An Roinn Oideachais agus Eolaíochta
Department of Education and Science
Subject Inspection of English
Athlone, County Westmeath
Roll number: 63190M
Date of inspection: 30 January 2007
Date of issue of report: 21 June 2007
Report on the Quality of Learning and Teaching in English
This report has been written following a subject inspection in Marist 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 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.
Marist College Athlone provides English in the Leaving Certificate (LC), Junior Certificate (JC) and Transition Year (TY) programmes. First and second-year classes and TY students are taught in a mixed-ability setting and this is commended. Third years and LC years one and two are set. Access to higher-level English is based on a range of criteria including examination/test outcomes and teacher observation. Uptake of higher-level is good in the junior cycle. In the Leaving Certificate programme, a falling off is noted and, on average, ten per cent fewer appear to take English at higher level in the Leaving Certificate examination. This trend appears to be reversing in the last few years. Nonetheless, uptake at senior level should be monitored on an ongoing basis.
Timetabling allocation is, on the whole, good. Sixth years have six lessons per week as do the higher level fifth-year groups. This represents very good provision. However, it was noted that those in an ordinary-level, fifth-year class receive five lessons. It is reported that this occurrence is exceptional and that, normally, ordinary level classes also receive six lessons of English per week. TY provision of four periods per week is good. Timetabling allocation is again good in both second and third-year classes, each having five lessons per week. First years have four lessons which is satisfactory. Consideration could be given to extending the number of first-year lessons in line with other classes in the junior cycle. Classes in the senior cycle and in third year are timetabled concurrently and this is useful in facilitating movement from one level to another and in providing opportunities for inter-class activities, including team teaching. Students generally retain the same teacher from one year to another, thus ensuring continuity.
Access to resources is very good in Marist College. Some rooms have televisions in situ while mobile audio-visual units (televisions with DVD/video players) are easily accessed. There is also an advanced editing room for film studies. Recently, the school has fitted out a demonstration room that has an interactive whiteboard, data projector and laptop. Tiered seating can accommodate up to sixty students. The English department should take full advantage of this facility since it lends itself to a variety of syllabus appropriate activities. There is also computer room and a booking system is about to be put in place. It is recommended that ICT be fully integrated into the teaching and learning of English in all year groups and at all levels. The school also has a library that is in an open space and frequently used for the supervision of students and other activities. Reading is encouraged by teachers of English. In most cases, teachers are classroom based and this facilitates the storage of resources. Management is amenable to all reasonable requests for additional resources.
Five teachers currently teach English in Marist College. The enthusiastic team is well balanced in terms of experience and gender and has a reflective approach to teaching and planning. Team members have engaged in continuous professional development (CPD) in teaching comparative texts and in film study. Since the school has a small but growing cohort of international students, CPD in the area of teaching English to students of other languages should be prioritised in a departmental and whole-school context. Other areas that could be targeted are differentiated teaching strategies and assessment for learning.
The school has a learning support allocation of thirty-five hours per week and a language support allocation of forty-four hours. It is understood that a learning-support plan and policy are currently being drawn up and this is a timely development. It is also reported that individual educational plans are being written. Members of the English department might find sources such as the Special Education Support Services (SESS) at www.sess.ie and the Irish Learning Support Association (ILSA) at www.ilsa.ie useful. There is good informal interaction between teachers of English and the learning-support and language-support departments. It is reported that liaison is effective at an individual level and that teachers seek advice from time to time in relation to the learning needs of particular students. To complement this good practice, it is recommended that liaison be formalised and that members of both the language and learning-support departments attend English department meetings at least once in the academic year to engage in professional dialogue and to explore ways in which the delivery of English in mainstream classes can best serve the needs of students in need of literacy and language support. Opportunities for team-teaching could also be explored. Two staff members are involved in teaching English to international students. It is recommended that the school liaise with Integrate Ireland Language and Training (IILT). Information such as advice on reporting to parents and the English language proficiency benchmarks for non-English-speaking pupils at post-primary level are among the range of useful materials on the IILT website at www.iilt.ie.
A variety of co- and extra-curricular activities enrich students’ experience of English. Students are taken on outings, participate in debating and drama and an end of year film awards ceremony celebrates student achievement in film making.
The school has engaged in whole-school planning and this has been facilitated through the School Development Planning Initiative (SDPI). The role of co-ordinator is undertaken by a senior teacher of English and it is intended that this role be rotated. There is a very positive collaborative ethos in the English department and a plan for the subject has been put in place.
The plan should be formally reviewed and evaluated on a regular basis. A clear timeframe for syllabus delivery should be indicated in the plan so that practice is harmonised. All aspects of the English syllabus should be taught in each year of the junior and senior cycle. It is recommended that the teaching of language and literature be fully integrated and not compartmentalised, both in planning and in delivery. Methodologies and cross-curricular links could be recorded in the plan. An inventory of the department’s resources would facilitate an annual needs analysis.
As an area for development, the department should now develop its reading policy and ensure that a consistent approach is implemented in all class groups and at all levels. For information on the promotion of reading and related topics, teachers should access the Second Level Support Services (SLSS) website at www.slss.ie. Other useful sources are the School Library Association in the Republic of Ireland (SLARI), and the School Library Association of Britain (www.sla.org.uk/). Although the school does not provide the Junior Certificate Schools Programme (JCSP), useful information on the JCSP library projects is available at www.jcsp.ie.
As a useful shared resource, the department could consider opening an electronic folder containing materials such as syllabuses, material from the State Exams Commission (SEC), for example chief examiners’ reports, and National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA) information. Individual members of the department could add to the folder on an ongoing basis. A useful resource for the English department as a whole is Looking at English: Teaching and Learning English in Post-Primary Schools, (DES, 2006).
Planning at an individual level is good in almost all cases and exemplary in a few. While formal meetings take place three times a year, there are also regular informal meetings. Where students are taught in a mixed-ability setting, clear strategies for differentiation should be outlined in individual and departmental planning documentation.
The Transition Year programme in English is well planned and offers a very good range of learning experiences to students in adherence to the principles and spirit of the TY programme. Students work in collaborative projects and independent learning and creativity are prioritised. The experiential element of the film studies course is complemented by a theoretical module.
Selection of texts is agreed at departmental level and reviewed from time to time. Cognisance is taken of student interest and individual teacher choice is not compromised. There is regular review of text choice and a good range is covered in the junior cycle. The department is commended for its innovative choice of texts in some programmes.
Poetry, oral communication skills, writing, film making and drama were the themes explored during the course of the evaluation in Marist College. Lessons were well structured in most cases. The use of resources was appropriate and many lessons were characterised by a range of well-planned activities to reinforce learning. Instructions were clear and, in the best lessons, tasks were clearly focused, and the transitions from one phase of the lesson to the other were managed efficiently.
The development of language skills, both oral and written, was noted in many lessons. In a lesson visited, particular emphasis was placed on the enhancement of students’ expressive language and this is highly commended. Students were in general articulate and confident in their exchanges and willing to use new vocabulary. In the majority of cases, students had a good understanding of key critical terms and could use these with understanding and confidence.
Debating skills were taught and students made formal speeches in front of their peers. The development of oral communication skills is laudable, and in this context, particular care should be taken to extend such opportunities to all students, including those in the lower ability range and those who are speakers of other languages, with appropriate adjustment made for language competence.
Student contributions were welcomed in all lessons. Good practice was observed when students read out their work, providing both a platform for the exploration of the writing process and an opportunity for students to share ideas with their peers.
The promotion of autonomous and collaborative learning is highly commended in Marist College. TY students are involved in group projects involving film-making and a wide range of skills is learnt in the course of this activity. Student enthusiasm was particularly noted by the inspector. To reinforce the learning that is taking place it would be helpful for students to record their experiences in a journal (perhaps on a weekly basis). This would provide an opportunity for self-evaluation and also ensure that writing skills are developed in a meaningful context. In the best lessons visited, students were encouraged to think for themselves and higher-order thinking skills were given appropriate emphasis.
A range of teaching strategies was employed. In a junior cycle class, students were encouraged to visualise and to sketch detail in response to a poem and this helped them to focus on significant detail and to engage imaginatively with the poem. Pair-work was used to good effect in some classes. Where students were engaged in individual or group activity, teachers circulated to offer assistance and to monitor progress. Examples and analogies were used to clarify meaning and links were made to earlier learning.
Question and answer sessions were used effectively in most lessons. Meaning was explored and teased out in a collaborative group context and students were encouraged to share their ideas and to speculate in a supportive environment. Good practice was noted where students’ contributions were written down on the board as this gave direction and focus to teacher-student interactions. In some lessons, however, questions were addressed to the group as a whole and individuals were not targeted. It is recommended that in all lessons, a balance is struck between global and individual questioning and that care is taken to include each student in question and answer sessions. This is essential to avoid passivity and to diagnose the effectiveness of teaching strategies.
Seating arrangements were conventional. However, in a lesson observed, thoughtful arrangement ensured that students with particular needs were strategically placed to maximise learning opportunities and facilitate teacher observation.
Since the evaluation took place shortly before mock examinations, revision was in hand. In such cases, and given the level of student autonomy that is encouraged in the English department, students should take responsibility for this process, assemble evidence and formulate answers together in class, using examination type questions as a framework. Revision tasks across all aspects of the course could also be set as homework assignments.
The classroom was used as teaching resources in many lessons observed and useful and imaginative visual stimuli were displayed. This represents good practice, since the creation of a stimulating and creative learning environment benefits teaching and learning. Such good practice should be universal. For the benefit of peripatetic teachers, consideration should be given to the establishment of a designated English room where attractive book displays, audio-visual material and equipment, a laptop and data projector could be stored. All teachers could be timetabled for such a room during the course of the week.
Classroom management is good in all cases. Students in Marist College are taught in a supportive learning environment. A very good rapport was noted between students and teachers in all lessons visited.
A range of assessment modes is used in Marist College and this is commended. Students were encouraged to reflect on their own work. Reading assignments aloud provided opportunities for self and peer assessment. Very good practice was noted where criteria for assessment were shared with students so that they could evaluate both their peers’ oral skills and, importantly, their own. An understanding of assessment criteria is of particular importance for students preparing for state examinations. It is recommended that the discrete criteria for assessment be applied in the monitoring of all substantial homework assignments and tests in the case of examination classes so that they are familiar with such criteria well in advance of the examinations and can derive maximum benefit from the correcting of written work.
Homework is regularly assigned and, in most cases, conscientiously corrected. The dating of assignments is also commended since progress can be more easily tracked both by students and teachers. In the best samples of homework seen, there was an emphasis on assessment for learning, and students were given positive and helpful feedback. This is of particular benefit to learners and such good practice could be replicated across the department.
Records of assessment are kept. Parents are informed of student progress through formal reports, parent-teacher meetings, the student journal and personal contact with the school. Formal in-house examinations are held twice a year. In order to ensure that criteria are robust for determining levels in third year, it is recommended that common papers be set for all second year classes, that a common marking scheme be agreed and that moderation take place. Common assessment is of particular importance where assessment of learning is used to provide information that guides students and parents to the appropriate choice of level in the junior cycle. It is recommended that common assessment relevant to level should be considered for all year groups. Such a policy should not in any way militate against personal choice of texts.
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.