An Roinn Oideachais agus Eolaíochta
Department of Education and Science
Subject Inspection of English
Borris Vocational School
Borris, Co. Carlow
Roll number: 70400L
Date of inspection: 2 October 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 Borris Vocational 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.
First and second-year class groups have four English lessons each week. Given the fact that classes are thirty-five minutes in length, this is minimal. Provision improves after second year, as third-year and fifth-year class groups have five English lessons each week and sixth years have six lessons each week. As the school falls short of the minimum requirements of twenty-eight instruction hours per week it is recommended that a review of the timetable be undertaken and that consideration be given to providing an extra lesson period to first-year English classes or else that the thirty-five minute lessons be lengthened for all class groups. Transition Year (TY) students have three English lessons each week, which alongside the two Media Studies lessons is good provision. The Media Studies module complements the English programme as it includes film studies and public speaking. English lessons are evenly distributed across the week which is good practice.
First-year students are placed, on a mixed-ability basis, into one of four class groups. This is appropriate for English. They are then set for English into ability groupings in second and third year. There are three class groups in second year. The top group is a higher-level class. The next two class groups are concurrently timetabled. One of these groups generally contains a mix of higher and ordinary-level students and the other class contains students who will do ordinary level. In third-year there are four class groups. The top group is higher level, the next class group contains higher and ordinary-level students, the third group is made up of ordinary-level students and the fourth group contains the students of lowest ability in English who generally pursue ordinary level. This latter class group generally has lower numbers to allow for more focused attention, which is good practice. However, it is suggested that teachers reflect on the placement of students in class groups throughout junior cycle as there is evidence that mixed-ability leads to improved progress in literacy and numeracy and can give students more confidence as learners. In addition, it would delay the final decision as to which level students might take in their English Junior Certificate examination.
Students are appropriately arranged into one of two mixed-ability class groups in Transition Year. In both fifth and sixth year, there are four class groups. In both years, the top group is higher level only, the next group is a mix of higher and ordinary level and the next two class groups are of similar ability and generally take ordinary level. Such setting of students in fifth and sixth year is appropriate.
It was reported that management allocates teachers to class groups and programmes on a rotational basis. This is very good practice. In addition, students retain the same teacher from second year into third year and from fifth year into sixth year, which is also good practice.
The school has been recently refurbished and extended, and there are now many state-of-the-art facilities available in the school. The school is wired for broadband and many rooms have data projector points available. The English department has availed of information and communication technology (ICT) to access some very good resources for their classes. In addition, some teachers are planning to use ICT in their teaching and learning which is to be encouraged. Many classrooms contain televisions and DVDs and it was reported that management generally grants reasonable requests for resources. For example, there is a book rental scheme for all students in the school which has the potential to limit the choice of literary texts available. However, management is willing to overcome this issue by financing a wider available selection.
There is very good whole school support for English. Good practice was seen in that management has allocated English teachers to rooms that are near to each other in order to facilitate collaboration and discussion. This has enabled English teachers to establish common resource areas in some of the classrooms which are easily accessed by all. For example, one classroom contains a video library while another contains books and notes that are useful for teaching English. Teachers have also created a bank of material for use with English class groups if a teacher is absent. This is excellent practice.
There is a good focus on developing an interest in reading among students in the school. A new school library is to be soon available. Until then, a mobile library has been created. This idea is highly commended. Students are encouraged to get involved in the M.S. Readathon and to read novels for pleasure both at school and at home.
Students have access to a range of co-curricular activities pertaining to English. These include the school concert, public speaking and debating, trips to the theatre, a Writer in Residence for TY students and TY student involvement in the school newsletter. A post of responsibility has also recently been established in promoting the arts. Overall, the commitment by management and staff to providing opportunities for students to appreciate the arts and participate in co-curricular activities is commended.
There was evidence that the special educational needs and learning-support team are in the process of building up a very good department. Students are given extra support through to senior cycle, which is commendable. It was reported that time is being made available at staff meetings for the SEN department to brief teachers on students’ reading ages and on strategies for teaching students in need of extra support. This is to be very much encouraged.
There was evidence of very good collaboration and sharing of resources among English teachers. It was reported that English teachers rotate the responsibility for co-ordination of the department on an annual basis. This is good practice as it ensures that all members of the English department can avail of the opportunity to gain experience of this important role, as well as ensuring that there is an equitable distribution of the responsibilities for the development of the subject. Subject planning meetings take place three times a year and informal meetings occur on a regular basis. Minutes of meetings are recorded which means that there is a record available of key decisions taken. English teachers have developed as their aim the fostering of an appreciation of English and this aim is to be commended.
English teachers have made good progress in subject planning since the last English inspection in 2002. The first and second-year subject plan is in the process of development. These plans demonstrate a worthy emphasis on writing to a purpose, for an audience and in the correct register. It is suggested in developing these plans further and in planning for third year that the plans are written in terms of learning outcomes for each year group to achieve. In this way, students in each year group will, by the end of the year, have been taught similar skills. In addition, it is recommended that a common English examination be introduced for all first-year students at Christmas and in the summer. In this way, movement of students into classes of different abilities will be facilitated in an open manner. A common mid-term fifth-year English examination is also suggested in order to help determine if students have been correctly placed into their class groups for English. All fifth-year English teachers should agree a common programme of study until students have been finalised in their class groupings. The implementation of common tests was also a recommendation in the previous English inspection report.
First-year teachers generally hold reading classes with their students once a week and students must present reviews and presentations on their books from time to time. It is good practice that all English teachers formally teach a novel in first year and it is suggested, given the time restraints in first year, that this novel is taught during one term instead of the reading classes. This is the case in some first-year classes. First-year texts are chosen by all teachers collaboratively. This is important so that there is no overlap between texts taught in first year and other years. In addition, all first-year students must complete an ‘Autobiography’ which is presented to parents during the open day in the school. This is a worthy idea. The English teachers have developed a customised grammar book for first-year students. A recommendation in a previous English report was for each student to have a dictionary and thesaurus and there was abundant evidence that this recommendation was implemented.
It is acknowledged that time constraints may present a difficulty in studying more than one novel and play over the course of second and third year although the English teachers should still consider this especially for classes of better ability. However, it is important that third-year students are introduced to new material in this year. In addition it is important, in planning the programmes for English, that teachers choose challenging texts at junior cycle that will also prepare students for the greater challenges of Leaving Certificate. For example, it is commended that most students study a Shakespearean drama for their Junior Certificate, but the ordinary-level drama text should be reviewed.
The TY plan for English is reviewed annually. There was evidence of very solid work taking place in Transition Year English. Students study personal writing, functional writing, media, poetry, drama and fiction. A writer in residence is brought into TY English classes, good interdisciplinary links are created between subjects and students are encouraged to write in a range of genres. Although texts on the TY course may also appear on the Leaving Certificate English list, the fact that teachers do not teach these texts again in fifth or sixth year is to be commended in order that students receive as broad an education in reading and English as possible.
A draft Special Needs policy has been drawn up. Students with literacy support needs are identified through reports from feeder primary schools, parental contact, standardised tests and teacher concerns. This year the school has, for the first time, a small number of newcomer students who are getting support in English as a second language. The school has been in contact with Integrate Ireland Language and Training for support and this is commended.
Students in need of literacy support are given such support in small class groups. Where students have an exemption from Irish or do not study a modern European language they are given timetabled support in English at this time in a small group setting. This is good practice. It was reported that paired reading is in the process of being implemented, which is to be encouraged. The dedicated learning-support room contained very good resources. Good practice is in place in that a member of the SEN team with responsibility for literacy support generally attends the English department’s meetings. This is particularly important as there was evidence of a need for English teachers to develop strategies for dealing with the range of abilities that may be present in the one class. It is recommended that teachers discuss and share effective teaching strategies for mixed-ability teaching and that the different strategies learned during training for resource teaching are shared with English teachers. This is because such strategies are equally successful in the mainstream classroom. Evidence was provided that such strategies are part of the learning support classroom, and include drafting and redrafting of work, brainstorming, group work, use of ICT and other activities outlined in the literacy programme.
There was evidence of solid work occurring in all classes observed and teachers presented as being dedicated and hardworking. The same commitment noted during the last inspection of English was once again observed. All lessons had a clear purpose. Best practice was seen when this purpose was written on the board or when an outline of the lesson was presented on the board so that students understood the aim of the lesson. Teachers were well prepared for their lessons. They are commended for using a range of supplementary resources with their students. Many of these resources were created by the teachers themselves or were accessed from the Internet. Such resources often helped to bring texts to life.
In most cases the board was used well to record spelling and key points. There were times when the board should have been used to record spelling of difficult words to help less able students. Best practice was seen when homework was written on the board for students to record and when the teacher took a few minutes to ensure that students understood what they had to do in terms of this homework.
There was an emphasis on students’ personal responses being elicited at Leaving Certificate level in particular, which is highly commended. There was also a good pre-reading exercise observed where the students had to discuss what they learned about different characters in a novel before going on to the next chapter. In addition, good practice was seen when a range of both lower and higher order questions was asked during lessons in order to cater for all abilities. The main form of student participation was through question and answer sessions. Best practice was observed when all students were asked questions as opposed to only those with their hands up. There were good examples of the teachers asking questions to ensure student understanding at regular intervals.
In some lessons the teachers were inclined to tell and explain as opposed to students themselves being challenged to come up with the meaning. In addition, more opportunities for students to voice their opinions or to engage in discussion could be used in some lessons. The recommendation that students should be more actively involved in their own learning was also made in the previous inspection report. Teachers are encouraged to develop strategies to implement this. Where there was good student participation there was evidence that students were comfortable to ask questions and to get involved in discussion.
In some cases individual attention was given to students when work was set for a portion of the class, which is good practice. However, there were occasions, particularly in some junior cycle lessons, where students of lower ability had difficulty following the assigned work while students of higher ability were not challenged enough. There is a need to ensure that all students are on task and understand the concepts being taught. This could be achieved by all teachers giving students of lower ability individual attention when work is set for a portion of the class, by asking frequent questions to ensure student understanding, reinforcing oral work on the board, promoting student discussion, and using methodologies such as pair work with students of different abilities put working together. This should help to ensure that better able students are challenged but that less able students are also on task.
Good links were created between texts by the teachers. In this way student learning was placed in context. In the case of teaching the comparative mode this led to students constantly being reminded to draw points of difference and similarity. Good practice was also seen in teaching the comparative texts when a grid was used to compare texts. The same method was also used to create a profile of each poet on the Leaving Certificate course. There was frequent evidence of the integration of language and literature. For example, students had to write letters to poets on their course, students had to write a news report based on events in a novel they were studying and students had to rewrite a story from the point of view of a character in a text being studied. In addition, there was a good example of students illustrating, through drawing, their views of particular characters. Very good practice was also seen when the studied novel was used to point out effective writing techniques which were to be used as a basis for students’ own writing. These methods are highly commended as they allow for the students to adopt the voice of different characters and to model writing on pieces of literature. The creation of links between Paper One and Paper Two of the Leaving Certificate English examination was a recommendation in the previous inspection report. This recommendation has been very well implemented. Students had good knowledge of the technicalities of language. In addition, the emphasis on students planning and re-drafting their work is highly commended.
Many classrooms were nicely decorated with key quotes from drama texts, samples of students’ work, and posters pertaining to English on display which created a print-rich environment. In addition, there was a pleasant atmosphere in all lessons. Students were well behaved and well managed and there was a good teacher-student relationship in all lessons. An examination of results in English in Junior and Leaving Certificate examinations shows that students achieve well in their chosen level but that more students could be encouraged to take higher level. For example, there was a high success rate in ordinary level English in the Junior Certificate, and some of these students might have achieved well in higher level. An analysis by English teachers of state examination results on an annual basis is suggested to determine trends and uptake levels.
All first years are tested on the Group Reading Test (GRT 11) in September and those students with lowest scores are then tested individually on the Neale Analysis later on. It is noted that a high percentage of students score on or above their reading ages in these tests. Good practice takes place in that students in receipt of learning support are retested to ascertain improvements. Students in each year group are assessed through continuous assessment and through house examinations at Christmas and the summer for first, second, TY and fifth-year class groups. TY students are also continuously assessed on a bimonthly basis in terms of attitude, class participation and folder work. Third and sixth-year students receive progress reports at Halloween, they sit formal exams, generally in November, and also sit ‘mock’ exams. Leaving Certificate ‘mock’ students have their papers corrected externally while Junior Certificate students have their papers corrected by subject teachers. This strong focus on assessment is highly commended. Parent-teacher meetings are held once a year for each year group.
A sub-committee is now in place to organise a homework policy for the school. There is an expectation that teachers would give homework after each lesson. Evening study is provided for Junior and Leaving Certificate students. There was evidence that teachers are aware of the Chief Examiners’ Reports for English and have shared the criteria for assessment with senior cycle students. It is important that junior cycle students are also aware of where they lose and gain marks. There was good use of formative assessment and evidence of frequent homework being set. For example there was evidence that long pieces of work are given on at least a fortnightly basis which is good practice.
There was a good standard of presentation and organisation of students’ written work and evidence that students were given frequent opportunities to write in a variety of genres. It is commended that such writing tasks were generally challenging and that written work was regularly corrected. It was clear that this recommendation had been fully implemented from the last inspection report. In some lessons students are required to have folders to store their notes, which is commended. In addition, the use of hardback or manuscript copies is also highly commended and it is suggested that teachers of English devise a policy on assessment of homework within their own department as part of subject planning. Teachers keep good records of students’ results.
The following are the main strengths identified in the evaluation:
· There is very good whole school support for English.
· Students have access to a range of co-curricular activities pertaining to English.
· Provision for students with literacy support needs is commended.
· There is very good collaboration and sharing of resources among English teachers.
· The TY English plan shows that students study a range of genres.
· Teachers are commended for their commitment to their students.
· A range of good supplementary resources was in use in lessons observed.
· There is an emphasis on eliciting students’ personal responses at Leaving Certificate level.
· Very good links were created between texts and there was very good integration of language and literature.
· There was a good teacher-student relationship in all lessons.
· Students are assessed on a regular basis during the course of the school year.
· Regular writing tasks and good use of formative assessment were in evidence.
As a means of building on these strengths and to address areas for development, the following key recommendations are made:
· In reviewing the timetable, the possibility of giving more time to first-year English should be explored.
· In developing the English plan, learning outcomes for each year group should be identified, teachers should choose appropriately challenging texts at junior cycle that will prepare students for the greater challenges of Leaving Certificate, a policy on assessment of homework should be considered and common first-year examinations and a common mid-term fifth-year examination should be introduced. In addition, fifth-year teachers should agree a common programme of study until placement of students into class groups has been finalised.
· Opportunities should be given in class for more student participation and for more active student involvement in lessons.
· There is a need to ensure that students of different ability levels are catered for in the classroom so that students of lower ability can follow the assigned work while students of higher ability are suitably challenged.
· Teachers should constantly encourage students to reach for their highest attainable level in the state examinations.
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.