St Patrick’s Cathedral Grammar School
St Patrick’s Close, Dublin 8
Roll number: 60660I
This report has been written following a subject inspection in St Patrick’s Cathedral Grammar 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; the board chose to accept the report without response.
St Patrick’s Cathedral Grammar School is a small co-educational school in a historic city-centre location, and is one of the longest-established schools in the country. Most students attending the school are from the city and inner suburbs. The school has always been linked with the cathedral, especially through the cathedral choir, and music continues to be an integral part of school life.
Very good provision for English is made on the timetable. First and third year have a lesson per day, which is the optimal number and distribution, and five lessons are distributed over four days in the case of second, fifth and sixth year. For these groups, English is timetabled on both Monday and Friday; this distribution minimises the gap between lessons and is commended. Students in the compulsory Transition Year (TY) programme have English four times a week, a good allocation.
The English department currently comprises one permanent member of staff whose timetable is largely devoted to English, and a second teacher who is mostly involved in another subject area. Both are qualified and experienced teachers of English. There is one class group in each year. The fifth and sixth year are divided into a higher and an ordinary level group for two English lessons a week, to facilitate work that is specific to the respective syllabuses. The creation of two completely separate class groups is not possible, and school management is commended for arranging the concurrent timetabling of two teachers within the available teaching resource. Apart from this, all classes are taught on the basis of mixed ability and mixed level. Students are encouraged to take English at the highest appropriate level, and the pattern of uptake of higher level English is very good.
Provision for literacy support is good. The school has an ex quota allocation of eleven hours for learning support and this is assigned to a qualified learning support teacher who assists students with general and specific learning difficulties in the areas of literacy and numeracy. There is a dedicated room for learning support and an annual budget is available for the purchase of resources. Students receive support individually or in groups of up to three and, depending on their specific needs, may have a number of support lessons each week. Given the school’s size and the learning support teacher’s background as a teacher of English, it is recommended that models of in-class support for students with literacy difficulties be researched and considered. Commendably, the school employs a teacher with a language background to support students learning English as an additional language (EAL). In this case also, the possibility of offering some in-class support to these students should be explored.
Classrooms are teacher-based, and the classroom assigned to the main teacher of English is regarded as the base room for the subject. It has been developed as a print-rich and visually stimulating learning environment, with lively displays of students’ work, and attractive material including a ‘poem of the week’ space. The room is spacious and it is suggested that some thought be given to how the available space might best be used for drama activities. Enabling the students readily to perform key scenes and to experiment with different interpretations of scenes would add a further dimension to the active teaching and learning approaches observed.
English is well resourced, and school management has been active in sourcing audiovisual equipment and information and communication technology (ICT). A data projector is to be fixed permanently in the English base room, and this will assist the teaching and learning of important aspects of the English syllabuses, including film, media studies and visual literacy. Great efforts have been made to promote private reading for pleasure. The school library is housed in a listed building and this restricts its use somewhat. However, class lending libraries have been developed, and books are prominently displayed in the English classroom to stimulate students’ interest. The Irish branch of the School Library Association would be a useful source of ideas, and may be accessed at www.slari.ie.
School management and the English department are committed to continuing professional development and to assisting student teachers. A student teacher is taking some junior cycle English and is being mentored supportively within the English department. Teachers of English and the learning support teacher have been regular participants at in-service offered by the Department of Education and Skills and by their subject associations. Contact details for the recently-formed Irish National Organisation for Teachers of English (www.inote.ie) were given to the English department during the evaluation.
The school takes full advantage of its location to organise visits to the theatre, cinema, galleries and museums and to places with cultural and literary links. The English department offers students the opportunity to develop debating skills through an after-school debating society, and student writing is fostered through school magazines and participation in national competitions. These activities are commended.
Good planning practices were evident in the English department. These practices have been developed in the context of their being one permanent teacher of English who acts as co-ordinator and draws up the yearly plans for the subject. Plans are shared with teachers joining the department on a temporary basis, thus supporting cohesion and continuity in the delivery of the subject. Good collaboration and regular informal meetings are facilitated by the size of the school and by the open and co-operative approach that was observed during the evaluation.
The planned programmes for English are solidly based on the relevant syllabuses. The junior cycle programme designed for English takes full advantage of the open syllabus to provide a rich encounter with various literary genres in each year. This is highly commended. The TY programme for English is imaginative and stimulating, and provides very good opportunities for the development of independent learning. Material chosen from the prescribed lists for Leaving Certificate is appropriate to the student cohort and provides a balance of challenge and accessibility. An integrated approach to the study of language and literature has been taken in all English programme planning. Possibilities for cross-curricular learning have also been well exploited in the planned programmes. The teaching and learning practices observed clearly emphasised the acquisition and development of a range of skills. It is therefore suggested that, in further developing the written plans for English, the desired learning outcomes be clearly stated in terms of the skills and knowledge to be acquired. These can then be linked in a practical way with appropriate teaching and learning methods, and also with forms of assessment. This approach would further support the reflective and flexible attitude demonstrated in the department’s planning documents.
A high level of individual planning and preparation, which complemented the subject plans and supported collaborative work, was evident. In planning for teaching and learning resources, teachers could consider developing further the planned use of suitable visual and audio resources, which would benefit EAL students.
A planned approach is taken to the delivery of literacy support to students. Students are assessed early in first year using standardised tests, and individual plans are drawn up to support the learning needs of identified students. Information with regard to students’ preferred learning styles and the approaches that are likely to be most effective is shared with subject teachers. As withdrawal in small groups or on a one-to-one basis is the main support mechanism used, it is recommended that subject departments and the learning support department consider more integrated forms of support as part of their medium-term planning. The Department’s Post-primary guidelines on the inclusion of students with special educational needs should be consulted to inform developmental planning in this area.
Four lessons were observed during the evaluation, two in the junior cycle and two in the senior cycle. Lesson topics included prescribed poetry, reading comprehension and answering skills in senior cycle lessons, and reading and writing skills and the study of drama in the junior cycle lessons. The teaching observed was of a very competent standard, and was characterised by a confidence that led to open and engaging classroom interaction. It was notable, for example, that teachers were prepared to give honest personal responses themselves, and approached the various texts and topics in a refreshingly direct way that encouraged students to express their own views. The teaching and learning methods observed encouraged students to participate and take responsibility for their own learning. Students were generally very responsive and willing to participate and to voice opinions. A supportive and productive classroom atmosphere prevailed.
Good lesson planning ensured that a substantial amount of material was covered in each lesson. Lesson pace varied to suit the context and was generally brisk and purposeful. Where appropriate however, teachers should increase pace and tighten structure to maintain a desirable level of challenge, especially for younger junior cycle students. Different stages of the learning activity – for example pre-reading and re-reading – were well managed so that students were aware that they were making progress through the topic. All the lessons observed concluded with a review and consolidation of learning. This good practice contributed to a sense of purpose and progression. Preparation for homework assignments was integrated into lessons, further evidence of good lesson planning.
Teaching and learning activities had a commendable emphasis on the development of the key skills of speaking, listening, reading and writing. Good pre-reading activities were used in a junior cycle lesson on Bram Stoker’s work, where questioning elicited students’ existing knowledge of the topic and points were noted in spidergram form on the board. Students copied the spidergram and had an opportunity to assimilate key vocabulary and concepts. They then read and listened with marked attention. However, post-reading comprehension work should extend beyond the textbook’s information retrieval questions and should encourage students to develop their note-taking and analytical skills. Reading was used as a stimulus to students’ own creative writing, and this approach could be fruitfully extended to include forms of non-fiction writing.
Leaving Certificate students working on the comprehending section of a past examination paper had an opportunity to develop higher-order skills of prediction and inference in the initial discussion of a text, and this approach led to more substantial responses to the actual questions on the paper. In another senior cycle lesson, a very good approach was taken to a challenging poem, which involved pre-reading and a number of readings. The use of paraphrase was kept to a minimum and students instead traced the theme of the poem by identifying key words and phrases related to the title. This was observed to be a successful enabling strategy, and students enjoyed developing their understanding of the poem.
Junior cycle students study Shakespeare, and a lesson on Romeo and Juliet was among those observed. Students read the parts aloud and were competent and confident in handling the language. Minimal intervention by the teacher ensured that a good pace was maintained. Any comment generally preceded the reading of a speech so that students’ attention was focused on significant points. Students freely expressed a range of views on characters and actions, and on their own response to the unfolding drama. It is suggested that, in order to emphasise performance and interpretation as central to drama, students regularly act out certain scenes or key moments, taking on directing and performing roles. The use of audio recordings can also greatly enhance students’ grasp of the play as performance and could be readily incorporated into current approaches.
Teachers engaged in skilful questioning for a range of purposes, from checking basic recall to using follow-on questions that challenged students towards more substantial responses. Targeted questioning was used to include all students in class discussion and was differentiated appropriately. Both teachers and students demonstrated understanding of the difference between the factual quiz-type question, and the more searching question requiring a considered response. Teachers modelled responses to higher-order questions very effectively, and encouraged students to express, listen to and engage with a range of responses. This area was a considerable strength of the classroom practice observed.
In classroom interactions and activities, and in responding to the inspector, students demonstrated a good level of knowledge and relevant skills, and some very accomplished work and perceptive comments were noted during the evaluation. A pleasing emphasis is placed on students’ organisation for learning, with good use of the student journal and of hardback copies in which finished work is stored and can be readily accessed for revision. Expectations are appropriately high, and students in general achieve very creditable results in the state examinations.
Monitoring of students’ classwork and progress was evident in all the lessons observed. The school has an assessment policy and an English homework policy has been drawn up within this. Where homework was given, it arose from the work of the lesson and was discussed so that the assignment was clear. This approach is set out in the homework policy and is commended.
A review of students’ copies and folders indicated that homework is set regularly and is frequently substantial, including for example the setting of extended compositions, a practice that is to be greatly encouraged. Homework is well monitored, and helpful feedback is given with regard to strengths and areas for development. High standards of work and presentation have been established and are reinforced in teachers’ written comments.
In-house examination papers are appropriate to the syllabus and are challenging and well presented. Very good records of students’ progress and attainment are kept. In addition to the recording of marks and grades, the English department also maintains folders for each year, a practice now in its sixth year. These contain records of individual students’ progress and attainment in English, in-house papers, and also activities including debates, outings and competitions in which individual students or the year group participated. This is an admirable practice, providing a valuable record for teachers and informing their discussions with students and their parents.
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 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 May 2010