An Roinn Oideachais agus Eolaíochta
Department of Education and Science
Subject Inspection of English
Mercy Heights Secondary School
Skibbereen, County Cork
Roll number: 62490T
Date of inspection: 12 March 2008
Report on the Quality of Learning and Teaching in English
This report has been written following a subject inspection in Mercy Heights Secondary 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 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 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.
Mercy Heights is an all-girls’ school. Classes in first year have four lessons of English per week. This is adequate. The school is encouraged to investigate the possibility of expanding the number of English lessons to five lessons per week if possible, within the inevitable limitations of the timetabling process. Such a move would be consistent with the findings of the recent Department of Education and Science (DES) Inspectorate report Looking at English: Teaching and Learning English in Post-Primary Schools regarding optimal provision of lessons for English in junior cycle classes. In the case of two first-year classes, the English course is taught to each class by two different teachers. Evidence that teachers had planned diligently to cater for this situation was furnished during the evaluation and this is commendable. It is also accepted that this arrangement was due to current timetabling constraints. Nevertheless, such a situation should be avoided in future, if at all practicable. There are five English lessons per week for classes in second year and in third year. This is good provision. Second-year classes have a double English lesson on Tuesdays with no English lessons on a Friday, while this situation is replicated for third year classes on a Wednesday and a Friday respectively. The school is encouraged to facilitate the scheduling of English lessons on each day of the week in future in order to ensure that class contact with the subject is spread evenly across each day of the week, if possible. Transition Year (TY) classes have four English lessons per week. This is good provision. There are six English lessons for fifth-year and sixth-year classes each week. This is very good provision. Overall, the subject is well provided for on the school timetable. English lessons are timetabled concurrently in all year groups aside from first year. This is good practice and to be commended, allowing for ease of movement between classes and levels where this is necessary. English classes retain their teacher from second year to third year and from fifth year to sixth year. This is good practice.
English classes in first year and in second year are of mixed ability. Higher level and ordinary level English classes are set in third year based on students’ examination results, teachers’ evaluations of students’ achievement and students’ own input regarding the level they wish to attempt. Students are advised regarding which level they should attempt but, ultimately, this is their own decision. There is also a formal process through which students may change levels if they wish to do so. The current practice of maintaining mixed-ability classes for as long as possible in junior cycle is worthwhile. Classes in senior cycle are set, with students allocated to classes on the same criteria as are utilised in third year. Students’ performances in TY may also be factored into this decision. Again, students are advised regarding which level they should attempt, but are free to make their own choices. Students with literacy difficulties are identified through information provided by their primary schools, along with screening tests conducted in the term prior to their joining the school in first year. Teacher observation is also important in this process. There is rotation of English teachers between levels and cycles. This is good practice.
Until recently, the school had a library, but due to a move to temporary accommodation this could not be continued. However, the school has been proactive in addressing this issue and has created a small library space from which library services can be facilitated. Senior management is to be commended for this allocation of space within limited physical resources. The library area is currently being stocked, updated and catalogued. A post of responsibility has been created to update and enhance the use of the facility. The library area is viewed as an important part of the school to support research and the borrowing of reading material. The school also maintains links with the town library, which is worthwhile. The English department hopes to organise regular library lessons in the future, to support students’ engagement with literature and literacy. Further ideas which might be explored include the use of book boxes, Drop Everything and Read (DEAR) time and the selection of an eclectic mix of magazines and other material to encourage reluctant readers. A useful resource to aid the selection of books for the library can be found at www.childrensbooksireland.com. Other useful ideas can be accessed at www.jcspliteracy.ie which contains an interesting report on the Junior Certificate School Programme’s Demonstration Library Project, along with reading initiatives which worked well in conjunction with this. A mentoring programme for first-year students has recently been established. During the evaluation the possibility of a paired-reading programme being organised to form an element of this programme was highlighted by staff. This initiative is to be encouraged.
English classes have good access to audio-visual resources. There are numerous televisions and DVD or video players located in class baserooms, along with a number of mobile audio-visual units. This is positive. While English teachers do not have baserooms, the department has made provision for the storing of English resources in a specified location and DVDs which are pertinent to the teaching of English are also kept in a set location. In addition, a drama store is maintained which contains props and costumes to aid the school’s impressive tradition of dramatic productions. All of this is worthwhile and suggestive of the active and engaged approach the English department brings to the teaching of the subject. There is a list of resources for the teaching of English in the subject plan and it is suggested that this could be further developed as a complete inventory of the different titles which are available to teachers.
A whole-school review of the use of information and communications technology (ICT) in the classroom has recently been completed. This consisted of a staff survey and, on the basis of the findings, ICT provision will be further developed. The school has requested that ICT training be made available from the Cork Education Centre. This initiative is to be strongly praised. A computer room is available for booking, along with a mobile data projector. There is also a computer in the staffroom to aid teachers’ preparation for classes. At present, use of ICT for the teaching of English varies across the department. ICT is used regularly in literacy-support classes and recent in-service training on ICT and literacy support has been accessed by the education support team. It is used by English teachers as a resource for research purposes and to access classroom materials. This is positive. The English department is encouraged to grasp further opportunities for the use of ICT as they become available in the school. The constraints of current resources must, of course, be acknowledged in making this point. Useful ideas in this area might include webquests, a compilation of ‘favourite’ English websites on the school’s network and the expanded use of the mobile data projector.
An induction pack has been developed for teachers who are new to the school and a post-holder is assigned to facilitate the new teachers’ induction. This is worthwhile. It is suggested that induction procedures for the subject could be, briefly, set down in the subject plan. The inclusion of items such as teacher observation would be very beneficial as a means of maintaining and consolidating the very good practice which was evident during the course of the evaluation.
Whole-staff in-service training on co-operative learning has been provided by the Second Level Support Service (SLSS). The English department has focused on developing this area of its practice and has sought further input from the SLSS on the topic. This embedding of in-service training into the department’s and individual teachers’ practice is to be highly commended. English teachers have engaged in continuing professional development (CPD) on a range of topics over the last number of years, including special educational needs, English as a Second Language, school development planning and public speaking. In addition, a number of relevant postgraduate qualifications have also been attained in the department. The department also maintains links with its subject association. These are to be encouraged and the school is praised for its commitment to paying teachers’ subscriptions to their subject association. Teachers’ continuing efforts in the area of CPD are to be strongly commended.
While there is no subject co-ordinator for English at present, the English department has identified this as an area which should be addressed. This is positive and it is recommended that a subject co-ordinator should be appointed, with the duties attached to this position being briefly set down in the subject plan. It is suggested that the role could be allocated on a rotational basis, thus allowing for the development of leadership experience across the department. A formal subject departmental meeting is held at the beginning of the school year and a number of other formal meetings are organised over the course of the year. In addition, a number of informal meetings are organised. These arrangements are worthwhile. Minutes are kept of formal meetings. The recent focus of these meetings has been on subject planning, links with the special educational needs department, teaching methodologies and co-operative learning. All of these are very appropriate and suggestive of a department which views the continuing development of its professional practice as an important element of its duties. This is highly commendable. It is suggested that the use of ICT as an aid in recording departmental minutes should be considered in the future.
An English subject plan has been developed. Considerable effort has gone into this and the English department’s view of the plan as an evolving document is very appropriate. Of particular note is the plan’s focus on co-operative learning which has arisen from whole-staff professional development delivered by the SLSS in the recent past. The department has focused on adopting co-operative learning methodologies in its own practice and has sought additional input from the SLSS in a subject-specific context. A range of resources and ideas previously provided by the SLSS has been stored by the department in the English subject folder. This harnessing of the subject-planning process to develop the department’s professional expertise is strongly commended. The additional work being undertaken on assessment for learning and differentiated teaching strategies, in connection with recent professional development, is also highlighted as an example of the subject planning process being used to meaningfully impact on teaching and learning in the subject. The sharing of professional development experiences between colleagues should continue to be viewed as a powerful resource in further developing good practice in teaching and learning. A useful addition to the subject-planning process would be the analysis of state examination results versus national norms. The subject folder includes a range of documents relevant to the teaching of English. These include syllabus documents, DES circulars and the Inspectorate publication Looking at English: Teaching and Learning English in Post-Primary Schools. It is suggested that the addition of the primary syllabus and guidelines for the teaching of English would be useful resources to add to the subject folder. Familiarity with these documents could facilitate teachers in aiding students’ transition between primary and post-primary experiences of the subject. These documents can be accessed at www.curriculumonline.ie.
The English department has developed common plans for each year group. This is worthwhile. It is recommended that the current common plans should be further developed to include time-linked, syllabus-based plans with clear learning goals. A useful resource in this regard is the Draft Rebalanced English Syllabus for junior cycle which is available on the website of the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA) at www.ncca.ie. This approach to common planning should prove useful to the organisation of common assessments, while also allowing considerable freedom regarding text choice for individual teachers.
English teachers are involved in organising a range of extracurricular and co-curricular activities which include TY drama, debating and theatre trips. The school is currently involved in the latter stages of a debating competition. During the evaluation, a rehearsal of the TY play was observed. The play has won a national drama competition and is a central feature of the TY English programme, incorporating Shakespearean and contemporary influences. The imagination and dedication of all those involved in creating this singular theatrical experience (not least for the students involved) are simply applauded. The commitment to providing students with as full an experience of the subject as possible through these various activities is strongly praised.
Texts are varied in junior cycle and in senior cycle. This good practice should continue. Currently there are two novels and two plays encountered over the course of students’ junior cycle studies. It is suggested that an additional novel or play could be added to this, particularly given the impressive progress being made in the junior cycle classes observed. Teachers stated that the school’s book scheme is supportive of the purchase of texts for English and that it would be possible to purchase an additional class set of texts. This is positive. A commendable practice is the use of differentiated material to support the study of Shakespeare by ordinary level junior cycle students. The department is conscious of facilitating some synchronicity between the texts studied in senior cycle classes. This is worthwhile and it is suggested that the practice should be set down in the subject plan, particularly with regard to some elements of the ordinary level poetry course and the poetry studied in higher level class groups. The listing of dictionaries in the plan as an essential text for all class groups is sound practice. The appropriate use of a thesaurus on the part of students should also be considered as a useful addition to the plan.
There is a subject-specific TY programme. The programme is engaging and aimed at developing students’ appreciation of the subject. This is positive. A useful resource which should be accessed to aid the further development of the written programme is the document Writing the Transition Year Programme which can be accessed in the resources area of www.transitionyear.ie. This is especially important as a means of consolidating the good practice currently in evidence. A particular strategy which would add to the current programme is the incorporation of a subject-specific English portfolio for written work. This could serve as a ‘centre of excellence’ for students’ written work and as a form of ‘publication’ which would encourage their awareness of the drafting process necessary for effective writing. As mentioned previously, a particular feature of the TY programme is the mounting of a dramatic production, which is deserving of great praise, not least because it is an effective means of enhancing students’ love of the subject and is consistent with the aims of TY in approaching the subject in new and exciting ways.
At the beginning of each year the learning-support co-ordinator provides input to all staff on learning difficulties being experienced by students. There are very good links between the learning-support department and the English department on a formal and an informal basis. An outline of students’ learning difficulties is maintained in the English subject folder. Individual education plans (IEPs) for students, developed by the learning-support department, are also kept in the folder. A number of English teachers have obtained or are pursuing qualifications in the area of special educational needs. This is worthwhile. Currently literacy support is provided through a withdrawal system. It is suggested that the appropriate use of co-operative teaching could be investigated as an additional mode of delivery in the future. This would allow for greater flexibility in the education support system to cater for the needs of particular students. A Special Educational Needs policy is currently being developed. This is worthwhile. Work on this policy should continue, being informed by the recent Inspectorate publication Inclusion of Students with Special Educational Needs: Post-Primary Guidelines.
There are a number of English as an Additional Language (EAL) students in the school. Support in EAL is provided through a combination of withdrawal from mainstream classes and one-to-one teaching outside the normal school timetable. Some of these additional hours are paid for by the school. It is reported that the focus in EAL lessons is on developing students’ subject vocabulary. This is appropriate as a key emphasis in EAL should be the language of instruction. The language of instruction refers to the range of language skills that enable students to access the curriculum, to make progress within it and to take relevant certificate examinations.
A very good standard of teaching and learning was evident during the evaluation. Objectives were clearly set out in all lessons, with teachers frequently explicitly outlining the learning intention for their students. This was good practice and highlighted the commitment in the English department to developing the use of assessment for learning in teachers’ practice. Planning for lessons was presented in all cases.
A wide range of resources was used to support students’ learning in English lessons. These included the whiteboard, photocopied material, costumes and props, flashcards and a set of thesauruses. The use of differentiated material to facilitate engagement with Shakespearean texts in one class was particularly worthwhile, as was the use of a writing frame in another lesson.
Lessons generally began with the taking of the roll and a recapitulation of topics which had previously been covered by the class. This was good practice, allowing students to access new topics through previously gained knowledge and understanding. A particularly strong feature of English lessons was the maintenance of a consistent focus on language. The use of dictionaries and thesauruses as an aid to students’ vocabulary acquisition was most worthwhile. The English department is encouraged to continue to expand the use of such texts. In one instance, where there was a strong focus on language throughout the lesson, it was suggested that greater encouragement of higher-order responses regarding the use of language devices could be achieved through the use of a guided reading exercise, supported by pair work. The English department is to be praised for its strong focus on the language element of the syllabuses in lessons.
Differentiated methodologies and materials were consistent features of English lessons. This is most worthwhile. It is particularly positive in light of the English department’s current focus on co-operative learning strategies. Pair and group work were frequently used in English lessons. Particularly good practice in this area was seen where students were given different roles in their groups, which were planned as a means of building on their own individual strengths. Other strategies observed during the evaluation included students providing and receiving peer support, the use of wordbanks, students working in groups to facilitate prediction exercises and the development of visual materials. In the latter case, the active approach used in developing visual supports connected to characters in a play worked very well, engaging all students in the learning activity. In one lesson the use of a writing frame, to support students’ engagement with written work, was noted as particularly good practice. The provision of some form of ‘scaffolding’ to aid students’ transition from semi-independent to independent work was a regular feature in English lessons and, again, this is to be commended.
Reading and writing were often encouraged and developed during the evaluation. In one lesson the use of a text-completion exercise to develop students’ descriptive writing worked well. Students then read their written exercises and the teacher highlighted the use of particular techniques to the class. This was good practice and could have been added to still more through the incorporation of peer assessment. A further area for consideration is the adoption of selected texts as creative models for students’ subsequent writing both in class and at home. Thus, the use of a specific technique by a writer could be highlighted in class, then utilised by students as a feature in a written assignment, leading to their work, in turn, being discussed and analysed. Thus, the skills of listening, speaking, reading and writing would be integrated to a greater extent. In another lesson the use of a visual approach as an aid in structuring students’ essays was most worthwhile. Along with reading by individual students, the use of prediction exercises and guided reading was also observed. Both of these worked well in engaging students with the texts being studied and should continue to be explored by the department as useful strategies.
There was a good relationship between teachers and students, with good classroom management in all lessons. In a number of instances, teachers’ ability to link topics being explored with areas of students’ own lives and interests worked well. Students answered well when questioned on different aspects of their course work during the year, displaying considerable knowledge of texts studied as well as an awareness of different aspects of language which they encountered. In a number of lessons students’ enthusiasm for the work they were undertaking was clear through their eager engagement in tasks set by their teachers.
A print-rich environment was evident in the school’s corridors, with numerous displays of students’ work and achievements. This is positive. In addition, a print-rich environment was being developed in almost all classrooms. This is praiseworthy, particularly given the limited space in which the school operates and the lack of teacher baserooms. Good practice was observed where students’ work was prominently displayed and keywords were highlighted in connection with a text being studied. The English department is encouraged to continue to develop the print-rich environment in English classrooms where this is at all practicable.
The school is currently engaged in developing the use of assessment for learning on a whole-school basis. This was evident during the evaluation through teachers’ practice during lessons and through their approach to students’ homework. In particular, their commitment to an assessment-for-learning approach was exemplified through the consistent use of comment-based formative assessment in the correction of students’ homework, with some examples of excellent practice in this area. A commitment to assessment for learning was also highlighted in a number of teachers’ lesson plans. Homework was regularly assigned and corrected. In one instance the setting of written assignments of a more significant length at regular intervals was suggested as a point for development. Especially good practice was seen in one lesson where media studies folders had been created by students. These had powerful visual components and were ideal as vehicles for students’ revision. In addition, they focused on ‘real world’ exercises and facilitated differentiated modes of assessment in the class.
There was some evidence of the use of an integrated approach to the language and literature elements of the syllabuses in students’ homework. This was very worthwhile and the English department is encouraged to continue to expand its use of this strategy. In particular, the writing of genre pieces in connection with literature being explored should be widely adopted. This will serve as a useful means of revising key events, while also reinforcing language skills developed in previous lessons. The use of an integrated strategy should be highlighted in the common plans for the subject. These could also, possibly, outline the particular areas of language to be explored in connection with defined sections of the literature course.
Formal house examinations are organised at Christmas and summer. Mock examinations are also scheduled for students who are preparing to participate in the certificate examinations. Common papers are used for the mock examinations and this occasionally occurs in other year groups as well. The English department is encouraged to further expand its use of common examinations which will allow a clear comparison of students’ achievement across their year cohort while also avoiding the needless duplication of work on the part of English teachers. This move should be greatly facilitated through the further development of the common plans highlighted earlier in this report. There is some informal discussion regarding marking practices within the department. This is worthwhile and could be expanded to incorporate occasional moderating of colleagues’ marking practices by teachers as part of the current developments in the area of assessment.
Parents receive reports regarding students’ progress at summer and Christmas. Reports are also provided regarding students’ performance in the mock examinations. Communication between home and school is facilitated through student journals and contact by telephone. Parent-teacher meetings are organised once per year for each year group. In addition, subject teachers are available to be met with by appointment. These arrangements are worthwhile.
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, October 2008