An Roinn Oideachais agus Eolaíochta
Department of Education and Science
Subject Inspection of Irish
Mount Sackville Secondary School
Chapelizod, Dublin 20
Roll number: 60120W
Date of inspection: 19 November 2008
Report on the Quality of Learning and Teaching of Irish
This report has been written following a subject inspection in Mount Sackville Secondary School. It presents the findings of an evaluation of the quality of teaching and learning of Irish 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 the teaching and learning. The inspector interacted with the students and teachers, inspected the students’ work and had discussions with the teachers. The inspector reviewed school-planning documentation and teachers’ written preparation. Following the inspection, the inspector provided oral feedback on the outcomes of the evaluation to the principal and to 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.
Provision and support for Irish in Mount Sackville Secondary School are very good.
Seven members of staff teach Irish in the school in the current year. There have been many changes of staff recently and at the time of this inspection, three of the teachers held permanent whole-time positions. These teachers were fully qualified and had long experience of teaching Irish in the school. Of the other four, two had qualified as teachers this year and the remaining two were part-time postgraduate diploma in education students. The competence of all the teachers in oral Irish, for the purpose of teaching, was satisfactory.
Teachers are afforded opportunities to teach Irish at different levels, according to their qualifications, and continuity is preserved by allocating the same teacher to students for second and third years and for fifth and sixth years, as far as possible. The management is commended for this approach to allocating teachers to classes. Certain teachers are designated to co-operate with newly-appointed colleagues and they get help and guidance from the subject-co-ordinator and from the other teachers in the department also, as was observed. This is praiseworthy practice.
The management supports and encourages teachers to avail themselves of professional development opportunities. These include workshops organised by the Second Level Support Service (SLSS) for Irish and an input on differentiation offered to the whole teaching staff by the Special Education Support Service (SESS). The management also pays the fees for the teachers’ membership of Comhar na Múinteoirí Gaeilge and it is policy to provide subvention for professional courses. The management is highly commended for its commitment to teachers’ continuous professional development.
The amount of time devoted to Irish in the senior cycle is satisfactory, but the management must ensure that there is no further reduction in the number of class periods allocated to Irish in the junior cycle, where classes have four class periods each per week for Irish. The vast majority of classes have a single class-period for Irish each day, as recommended. Fifth-years students have a double class on Fridays due to six class periods per week being allocated to them.
The students are allocated to mixed-ability classes for first year, a commendable practice. Their allocation to classes for the second and third years is based on their achievements in the summer tests. The vast majority of the students take higher level in the Junior Certificate. Transition Year (TY) is compulsory and, in keeping with the spirit of the programme, classes are of mixed ability. Students are allocated to higher and lower levels for Leaving Certificate with the majority of students taking the higher-level course. Apart from the first year and TY, classes in other year groups are timetabled concurrently. The management is commended for this arrangement because it facilitates student access to the class which best serves their needs and teachers can take classes jointly when necessary. Management and the teachers are highly commended for the very good participation rates achieved at higher level.
It was reported that 5% of the total enrolment (644) of students had exemptions from Irish. Twenty-four of these students had learning difficulties and the majority of the others were from overseas. The needs of these students are served by making extra educational provision for them, as far as possible, while Irish classes are in progress. Where this is not possible, the exempted students sit in the Irish classes with their peers. The management is commended for the arrangements made.
The majority of the teachers are classroom based and this facilitates their access to teaching and learning aids and resources. A very good provision of aids is available to the teachers of Irish, among them being access to the language laboratory, a computer room, laptops and a data-projector. Teachers and students also have access to the school library, which is managed by a school librarian, and has a selection of Irish language books.
The department of Irish is formally established and the co-ordination of the work of department is a post of responsibility. As well as distributing information and documentation to the staff, the co-ordinator is responsible for co-ordinating the planning work, organising department meetings, attending case-study meetings with the dean or the learning-support teachers, monitoring student progress, analysing student achievements in the state examinations and ensuring that the learning is challenging to high-ability students. The management is commended for setting out clear responsibilities for the co-ordinator, in order to support the work of the school and student learning.
The teachers of Irish have about five formal meetings per year. They also meet regularly on an informal basis throughout the year. The work of the department is well organised and the approach creates opportunities for the teachers to work in groups on various aspects of subject planning. For example, teachers plan collaboratively for classes taking the subject at the same levels and common examinations are set for these classes. These practices are highly commended.
The teachers and management are commended for the opportunities provided for students to develop their experience of using the language and their experience of Irish culture and extending it beyond the classroom. Events are organised for Seachtain na Gaeilge (Irish Week), including dancing, singing, drama and debates. The teachers and management are particularly commended for organising an Irish Club in the school, with the assistance of sixth-year students, for first-year and second-year students. This provides regular opportunities for the students to speak Irish with their peers.
The plan for Irish was of a good quality. Some teachers provided plans for individual year groups and it was evident that collaborative planning was undertaken for classes taking the subject at the same levels in various year groups. The plans were arranged on a term-by-term basis and they indicated that the work was organised in a manner which promoted the thematic integration of various aspects of the courses, including literature and grammar. These plans provided a useful reference point in planning for individual classes and to choose and organise tasks which supported the integration of the development of language skills and the various aspects of the courses.
The teachers are highly commended for discussing teaching and learning methodologies and strategies at their meetings. It is recommended that this be continued and that, in particular the teachers try to achieve further development of ways to differentiate class content. It would also be worth making greater use of the electronic aid ‘Shared Resources’, developed in the school to store and share resources developed by the teachers themselves.
To facilitate the further development of the plans, and as a guide to new teachers regarding the learning objectives set for the students, it is recommended that a framework be developed of the expected learning outcomes at different stages and at various levels. These should be based on the language skills and functions outlined in the syllabuses. These learning outcomes could be used in planning for classes, as criteria for assessment and should be shared with the students. There should also be an incremental development in the topics from year to year.
Regarding the plan for TY, it is recommended that the literature prescribed for Leaving Certificate be avoided and that alternative pieces be used instead, to develop and broaden students’ experience and skills in handling literature. It is also recommended that modules be devised such as ‘Contemporary Irish’, to develop students’ knowledge of Irish and its use in today’s world. Besides, it would be worthwhile for the staff to consider the benefit they might derive from using the European Language Portfolio with TY classes to help the students to develop an awareness of themselves as language learners, as well as skills as independent learners. Further knowledge on this can be accessed at www.tcd.ie/slscs/clcs/research/featuredresearch_european_language_portfolio.
Planning and preparation for the majority of the classes observed was very good and the content of the classes was in keeping with the department’s plan. Particularly praiseworthy were those cases in which teachers had prepared work sheets and sourced well-chosen authentic texts for use in their classes.
The teaching and learning of Irish in Mount Sackville Secondary School was of a very good quality.
The roll was called and the students answered it in Irish in over half of the classes observed. It is recommended that this practice be more widely used and that the good practices seen in certain cases, where students were encouraged to give the day’s date in Irish and a general conversation was then conducted with them about a topical subject or about the weather, be further developed. Homework was checked at the start of classes also, or corrected work returned to students. This is praiseworthy, especially those cases where corrections made on essays were shared with all the students and where the teacher focused on major errors commonly made in the students’ work.
The planning and preparation undertaken by the teachers helped to ensure that the work was well structured and suitably paced in the majority of classes. The students were told at the start of classes what work they would be doing. It is recommended that this be developed by sharing the expected learning outcomes with the students.
The various tasks undertaken by the students in all the classes helped to consolidate learning and, furthermore, in most cases, helped to integrate the development of the language skills. The examples observed of poetry being taught are commended: the way a new poem was presented to the students and, in a certain case, where students were required to analyse the images used in a poem. In the case where a new poem was being presented to the students, they were first asked to hazard a guess at the subject matter, based on the title and their ideas were recorded on the whiteboard. The students were able to make great use of their prior learning about the topic in general in this exercise. The poem was then read and afterwards the students were set to work in groups. Envelopes were distributed, one to each group; each envelope contained individual lines of all the verses of the poem, cut up and jumbled. The students were asked to sort the lines, re-order them correctly and offer feedback to the class. This exercise helped to develop their listening skills and understand the theme of the poem. When feedback was being given on group work on images, students in other groups were questioned about the accuracy of the feedback. This ensured that all of the students were focused on the work at all times and that the whole class could benefit from the work done by every group.
Many examples were observed of the use of pair work and group work, as recommended. Best practice was observed when students were clearly informed about what they had to do, or were given an example of the type of result expected, when a time limit was set for the tasks being undertaken and when the students had an opportunity of providing feedback.
The resources available were effectively used in the majority of cases where well-chosen aids or resources prepared by the teachers themselves were presented to the students. The case in which a link was made to a website, and the material effectively used to present an excerpt from a television programme, which was based on the topic of the lesson to the pupils, is highly commended. There was a smooth progression from this part of the work to the other tasks and the other resources used. The very short time involved in making this transition was very effectively used to enrich the students’ vocabulary through oral work. This practice is highly commended. It is recommended that this experience and good practice in using aids and ICT resources be shared by other staff-members. Such use of aids and resources ensured that, in the majority of cases, textbooks played only a supportive role.
Irish was to the fore as the language of instruction and communication in all classes and it was clear that this was the normal experience of the students. This helped to create in the classrooms an atmosphere which was very supportive of the learning of Irish and it was obvious that students had attained a good level of competence in the language according to their ability. It was noticed in a small number of cases that there was further scope to promote the use of Irish among the students and to further emphasise the use of Irish by students in class. Only rarely did teachers resort to translation to English to explain vocabulary and phrases to the students and it is recommended that this practice be avoided and replaced by strategies which would be more effective in helping students to acquire competence in the language. In the majority of classes, the students asked the teacher questions in Irish about the subject-matter of the class. The teachers are highly commended for developing this ability and confidence in the students and the practice should be more widely used.
In all classes, there was an atmosphere which was very supportive of learning and it was evident that the students had a strong work ethic. It was clear that the students enjoyed being given challenging work to undertake. It was reported that subject matter is differentiated in certain cases, by, for example, providing supplementary reading material in Irish for the students. It is recommended that such practice be more widely used and that teachers consider other ways of differentiating material for use in class. Various styles of questioning were effectively used in most cases, a praiseworthy practice which allowed for adjusting the level of questioning to individual students. Grammar was taken care of in certain cases also. Particularly noteworthy was the way this was linked to the content of the class and how opportunities were created for the students to consolidate their learning by discussing a topic, using the adjectives being learnt, for example or by requiring students to identify the adjectives in a new context and use them in sentences of their own to help them master and reinforce their learning. The homework assigned in the classes observed was based on the content of the class, as recommended.
The assessment of students’ work is based on their participation in class, class tests and house examinations, as well as on ‘mock’ state examinations for students in third and sixth years. Students are given feedback on their progress orally, through teachers’ notes or marks on their homework and other tasks assigned to them, through formal reports on the results of house examinations and on the ‘mock’ state examinations. As well as the formal reports, the students’ school journals are used to keep parents informed of their daughters’ progress. Parent-teacher meetings are held once a year for this purpose also.
Students’ achievements in the house examinations are based on written papers and on listening-comprehension. Apart from the ‘mock’ tests for sixth years, it is left to individual teachers to take account of students’ ability in oral Irish in the house examinations. It is good practice to include all the language skills when assessing students’ work, a practice which closely accords with the aims and objectives of the syllabuses and it is recommended that its use be extended. The setting of common examination papers, as occurs in some instances, is good practice. This practice should be extended and monitoring procedures should be developed in order to enhance this work. In addition to the house examinations, TY students also undertake projects and the outcomes of this work are included among the students’ achievements. This practice is praiseworthy. As observed in a particular case, students are given the opportunity of participating in essay-writing competitions and teachers correct extra essays to help students to develop their writing skills. This encouragement and support are highly commended. Student achievements in the state examinations are analysed every year and a report on those results is included in the subject plan. This practice, together with the levels of achievement attained, is highly commended.
Neither a homework policy nor an assessment policy had been developed by the school when this inspection was conducted and it is now time to consider their development. It is recommended that the department of Irish ensures that the policies they develop serve the needs of the language, taking account of the fact that different language skills must be developed and different modes of assessment must be used to suit them. It is recommended that the policies set out the aims and objectives of the syllabuses clearly, that they specify the roles and responsibilities of all the partners including the students, who will be responsible for implementing and monitoring them. It is also recommended that the date for approval of the policies by the board of management and the date for reviewing them, be clearly specified.
In the copybooks reviewed, there was a good range of work which accorded with the requirements of the syllabuses. It was clear that regular monitoring and correction of the work was being done, indicated by marks and notes of praise written by the teacher. In the vast majority of cases, these notes of commendation were written in Irish; this is good practice. In a few cases, there was guidance for improvement in the teacher’s notes on the work. This is good practice and should be more widely used. It is recommended that the teachers of Irish agree an approach to correcting students’ work based on Assessment for Learning (AfL). Further information on AfL is available at www.ncca.ie.
The following are the main strengths identified in the evaluation:
As a means of building on these strengths and to address areas for development, the following key recommendations are made:
Post-evaluation meetings with the teachers of Irish and with the principal were organised at the conclusion of the evaluation, meetings at which the draft findings and recommendations of the evaluation were presented and discussed.
Published, October 2009