An Roinn Oideachais agus Eolaíochta
Department of Education and Science
Subject Inspection of Irish
Roll number: 60871V
Date of inspection: 15 December 2006
Date of issue of report: 21 June 2007
Report on the Quality of Learning and Teaching in Irish
This report has been written following a subject inspection in Mercy College, Coolock. It presents the findings of an evaluation of the quality of teaching and learning in 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 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 subject teachers and principal. The board of management was given an opportunity to comment in writing on the findings and recommendations of the report, and the response of the board will be found in the appendix of this report.
Mercy College is a girls’ school serving students living in the Coolock area and surrounding areas. The school has an inclusive entrance policy and has disadvantaged status recognised by the Department. The lack of support available to students in general with homework in Irish was mentioned as one of the major challenges associated with the teaching of the subject in the school.
As against that, the principal confirmed that the extra assistance provided for students in the subject before school hours in the morning and after school hours at various times during the year are indicative of the diligence and enthusiasm of the Irish teachers. In addition to this, students who have exemptions from Irish are welcomed to study Irish. The same welcome is afforded to students for whom English is not their first language to learn Irish despite being entitled to exemptions from Irish. The teachers are commended for extending this school’s inclusive policy to the teaching of Irish also.
Appropriate arrangements are made for those students having exemptions from Irish when Irish is on the timetable. An attempt is made, as much as possible, to provide another support programme for them at that time. The teachers confirmed that there was no disruption to the Irish classes due to students with exemptions. The management is commended for those arrangements.
The teachers indicated that they were satisfied with the amount of time allocated for Irish subject meetings. Time is allocated at various occasions during the year – at the staff meeting at the start of the year and again at the year-end staff meeting. In the meantime, shorter periods are allocated, as requested, on staff meeting days and the teachers meet in their own time on other occasions. Subject coordination duty is divided equally among the Irish teachers. This involves a term of one or two years per person. It would be worthwhile attaching copies of the minutes of those meetings to the Irish subject plan and reviewing the common themes at year end as a guide to planning in the future.
The coordinator’s duties include the provision of an up-to-date written subject plan. Therefore such a plan was provided for the current school year 2006-2007. One of the duties associated with the schedule of posts of responsibility in the school is an analysis of students’ achievements in the certificate examinations and the Irish department and management have accurate information on these matters. It would be worthwhile registering this information as an appendix in the subject plan and incorporating the trends in that account.
The account of the professional development of teachers in the subject plan was observed. That account indicated that good efforts had been made and are being made to keep well-informed in various aspects of the teaching of the subject – especially at Leaving Certificate level – as well as skills in student behaviour management. The teachers are commended for constantly improving their skills. The teachers greatly welcomed the in-service opportunities that would be afforded to them by the establishment of a support team for Irish under the Second Level Support Service. The principal will offer full support for these courses as for other professional in-service courses.
Particular attention is drawn to a course, recorded in the account of teachers’ professional development, relating to the use of information communications and technology (ICT) in the Irish class, which was attended by one of the Irish teachers. It would be worth sharing information on this course with the other members of the Irish department in efforts to implement recommendations made on that course in planning and in the class as soon as possible as the influence of this course was not evident in any of the classes observed.
This last recommendation is made especially as a result of the teachers’ own comments on the little use made of ICT in the teaching of the subject. It was understood that the teachers themselves used the website www.beo.ie to find feature articles in Irish. This practice is commendable. However the variety of teaching and learning would be greatly enhanced by an ICT element on the various programmes. Hands-on experience by the students themselves of the use of ICT under the supervision of the teacher is involved here, experience which would provide communications opportunities for the students regarding exchanging websites and e-mails with students in other schools. Information on websites relating to Irish can be found on the website ‘Gaeilge ar an ghréasán’ www.smo.uhi.ac.uk/gaeilge/gaeilge.html. The students should also be given the chance to use the electronic dictionary www.focal.ie.
The amount of periods provided for the subject on the school timetable was quite low, especially in the junior cycle and transition year. In the latter case only two periods per week were involved. Four periods per week were involved in all years in the junior cycle. An accurate count of the amount of Irish classes available in transition year during the school year is recommended. The work experience periods and any other activities which would conflict with those classes should be excluded. It was not evident that the aims shown in the transition year Irish programme could be attempted with such a small amount of periods on the timetable. It is recommended that a review be made of that amount after such a review.
It was understood from the teachers that the teaching of the subject is evenly divided. This arrangement means that all the teachers are gaining experience in teaching all levels. As a result no specific person deals with ordinary level or foundation level and in the same way no specific person deals solely with higher level. This agreed arrangement is to be commended.
Resources are provided for the teaching of the subject on the basis of requests from the teachers and the teachers indicated that they were satisfied with such support. Sound and video equipment and other resources were available to teachers on request. The teachers were at a disadvantage as none of them had their own room due to pressure of space for the students. It would be worth making an attempt to provide one room, on a trial basis, which would specifically pertain to the teaching of Irish and placing teaching resources for the subject there.
It was understood that the Irish department organises various all-school activities in conjunction with the national Seachtain na Gaeilge activities. Those activities are registered in the calendar of school activities which are supported school-wide. Also, the school provides funding as a help to parents to send students on Gaeltacht summer courses. This is proof of the positive favourable attitude towards Irish and towards the Irish teachers in Mercy College.
The classes in first year are organised in mixed ability classes and classes are divided on the basis of the various levels in the subject after that. Parents are informed of changes in level. Classes are timetabled at the same time year by year from second year onwards. This means that students have the opportunity to change level in the subject in accordance with their wishes and abilities. These arrangements are regarded as satisfactory.
The document which was provided, ‘Plean Ábhair: Gaeilge: 2006/2007’, was well-laid out. This document was in accordance with the direction as presented on the website of the school development planning initiative. The plan dealt with a work programme, year by year, for all the classes in the school in keeping with the different levels in the subject. The subject selection indicated that the documents were in line with the appropriate syllabi. The speaking of Irish was included in most of these plans and this should be included in all plans.
It would be worthwhile also including an account in the plans of the teaching methods which will be practised to consolidate language skills. It was not clear, for example, how the speaking of Irish would be advanced in the classes. It would be worth clarifying that so that all teachers would be practising the same approach.
One period per week in the language laboratory was mentioned for all classes for aural comprehension in the planning material. From the references to be read for that work it was understood that exercises were from textbooks dealing specifically with aural comprehension or that exercises were from past aural comprehension examination papers. Work of this kind is essential as practice for the certificate examinations and this is to be commended. It would be worthwhile however to have variety in the material used for aural comprehension.
The items to be heard on pre-recorded material are not true living speech and they are of limited benefit. At best this work sharpens the ear to the sounds and rhythm of speech and worthwhile practice is obtained from writing down words heard on the tape. The work becomes boring and stale, however, as it goes on and as it is clear that the extracts were prepared for examinations. In order to present the language as a living language of communication, items of living speech should be recorded and used with the class. TG4 programmes are the best for this. Cooperation among the teachers would be required to do this work as suitable programmes would need to be selected, items reviewed, and the text written out before that work would be done in the class. It is recommended to do this for the sake of variety.
References to TG4 programmes as resources which would be used in the class in a small number of the teaching plans and it would be very worthwhile extending those references to the other plans. In the case of the transition year plan those references were limited to ‘Seachtain na Gaeilge’. More than any other year, the transition year plan is recommended as a place where the use of television programmes in Irish could be advanced. Little can be implemented effectively, however, where only two class periods per week are available.
References to ICT should be registered in the plans also when a decision has been taken in that respect. A plan to that effect should be submitted to the principal before the start of the school, year so that computing devices would be available in one of the computer rooms when required. The language laboratory could be involved as a room which would be used more initially to develop ICT resources and to then make the resources available for the teaching of all languages.
Six classes were observed during the inspection. Two of those were mixed ability classes, two others were ordinary level classes and the remaining two were higher level classes. Appropriate short-term preparation was done for those classes and the teaching was diligent in all classes. A good atmosphere between teachers and students was detected in the large majority of those classes. Even in the case where very limited progress was being made with the aim of the lesson the students showed patience and attention to the lesson.
In the majority of those classes the teachers succeeded in implementing effectively with the students the material set out in advance. Where that did not happen it related to the subject being for the most part too challenging for the ability level of the class, something which is not difficult to rectify. In another case it related to a lack of clarity from the outset about the aim of the lesson and that work not being correctly measured to be implemented within the forty minutes. In such a case a fundamental review should be made on the preparation and reflection on the amount students can understand instead of presenting it at an adult level.
It is recommended that the Irish department and school management consider establishing a support and advice service from among the subject teachers as a guide for newly-appointed teachers or substitutes. That service would aim to review that teacher’s class practice occasionally and provide guidance regarding best practice. It would be worth considering invitations to lessons of well-experienced teachers as part of such a support service.
The aim of the lesson was presented at the beginning in most of the classes and information sheets and photocopies were prepared as support for learning in many of them. The material being practised with the classes in the junior cycle was very appropriate for that age group. The Christmas theme was involved and samples of student work in designing Irish-language Christmas cards were on display on the walls in one class. There was variety in the class work of one of these in particular – between group work and individual work with the teacher. For more variety students were asked to come to the white board and participate in a class game. The students answered enthusiastically to a ‘blockbuster’ game started with them and which presented an appropriate vocabulary challenge to them. They were praised for their efforts.
The teachers had an extremely natural, gentle manner with the classes in the junior cycle which encouraged some of them to take an active part in the lessons. One case was more successful in encouraging the students to do this. The active learning succeeded in that case and the students were encouraged to take a greater part in the class by the word game in progress and by the lively efforts of the teacher to encourage the students to talk. Students were also asked to read out their own poems about Christmas, which they did with pride. A word maze and a simple thematic poem about Christmas were in use with another class.
In one case students were asked to read out a verse of the Christmas poem. The standard of pronunciation was very weak in both cases and only a small amount of it was corrected – a wise move due to the amount of errors involved. The students’ efforts were praised. That meant however that a large amount of that reading was very faulty and that no example of correct pronunciation was being presented to the students. It is recommended stopping asking students to read aloud once it is noticed that the students have significant difficulties with it. It would be better to choose a simpler poem or to read a verse of the poem for them and then to practise them as a group initially before asking any student to read aloud.
Regarding conversation, a small amount was practised in all classes in the junior cycle. It was clear that the students had great difficulties with the questions in some of those classes – even though those questions were appropriate to the level of Irish. In that case the only option is to practise more frequently at a more basic level. When a question was asked in the present tense, for example, “An dtagann Daidí na Nollag go dtí do theachsa?”, [“Does Santa Claus come to your house”] an answer was given in the past tense with another verb “Bhí’ [“He was”]. Such errors are curable and a teacher or student should not be discouraged by such an answer, especially when a young student is involved.
In the senior cycle classes the approach of two teachers showed great order and structure. The material related to the literature course in each of these classes. It was clear that the teachers already had experience of teaching this material and of simplifying that work in order to explain it to the students. It was clear that those teachers had one eye on the examination papers while explaining the subject. In one case of these classes the poem ‘An Chéad Dráma’ by Seán Ó Coistealbha was studied, a poem dealing with the transience of life which was very topical since the poet had died only a few short days beforehand. There was topical material in the media for reference.
In another case far too much background information was being given in an attempt to place a poem in its proper historical context. As a result the students were swamped with information on the historical background and barely understood the subject of the poem itself.
The teachers spoke Irish to the students throughout with greater reward achieved in the higher level classes as shown by the degree of understanding among the students. In the inspector’s attempts with various classes and from listening to the efforts of the teachers themselves the students had difficulty expressing themselves orally in the language. It was ascertained that few went to summer college in the Gaeltacht even though efforts were ongoing in the school to encourage students and to fund part-scholarships. Therefore it is recommended that the speaking of Irish should be placed more centrally in the work done with students from their first day in secondary school and not to rely on the textbooks until there is a solid foundation in spoken language acquisition.
Taking the school context into account the teachers’ efforts in general were to be greatly commended for their attempts to present Irish courses – in an exciting manner for the most part – as courses that were achievable and worthwhile. The copybook work was good for the most part as regards the students’ efforts and the teachers’ recognition of that work. The amount of work provided by the teachers in the higher level classes in the senior cycle was highly commended regarding its worth as a help to the students with various aspects of the examination papers.
Students’ work is assessed after the topic units as laid out in the subject plan have been completed in class. Regular assessment is involved. That assessment is of written work. Formal in-house exams are arranged twice a year as well as mock certificate examinations in the spring. Written reports are sent home to parents in the case of those in-house exams. Parents have the opportunity to meet teachers by appointment at any time during the year in addition to the parent-teacher meetings. All these arrangements are satisfactory.
The Irish teachers had comprehensive experience of correcting the certificate examination papers as well as experience as examiners at the Leaving Certificate oral exams. It was clear that that experience was being put to the students’ advantage in the best way to prepare for those exams.
The speaking of Irish is not included as an essential aspect of the in-house examinations. It would be worth initiating this in order to give recognition to this integral aspect of language acquisition. It is not necessary to have formal oral exams for this as long as it is explained clearly to the students from the outset that a certain proportion of marks will be awarded for efforts in the class to speak Irish. This approach would be in keeping with the recommendation made already to place the speaking of Irish more centrally in class work, especially starting out in first year.
An accurate record is kept of the students’ achievements in in-house and certificate examinations – a post holder duty. An analysis of achievements in the various subjects is submitted to all subject departments, the principal and the Board of Management. A copy of the same is provided for the school Trustees. Parents are contacted when there is cause for concern regarding in-house examinations. From the amount of analysis done by her, and provided during the inspection, the principal affirmed her esteem for the efforts of the Irish teachers to achieve the best results for all students in the certificate examinations in the subject according to their abilities. The statistics support this assessment.
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 were held with the teachers of Irish and with the Principal at the conclusion of the evaluation when the draft findings and recommendations of the evaluation were presented and discussed.
Submitted by the Board of Management
Area 1: Observations on the content of the inspection report
In welcoming this subject inspection on Gaeilge the Board of Management notes the co-operation of school management and staff in moving Christmas exams, the Carol Service and arranging changes to the 6th year timetable so as to accommodate the visit. The Board is pleased that the report acknowledges the excellent work and commitment of the Irish teachers and the positive attitude there is towards Irish in Mercy College.
Area 2: Follow-up actions planned or undertaken since the completion of the inspection activity to implement the findings and recommendations of the inspection
A review of the number of periods for Transition Year Irish is currently taking place, with changes planned for 2007/08. It is also intended to provide a room, on a trial basis, for the specific teaching of Irish.