An Roinn Oideachais agus Eolaíochta
Department of Education and Science
Subject Inspection of English
Mullingar Community College
Mullingar, County Westmeath
Roll number: 71450I
Date of inspection: 9, 10 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 Mullingar Community 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.
Mullingar Community College provides English in the Junior Certificate programme (JC), Junior Certificate School Programme (JCSP), Leaving Certificate programme (LC), Leaving Certificate Vocational Programme (LCVP) and Leaving Certificate Applied programme (LCA). Students in the LC and LCVP follow the same English syllabus.
There are four class groups in each of the three years of the junior cycle. Two bands are created in first year. It is reported that students in the upper range of ability are divided into two mixed-ability class groups and these are placed in one of the bands. The two groups are timetabled concurrently and this facilitates movement form one level to another. In practice, one of these classes only will take higher-level English in the Junior Certificate. The second band of first years also consists of two class groups and these are streamed according to ability. Most of these students take ordinary-level English while a number do foundation level. Access to level is determined by initial assessment and ongoing monitoring. First year is very early to place students in streamed groups: it is recommended that all first-year classes are allocated to mixed-ability groups. Additional and appropriate learning-support resources could be targeted at those who most need them. The total enrolment in first year is seventy-three and consequently, all first-year class groups have the advantage of being small.
In second year, students are assigned to designated higher-level and ordinary-level classes and most remain in these groups for both second and third year. Placement is determined by a combination of summer in-house examination results, class assessment and teacher judgment. Common in-house examinations with common marking schemes are not used for determining access to levels and this is a matter that should be reviewed. One of the lower second-year sets is in the JCSP. The JCSP group observed was large in number, given the level of additional needs that the students in this set have. However, it is understood that there are plans to deploy a second teacher for the class in the short term and this is a welcome development.
First-year classes and band one second-year classes have four lessons per week. This is not ideal. Provision for band two second-year classes and for all third years is good: most have five lessons, while one third-year group with additional needs has six. It is recommended that the school allocate additional lessons to first-year and band one second-year class groups in order to improve skills across all areas of the syllabus.
Allocation of lessons meets syllabus requirements in the senior cycle and is very good for some higher-level students. There is one designated higher-level class group in each of fifth and sixth year: both are allocated five lessons per week and an additional lesson for those not doing ab initio French. The repeat Leaving Certificate class and the ordinary-level sixth-year class have five periods. The three ordinary-level fifth-year classes have five lessons. LCA classes are allocated four lessons per week and this meets syllabus requirements.
In the case of the repeat class and the sixth year ordinary-level group, lessons are evenly distributed over the week. Distribution is not satisfactory with regard to other senior cycle classes. In the case of the higher-level groups in fifth and sixth year, two or even three lessons are timetabled on the same day. Fifth-year ordinary-level classes have two separate lessons on one day. No fifth-year class has an English lesson on Friday. Since frequency is important for learning and consolidation, timetabling distribution should be reviewed.
Uptake of higher-level English is low in the junior cycle but has shown signs of improvement in recent years. Contextual factors should be taken into consideration. However, the school as a whole, and the English department in particular should investigate ways of further increasing uptake.
The school does not provide the JCSP in first year and the rationale for this is not clear. Provision begins in second year for one of the two classes in the lower band, whichever group is deemed likely to benefit most from it. It is recommended that the provision and organisation of the JCSP be reviewed.
The school has a number of students with both learning support and special educational needs. It has an additional allocation of fewer than three whole-time equivalent posts. There has been a delay in the organisation and provision of learning support in the current academic year 2007/08 and it is reported that this is due to staffing difficulties. In Mullingar Community College, there is a qualified learning-support teacher. Another member of staff is qualified in the area of learning support but is not involved in its delivery. One teacher is currently undergoing training in the area of learning support. It is understood that some other teachers are also involved in resource teaching. The home-school-community liaison (HSCL) co-ordinator liaises with management and those involved in learning support. However there is no formal co-ordination of all aspects of learning-support provision. There is no learning-support plan in place nor are there individual education plans. Notwithstanding the constraints imposed as a result of staff shortages, formal planning for learning support should be a priority for the school. Initiatives such as the reading programme for parents of first years are commended.
Mullingar Community College has a significant minority of newcomer students, many of whom require language support. To meet this need, the school has received an additional teacher allocation of fifty-eight teaching hours or just under three whole-time equivalent posts. Some commendable procedures have been put in place, for example, an immersion course was organised in August and the school has liaised with the Reception and Integration Agency (RIA) and with parents. In addition, it is reported that efforts are made to integrate students through the school’s lunchtime activities. There are also classes after school. Language support is offered on an ongoing basis and students are withdrawn from Irish class and are integrated into mainstream class groups. However, during the evaluation it was observed that the placement of some students in some groups was not appropriate. This is a matter that should be addressed. While at present there is no language-support policy it is understood that one is being drafted. There is a need for formal planning and for appropriate assessment procedures to help identify the specific needs of individual students who require additional language support. A review of all aspects of language -support provision should be carried out as a matter of urgency. A team should be put in place led by a co-ordinator to undertake the task of developing a plan for the delivery of appropriate support. The school should, in the first instance, liaise with Integrate Ireland Language and Training (IILT) and information is available at the website http://www.iilt.ie/.
The teaching team is well balanced in terms of experience and gender. Ten teachers are deployed in mainstream English. This represents a large number given the total enrolment of 393 students. Seventy per cent of the team teach two or fewer class groups. Best practice aims to ensure that teachers have significant contact with English at all levels and in both the junior and senior cycles. While it is acknowledged that constraints are imposed by timetabling and curricular requirements, the school should seek to ensure that teachers of English range over programmes and levels in order to deepen the pool of expertise available to the subject. Individual teachers have engaged in in-service training in areas such as film in the classroom, cooperative learning, information and communications technology (ICT) and Leaving Certificate poetry in addition to availing of in-service training provided for the JCSP and LCA programme. This is commended. As an element of staff development planning, a formal subject-specific mentoring programme should be put in place for newly qualified teachers.
Resources such as audio-visual equipment, overhead projectors and books are available to teachers. Most teachers are classroom based and therefore have access to adequate storage space. They can also use the classroom, for example the walls, as an additional teaching resource. However, the classrooms in some cases were underutilised in this regard. Boxes of books are available and very good practice was noted in one instance where the classroom had its own library corner and a book club was also organised. Teachers who are not classroom based should have access to designated wall space in the rooms in which they teach. Centralised storage space accessible to all English teachers would be an advantage. There is no school library but it is reported that there are plans to develop one. This should prove to be of considerable benefit to the students of Mullingar Community College. Classrooms were in general adequate; however, one lesson was located in a classroom that was ill adapted to the needs of the group. This is a matter that could be easily remedied.
In general, provision and resources for both learning support and language support should be reviewed and upgraded. The designated learning-support room is also a careers room. There should be adequate designated spaces allocated to learning support. The school should also examine ways to create a multi-cultural environment in the school. Examples are an arts week or an intercultural room. ICT and other resources should be examined to ensure that they are adequate to the needs of learners.
The school has three computer rooms one of which is predominantly used by a Post Leaving Certificate (PLC) group but it can be accessed by the teachers of English. The other computer rooms can be booked. All classes in the school are timetabled for ICT lessons and students have the opportunity to do the European Computer Driving Licence (ECDL). The music room has three computers designated for the subject but since some groups with literacy needs have been timetabled in this room, it has been possible to allow some use of these on a limited basis. The school estimates that it will have eight digital projectors and the intention is to fit each classroom with a PC and projector as part of the roll-out of their ICT plan. The ICT plan should prioritise learning and language support provision.
Some co-curricular and extra-curricular activities support the learning of English in Mullingar Community College. It is reported that students participate in drama, public speaking and debating and they go on theatre trips and trips to the cinema. Newcomer students are encouraged to develop oral communications skills through public speaking.
As part of their planning and review practices and as a preliminary to addressing the issues raised in this report, the English teaching team and the school’s senior management should consult Looking at English, (2006) a report from the Inspectorate on the teaching and learning of English in post-primary schools. Particular attention should be paid to the report’s recommendations and to the exemplars of good practice it contains.
There is a subject department structure in the school. A co-ordinator fulfils the role on a voluntary basis but there is no clear definition of the role. It is recommended that this be agreed by the team at an early date so that planning activity can receive a fresh impetus and direction. Some planning meetings have taken place but there are no records or agendas. It is recommended that all meetings be documented and that the sharing of good practice be an element of all meetings. Teachers of English have met informally and there is a good collaborative ethos in the department.
A draft subject department plan exists using the School Development Planning Initiative (SDPI) template but it is in outline only and a great deal of work remains to be done. The English plan should document learning outcomes and key skills appropriate to syllabuses; it should detail schemes of work for all year groups, a list of departmental resources and how these can be accessed; differentiation strategies for teaching students with literacy and language difficulties and with special educational needs; assessment procedures that are clearly linked with learning outcomes; the English department’s assessment policies in relation to homework, to expected presentation standards for student work, and to the agreed departmental style for correcting student work; resources such as reports on the teaching and learning of English and the Department of Education and Science composite report on English; circulars, syllabuses, teacher guidelines; chief examiners’ reports and marking schemes from the State Exams Commission (SEC); co-curricular activities (if applicable). Other useful documents for inclusion in the subject department plan are relevant school policies (e.g. literacy development across the curriculum, special educational needs, and homework), handouts from relevant in-service courses, Integrate Ireland Language and Training (IILT) materials, and Teaching English magazines. The English planning folder should also contain agenda and minutes of departmental meetings and evidence of strategic planning for the subject.
It is recommended that the department outline ways in which ICT should be integrated into the teaching and learning of English and should seek to improve resources that are subject specific. There is general agreement regarding texts but selection varies from one class to another and the needs of the group are taken into account. While it is general practice to study one novel in the junior cycle, there is considerable variation depending on the individual teacher. One play is studied in second year. Some teachers might choose a Shakespearean play depending on the class group. There should be an overall policy on texts and central to this should be a requirement that students be exposed to a greater range of texts in the junior cycle and that the texts should be sufficiently challenging and age appropriate. Moreover, the department should make contact with feeder primary schools in order to establish what texts (including fiction) had been studied prior to entrance. The English department might also find it useful to consult the primary school curriculum to ascertain the range of skills already acquired by students transferring to second level and this is available at www.curriculumonline.ie. As many students as possible should be exposed to Shakespearean drama in some form.
Individual lesson planning was good in many cases and additional resources, if used, had been prepared in advance. Built into all lesson planning should be an emphasis on critical thinking, the development of skills and the articulation of a personal aesthetic response both orally and in writing.
Eight lessons were observed during the course of the evaluation. Drama, poetry, fiction and media studies were the themes of the classes visited. Most lessons showed evidence of planning and very good practice was noted in a few. The learning intention was implicit in most cases. Desired learning outcomes should be shared with students at the start of the lesson and students should be made aware of what they should be able to do and what they should know by the end of the lesson. The closing stage of the lesson should provide an opportunity for both teachers and learners to check whether or not the learning outcomes were achieved. In many lessons, the initial phase involved recap of work covered in previous lessons in order to provide a platform for learning new material. This was usually achieved through questioning.
Teaching resources used to support teaching and learning were texts (books and handouts) and the board. In general, consideration should be given to a more imaginative range of teaching resources that show evidence of differentiation and of different learning styles. Selection of texts was appropriate in most cases. However, care should be taken in all cases to ensure that texts are sufficiently challenging and designed to engage the interests of students. The board was effectively used in some cases, for example to record and highlight key points or words, to record questions as focal points for review and to organise information. Good practice was also observed with the use of graphic organisers such as “T” charts and spidergrams. In a small number of lessons, the board was either not used at all or was not used to best advantage. The board is a convenient resource and an effective teaching tool. The recording of lengthy notes should be avoided since the same effect can be more efficiently achieved through the preparation of notes in advance of the lesson, preferably typed for ease of reading. While no JCSP materials were observed in use during the evaluation, it is reported that the resources are accessed in other lessons.
In many classes there was a satisfactory emphasis on skills development. In one case, students were encouraged to read from their own work and this had the effect of building confidence on the part of readers, while at the same time developing other students’ listening skills. Specific activities around listening could be considered. Students also read from texts. Where reading is undertaken in class, more emphasis should be placed on directed activities related to texts (DARTs) in order to develop critical skills and to improve comprehension. These can be done either in whole-class settings, with groups or with individuals. Teachers’ use of language modelled very good practice for students in a lesson observed. Copybooks examined showed a satisfactory amount of writing practice in the majority of cases. However, it was also found that some classes do not get sufficient writing practice to develop skills and consolidate learning. It is recommended that students practise writing in a variety of genres in each year group. Ideally a variety of exemplars could be used and each student could keep a portfolio of his or her work. Differentiation should be built into the setting and assessment of writing tasks. Good practice was noted in a few instances where language and literature were linked: this commendable practice should be extended to all class groups.
Methodologies were varied and designed to encourage active participation in most lessons. Question and answer sessions were lively in many cases. Closed questions checked understanding of material or tested recall of information learned in previous lessons. Open questions sought to develop higher-order skills. Good practice was noted, for example, when students were asked to evaluate, predict an outcome or to draw on their own personal experience and thereby encourage imaginative engagement and empathy. Global questioning was used effectively to challenge and to prompt students. Individuals were also targeted, for example, to elicit personal responses or to ensure participation and engagement. In order to encourage collaborative learning, group and pair work were organised in some lessons. This not only engaged students in their own learning but it also afforded teachers an opportunity to circulate and monitor individual progress and such practice is commended. In a few lessons, activity was teacher-led. The development of communication competency is an important element of language learning. Therefore care should be taken to ensure that students are given sufficient structured speaking space in lessons. Teaching methodologies should be reviewed and the repertoire of strategies varied in order to engage all learners and encourage active participation. Excellent practice was noted in a drama lesson where an imaginative and varied range of active-learning teaching strategies challenged students. Students’ enjoyment of the lesson was particularly observed. During interaction with the inspector, they expressed a very good understanding of the text. This good practice should be a model for all lessons.
Interactions were lively and students were motivated and challenged to learn in some lessons. They asked questions and volunteered information. Student communication was effective in lessons where they were regularly encouraged to express their views and to find evidence to support them. Students were encouraged in their responses. In almost all they were warmly affirmed. Such good practice should be extended to all.
A print-rich and imaginative environment that stimulated interest in English was noted in just a few classrooms. This good practice should be extended. The seating arrangements in most classrooms were conventional; some rooms did not lend themselves to a variety of configurations.
Most classes were managed effectively. Very good practice was noted in a lesson where rules of behaviour were clearly explained and where high expectations were set. In most lessons visited, students showed a willingness to learn and in a few, there was a very good level of engagement.
In-house examinations are set for all year groups. Records of homework and assessment are kept. There are no common examinations. Mock examinations are held for the examination classes. Examination results are analysed but not exhaustively and this is an area for development since examination outcomes can provide important information on learning and help in strategic planning. Parent-teacher meetings are held for each year group. Information regarding students is also conveyed to parents by year heads.
The school has a homework policy. Homework is regularly assigned and conscientiously corrected in the majority of cases. Some had helpful, affirming written comments that provided constructive feedback. In a small number of cases, students do not get sufficient writing practice and there is insufficient monitoring of homework. Since independent writing is essential to develop a broad range of skills, it is recommended that all year groups be assigned an appropriate amount of substantial written work in a variety of genres. Feedback should be provided to all students in order to motivate their endeavour and to direct learning. The department should agree the number of substantial written homework assignments to be completed by each year group and this should be adhered to by all members of the teaching team. In the LCA programme there is a well-organised approach to the production of written assignments and there is a good level of collaboration within the LCA team. Revision of memorised material was efficiently assessed in one lesson through whole-class recitation.
Organisational and presentation skills are learned through the maintenance of copybooks and folders and through the use of and maintenance of the homework journal. Good practice was noted in some cases where students’ work was well organised and presented. In others, there are clear areas for improvement. Students should be instructed to have their homework journals on their desks and should be instructed to write down homework assignments at the end of each lessons. Student assessment should take cognisance of a broad range of skills to include presentation and organisation.
The following are the main strengths identified in the evaluation:
· Timetabling allocation is satisfactory or good for many classes.
· There is a good collaborative ethos in the English department.
· A good range of methodologies is used in the majority of lessons and very good practice was observed in a few.
· Use of resources is good in many lessons.
· Reading is encouraged and very good practice was observed in one instance.
· There are some good procedures in place for students with additional language needs.
· Students are taught in a supportive learning environment.
· There was evidence of some good assessment practices in copybooks.
As a means of building on these strengths and to address areas for development, the following key recommendations are made:
· The allocation and distribution of English lessons should be reviewed to maximise learning.
· All aspects of the provision and organisation of learning and language support should be reviewed.
· The organisation and provision of the JCSP should be reviewed.
· Consideration should be given to allocating all first-year students to mixed-ability groups with additional supports targeted at those who need them.
· The role of co-ordinator of English should be agreed by the department and the department should complete the plan. All meetings should have set agendas and minutes should be kept.
· The school as a whole and the English department in particular should investigate ways of increasing the uptake of higher-level English in the junior cycle.
· Students should be exposed to a greater range of texts in the junior cycle and these should be age appropriate and sufficiently challenging for all learners.
· There should be a strong focus on the development of skills across a range of experiences to include speaking, reading and writing and students should be given more writing practice.
· ICT should be integrated into the teaching and learning of English.
Post-evaluation meetings were held with the teachers of English and with the principal and deputy principal at the conclusion of the evaluation when the draft findings and recommendations of the evaluation were presented and discussed.