An Roinn Oideachais agus Eolaíochta
Department of Education and Science
Subject Inspection of English
Meán Scoil an Chlochair
Kilbeggan, County Westmeath
Roll number: 63221U
Date of inspection: 21 September 2006
Date of issue of report: 26 April 2007
Report on the Quality of Learning and Teaching in English
This report has been written following a subject inspection in Méan Scoil an Chlochair, (Mercy Secondary School) Kilbeggan. 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.
Méan Scoil an Chlochair (Mercy Secondary School), Kilbeggan, is a co-educational voluntary secondary school which serves a cross section of the local community. The school provides English in the Junior Certificate, Leaving Certificate and Transition Year (TY) programmes. Five lessons are allocated in the junior cycle and senior cycle and these are for the most part evenly distributed over the week. There is one TY English group and two teachers are involved. Five periods are allocated which represents good provision. Classes are timetabled concurrently in second, third, fifth and sixth years and this facilitates movement from one level to another. Opportunities for inter-class activities could be explored to take further advantage of concurrent timetabling. Uptake of higher-level English is good, particularly among the girls. In keeping with national norms, fewer boys take the higher level and, in Mercy Convent, Kilbeggan, the trend is quite pronounced in the senior cycle. This is a matter that should be addressed both within the English department and in a whole-school context since career paths may be determined by choice of level. A targeted approach may be required in order to raise expectations among the boys.
First years are taught in a mixed ability setting, as are the TY students. Other class groups are set and access to levels is determined by a wide variety of criteria. The teaching of Leaving Certificate English is generally confined to three teachers with others supplementing from time to time. The competing demands of other subjects may account for this. However, it is advisable to rotate the teaching of senior English among all the teachers of the subject as far as is practicable in order to expand the pool of expertise available to the department.
English is taught by an experienced and committed team with openness to new ideas and a reflective approach to practice. There is good engagement with continuous professional development (CPD) and members of the teaching team have attended in-service and personal development courses. Teachers of English are therefore well placed to engage in peer-development through the sharing of good practice at English department meetings. Further CPD needs could best be identified within the school’s departmental structure.
There is access to a range of audio-visual equipment and, in general, the subject is taught in teacher based classrooms that allow for the storage of resources. Resources are also shared and a budget is available on a needs basis. Information and communications technology (ICT) facilities and resources are limited. There is one computer in the staff room but the school does have a newly equipped computer room. This facility is in regular use and teachers need to book it in advance. With some exceptions, English classes have not availed of ICT resources, although it is understood that teachers do use it for personal research. There are about ten data projectors located around the school. It is recommended that students that teachers do use it for personal are encouraged to make greater use of ICT, both as a tool in the writing process and for research and a policy on its use should be integrated into the teaching and learning of English in all programmes.
There is a small library (with a very small ante-room) that is well organised and has sufficient space to accommodate small class groups. However, there is no computer and very little space to allow for flexible seating arrangements or tables for project work. The school has allocated a special duties post to its management. The fact that the teacher is shared with another school at some distance poses logistical challenges. Consequently, this post may require review. It is reported that some classes are brought to the library from time to time but there is no consistent or coherent policy on its use. It is open at lunchtime on three days a week. The post holder secured a Writers in Residence Programme for the school through which the author, Maeve Ingoldsby, provided a series of writing workshops in 2005. Recently, a poetry competition was organised for first years. The winning entries are conspicuously displayed on a notice board and this is a good way to celebrate achievement. The school has also engaged with the local town library service and this represents a fruitful area for future development. It may be possible for the library services to provide books on loan to the school. Class libraries could supplement the school library. Class sets of books are available. The range of reading material in classrooms and the library should be regularly updated and should include a range of texts, including magazines and journals that are particularly targeted at reluctant readers in general and at boys in particular. One classroom has a box of books tailored to the needs of students and this represents good practice. In addition to local and county library services, the department might find it useful to consult the Junior Certificate School Programme website through the Second Level Support Service at www.slss.ie.
Students in need of literacy support are identified through liaison with primary schools, entrance tests, further screening tests, referral and psychologists’ reports. The school has a formal written plan and has two learning-support teachers and another currently in training. Six students are in receipt of language support and efforts are made to integrate students into mainstream classes. Small class groups and individual withdrawal are also used for students who are in need of literacy and language support. There is a good level of interaction between the learning support departments and English teachers on an informal basis. It is recommended that formal interaction also take place and that a learning support teacher attend at least one English departmental meeting for the exchange of information and to inform mainstream classroom practice on differentiation, methodologies and resources. Opportunities for team-teaching could also be mutually explored for the advantage of students in need of literacy, language and behaviour support. Since the integration of students who are speakers of other languages is a whole-school issue, as well as being of relevance to the learning and teaching of English, it is recommended that the school contact the Integrate Ireland website at www.iilt.ie for valuable information and materials.
Extra- and co-curricular activities support the teaching and learning of English. Students attend plays that are on the syllabus and avail of the mobile film unit. They also enter the MS Readathon competition. It is reported that students raised funds for books that they donated to the school library and this is highly commended. TY students stage a musical each year.
The school has recently engaged in subject department planning and teachers meet formally about three times a year. Notes are kept and copies are given to the school principal. Teachers have combined individual long-term schemes to form a nuclear subject plan. More work needs to be done, however, and it is recommended that comprehensive subject planning be undertaken to include learning outcomes and key skills, a list of departmental resources and how these can be accessed; methodologies; differentiation strategies; subject specific policies in relation to homework, presentation of work, maintenance of folders and assessment. The plan could also include material relevant to the teaching and learning of English, such as the chief examiner’s reports. Included in the subject plan should be a policy on reading and it is recommended that reading for pleasure be integrated into individual schemes and lesson planning for all year groups. The TY programme in English places appropriate emphasis on communication. However the plan needs further detail, including specific modes of assessment. In view of the fact that two teachers are involved in TY English, and that there is just one class group, the programme should be fully integrated and a common plan should be written up. To lend impetus to planning development, it is recommended that the department establish a formal structure and elect a co-ordinator for the initial phase and that an agenda and minutes be provided for all meetings. If deemed necessary, the role of co-ordinator could be undertaken thereafter on a rotating basis.
Decisions on texts are made in consultation and are reviewed but generally teachers choose their own texts. It is reported that the book-rental scheme places some constraint on the regular changing of texts. Ways should be explored to ensure variety and avoid staleness. Consultation with feeder primary schools is also advisable to ensure that there is no overlap with texts studied in fifth and sixth class. It is advisable for all class groups in the junior cycle to cover at least one class play and one class novel in each year group in addition to other genres.
Resources for individual lessons were well chosen. The overhead projector, handouts, worksheets and other resources had been generated in advance and this facilitated efficient classroom organisation and made lessons purposeful.
A range of activities was in progress and these were appropriate to syllabus and programme. The lessons were generally well planned and paced. In most, thoughtful teaching strategies ensured purposeful engagement with the topics. Where an activity had been continued from previous lessons, the introductory phase consisted of review, thus reinforcing earlier learning in order to ensure a firm foundation and to accommodate those who might have been absent. In a couple of cases, students read out their work from the previous night, and this afforded an opportunity both to provide instant feedback and affirmation while encouraging peer learning.
In those lessons where the text was central, reading was regularly interrupted to ensure that the content was fully understood through question and answer sessions. Best practice was noted where the board was used to reinforce important themes and terms and to document students’ responses when they had completed a group activity. There was a strong emphasis on vocabulary and language development in the lessons visited and this is commended. Notable too was the frequent integration of language and literature. Learning was regularly checked through questioning. There was a balance between individual and global questioning and the emphasis was, for the most part, on information retrieval and clarification. Students were also encouraged to develop answers and to find supporting evidence. They were also asked to give examples in order to ensure that important concepts were understood, and were instructed to underline key quotations or points in texts to encourage students to identify and retrieve important information as evidence.
In many lessons, active learning methodologies engaged student interest. An individual written activity was planned to reinforce a concept taught in the whole-class context and this afforded the teacher an opportunity to circulate among students, diagnose difficulties and assist individuals. This represents good practice. Students were also engaged in well-organised group and pair work that developed creativity, communication skills and co-operative learning. Useful strategies were taught, and graphic organisers and visual material were used to help students with different learning styles.
Student responses showed them to be confident and articulate in most cases. In interaction with the inspector, they had a good knowledge of characters, themes and language elements, and, in some instances were able to use advanced literary terms with confidence and understanding. There was a warm rapport between students and teachers in the lessons visited and classes were in almost all cases, orderly and purposeful. The wall space could be utilised more as an added resource in the classrooms visited. Bookcases were noted in classrooms and this should facilitate attractive displays of books and other materials.
Formal in-house examinations are held twice a year, in November and May. Mock examinations are held for examination classes early in the second term. Reports are sent home after all formal examinations. Contact is also made with parents through parent-teacher meetings, the school journal, personal contact and an “On Report” system. There is no formal procedure for common assessment and this is a matter that should be explored to ensure standardisation.
Clear instructions were given to students regarding homework assignments in the lessons visited. The evaluation took place early in the school year so that copies examined during the evaluation did not have a range of substantial written assignments. Best practice was noted where formative assessment was used and comments were written on homework assignments that were designed to aid self-evaluation and improvement. Good practice was also noted where assignments were dated. In one instance there was a good emphasis on the maintenance of folders and this practice imparted useful organisational skills. It is recommended that the department agree a minimum number of substantial written homework assignments appropriate to programme and level and common criteria of 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 English and with the principal, at the conclusion of the evaluation when the draft findings and recommendations of the evaluation were presented and discussed.