers are highly commended for providing a wide range of co-curricular activities pertaining to English. In-class and inter-class debating are encouraged from first year through to senior cycle. Debating teams in the school have had a good deal of success in external competitions including winning the Concern debating competition in 2000. The school also has had very good success in various writing competitions and won the Irish Times School Magazine award in 2005 as well as a range of other prizes over the years. Students also have opportunities to contribute articles to school produced publications including the annual year book. Such opportunities for students to write for different purposes are highly commended. An Arts Week is held annually in the school during which students are involved in poetry readings and in reading extracts from other publications. TY students are involved in producing a musical. Students are brought on trips to see films, drama productions and places of literary interest.
There is good whole school support for English in the school. It was reported that reasonable requests for resources are provided by management. Class groups have their own base classrooms, and a television and DVD player is available on each base corridor. Two computer rooms are available in the school and one of these doubles up as the school library. This should not impede English teachers from use of the library as it is quite well stocked with books that could be used to promote the reading habit among the students. Three data projectors and laptops are available from the staffroom and a booking system for their use is suggested. Already, some training has been provided in information and communication technology (ICT) and management is planning further training for teachers in this regard. English teachers are aware of the importance of ICT as a teaching tool but it was noted that the fact that teachers do not have base classrooms makes its use difficult. There is little space available for storage of common resources such as books and DVDs. Consideration might be given to designating one of the classrooms as an English classroom for storing relevant English books and resources, including a data projector and laptop, so that teachers might be able to swap rooms in order to access this classroom if they wanted to use ICT or other resources. The school already has an audio-visual room which is used on a booking system for screenings of films. It is recommended that an inventory of all available English resources be created so that all teachers are aware of what is available in the department. A shared folder on the school’s internal network could also be created to share electronic resources.
It was reported that damp walls militate against displaying students’ work, but teachers should provide students with a stimulating learning environment by displaying students’ work, key word posters and other posters pertaining to English.
The English department presented as a reflective department. Two teachers share responsibility for the co-ordination of the subject on an annual basis and this was seen to be working well. It is suggested that the specific role of subject co-ordinator be defined throughout the school. A subject plan is available for each year group. There is a focus in the plan on a thematic approach to teaching junior cycle English which is good practice as it allows the students to create links between texts and to see English as an integrated whole. There was evidence that the aims of the English department are being developed among students in practice. There was also evidence that the range of teaching methodologies outlined in the English plan was being implemented. Some first-year class groups are divided between two teachers. There is a need for more careful collaboration between teachers when such a situation pertains to ensure that all aspects of the English course are fully covered.
Six formal meetings are provided for subject departments to meet each year and English teachers also collaborate on an informal basis. Good practice occurs in that minutes of these meetings are recorded. Under school development planning, the school is now developing ‘assessment for learning’ practices and there was evidence that these are being implemented by most English teachers.
Drama texts and novels chosen for junior and senior cycle are generally common to all class groups. It was noted that some class groups enjoyed the chosen first-year novel more than others. As students are placed in mixed-ability class groups in junior cycle, there should not be a need for all teachers to choose the same literary texts. Instead, teachers could choose texts to suit the individual class groups. It is recommended that all teachers agree the learning outcomes that each year group should achieve so that all students have learned the same key skills by the end of each year. Evidence from individual plans suggests that the number of texts taught varies considerably depending on the individual teacher. Teachers should also agree the number of poems, short stories, novels and essays to be taught or given in each year group, particularly in junior cycle and TY. It is recommended that teachers consider broadening the English course in second and third year.
The aims and content of the TY English programme are highly commended and are very much in keeping with the spirit of TY. These aims and objectives include exposing students to a wide range of English experiences in each of the four skills of reading, writing, speaking and listening. TY students study a range of interesting texts in a variety of genre; for example, the English plan observed for one class group is highly commended for the range of texts and teaching methods documented, including various projects such as the compilation of poetry textbook comprising poems chosen by the students, an examination of the concept of human rights through drama, and work on the TY section of the school year book.
Booklists are given to all year groups to encourage the reading habit and this is highly commended. In addition, good practice was seen where some class groups were encouraged to write book reviews.
Provision for students with special educational needs (SEN) is a developing area in the school. The number of students with SEN is small but growing and it was reported that next year there will be one teacher fully committed to providing SEN support. Students with SEN are identified through psychological reports and also incoming first-years are tested on the Drumcondra Reading Test prior to entry. These students are generally given support on a withdrawal basis if they have exemptions from the study of Irish or if they drop their modern European language. However, there is a necessity to also support students with literacy support needs who may not have exemptions from Irish but who need intense support for a number of weeks. Therefore, it is recommended that a policy on supporting students with SEN and learning support needs be developed which outlines how these students are identified and supported both in mainstream classes and in support classes
There was a clear purpose to all lessons which was shared with students from the outset and often written on the board. In addition, clear links were created with previous learning. On the whole, lesson content was appropriate, relevant to students and therefore enjoyable for students. This was especially the case when texts such as poems were put in context for students and links were created with contemporary life. Very good links were also made by students and their teachers between texts.
Teachers were well prepared and well organised for their lessons. Very good resources were often prepared or accessed from the internet to supplement students’ learning. The use of supplementary notes and exercises provided a freshness of approach as opposed to rigidly sticking with the textbook. The board was very well used to record key points made in class. In addition, homework was generally written on the board for all to record or else written on handouts for students. Students recorded homework in their journals and diligently recorded points made in lessons in their copies.
Some good pre-reading exercises were observed. For example, in preparation for a poem on the theme of ageing and decay, students were handed out pictures of a person at different stages in life. When introducing a new poet, the background to that poet was given and there was clear evidence that this helped the students to understand the poem more clearly. After the first reading of a text, good practice was also seen when vocabulary was checked for understanding and correct spelling was also checked. In addition, some very good advice was given to students on how to answer questions. The focus on key moments and on students’ personal response to poetry was in evidence. Students displayed good knowledge of their texts, were able to quote to back up their answers and were good at discussing literary devices.
Students presented as being highly motivated, enthusiastic learners who were well used to participating in their lessons and contributing their opinions through answering questions, discussion and through pair work. There were some very good examples of the use of skilful teacher questioning which elicited insightful opinions from students. There was a good balance between the teacher and student voice in most lessons. Teachers often asked higher-order questions to encourage discussion. Best practice was seen when teachers named students to answer questions in order to ensure that all students participated, as opposed to only asking questions of those with their hands up. Many teachers were very affirming of their students and their lively style of teaching stimulated students. There was a positive atmosphere in all lessons.
There was a good structure to most lessons observed, although in a couple of instances the pace of the lessons could have been swifter. For example, in one instance where students were preparing for a debate, the stages of the lesson should have been reversed in order to move the lesson along more swiftly. In another instance, too much time was spent telling students how to write a dialogue as opposed to students actively writing the dialogue.
There were some very good examples of teachers differentiating their teaching to support all levels of ability through providing summaries of texts and constantly checking understanding of texts. However, it is recommended when work is assigned for a portion of the lesson, that the teacher move around the classroom to help less able students; this is particularly important given the mixed-ability nature of the class groups.
There was good use made of exemplars of students’ work as a model for writing correctly. In many lessons, the amount of work assigned for students was appropriate with many teachers assigning longer pieces of work on a weekly basis. In one instance, students had little practice in writing in any genre although they had covered a number of texts. These students would have benefited from consolidating the work done in class with written work. In this instance, it was recommended that frequent writing practice be integrated with the study of texts, for example, by assigning functional writing tasks based on the texts at regular intervals. This good practice was seen to occur with other class groups and examples included students writing a letter and diary entry from the point of view of a character in a text. Such integration of language and literature is also more enjoyable for students than writing summaries of scenes and chapters and also adds variety to their repertoire of writing skills. In addition, in a couple of instances the majority of essays were assigned in either third or sixth year as opposed to students having regular practice in such writing in each year. Therefore, it is recommended that English teachers agree a policy on the frequency of homework which stipulates the number of essays and longer pieces of work that each year group should complete. Students should also be reminded of the need to draft and edit their work.
English teachers are commended for motivating their students to take higher-level English in the state examinations. The vast majority of students sit Junior Certificate English at higher level and there is also a high uptake of higher level in the Leaving Certificate and these, as well as those who take ordinary level, succeed very well. It is clear that high standards are expected of students and students rise to these expectations.
The standard of students’ copies and folders was, on the whole, good, and very good when copies and folders were divided into aspects of the course. Many students’ folders contained very good resources. The standard of folders often depended on the frequency of work assigned. Some folders were excellent with sample answers, notes and excellent formative assessment given. Teachers keep very good records of students’ progress.
English teachers have identified three ‘assessment for learning’ strategies for use with their class groups: pair and share; model answers, and comment only feedback. There was evidence of the use of these strategies during the inspection. The use of such formative assessment methods as comment only marking is highly commended and some excellent examples of its use were observed. In some instances, while students were assigned work, it was not regularly corrected or if work was corrected it was only with a tick and initial. Students, in all classes, should be afforded the courtesy of having their longer pieces of work corrected. There is also a need for the more widespread use of formative assessment techniques among all English teachers and therefore it is recommended that all teachers should use these assessment methods when correcting longer pieces of work. Senior cycle students, in some class groups were aware of the discrete criteria of assessment. The criteria of assessment are used for marking fifth-year and sixth-year work, in most cases, and it is suggested that similar criteria be applied when marking third-year work.
Examination class groups sit ‘mock’ examinations. Teachers generally set their own formal, end-of-term examinations. It is suggested that teachers set common examinations as this will ensure that the same learning outcomes are tested in all class groups. A parent-teacher meeting is held annually for each year group.
The manner of TY assessment is commended and includes marks for continuous assessment of work, marks for portfolio work and student interview.
English teachers conduct an analysis of state examination results in English which is good practice. An English medal is awarded each year for the best result in Leaving Certificate English.
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 English and with the principal and deputy principal at the conclusion of the evaluation when the draft findings and recommendations of the evaluation were presented and discussed.
Published November 2008