An Roinn Oideachais agus Eolaíochta
Department of Education and Science
Subject Inspection of English
Carlow Vocational School
Kilkenny Road, Carlow
Roll number: 70420R
Date of inspection: 14 May 2008
Report on the Quality of Learning and Teaching in English
This report has been written following a subject inspection in Carlow 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 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 on the findings and recommendations of the report; a response was not received from the board.
Carlow Vocational School offers all second-level programmes and a repeat Leaving Certificate year to its student cohort. In addition, the further education section of the school provides courses for students taking FETAC levels 5 and 6 and courses from other examining bodies. Communications is provided as part of these courses. However, the focus of this inspection was English in the second-level school.
The provision of English lesson periods is good in second and third year, as students have five lessons each week. Provision is adequate in first year as students have four lessons a week. However, because all lesson periods are just thirty-five minutes in duration, overall provision can be described as satisfactory but not generous at junior cycle. Consideration should be given to allocating five periods a week to first-year English, as proficiency in literacy skills underpins all other subject areas and should be ultimately beneficial to all subjects. Transition Year (TY) class groups have three lessons a week of English which, again, is adequate but not generous provision. However, there is very good provision for fifth-year, sixth-year and repeat Leaving Certificate students as they have six English lessons each week. In addition, Leaving Certificate Applied (LCA) classes have four periods for English and Communications each week, which is good provision.
In general, there is an even distribution of English lesson periods across the week with some exceptions; for example, the repeat Leaving Certificate groups have English twice on two days, which means that there is one day that they do not have exposure to English. An even distribution of lesson periods across the week is more desirable. It would also be better to provide a double period, as opposed to two single periods of English to fifth-year class groups on the day they have English twice, to facilitate longer tasks.
Students are set from first year into two class groups; one higher level and the other ordinary and foundation level. This arrangement is based on results of the incoming first years’ assessment tests, consultation with parents and consultation with feeder primary schools. The learning-support and resource department along with the English teachers have considered introducing mixed ability into the school in first year but, given the needs of their particular student cohort, they have decided that the present arrangement is more appropriate. In addition, students have the opportunity to change class groups, particularly in first year if it is found that they are incorrectly placed. It is recommended that concurrency be provided on the timetable for first-year class groups in order to facilitate such movement of students. Students in the lower-ability class in each year of junior cycle generally receive extra literacy support. Students are placed in mixed-ability English classes in TY as is appropriate and are again set for English in fifth and sixth year. There is full concurrency on the timetable in TY, fifth and sixth year for English.
Management allocates the teachers to class groups and every effort is made to retain teachers with their class groups within the appropriate cycles, which is good practice. However, the timetable was changed towards the end of September which meant that students were reallocated different teachers at this time. Care should be taken that such situations are avoided in future as it leads to lack of continuity for students. English teachers have participated in a range of continuous professional development courses on English, the Junior Certificate School Programme (JCSP) and more broad ranging issues. Such provision and participation are commended.
A small school library has been established and the school is commended for building up and promoting this library. Good practice also exists in that an inventory of all English resources has been compiled and disseminated among English teachers. A number of very good strategies to promote reading has been introduced including structured reading classes, a ‘Drop Everything and Read’ initiative, a paired reading programme between students and parents, storytelling, book boxes in the classroom and the ‘Make a Book’ scheme. These strategies are highly commended.
One feature of the school is the strong focus by subject departments on developing cross-curricular links between subjects. In the past year these included a multi-cultural week, the garden project and the TY radio show. Teachers of English became involved in these activities through the teaching of formal letter writing and by encouraging students to design posters, write a report on the garden project and write poetry about the garden. Other activities relating to English involved guest speakers, student participation in drama workshops and viewing of a film. In addition, the range of co-curricular activities offered by the school and pertaining to English includes bringing students on frequent theatre trips, often to view productions of texts on their course, entry into a range of poetry and other writing competitions, the organising of a Writer in Residence in the school, and participation in the Town Library Programme in conjunction with the local library. Students’ work is often published in local newspapers and across the school. Such opportunities for students are highly commended.
Classrooms are broadband enabled. English teachers do not have their own base classrooms but every effort is made by management to timetable English classes in ‘the English room’ which contains much of the English resources, including a television and data projector. In addition, the room displays several samples of students’ work, key word posters and other useful resources. The establishment of this English classroom is highly commended. In addition, there is an English resource room, which also contains a range of useful materials. Teachers also have access to other audio-visual equipment in the school. Good practice takes place as LCA students are timetabled as appropriate in the computer room for English and Communications. Teachers are aware of the possibilities that information and communication technology (ICT) has to offer; for example, ICT is used by students to type up projects. The continued use of ICT in preparation of resources and in teaching and learning is to be encouraged.
The same convenor of English has been in place for the last three years due to changes in personnel. However, the department now aims to rotate this role. This is to be encouraged in order to give all teachers the opportunity to take responsibility for the organisation of the subject. English teachers are commended for meeting together as a department on a very frequent basis and minutes of all English department meetings are recorded. These minutes record discussion on a range of issues including examinations, organising theatre trips and programme planning. The minutes reflect real achievements by the English department and show good collaboration. For example, initiatives such as the introduction of paired reading and the development of the English room all originated at these meetings. Given that there have been changes to teaching personnel in recent years, it is recommended that time be taken at English meetings to discuss good teaching practice, perhaps around teaching different texts. This will supplement the list of effective teaching methodologies already outlined in the English plan.
The English subject plan outlines the manner the subject is organised in the school. The plan contains laudable aims for each programme as well as overall aims for the teaching of English. Excellent practice takes place in that there is JCSP profiling for all students and that the JCSP learning outcomes for English are used with all junior cycle class groups. Students measure their own progress by evaluating their learning outcomes, which is highly commended. Many teachers have developed very good resources to supplement teaching and learning. Their electronic resources could be uploaded on the school’s internal network for sharing among all English teachers.
English teachers have developed excellent individual English plans. Teachers are generally free to choose their own texts and devise their own course for each year group. However, teachers should agree the appropriate number of texts to teach in each year, including the appropriate number of poems, short stories and novels. This is particularly important given the possibility of movement of students, especially in first year and collaboration on such issues would support all teachers and lead to a feasible number of texts being covered. A novel is taught in some first-year classes which is good practice that should be adopted by all. Care should be taken in TY that a wide range of genres are covered in keeping with the overall TY English plan.
The provision of support for students with special educational needs (SEN) and learning support needs is highly commended. Students are supported using a range of appropriate methods including small group withdrawal, one-to-one teaching, the creation of smaller class groups of SEN students and team teaching. Students receive extra support in both literacy and numeracy and are withdrawn from Irish class four times a week, if they have an exemption from Irish. If students do not have such an exemption they are supported twice a week by being withdrawn from non-examination classes. Students who do not have English as their first language also receive teaching support with extra English classes provided each week. Individual education plans are available for students and these are shared with mainstream teachers. This is very good practice. There was evidence of very good liaison between the learning-support and SEN department and the English teachers. Mainstream teachers were very aware of students with additional needs and strategies for teaching these students. It is recommended that SEN and learning-support students be retested at the end of each year to ascertain improvements. Circular 0099/2007 provides a link to a list of tests for use in schools which may be useful in this regard.
The quality of teaching and learning was very good. There was a good structure to English lessons. A clear purpose was established from the outset of all lessons and links were created with previous learning. To develop this good practice further, the teacher should state the intended learning objective of the lesson for the students at the beginning of the lesson and evaluate with them at the end of the lesson if this objective was achieved.
A range of teaching and learning resources was used. There was no over-reliance on one single resource but instead teachers drew on different textbooks for relevant material for use with their students. This is very good practice. The board was well used to record and reinforce key points.
Good pre-reading strategies were in evidence with students, for example, students were invited to speculate about the possible meaning of titles of texts before going on to examine the body of these texts. Differentiation was practised by teachers and, in general, very good individual attention was given to students. All students participated in their lessons and there was a good balance between the students’ and the teacher’s voice in each lesson. In some cases, when work was set for a small portion of the lesson, students would have benefited from the allocation of pair work so that better-able students could have assisted lower-ability students or students with English as a second language.
Questioning was appropriate, and very good practice was seen in that questions were directed at named students. Very good probing questions led students to a greater understanding of their texts. In one instance, the lesson involved reading a novel and, in this case, it was recommended that the structure of the lesson be changed to allow frequent breaks in reading to ask questions in order to ensure student understanding.
There was very good use of the integration of language and literature; for example students had to write a letter from the point of view of a character in a studied text. In keeping with one of the aims of the English department, cross-curricular links were developed with other subjects.
There was evidence that students had covered an appropriate body of written work. Examination class groups observed were well prepared for their examinations. Students’ work was, in most cases, well maintained in hardback copies, folders and key assignments. Some folders were full of a range of excellent work. However, in a few cases, there was a need for students to organise their work better, perhaps by using hardback copies for their longer assignments or by dividing their copies into different aspects of their course. Consideration could also be given to assigning a percentage of marks for the maintenance of students’ work in formal examinations.
There was clear evidence of learning and a pleasant atmosphere prevailed in all lessons. Teachers encouraged their students and kept them focused. Overall, high standards are expected and students are encouraged to reach for their highest achievable level.
There is a homework policy in the school and examination of students’ work showed evidence of frequent homework. For example, students were given longer pieces of work on a weekly basis which is very good practice. Teachers keep very good records of their students’ progress. In a few cases, the work was corrected with just a tick and a date while in most cases, homework was very well corrected with constructive, written feedback given to students on areas where they needed to improve. It is recommended that all students should receive such constructive feedback on longer pieces of work in particular. Good practice takes place in that the criteria of assessment are shared with the students.
A parent-teacher meeting is held for each year group in the school. Examination students sit ‘mock’ examinations and other groups sit house examinations twice yearly, at Christmas and in the summer. Reports are also sent home twice yearly based on these examinations. English class groups are given frequent class-based tests. TY students are continuously assessed.
The following are the main strengths identified in the evaluation:
§ Very good strategies to promote reading have been developed.
§ There is a strong focus on developing cross-curricular links across subjects.
§ Students have opportunities to participate in a range of co-curricular activities.
§ The provision and resourcing of the English room are commended.
§ Minutes of English meetings reflect real achievements by the English department and show good collaboration.
§ The JCSP learning outcomes for English are used with all junior cycle class groups.
§ English teachers have developed excellent individual English plans.
§ There is very good support for students with special educational needs (SEN) and learning support needs.
§ The quality of teaching and learning was very good.
§ Teachers used different textbooks for relevant material for their students.
§ High standards are expected and students are encouraged to reach for their highest achievable level.
§ Students had covered an appropriate body of written work and frequent homework was assigned.
As a means of building on these strengths and to address areas for development, the following key recommendations are made:
· Consideration should be given to allocating five periods a week to first-year English.
· A more even distribution of lesson periods in English across the week is recommended.
· Concurrency should be provided on the timetable for first-year class groups.
· Changes to the timetable during the school year should be avoided where at all possible.
· Time should be taken at English meetings to discuss good teaching practice, perhaps around teaching different texts. Teachers should agree the appropriate number of texts to teach in each year and a wider range of genres should be covered in TY in keeping with the overall TY plan.
· The continued use of ICT in preparation of resources and in teaching and learning is encouraged.
· It is recommended that SEN and learning support students be retested at the end of each year to ascertain improvements.
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 November 2008