An Roinn Oideachais agus Eolaíochta
Department of Education and Science
Social, Personal and Health Education (SPHE)
Finn Valley College
Stranorlar, County Donegal
Roll number: 71240U
Date of inspection: 11 December 2008
Report on the Quality of Learning and Teaching in Social, Personal and Health Education (SPHE)
This report has been written following a subject inspection in Finn Valley College. It presents the findings of an evaluation of the quality of teaching and learning in Social, Personal and Health Education (SPHE), including Relationships and Sexuality Education, and makes recommendations for the further development of the teaching of this subject in the school. The evaluation was conducted over three 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, deputy principal, the co-ordinator and the subject teachers. The board of management of the school was given an opportunity to comment on the findings and recommendations of the report; the board chose to accept the report without response.
Finn Valley College has a student population of 261, with slightly more males than females. The school is included in the Department of Education and Science’s School Support Programme, under the Delivering Equality of Opportunity in Schools (DEIS) action plan for educational inclusion.
Management reports that provision for the social, personal and health education of its students is a key priority for the school. From 1988 to 2003, the North Western Health Board Lifeskills programme, one of the precursors of SPHE, was a core component of the school’s curriculum. Lifeskills was replaced by SPHE in 2003 when the latter became a required part of the core curriculum for all junior cycle students at national level. Curricular provision for SPHE in Finn Valley College is very good. All junior cycle students are timetabled in accordance with the requirements of Circular Letter M11/03. The school’s commitment to the core principles of the subject is also evidenced by the fact that SPHE continues to be timetabled for one class period each week for all senior cycle students. Relationships and Sexuality Education (RSE) is provided for junior cycle and senior cycle students as part of SPHE.
The school has a policy for RSE. The policy is currently being reviewed. In completing this process the school is advised to take note of Circular Letter 0027/2008 as well as the support materials and the policy template for RSE that are available on the website of the Department of Education and Science (www.education.ie).
A whole-school approach that includes the active involvement of senior management, a strong commitment from the SPHE teaching team and a belief in the importance of the subject ensures a positive and supportive environment for the organisation and delivery of SPHE in this school.
The school is fortunate to have a large team of SPHE teachers available, a number of whom have considerable experience in teaching this subject. Indeed, it is testimony of their commitment to SPHE that some members of the team have been involved since the introduction of Lifeskills in the 1980s. New members of staff are invited and supported to join the SPHE team on a regular basis thus ensuring a commendable focus on building capacity to teach the subject. Currently, thirteen teachers deliver the programme to both junior cycle and senior cycle classes. The gender balance in the team reflects the gender balance of the teaching staff. Management assigns SPHE teachers to their class groups for the full duration of junior or senior cycle, whenever possible, thus ensuring continuity in the delivery of the programme.
The work of the subject department is co-ordinated in an enthusiastic manner. A newer member of the SPHE team has recently taken over this role from a colleague who has given many years of service to the co-ordination of the subject. This rotation of roles is good practice in terms of providing members of the team with the opportunity to gain experience and to assume a leadership role in the development of the subject. It is good to note that the duties of the co-ordinator have been identified and documented. The co-ordination of RSE is also part of the SPHE co-ordinator’s brief.
Over the years, management has facilitated teachers to engage with continuing professional development (CPD) for SPHE, RSE and other related areas. Whole-staff professional development events in areas of health promotion have also taken place. Records have been maintained and these clearly indicate the variety of training events attended by many members of the SPHE team, including the principal, since 2003. It was evident during the evaluation that the level of engagement with CPD to date has impacted positively on the work in the classrooms. It is good to note that some team members have had the opportunity to progress from the introductory and continuation training offered by the SPHE Support Service to training in RSE and other specialised areas. This incremental and developmental approach to the development of teachers’ skills is praiseworthy and its continuation is encouraged. However, given the large number of teachers involved in the SPHE department, it is also acknowledged that this approach is challenging in terms of facilitating all members of the team to progress through all stages of training.
In order to enhance the positive approach to CPD it is recommended that the SPHE teachers, in consultation with management, should identify their subject specific training needs on an annual basis so that a CPD plan could be developed for the team. This would ensure the continued development of a team of fully trained SPHE and RSE teachers. The current records of training events which have already taken place should inform this process. It is further recommended that the school should explore the possibility of internally-led CPD activities drawing on the professional expertise of some of the current SPHE teachers. This could also involve peer shadowing, a useful technique for demonstrating how training and learning can be transferred to classroom practice.
Impressive efforts are made at a whole-school level to ensure that a wide range of co-curricular, cross-curricular and extracurricular activities and projects supports the work carried out in SPHE lessons. Many of the activities provide opportunities for the promotion of students’ physical, social, mental and emotional health and well-being. These activities include Girls Active, anti-bullying week, the Blanket Earth project, students’ involvement in the production of a DVD on road safety and the participation of staff and students in the annual Christmas concert and social event. Management reports that the school’s engagement with the activities organised by the Finn Valley Alliance for Positive Mental Health and in particular, the school-based support provided by the youth project worker, have been invaluable. Ten staff members have completed workshops in Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training (ASIST). Some teachers have also begun training as facilitators in restorative justice practices. Links are well established between the SPHE and guidance departments.
There is a positive approach to subject planning for SPHE in this school. A good sense of collegiality and a collaborative spirit were evident in this subject department. Subject meetings are held at least once a term and it is good practice that minutes are maintained. Given the size of the team and the fact that teachers are involved in a range of other subjects, as well as SPHE, they report that it is challenging to find a common meeting time that suits all members of the team. In order to alleviate this problem, consideration could be given to facilitating teachers to meet in their year groups, during non-teaching time, at particular times during the school year. This approach would provide teachers with opportunities to focus on areas of planning pertinent to their particular year group; to review a term’s work; or to share ideas regarding resources and methodologies for specific modules and topics. The meetings could also be used as opportunities to provide peer support for the team members, especially for teachers who are new to the teaching of SPHE.
Good progress has been made in planning for SPHE and a subject department plan for the subject is well advanced. This plan provides good information on the organisation of the subject in the school. It is commendable that the document includes, for example, the school’s anti-bullying, RSE, and substance use policies, as well as details of the extensive range of co-curricular, cross-curricular and extracurricular activities that support the school’s SPHE programme, both within and outside of the classroom.
A considerable section of the plan comprises the schemes of work for junior cycle SPHE classes. Commendably, the schemes are based on the Junior Cycle SPHE Curriculum Framework. These schemes clearly outline the modules and related topics to be covered in each year of the junior cycle. Some of the topics are well developed. It is very appropriate that the first-year programme begins with a strong focus on managing transitions and how to be an effective group member.
In order to enhance the good work that has been done in subject planning it is recommended that the schemes of work should be reviewed and further developed. As a first step, it would be useful to identify and agree learning objectives for each topic, in areas where this has not already been done. This work could be carried out by small groups of SPHE teachers who should focus on the programme for the year group that they are currently teaching. This would facilitate a subsequent review of the progression of topics over the three-year cycle to ensure that there is an incremental and coherent approach to the development of students’ knowledge, skills, behaviours and attitudes. The planning process could then focus on methodologies that would help students achieve the agreed learning objectives and appropriate modes of assessment to check that the learning objectives have been attained. Following on from this work, the co-ordinator and a core group of SPHE teachers might review the three-year programme and reflect on how the SPHE programme would be experienced by students as they journey from the beginning of first year to the end of third year.
During the evaluation, a number of teachers presented individual planning documents that were of a very high standard. These teachers had tailored the junior cycle scheme of work for their particular class groups. The very best of these individual planning documents also included a common template for the planning of individual lessons. The template is used to outline the aims, learning objectives, activities, resources and the sequence of each lesson. Where teachers’ planning was supported by a process of review following a lesson and this work is documented, the cycle of planning has been very expertly completed. These individual planning documents should prove very useful in the development of the schemes of work recommended in the previous paragraphs. The good work begun by some teachers in assessment for learning will also be useful in this regard. The sharing of these very good practices has the potential to greatly enrich the subject planning process.
The two core components of the senior cycle SPHE programme in the school are RSE and Mind Out, a mental health promotion programme for fifteen to eighteen year olds. Additional topics are added at the discretion of each teacher and with input from the students in each particular class. This good work is acknowledged and it is laudable that students are provided with opportunities to identify topics that should be included on the programme. Given that timetabling constraints may mean that the teachers involved in the delivery of senior cycle SPHE may change from year to year, it would be worthwhile developing and documenting the current framework for senior cycle SPHE, beyond RSE and Mind Out, on a more formal basis. This process could still allow flexibility to tailor the programme based on students’ needs. The development of the programme should be carried out in a similar manner to that recommended above for junior cycle.
In reviewing the senior cycle RSE programme, the school might find it useful to refer to the recently developed TRUST (Talking Relationships Understanding Sexuality Teaching) resource for senior cycle. It consists of a DVD and twenty accompanying lessons and is available through the training programme for senior cycle RSE.
Resources for SPHE and RSE are filed and stored in the staff room. Although not ideal due to the cramped conditions, this central location provides easy access for SPHE teachers. Designated SPHE notice boards are positioned in the staff room and on a corridor in the lobby area. During the evaluation, it was noted that a number of individual teachers have developed very creative resources for SPHE.
The work observed in the classrooms provided evidence that there is a strong and committed team of teachers involved in the delivery of SPHE in this school.
All teachers had prepared well for the lessons observed. In some cases, the planning was of such a high quality that as well as focusing on how students might achieve the aims and objectives of the particular lesson, the teachers had skilfully integrated opportunities to focus on the overall aims of SPHE. These aims included the promotion of self-esteem and self-confidence, the development of decision-making skills and the provision of opportunities for reflection and discussion. This is a most commendable approach and there is scope to extend it to all classes.
In all lessons, teachers shared the topic with the students and they often set the scene by recapping on the previous week’s work. In one particular lesson, the teacher shared the planned learning outcomes of the lesson with the students and recorded them on the white board. The planned assessment task, which was carefully linked to the learning outcomes, was also given to these students at the outset. At the end of the lesson, she returned to the outcomes to check and summarise learning, before closing with a reference to what would be covered in the subsequent lesson. This excellent practice provides a framework for lessons and ensures that the focus is on learning as well as on teaching. It is recommended that this approach be adopted in all lessons.
The topics and content of the lessons observed were very relevant and generally well pitched to the level of the students. A number of lessons illustrated very good practice in terms of the sequencing of content and appropriate pacing that allowed students time and space to reflect on the key concepts.
Teachers incorporated a range of strategies, resources and methodologies to help students engage with the learning process. The use of brainstorming, worksheets, questionnaires, PowerPoint, puzzles, games, pair work, poetry writing, song lyrics, role play, discussion and collage provided students with opportunities to work individually and with their peers. In one of the lessons, pairs of students used newspaper headlines to make a collage on the theme of personal safety. The collages were then carefully used as stimulus material for a class discussion on this theme. The teacher skilfully facilitated the discussion, there was very good attention to the processing of the feedback and students engaged very well with the activities of the lesson. In a Junior Certificate School Programme (JCSP) class, a lesson on friendship provided an impressive example of how to incorporate all four stages of the experiential learning cycle - experiencing, processing, generalising and applying - into an SPHE lesson. A carefully planned and very well managed lesson on communication also provided students with opportunities to engage in the experiential learning cycle. The strategies used in this lesson to help students interpret and practise verbal and non-verbal communication skills were most effective. Many of the SPHE lessons provided the students with very rich and valuable learning experiences, where the process of the learning was as important as the content.
It was evident that, in some instances, there is scope for further development in the area of choosing and using methodologies. Consideration should be given to how the chosen methodologies can be used so that the learning objectives of the lesson are attained. They should also provide opportunities for each student in the class to engage in the learning process. Given the very good practices observed in some lessons, and the wealth of experience that there is amongst team members in this regard, it is recommended that opportunities should be provided for the SPHE teachers to share these practices and experiences as an ongoing part of their subject planning meetings. The SPHE Junior Certificate Guidelines for Teachers provides further information on the methodologies recommended for SPHE. The supplementary notes at the beginning of each chapter, in the sections entitled Teaching this Module (in the same document) also merit attention.
In almost all instances, classroom management was very good. Roll calls were taken and there were good examples of helpful strategies, for example, drawing attention to the ground rules that had been agreed for the SPHE class, and in particular, emphasising the importance of listening and maintaining respect for others during the classroom interactions. When necessary, reference should also be made to the ground rules during lessons. This is especially important in the management of feedback resulting from group work or discussion, where a small number of students might engage in what would be considered low-level disruption. It is important that all students, and not just those who are more vocal, are provided with structured opportunities to contribute to the class discussion. In some cases, the rearrangement of the furniture in the classroom might also help.
The positive attitude to SPHE in the school was noticeable in the classrooms visited and there was a sense of a safe space for students. In discussion with the inspector, quite a number of students expressed their enjoyment of the subject. Good relationships were evident between students and their teachers. Effective use was made of student affirmation and students’ contributions were warmly welcomed.
There was evidence of some good practice in relation to the filing and storage of students’ lesson materials, using either a folder or a copybook. Encouraging junior cycle students to collate and store their materials ensures that they and their parents have a visible record of work and achievement at the end of each year and indeed over the three-year cycle. Parents receive a written comment on the school report on students’ progress in SPHE. In order to have a shared understanding and to ensure consistency amongst teachers, it is recommended that the SPHE team should agree the criteria to be used to formulate the comments.
There was a variety of assessment modes used during lessons. Commendably, some of the assessment modes provided students with opportunities to explore their behaviours and attitudes and apply what they had learned, as well as checking on their knowledge and understanding. At the end of a number of lessons, students were provided with quiet time to reflect on and record what they had learned during the lesson. In some cases, students were given a home task to practise one of the skills that they had learned. At the end of another lesson, the teacher wrote a comment in each student’s diary on his or her progress during the lesson. These are all very good practices and they should be extended to all lessons.
Some work has begun in the school on introducing the principles of assessment for learning. In one of the classes visited, these principles were integrated into the lesson in a most effective and impressive manner. It is recommended that the merits of sharing and demonstrating this good practice through for example, peer shadowing, should be considered as part of the school’s CPD plan for SPHE.
The following are the main strengths identified in the evaluation:
· A whole-school approach that includes the active involvement of senior management, a strong commitment from the SPHE teaching team and a belief in the importance of the subject ensures a
positive and supportive environment for the organisation and delivery of SPHE and RSE for all students in Finn Valley College.
· There is a large team of SPHE teachers available, a number of whom have considerable experience in teaching this subject. Their work is co-ordinated in an enthusiastic manner.
· The level of staff engagement with CPD to date has impacted positively on the work in the classrooms.
· Impressive efforts are made at a whole-school level to ensure that a wide range of co-curricular, cross-curricular and extracurricular activities and projects supports the work carried out in SPHE lessons.
· Good progress has been made in subject planning. Some teachers presented individual planning documents that were of a very high standard.
· Many of the SPHE lessons provided the students with very rich and valuable learning experiences, where the process of the learning was as important as the content.
· Two of the lessons illustrated very effectively how to incorporate all four stages of the experiential learning cycle into an SPHE lesson.
· Some of the assessment modes used provided students with opportunities to explore their behaviours and attitudes and apply what they had learned, as well as checking on their knowledge
· The principles of assessment for learning were integrated into one of the lessons in a most effective and impressive manner.
· The positive attitude to SPHE in the school was noticeable in the classrooms visited and there was a sense of a safe space for students.
As a means of building on these strengths and to address areas for development, the following key recommendations are made:
· The school should explore the possibility of internally led CPD activities, drawing on the professional expertise of some of the current SPHE teachers. This could include a focus on the use of
methodologies and assessment for learning. The sharing and demonstrating of good practice through for example, peer shadowing, should also be considered.
· The schemes of work should be reviewed and further developed.
· All teachers should share the planned learning outcomes with the students at the outset and return to these outcomes throughout and at the end of the lesson to check on learning.
Post-evaluation meetings were held with the teachers of SPHE, the co-ordinator and with senior management at the conclusion of the evaluation when the draft findings and recommendations of the evaluation were presented and discussed.
Published October 2009