An Roinn Oideachais agus Eolaíochta
Department of Education and Science
Subject Inspection of English
Mount St Michael
Rosscarbery, County Cork
Roll number: 62470N
Date of inspection: 2 October 2008
Report on the Quality of Learning and Teaching in English
This report has been written following a subject inspection in Mount St Michael Secondary School. 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 was given an opportunity to comment in writing on the findings and recommendations of the report; a response was not received from the board.
Mount St Michael is a co-educational school. Classes in first year, in second year and in third year are provided with four English lessons per week. This is adequate provision. The school is encouraged to investigate the possibility of expanding the number of English lessons to five lessons per week. Such a move would be consistent with the findings of the recent Department of Education and Science (DES) Inspectorate report Looking at English: Teaching and Learning English in Post-Primary Schools, regarding optimal provision of lessons for English in junior cycle classes. Classes in Transition Year (TY) have three English lessons per week. This is adequate provision. Classes in fifth year have five English lessons per week, while sixth-year classes have six English lessons per week. In both of these instances, this is good provision. In first year, third year and fifth year, some English classes do not maintain the maximum number of contact points with the subject across the school week. This occurs, for example, where third-year classes have no English lessons on Friday and Tuesday. The school should seek to facilitate the maximum number of contact points with the subject that is possible for classes across the school week. Classes in third year, TY, fifth year and sixth year are timetabled concurrently. This is positive, facilitating students’ movement between levels and classes where this proves to be necessary.
English classes in first year and in second year are of mixed ability. Students are assigned to two higher-level classes and an ordinary-level class at the beginning of third year. This is done on the basis of students’ own choices and is informed by their summer examination results in second year. Consultation between the special educational needs department and the English department also occurs to inform these decisions. The fact that decisions regarding the levels at which students will participate in the Junior Certificate examinations are not made until the beginning of the third year of their junior cycle studies is good practice. Students are also facilitated in choosing the level they wish to study for the Leaving Certificate examination. These decisions are informed by their performance in the Junior Certificate examination, the opinion of their teachers in TY (where applicable) and the advice of their English teachers. Where practicable, English classes retain their English teachers from one year to the next.
The English department has been proactive in seeking to encourage students’ appreciation of reading for pleasure through a number of initiatives. These include the organisation of reading groups, book boxes and regular reading activities. A budget submission is made each year and funds have been provided by the school to support these efforts. Paired reading has been organised in the past and the creation of a new paired-reading programme is currently being examined in conjunction with the student council. This move is to be encouraged. Some planning regarding the promotion of reading has been included in the department plan and it is suggested that this should be consolidated through the creation of a reading policy, highlighting the various efforts underway. Further ideas to encourage students’ reading can be accessed at www.jcspliteracy.ie which contains a report on the Junior Certificate School Programme’s Demonstration Library Project, along with reading initiatives which worked well as part of this.
Baserooms have been provided for three English teachers. This has provided teachers with the opportunity to create very worthwhile English learning environments. Further reference is made to this area at a later point in this report. The school also provides an annual budget for the English department. There is good access to audio-visual equipment for English teachers. There is a computer room and this has been allocated for use by English classes in a number of cases. In addition, a data projector has been installed in two English teachers’ rooms. The school’s support of English teachers’ adoption of ICT in their work is to be praised. During the evaluation, there was evidence of the use of ICT to support the teaching and learning of English. This was exemplified through the use of wordprocessing packages in the creation of some students’ written work and the use of powerpoint presentations during lessons. These developments are to be praised. Possible additions include the exploration of the use of webquests for student project work and the creation of an English favourites list of websites on the school network. The continued expansion of the use of ICT in support of the subject is encouraged, with a recognition of the necessary limitations of current resources.
There are good, informal procedures for the induction of new teachers. Experienced teachers share resources in English and discuss lesson plans with student teachers and new English teachers. It is suggested that the induction process should be briefly set down in the subject plan as a means of ensuring the consolidation and dissemination of the very good practice currently evident in the English department.
The school is supportive of English teachers’ continuing professional development (CPD) and contributes to English teachers’ membership of the relevant subject association. English teachers have accessed CPD and all teachers are members of their subject association. A number of teachers have also pursued postgraduate studies. All of this is most praiseworthy.
A subject co-ordinator has been appointed on a rotational basis. This is worthwhile. The English department meets formally once per term. Beyond this, there are regular informal meetings of members of the department, along with ‘cluster’ meetings a number of times per year. Minutes of English meetings have begun to be recorded using ICT and these are kept in the subject folder. This good practice should continue. The bulleting of these minutes, highlighting actions to be taken for the next subject meeting, along with teachers assigned to accomplish these tasks, would also be worthwhile. The English folder contains a range of documentation relevant to the subject, including circulars regarding the current Leaving Certificate syllabus, information on students with special educational needs and the Junior Certificate and Leaving Certificate syllabuses. It is suggested that the Department of Education and Science Inspectorate publication Looking at English: Teaching and Learning English in Post-Primary Schools could usefully be added to these documents.
Considerable dedication has been demonstrated on the part of the English department in creating comprehensive, common, time-linked plans for each year group. It is recommended that work in the area of subject planning should now facilitate the movement of the common plans which have already been developed towards incorporating skills-based, syllabus-based learning goals. A useful model for this work can be found on the website of the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment, at www.ncca.ie, which contains the new Draft Rebalanced English Syllabus for junior cycle. Beyond this, the subject-planning process should also seek to develop a specific teaching and learning focus over a defined period of time. This should facilitate the ‘embedding’ of CPD accessed by the English department in teachers’ own practice, alongside the sharing of this practice among different members of the department. A possible area to explore in this manner is that of co-operative learning strategies. Professional development in this area may be accessed through the Second Level Support Service (SLSS). The analysis of examination results and uptake of levels should also form an element in the subject-planning process.
Texts are varied in senior cycle and, to a lesser extent, in junior cycle. This is positive and the English department is encouraged to continue to experiment with new texts, within syllabus requirements. This will facilitate teachers in suiting their choice of text to students’ interests and experiences. Support in choosing texts for junior cycle students can be accessed on the website www.childrensbooksireland.com. Teachers are conscious of synchronising their choice of text and poetry in senior cycle. This is positive as such an approach will still leave ample scope for teachers to exercise some freedom of choice with regard to particular texts for their own class groups. All senior cycle classes currently study three comparative texts for their Leaving Certificate examination. The study of three comparative texts in both higher level and ordinary level should form a part of English department policy through the subject plan.
There is a subject-specific plan for TY English. TY English is organised on a modular basis using a rotational, team-teaching approach. Cluster meetings of the TY English team facilitate this. This is the first time that this approach has been adopted by the English department. As has been recommended with regard to the wider subject plan, the TY plan should be adapted so that it incorporates clear learning goals which students should achieve throughout the year. Such an approach will further add to the good teamwork already evident in the department and ensure coherence between the different elements of the programme. In particular, the opportunity for teachers to experiment with a wide range of interesting texts should be grasped, given the very strong teaching skills evident in the English department.
There are good links between the English department and the learning-support department. English teachers are provided with information regarding new first-year students. The special educational needs co-ordinator takes part in English planning meetings. Beyond this, informal meetings are also utilised to maintain contact between the co-ordinator and the English team. A new special educational needs policy has begun to be drafted. This is worthwhile and this work should continue to be advanced. The model of support utilised is mainly that of withdrawal on a small group or individual basis. Co-operative teaching has been utilised in the past. The English department and the special educational needs department are encouraged to explore this in the future, thus enhancing the flexibility of the school’s model of special educational needs provision.
There are a number of students studying English as an Additional Language (EAL) in the school. Support in this area may be found on the website of the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA) at www.ncca.ie. This website contains materials developed by Integrate Ireland Language and Training (IILT). In addition, the school may wish to link with the English Language Support Teachers’ Association (ELSTA) through its website at www.elsta.ie.
The quality of teaching and learning observed during the evaluation was very good. Planning was evident in all lessons and objectives were clear. A frequent feature of lessons was the noting of the outline of the lesson on the whiteboard or in a powerpoint presentation. This practice was further extended in one instance where the learning intention was explicitly noted on the whiteboard. These strategies are to be praised as they assist in mapping out lessons for students, consequently raising interest and lowering anxiety levels. They also aid in making explicit the objective of lessons for students’ benefit and conform to an assessment for learning approach. This latter point was also demonstrated in the practice which is prevalent in the English department of distributing a copy of the year’s programme of work to students at the beginning of each year. Frequently, this was attached carefully to students’ folders. The provision of this ‘map’ is most positive.
A wide range of resources was used in English lessons. These included the whiteboard, texts, props made by students, audio-visual equipment and ICT. The use of taped versions of texts to support students’ learning is particularly commended. Beyond this, one student’s musical contribution to a class’s experience of a poem was most imaginative and well organised. The use of these resources to aid students’ ability to access the subject is to be praised.
In many lessons the roll was taken at the beginning of lessons and frequently the new topics to be explored were linked to students’ previous learning. This is worthwhile. Questioning was a frequent feature of teachers’ practice and, in one instance, a question posed by a student suggested significant engagement with the text being studied. The opportunity afforded here to delve deeply into substantive issues was significant and worthy of further exploration. In one instance a move towards greater use of higher-order questioning on the part of the teacher would have been of benefit.
Differentiated teaching methods, along with group work and pair work, frequently featured in English lessons. In one, senior cycle, lesson students were placed in groups to discuss a key character in the play and used a grid structure which not only focused their attention on the need for evidence in support of assertions that they might make, but also worked well as a support for revision activities. The use of an overhead projector as a further resource in this endeavour was an additional example of good practice. Where group work was used as a strategy to support student learning, students were engaged by the activities involved and very good practice was observed where their work was subsequently consolidated for their own files. In order to further develop the use of group work in the English department, it is suggested that teachers should focus on the role of each student in a group, where this may be of service. In particular, approaches which could further develop students’ oracy such as envoy, industrial spy or snowball could be worthwhile, along with many other possibilities.
A good focus on language was frequently evident in English lessons. A powerpoint presentation was used effectively in one instance to highlight the use of alliteration by a poet. Following this, students’ attention was drawn to the poet’s use of colour through the use of an audio recording. Activities dealing with reading and writing skills also featured prominently in lessons. A discussion regarding students’ reading in one class increased students’ engagement with the idea of reading for pleasure. The adoption of technology as a further support for this activity was also worthwhile. A guided reading approach was used when studying a film in senior cycle and this worked well. An additional strategy which could be utilised in this context would involve teacher modelling of the activity in question as students engage with it.
There was a positive, working atmosphere in all lessons. A very good relationship was evident between teachers and students. There was clear evidence of student learning. Students were engaged in lessons and, when questioned, answered well on topics previously studied. Students contributed readily in all lessons.
A frequent feature of English classrooms was the creation of a stimulating learning environment. This was particularly evident in classrooms which also served as baserooms for English teachers and, in some cases, the ‘English atmosphere’ created was exceptional. Among the items on display were movie posters, character diagrams, students’ illustrations of work done on a novel and ‘biopoems’. In a number of cases, books and book boxes were evident in classrooms. The English department is to be strongly praised for its work in this area and it is suggested that this very positive feature of the English ‘culture’ of the school should be briefly set down as an element in the English subject plan in order to consolidate this good work.
Homework was regularly assigned and corrected. Of particular note was the very diligent maintenance of students’ subject folders for English. Comment-based, formative assessment was used in the correction of students’ work in all cases. This was commendable and the adoption of the criteria utilised in the state examinations was an especially worthwhile element in teachers’ practice. In one lesson, the use of ICT to provide feedback to students regarding a media exercise they had undertaken was impressive.
The use of an integrated approach to the language and literature elements of the syllabus was frequently evident in students’ homework. The English department is encouraged to continue to focus on and expand this good practice and to utilise a wide range of genres when assigning students’ written work, in connection with the literature being studied.
Formal and informal examinations are organised at Christmas, while formal house examinations are provided in the summer for first-year, second-year and third-year students. Transition Year students receive assessments at the end of each of the modules they are studying and do not take part in house examinations. Mock examinations are organised for students who are participating in the certificate examinations. Some common examinations are organised for fifth-year and sixth-year students and a common assessment is organised for first-year students in the summer. The use of common examinations is to be encouraged, where practicable, as a means of facilitating a clear view of student achievement across year cohorts. Reports regarding students’ progress are issued to parents following students’ Christmas, summer and mock examinations. There is a parent-teacher meeting each year for all year groups. These arrangements are worthwhile.
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 at the conclusion of the evaluation when the draft findings and recommendations of the evaluation were presented and discussed.
Published, June 2009