An Roinn Oideachais agus Eolaíochta
Department of Education and Science
Subject Inspection of English
Christian Brothers School
New Ross, County Wexford
Roll number: 63600F
Date of inspection: 5 December 2007
Date of issue of report: 22 May 2008
Report on the Quality of Learning and Teaching in English
This report has been written following a subject inspection in Christian Brothers School, New Ross. 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 one day 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 of the school was given an opportunity to comment in writing on the findings and recommendations of the report, and the response of the board will be found in the appendix of this report.
Christian Brothers School (CBS) New Ross is a long-established school and has been co-educational for a number of years. While the school enrolment is lower than in the past, the general trend currently is upward. A mandatory transition year programme (TY) has been introduced this year, with the result that there is no fifth year group at present. A new principal was appointed this year. He values the work of the English teaching team and is engaging with them in building up the school’s resources for the subject.
The English teaching team comprises four teachers. Two of these have a significant English teaching load while the other two are mainly involved with other subjects and take only one class group for English. This year, both of these are second year classes. While timetabling constraints must be recognised, consideration might be given in future to allocating teachers with a lighter English teaching load to different years. However, this is a minor point and the concentrated delivery of the subject through a small team of teachers is commendable. A high level of commitment to and engagement with the subject exists within the teaching team and this is fostered by the contact of the key personnel with a range of years, levels and programmes. Two teachers have been concurrently timetabled to take the TY group, and this has facilitated active learning practices and the development of good shared-teaching strategies.
English is timetabled concurrently in each year. This is commendable as it allows for flexibility of student placement and promotes collaboration through the planning of whole-year activities.
All incoming students are assessed in English, Irish and Mathematics in the February prior to entry and are placed in set groups for these subjects accordingly. The timely gathering of information about the attainment levels of incoming students is good practice. However, the school could consider the merits of carefully managed mixed-ability groups for first-year English, to allow students time to settle in and to demonstrate their ability. Indeed, observation of second-year students’ participation in class and their written work indicated to the inspector that mixed-ability groups might also be more appropriate in second year, as very good work was seen from students in a group that was designated ordinary level. In any event, the terms higher and ordinary should not be used in first year and it is preferable to restrict their use to third year, based on the level being taken in the Junior Certificate.
Currently, English is allocated four lessons per week in first year. The possibility of increasing this to a lesson per day should be investigated, as this would be of real benefit in creating a solid foundation in the key skills and areas of knowledge for junior cycle English. It would also give greater scope for the introduction of mixed ability classes. The timetable provision for English is otherwise generally good, both in the number and distribution of lessons, although third year also has just four lessons per week. Where timetable constraints preclude the optimal provision of a lesson every day, English should always be timetabled on Monday and Friday to minimise the gap between lessons. Provision in TY is very generous with five lessons including a double lesson, which greatly assists active and experiential learning. English is timetabled every day in sixth year.
The school has a qualified learning support teacher and two other teachers are also involved in this area. Literacy support is offered to students in need who are identified either through primary school reports or through the pre-entry assessment. The learning support teacher speaks to the parents of incoming students at the open night to explain the service provided. Literacy support is timetabled against optional subjects in second and third year and is provided to first years on a withdrawal basis. Good links exist between the teachers of English and the learning support teacher, and the possibility of offering in-class support rather than withdrawal could perhaps be investigated. Literacy support is well resourced, with a dedicated room, and resources including a library of attractive books, a growing range of software and a computer with Internet access.
The provision of language support for students who speak languages other than English was not a focus of this inspection. However, these students were observed in mainstream classrooms and, arising from this, it is suggested that as far as possible students be placed in groups that are appropriate to their age and general level of ability rather than their present language competence.
Senior management and the English teaching team are committed to improving resources for the teaching and learning of English. A classroom is being developed as an English room, and a data projector has been ordered for it. A laptop with Internet access is kept in the room, and the teaching team is aware of the usefulness of information and communications technology (ICT) in assisting their planning and preparation of resources. In the absence of a dedicated library, boxes with age-appropriate books are available, and there is storage space for resources and materials. The English co-ordinator was working with the first-year students to create a reading list in time for Christmas, which was to be included in the end-of-term newsletter. These are commendable initiatives and bode well for the ongoing development of the subject in the school.
A range of co-curricular activities is available to support and broaden students’ experience of English. These include both school shows and theatre visits, and there is considerable experience within the teaching team in the area of drama. At the time of the inspection, the TY group was working on a variety show to take ‘on tour’ to local primary schools. A paired reading initiative with local primary schools has also been organised. The school has also invited writers to speak to the students, and encourages participation in writing and public speaking competitions. The commitment of all involved in providing additional learning opportunities to the students is highly commended.
The co-ordinator for English is the most senior teacher of English and the position is voluntary and unattached to a post of responsibility. Planning for the subject in the context of school development planning generally is at a relatively early stage. However, a review of the planning documents drawn up so far suggests that planning is moving in the right direction. Formal planning has been facilitated through three scheduled meetings per year, and it was reported that there is regular informal contact between teachers of English.
By far the most laudable and unusual aspect of the planning for English that has taken place is a written review of the Inspectorate composite report, Looking at English, highlighting the findings and recommendations of the report that are most relevant to the school, and thus identifying areas of development and the actions that should be taken in these areas. This review was initiated by the subject co-ordinator and was then discussed and agreed by the teaching team. It is planned that a set of actions with a timeframe will be drawn up to prioritise recommendations that are to be implemented in the school. Already, a number of positive changes have taken place in the areas of timetabling and resources. This entire exercise is a most commendable initiative and an excellent example of practical planning in action. The only recommendation arising from this initiative is that it be continued, and facilitated as far as possible by the school management.
In further developing the plans and schemes of work drawn up for English, the teaching team should be particularly mindful of giving the proper weight to the development of skills on a continuing basis from first to sixth year. There was a clear focus on the development of writing skills in the classroom practice observed and this should be to the fore in all year plans. The pitfalls of an over-focus on content should be avoided and plans should reflect and inform practice and assist in evaluating its effectiveness.
The re-introduction of TY in the school after a gap of some time has been identified as an opportunity to put the recommendations relating to the programme from Looking at English into action. Some of these, such as giving a copy of the planned programme and assignments to the TY group, can be conducted on a pilot basis during the remainder of this year, and implemented fully next year.
In relation to choices of texts, there was some discussion with the inspector on selecting texts that would allow a mixed-ability setting in first and second year. It was suggested that the study of a Shakespearean drama be deferred until third year and texts that are generally accessible could be chosen in second year. The thought that goes into choosing appropriate material for the students was noted and is commended.
Planning for literacy support is thorough and careful. A special needs policy is in the process of ratification. Individual plans for student support have been drawn up where necessary and parents are informed of the programme of work planned for their children. Students are re-tested as appropriate to ascertain progress made. The learning support teacher is a member of the support association (ILSA) and reports a good level of contact with the psychological and special education support services.
Five lessons were observed during the course of the inspection, covering all years and programmes in the school, and including observation of class groups of different levels. In all instances, there was a friendly rapport between teachers and students, and students were co-operative and generally eager to impress. Teachers’ interest in their students was evident in their knowledge of individual students’ strengths and difficulties, and the affirmation given to students’ efforts.
The lessons observed were well planned and the amount of material to be covered was generally well judged for the time available. Teachers took time to make good links with prior learning and a sense of continuity was established at the outset in all lessons. This is good practice and could be further built on by ensuring that a clear statement of the learning objectives is given explicitly at the beginning of each lesson. Most lessons were well structured and in the best instances moved seamlessly from one activity to the next. This was achieved through linking activities by means of a common topic or thread, for example linking reading of a story with a personal writing exercise on the same theme. Pacing was appropriate.
A variety of resources was used in the lessons observed. The board was used effectively to record points made in class discussion and to model ways of planning a piece of writing, for example spidergrams and bullet points. The use of the board as a means of visual reinforcement would be enhanced by the creation of a spelling margin, a ruled-off area in which troublesome spellings and new vocabulary could be noted, freeing up the main space for other uses. In a TY drama lesson, students quickly cleared desks and chairs to make a good-sized performance space and showed a familiarity with the use of various props in the performance they were rehearsing. A junior cycle drama lesson made similarly good use of the space available, and this use of the classroom space to accommodate experiential learning is commended. In another junior cycle lesson, the teacher had brought into class a number of texts from real life (a set of instructions, a promotional sticker and so on) around which to construct a story, and had asked the students to do likewise. In the lesson observed, the teacher told the story as a model for the students, who were then given time to frame their own narratives. This was an enjoyable and productive use of actual objects to stimulate stories.
The methodologies used in the lessons observed encouraged active and participatory learning, and this approach is highly commended. TY students, for example, were involved in script-writing, acting, stage-managing and publicity for their show. In a junior cycle drama lesson, a number of students acted out a scene from The Field, using the teacher’s desk as a bar counter and incorporating appropriate movements and gestures. To encourage active participation by the audience, the teacher asked them to note the number of drinks consumed by ‘the Bird’ and his methods of obtaining them. The class showed a very good grasp of situation and character in the play and were clearly enjoying their work.
A focus on the development of writing and language skills was also apparent in the lessons observed. In a senior cycle lesson, students showed a good grasp of the concepts of conflict and resolution as aspects of narrative and were engaged in developing their own stories within a simple framework of a specific character, setting and situation. Structuring a narrative is often the most difficult task for young writers. Carefully selected models of good writing that they can imitate and use as a pattern for their own work are of great benefit in developing a sense of structure, and greater use of this approach is recommended. Good attention was also paid to the development of the students’ vocabulary, using the texts they were reading and encouraging them to use context to work out the meanings of unfamiliar words. Again, the active learning approach adopted was appropriate and to be commended.
The fact that lessons were not dominated by teacher talk or by a pattern of question and answer was both a welcome and positive finding. Questions were occasionally put to the whole class to check understanding or to stimulate a response. It is important that questions testing students’ comprehension are directed for the most part at named students so as to avoid chorus answering. In most cases, questions designed to keep students on track during the reading of a text were posed without overly disturbing the flow of the reading, and this is good practice. Some work could usefully be done in the area of speculative questioning, where a variety of responses is possible and students should be encouraged to take time before responding. Students should be made aware of the difference between open and closed questions, so that they develop an understanding of an informed personal response, a key concept in the English syllabuses.
Through the methodologies chosen, students were encouraged to participate and to be engaged in their own learning. Teachers themselves have identified the importance of high expectations in eliciting the best work from students, and should be vigilant in ensuring that these are communicated to students through a combination of challenge and affirmation. The practice of affirming students’ efforts was widely observed, but it is also important to challenge students, for example through follow-on questioning, in a way that leads them towards more precise and thoughtful spoken or written responses.
Classroom management was uniformly good and the general atmosphere was supportive and conducive to learning. However, at the moment many of the rooms in which English is taught are rather bare, and all opportunities to create a more print-rich and stimulating environment and in particular to display students’ work should be exploited.
Teachers were vigilant in their monitoring of student work and participation in class, and circulated in the room to keep students on task, and to offer assistance where necessary. In a number of cases, homework was checked orally at the beginning of the lesson, or a quick initial round of questions was used to establish that students retained information from the previous lesson and were ready to move on. This was observed to be helpful. Homework was set in most lessons, and was usually written on the board with the instruction that students take it down. It is important to give homework in good time so that it can be discussed and explained if necessary.
A review of students’ copies indicated that a good volume of written work had been set and completed. In addition to questions from textbooks and some drill work, there were imaginative assignments which appealed to students’ creative abilities. The standard of presentation of work varied considerably, and it is suggested that the current review of the homework policy include a focus on matters of presentation which can be agreed and implemented in all subject areas.
Best practice was seen where students were given helpful comments and suggestions for improvement after each substantial writing assignment. This is a key element of assessment for learning, a strategy which encourages learners to reflect on their own learning and how they can advance it. Teachers expressed an interest in this and may find it useful to consult the NCCA web site (www.ncca.ie) and the Second Level Support Service web site (www.slss.ie) for more information.
The following are the main strengths identified in the evaluation:
· The English classroom is an active and supportive learning environment in which a variety of engaging methodologies is deployed.
· Whole-school support for English is good and provision for the subject is going through a process of review and improvement. Provision in the senior cycle is commendably generous.
· Excellent preparatory work for subject planning has been done.
· The provision of literacy support to students is well planned, with a good level of resourcing.
As a means of building on these strengths and to address areas for development, the following key recommendations are made:
· Provision for junior cycle English should be increased, and the method of class formation should be reviewed.
· The work of self-evaluation carried out using Looking at English should be brought to the next phase: the creation of a set of timed objectives to be achieved.
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.
Submitted by the Board of Management
Area 1 Observations on the content of the inspection report
The Board of Management is very happy that the work and planning of the English Department has been recognised. The inspection and report are very comprehensive and are reflective of the Department’s desire to provide the best possible delivery of the DES English curriculum in our school.
Area 2 Follow-up actions planned or undertaken since the completion of the inspection activity to implement the findings and recommendations of the inspection.
The Board notes that the English Department has already addressed the issues raised in the report, fully agreeing with them. In the “Looking at English” document, the next stage is already in hand. The English Department keep in regular contact with the Board on their work and progress.