An Roinn Oideachais agus Eolaíochta
Department of Education and Science
Subject Inspection of English
St Mary’s Secondary School
Glasnevin, Dublin 9
Roll number: 60770P
Date of inspection: 3, 4 March 2008
Report on the Quality of Learning and Teaching in English
This report has been written following a subject inspection in St Mary’s Secondary School, Glasnevin. 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, deputy 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 Mary’s Secondary School, Glasnevin offers English in the Leaving Certificate (LC), Transition Year (TY) and Junior Certificate (JC) programmes.
Whole school support for the subject is very good across a number of areas and with scope for development in just a few. Allocation of time to English is good in the senior cycle: five lessons are provided in each year of the LC programme with a lesson on each day of the week. There are three lessons in the Transition Year but Film Studies is a complementary area of the programme. Allocation is less than ideal in the junior cycle with just four lessons in each year for most classes. Ideally five lessons should be provided in each year of the junior cycle. However, students in the lowest streams in second and third year have five lessons. It is reported that the current provision is to change and that the school is now considering providing an additional lesson for all classes in second and third year starting in the academic year 2008/09. Distribution of lessons in the junior cycle is good in most cases. However, it is unsatisfactory in the case of a couple of classes where there are two separate lessons on one day and none on two consecutive days. Frequent contact with English is necessary to improve skills. It is also noted that two class groups in first year have two of their four lessons per week during the second last period on one day, and the last on another. This is the time when all students are likely to be very tired and particularly so, given their age group and the fact that they are in a challenging time of transition. Management is aware of distribution issues and it is understood that these matters will be considered in future timetabling.
A combination of banding, setting and mixed ability is used in the school. First years and Transition Year students are assigned to mixed-ability classes. All other year groups are allocated to higher-level or ordinary-level groups within bands. Mixed-ability setting was implemented for the first time in first year in 2007/08 and was facilitated through the school’s engagement with the School Development Planning Initiative (SDPI). St Mary’s is highly commended for this innovation. To support staff, whole-school training was provided in the area of mixed-ability teaching. The school should now consider maintaining mixed-ability setting throughout the junior cycle in English, as far as is practicable, while providing whatever supplementary teaching might be necessary to support students at the lower end of the ability spectrum. This could be achieved since the school already has established team teaching in the lowest streams. If this is not considered possible by the school, the allocation of students to higher-level and ordinary-level classes should be deferred for as long as possible in the junior cycle, or at least, if deemed necessary, until third year. There is very little timetabling concurrency at present except for four of the sixth year groups. It is understood that lessons are to be timetabled concurrently from 2007/08 facilitating not only a greater degree of movement but also affording teachers the opportunity to take advantage of team-teaching strategies and shared learning between class groups.
It is very commendable that St Mary’s encourages as many students as possible to take higher-level English. Uptake is good on the whole. Examination outcomes are very good for all levels of ability and this represents considerable work and dedication on the part of students and teachers. Of particular note is the success of ordinary-level students in the Junior Certificate and the evidence points to very effective teaching. The school is highly commended in this regard. However, it may be possible that some students are over-achieving at ordinary level, and that some at least of these students could be taking higher-level English. The introduction of mixed-ability setting may have the effect of increasing higher-level uptake and the department should monitor this on an ongoing basis.
There is a very good level of professionalism among the teachers of English and the school is congratulated on the building of an enthusiastic, reflective, competent and well-qualified team in the subject area. To deepen expertise, and consolidate good practice, management has facilitated continuous professional development (CPD) for the whole staff in areas such as the transition from primary to post-primary school, the inclusive classroom and active methodologies in mixed-ability teaching. The English department has, over time, engaged in a variety of CPD courses.
Resources for English are excellent and this is largely due to the dynamic efforts of the English department over a number of years. Through its own fund-raising activities, the English department was able to establish a fully equipped cinema for the school that can accommodate sixty to seventy students. A good range of film resources has been collected so far. The room can be booked and English teachers have priority. The cinema has a data projector and a flip chart to facilitate lessons. The school has been invited to participate in a pilot project to develop a film studies course. There is also a well-equipped English-teaching room that has its own computer.
Information and communications technology (ICT) resources are very good. The department has access to a room with an interactive whiteboard, which also contains a data projector and audio-visual equipment. The computer room has space for thirty students. The computer room can be booked. There are also ICT resources in the staffroom. Training is provided by in-house staff and it is reported that teachers are supported with regard to ICT training.
The school receives very good support from the trustees. Among the practical services that are provided, a retired sister takes responsibility for the well-organised and well-stocked spacious library that is regularly used by students. All first years are introduced to the library. Book reviews are also displayed in classrooms. The English department encourages reading in a variety of ways.
In addition to the above resources, a good collection of supplementary materials has been assembled in the extensive range of planning folders and in the electronic folder.
There is very good liaison, both formal and informal, between the English teachers and the learning-support and language-support departments. The learning-support department has a well-qualified team with a good level of experience. A variety of resources have been developed in the area of learning support. The learning-support department disseminates information to all staff, for example, on dyslexia. The team also liaises regarding the needs of individual students. The school receives assistance from the trustees in the area of learning support and courses are provided from time-to-time for all trustee schools. St Mary’s, Glasnevin is in the course of developing staff in the area of language support at present. The language-support department is building its own resources.
The English department is highly commended for its commitment to the promotion of co-curricular and extra-curricular activities. Teachers generously give their time to the school and students can experience the richness of English in a variety of non-classroom settings. There is a consciousness of meeting students’ needs in a changing context and first and second years have a film club after school: the teacher shows the students a film and afterwards, they discuss it. This is proving very popular. During the course of the evaluation, fifth-year students were planning to attend a workshop in the Irish Film Institute. TY students produce and perform in dramas and musicals. It has been a tradition of the English department to take groups on theatre visits and this includes a trip to Stratford-Upon-Avon where they can participate in theatre workshops and backstage tours in addition to viewing a Shakespearean play. The Halloween short story competition is designed to promote an interest in creative writing. To make the experience more enjoyable, a “Ghost Chamber” was created and students read out their stories and poems in the appropriate atmosphere. There is also a Christmas card and letter to Santa competition. Students are encouraged to participate in outside agency competitions. Outside speakers are invited to the school and there have been creative writing workshops. Senior students have attended lectures organised by the English department in Trinity College Dublin. There was also a trip to the Draíocht theatre in Blanchardstown to meet the author William Nicholson (novelist, playwright and screenwriter for the film, Gladiator). There are also good cross-curricular links for project work.
A planning culture has been well embedded in the English department for a number of years preceding the school’s engagement with SDPI. Exemplary practice in the area of collaborative planning was observed. All aspects of planning are characterised by reflective practice. There is a co-ordinator in place. The department meets on a very regular basis: there are formal meetings about eight times per year in addition to frequent informal meetings. This level of commitment is highly commended.
There is a good level of cooperation in the area of assessment and choice of texts. Planning for the integration of ICT into the teaching and learning of English has taken place and the team is highly commended in this regard. The department has a shared folder for resources on the school’s system and a good range of ICT resources have been assembled. These are augmented by individual teachers on an ongoing basis. In addition, ICT is currently being integrated into the teaching and learning of English. Teacher use is particularly good. Students are also encouraged to use ICT: they are given addresses of suitable websites in some cases; they use ICT for their own presentations and are encouraged to use the internet for research. This is very positive and student use of ICT should be encouraged as far as is practicable in every year group. The good practice referred to in relation to a web-based collaborative writing project (see below) could be introduced on a whole-school level. There are plans to develop an English page on the school’s website and this is a very promising development.
The Transition Year programme offers students a variety of learning experiences in keeping with the spirit of the TY. A modular approach is adopted. Among the modules are creative writing, the novel, poetry (with a focus on women’s voices), and drama. Particularly commended is the writing module. The team is planning to review the programme as it is felt that not all modules are working effectively.
As there are a number of student teachers in the school each year, a policy outlining the roles of the student teachers and their monitoring teachers would be very useful for the department.
The quality of planning for individual lessons was of a very high order in almost all cases and excellent practice was noted in many lessons. Individual teachers presented lesson plans to the inspector and these indicated a very thoughtful approach to teaching and learning. The range of resources prepared was imaginative and there was a distinct focus on the needs of students and on the different ways that students learn.
A range of stimulating topics were explored in the classes visited. Themes included poetry, fiction, film studies and writing. The material chosen was intended to engage students’ interest. One lesson observed was built around a pre-planned visit to the Irish Film Institute and content was designed to ensure that students were equipped with the appropriate skill set to make the visit a meaningful learning experience. This represents excellent practice.
The lesson objectives were clearly communicated. Particularly commended is a lesson in which the learning intention was announced to students at the start of the lesson in an easily accessible register and the intention was also written on the board. In all cases, the themes and material chosen were appropriate to programme, year group and level. Certificate examination classes were involved in a revision programme. The delivery of lessons was conscientious in all cases. The pace of lessons was appropriate in almost all cases. In almost all lessons, great effort and imagination were invested in a variety of strategies to help students learn. In a very small minority of cases, pace and planning need to be reviewed as the pace was too slow, the strategies used were very limited and the material insufficient so that students were not fully engaged or stimulated for the duration of the lesson. The closing stages of the lessons were focused on the allocation of homework and the flagging of material for the succeeding lesson. In general, more emphasis could be placed on the closing stages of the lesson to reinforce the concepts or skills taught and to afford an opportunity for useful feedback.
The deployment of resources to assist learning was very effective in almost all cases. In most of the lessons observed the board was used well and for a variety of purposes such as recording homework, students’ ideas, graphic organisers such as a T-chart and spidergram and new words. A flip chart complemented film work and was used to record and organise information. Well chosen worksheets, pictures and handouts were used to help students explore aspects of the text being discussed, to help students organise information and to reinforce the learning intention. A good PowerPoint presentation had also been prepared.
Very good practice was observed in a lesson aimed at a weak-ability group. The pace of the lesson was very appropriate. Activities and resources were sufficiently varied to ensure that students did not lose concentration. Students with different learning styles were taken into account: there was good use of visual material and students also were involved in individual and whole-class activities. Team teaching was used effectively. The lesson was student centred and the needs of the individual student were well met. There was a focus on speaking, writing and reading in the lesson. This good practice is highly commended. The designated English room was particularly conducive to learning as students were surrounded by attractive materials, books and posters.
Critical thinking was encouraged in many lessons. For example, students were asked to find evidence to support their point of view. In a very small minority of cases, students were told where to find the evidence and to underline it. Answers were dictated in a very small minority of cases. These practices should be avoided. It is recommended that teaching strategies in all lessons be designed to ensure that students become independent learners and thinkers and that syllabus aims and objectives are met.
Personal responses were elicited and this is laudable since it encourages students to develop expressive competence: for example, students were asked if they liked a new poem that they were reading. To consolidate this good practice, it is recommended that students be given more time to formulate and express their responses as some students might find this more of a challenge than others. One lesson specifically had as its objective, the promotion of a positive attitude to poetry and this is highly commended. To ensure the achievement of this objective, practical strategies appropriate to age and level should be designed to help students develop their own unique taste, to validate their choices and to encourage critical thinking. The keeping of a personal response journal is one such step that could be implemented in all lessons. Another is the maintenance of a personal anthology. Links with song and music could also be explored further.
Students are given opportunities to practise writing skills. In a lesson observed, students learned the craft of writing, were provided with excellent stimulus materials that provided opportunities for creative modelling, and were equipped with very helpful guidelines to make their writing more interesting. The tasks were relevant to the lesson and students were offered choices in their learning. It is reported that some junior cycle students were involved in a collaborative writing project between three schools a few years ago and this met with considerable enthusiasm and interest. The story line was developed in cooperation with other schools within certain guidelines and parameters and a website was developed around the story. There is an emphasis on the writing of short comprehension-type answers and on summaries and these are useful in consolidating knowledge of texts. To build on existing good practice, the department should share ideas on the teaching of writing. The ways in which some students are currently being challenged to write imaginatively should be shared in order to disseminate the good practices that exist. Feedback in copybooks provided opportunities to draw attention to the mechanics of language such as spelling and grammatical correctness and this is commended. The integration of language and literature should provide opportunities to teach accurate writing in context. The promotion of writing through participation in competitions mentioned above is an excellent way of encouraging writing for an audience.
The development of students’ receptivity to language was a focus in some lessons and very good practice was observed. Vocabulary development was emphasised in some lessons. Extension activities should be built around this. The quality of students’ expressive language was of a very high order in some classes visited. The articulate and confident nature of student responses, in one case in a junior cycle mixed-ability group, deserves particular commendation. In this same group, a keen interest in creative writing had been nurtured. In another example, older students were asked to read aloud and this was useful in developing confidence. It was noted that students, some of whom were in the weaker ability range, were very competent in their oral reading and this is commended. It is particularly commendable that students are provided with opportunities to develop oral communication skills through the making of presentations in class. In some lessons, students demonstrated an easy familiarity with key technical terms.
There was a good balance between student and teacher activity it almost all lessons. Students were involved in collaborative learning through pair work. Students also worked independently, either reading, writing, brain-storming or answering questions. In a minority of cases, there was a tendency “to tell” rather than to ask students, or to ask closed or leading questions to which only one answer was possible. Students were made aware that this was the “right” answer. This is understandable due to the pressure of lesson time and the desire to achieve the learning intention as efficiently as possible. However, it is a tendency that should be guarded against as it does not promote independent thinking and learning.
Questioning strategies were varied according to purpose. There was intense questioning of an exploratory nature to test students’ understanding and to reinforce learning. Questioning was also used for revision purposes: students were asked to find examples from the text they were reading and this gave the teacher useful feedback while confirming or clarifying students’ knowledge, depending on the quality of response given. Particularly commended was the type of question that encouraged students to listen to the language of poetry. In the best cases, questions were tiered to develop both lower-order and higher-order skills. Excellent practice was noted in a lesson where students of all abilities were challenged by questions and were spurred to investigate, to draw on their own resources and to reflect. In most cases, a balance was maintained between questions addressed to the class as a whole and questions targeted at individual students. However, in many cases there is scope for development in the area of questioning strategy. It is recommended that questioning technique be reviewed to ensure that all students are included in questioning as this will help to prevent the passive but unobtrusive students from disengaging. Secondly, students need to be given sufficient time to answer questions. Thirdly, questions should be sufficiently tiered to ensure that higher-order skills are developed, particularly in the area of analysis and synthesis. The team might find it useful to consult Bloom’s Taxonomy in this regard. Other questioning strategies should be explored. The team might find it useful to look at Learning Anew: Final Report of the Research and Development Project (2007), that was based on the initiative Teaching and Learning for the 21st Century, co-ordinated by the National University of Ireland Maynooth (www.nuim.ie), in this regard. The sharing of good practice would also be most useful.
Students responded with considerable interest and were stimulated and responsive in lessons where there was strong evidence of good preparation and enthusiastic and energetic teaching. Many students encountered during the evaluation were very articulate and confident in the expression of views and were able to provide solid evidence to support their views. Copybooks indicate that a substantial body of work has been covered. Students are well prepared for examinations. They were confident in their use of and understanding of terms such as “setting” and “atmosphere” and there was careful exploration and exchange of ideas with regard to these concepts.
Organisational skills are developed in many classes. In lessons observed, students clearly understood that a high standard of presentation and maintenance of copybooks and folders of supplementary materials was expected of them.
In lessons observed, the quality of interaction between students and teachers was very good. Students were taught in an orderly learning environment. High expectations of behaviour, punctuality and attainment were set and met. In almost all classes visited, the teacher moved around the classroom to monitor students’ activity and to actively challenge and engage with students. This very good practice should be extended to all classes. Students learn in a very caring and stimulating environment where the needs of each student are considered paramount.
There is very good practice in the area of assessment. Homework is regularly set in line with the school’s homework policy. Students received good quality feedback in all copybooks observed. Students in all year groups conscientiously enter homework assignments in their student journals. Attention to record keeping is very good.
Summative assessment takes place through in-house examinations, tests and state examinations. Reports are sent home. Common assessment is practised in first, second and fifth year and there is a common marking scheme. This is good practice. Particularly commended is the attention paid to the assessment of a wide variety of skills in the Transition Year. Students are assigned presentations that involve organisational and communication skills and that demand creativity and these form part of their assessment. This is very good practice.
Consideration could be given to comment only marking from time to time in order to focus students’ attention on learning from assessment. The assignment could be graded in the usual way but the grade withheld from the student.
It is important that all students, irrespective of level, are familiar with the discrete criteria used by examiners in the Leaving Certificate examination and these should be used routinely at least in the run up to the examinations if not before. To this end, the English department should consider using one of the meeting times to exchange information on the application of the criteria and to ensure that all teachers are familiar with and confident in their use. The chief examiner’s reports in English would also be a useful resource.
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 and deputy principal at the conclusion of the evaluation when the draft findings and recommendations of the evaluation were presented and discussed.
Published September 2008