An Roinn Oideachais agus Eolaíochta
Department of Education and Science
Subject Inspection of English
Saint Aidan’s Community College
Dublin Hill, County Cork
Roll number: 71101G
Date of inspection: 3 May 2007
Date of issue of report: 8 November 2007
Report on the Quality of Learning and Teaching in English
This report has been written following a subject inspection in Saint Aidan’s Community College. 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 was given an opportunity to comment in writing on the findings and recommendations of the report; a response was not received from the board.
Saint Aidan’s Community College is a co-educational school. Classes participating in the Junior Certificate School Programme (JCSP) in first year, second year and third year are provided with six English lessons per week, along with an additional lesson in literacy support. This provision is very good. Other classes in first year and in second year are provided with four English lessons per week. It is recognised that the current number of English lessons for these latter classes is based on a rotational arrangement with other subjects, in order to cater to the wider needs of the timetable. However, while four lessons of English per week might normally be considered adequate, it is recommended that opportunities to expand the number of lessons for these classes to five per week should be explored. This should be done as a means of further consolidating the acquisition and maintenance of key literacy skills by these students at this point in their post-primary education. Third-year English classes, apart from the JCSP class, are provided with five English lessons per week. This is good provision. There are five English lessons per week for Transition Year classes. This is good provision. Fifth-year and sixth-year classes have six English lessons per week. This is good provision. The Leaving Certificate Applied (LCA) class is provided with four English lessons per week. This is good provision. English classes retain their teachers from second year to third year and from fifth year to sixth year. Teachers are rotated between levels and cycles. This is good practice.
English classes in first year, second year and third year are streamed. Students are assigned to class groups in first year based on the results of a process begun prior to their entry to the school, when they are in sixth class. This process includes an interview, screening tests and consultation with their teachers in primary school. Upon their arrival in secondary school, feedback from their English teachers indicates whether students would benefit from a move from one class to another. Students are selected for literacy support based on the above procedures, which are further informed by resource forms distributed to parents and meetings with parents. Classes in Transition Year are of mixed ability. This is appropriate, given the aims and spirit of the programme. In fifth year, English classes are set. Students are selected for class groups in fifth year based on their results in the Junior Certificate examination and on input from their English teachers. English lessons in second year, fifth year and sixth year are timetabled concurrently. This is good practice, allowing for ease of student movement between levels and classes, where necessary and consideration might be given to extending this practice to include third year class groups. English teachers are generally provided with their own baserooms. This is very positive, facilitating the creation of an ‘English atmosphere’.
A plan is in place to upgrade the school library. The school has applied for funding to cater for this need. Funding has also been received from the JCSP to develop reading corners in the school. The library is currently used to facilitate the running of the school’s book scheme. While the library is unavailable, shelving has been placed in three English classrooms to facilitate teachers in organising ‘mini-libraries’, using texts from the school library. This is a positive, proactive step on the part of teachers and of the school. Visits to a local library have also been organised for some class groups. An especially praiseworthy aspect of the school’s approach to promoting reading for the student body is the proposed development of a paired-reading module as part of the Transition Year programme, involving Transition Year students and younger students in the junior cycle. The proposed widening of parents’ involvement in students’ reading is also a very sound idea and worth pursuing. The English department is encouraged to continue to utilise a variety of strategies to encourage students to read with greater regularity. The creation of a ‘reading strategy’ in order to draw together the different approaches used by the department might be a worthwhile endeavour. Further ideas around the enhancement of reading opportunities for students can be garnered in the publication Room for Reading: The Junior Certificate School Programme Demonstration Library Project which is available from the JCSP Support Service. A further worthwhile link might be made with the School Library Association in the Republic of Ireland (SLARI).
There are audio-visual facilities in English baserooms and the updating of these facilities through the purchase of DVD machines is anticipated. This strategy is to be strongly encouraged, particularly given the importance of film in the Leaving Certificate course. Beyond this, the potential impact of the appropriate use of audio-visual resources to support learning in junior cycle classes is significant. English teachers have been most diligent in creating a store of audio-visual resources for use in the department. The sharing of this material is facilitated through the use of a selection of different lockers and presses for storage of English resources, along with a wide selection of documents relevant to the English department. The organisation involved in all of this is most impressive.
There is good access for English teachers to information and communications technology (ICT), with a number of computers available for use in the staffroom. This is worthwhile. The special educational needs department is hoping to introduce a computer-assisted reading programme in the next academic year. This is positive. There is limited access to ICT for mainstream English classes. Nevertheless, teachers are enthusiastic about the potential for ICT. Evidence of the use of ICT by students was forthcoming during the inspection. Students presented a PowerPoint presentation in one class and a senior cycle class was also observed working enthusiastically on a set of assignments, aided by a suite of computers. A grant has been used by the school to purchase computers for the LCA class and the school anticipates further increasing the provision of ICT for students. It is recommended that the school should seek to expand access to ICT for all students, with particular emphasis on those students participating in the JCSP. The motivational aspects of ICT, along with the capacity of wordprocessing packages, for example, to enhance students’ appreciation of the drafting and redrafting process are significant. Further ideas on the use of ICT in secondary schools, particularly in the area of support for students with literacy difficulties, can be garnered from the website www.laptopsinitiative.ie and the National Centre for Technology in Education (NCTE) publication Engaging Learners: Mobile Technology, Literacy and Inclusion. The English department is to be complimented on its forward-looking approach in the area of ICT.
A post holder is assigned to the induction of student teachers. Student teachers in English are also mentored by the English co-ordinator for the specific year group they will be teaching. English teachers who are new to the school also participate in an induction process and are advised with regard to teaching methodologies and classroom management. Both student teachers and new teachers are advised with regard to planning for lessons and are given a tour of the resources available in the English department. If requested, members of the English department will facilitate classroom observation on the part of student teachers or new teachers. This latter strategy is a potentially powerful means of disseminating good practice and it is suggested that this might be included in the English subject plan.
The school is supportive of English teachers’ continuing professional development. Guidelines regarding professional development opportunities for teachers have been developed. Teachers have partaken of such opportunities. There has been a particular emphasis in the last number of years on inservice training for the JCSP and the LCA. A number of teachers are members of their subject association and this is commendable. Notes from inservice training are returned to the department and stored in the subject plan. This is positive.
There is a subject co-ordinator for English. There are also co-ordinators in English for each year group. These arrangements are to be strongly praised, supporting a cohesive organisation while simultaneously widening the leadership skills base within the department. There are two formal departmental meetings each year. A formal agenda is set and minutes are kept of these meetings. There are also numerous informal meetings of the department of which records are also kept and at which significant advances in planning have been made. All of these arrangements are worthwhile and it is recommended that the possibility of extending the number of formal departmental meetings to one meeting per term should be explored. There have been some difficulties with regard to attendance at formal English departmental meetings due to overlap of meetings with those for other subject areas. It is suggested that a rota system might be developed in order to ensure that a consistently high proportion of English teachers are present at departmental meetings. The school has already recognised these difficulties with regard to departmental meeting times and is seeking to develop mechanisms to improve these arrangements.
There is an excellent subject plan for English. The English department is to be highly praised for its efforts in this area. ICT has been used in the creation of the plan, allowing for ease of review should this prove to be necessary. Very good work has been done in ensuring coursework continuity between teachers, particularly in the event of a teacher substituting for a teacher who is absent. It is suggested that the development of time-linked, skills-based, common plans for use throughout the department would be worthwhile as this would save considerable amounts of work in this area. This should be done on an incremental basis for each year group. Thus, a first-year plan might be developed initially, followed by a second-year plan, and so on. The English department has recognised this as an area for more development in the future. The department analyses state examination results versus national norms and this is good practice. A set of subject folders is maintained, containing publications relevant to the teaching of English, lists of departmental resources, material from inservice training attended by English teachers, school policies and procedures and a range of other material. Areas for development such as the school library and the planned paired reading programme have also been identified. The dedicated approach adopted towards subject planning speaks to the considerable professionalism of the English teaching team.
English teachers are involved in organising a range of extracurricular and co-curricular activities. Among these are included visits of theatrical groups, theatre trips, the Make-a-Book competition, the production of a student magazine and organising student entries for writing competitions. Teachers are to be praised for their efforts in these areas.
Two or three novels are studied by students during the junior cycle. This is worthwhile. There is some variation of texts in junior and senior cycle. This is very positive as it facilitates teachers, not alone in suiting texts to class context and interest, but also in their own, necessary, professional development. The school supports teachers’ effort in this area through the book rental scheme, while the English budget has begun to be used to aid in the purchase of class sets of texts when teachers desire a change from a previous choice. These arrangements are positive and the school is encouraged to continue to support teachers in their varying of text choice, within syllabus guidelines. Support in the area of text choice for young adults can be garnered from the website www.childrensbooksireland.com. Currently, the study of three comparative texts is not undertaken by all classes studying the Leaving Certificate course. It is recommended that the study of three comparative texts should be undertaken in all classes studying for the Leaving Certificate examination and that this should be set down in the subject plan.
There is a subject-specific programme for English within the school’s Transition Year (TY) programme. This is positive. The creation by students of a TY magazine is particularly to be praised. The inclusion of a letter to and meeting with the principal as part of the process of creating the magazine is also most worthwhile. It is suggested that an opportunity to revise the English programme might incorporate similar work in the future, to feature as an element in the continuous assessment of student learning. This might be approached as an extension of the current project work which is used to inform some of the marks awarded to students during their Christmas examinations. A well-planned approach towards the teaching of English and Communications as part of the LCA was also evident during the inspection.
The school has contacted Integrate Ireland Language and Training (IILT) with regard to the provision of language support for students of English as a Second Language (ESL). This is worthwhile and these contacts should be maintained. Links with the English Language Support Teachers’ Association (ELSTA) may also be worth exploring.
There are good links between the English department and the special educational needs department. An English teacher liaises between the departments. Individual education plans (IEPs) have begun to be created for students in receipt of resource hours. This is positive and the school is encouraged to continue to develop the IEP process.
Literacy support is provided for students in a number of ways. These include the creation of small classes in the JCSP, small group and individual withdrawal and team teaching. This flexible model is highly commendable. Of particular merit is the use of team teaching to support students, which is progressing as part of a joint pilot project supported by County Cork VEC, the Department of Education and Science and University College Cork. Very good use of this strategy to support student learning was observed during the inspection. The extension of this strategy, where appropriate, to other classes is strongly encouraged. The flexibility of the school’s current model of provision should be viewed as a key tool in ensuring that support fits with the variety of needs presented by different students.
A special educational needs policy has been created. This is worthwhile and the school is advised to keep the policy under review. There is a learning-support team of an appropriate size and senior management is encouraged to maintain the current approach of harnessing a stable, core team where expertise and experience can be continually enhanced. The school is aware of the potential impact of a whole-school literacy policy. This is positive and it is suggested that the development of such a policy might form an important element in school development planning at some stage in the future.
A very good standard of teaching and learning was observed during the course of the evaluation. Objectives were clear in almost all classes. In the one instance where clarity of purpose could have been enhanced, it was suggested that the learning objective should be explicitly stated at the outset. This might then have been reiterated at a number of points during the course of the lesson. All lessons were well planned.
An impressive and imaginative range of resources was used in the teaching of English. These included photocopies, a digital camera, photographs, ICT, TV and DVD, the blackboard, the whiteboard, ‘props’ and a selection of other items. The use of a digital camera to record a drama in education exercise by junior cycle students was a particularly powerful motivational tool. A further example of good practice was the pre-preparation of a blackboard with the text of a poem which was then added to in a note-taking exercise by the teacher, incorporating students’ ideas. A dictionary and thesaurus are included on students’ booklists and dictionaries were evident in classrooms. The English department is encouraged to maintain and expand opportunities for students to develop their skills in using these texts. The English department is to be strongly praised for its imaginative and effective use of resources to support the teaching and learning process.
Reading and writing featured regularly in English lessons. Especially worthwhile was teachers’ practice of assigning different character roles from plays being studied to particular students. This enhanced students’ engagement with the plays in question and heightened their awareness of the theatrical nature of the text. In another lesson, an enthusiastic teacher reading of an excerpt from a Shakespearean play led on to students’ reading of the text in pairs. The efficacy of this strategy might have been further added to through the employment of guided reading strategies in order to focus students on specific aspects of the text. The use, in another lesson, of a film extract showing a character reading from a poem by W.H. Auden was an imaginative and interesting means of providing an entry point to the poem for students. The focus on students’ interest in soccer and the teams they supported was used effectively in a junior cycle lesson to focus the class on writing exercises. These included sequencing and vocabulary-based tasks and worked well in engaging students.
Active methodologies were used in a majority of lessons. The use of freeze-frames in a junior cycle lesson was very successful, and the exercise was consolidated through the use of a keyword poster and through students’ homework assignments. In another lesson, a class group was divided in two, as part of an examination of two different poems. This was worthwhile and the benefits for students in terms of their teacher’s ability to differentiate between learning needs was further added to by the adoption of team-teaching in this context. In another instance, students’ individual work on a film poster might have been added to through the use of pair work. The English department is to be commended on its use of active methodologies and is encouraged to continue to expand its use of these approaches in the future.
Good classroom management on the part of teachers was evident in all classes. There was a good relationship between teachers and students. Humour was used as an effective tool to aid classroom management in a number of instances. In one lesson, the seating arrangement was created ‘in the round’ as a means of enhancing students’ experiences of a drama-in-education presentation by members of their class. In another classroom, the seating arrangement was less ideal as a number of students sat to the side of the whiteboard, in a rigid seating arrangement. Teachers displayed an impressive ability to link texts they were studying to students’ own experiences. This was positive.
Students were enthusiastic and engaged by exercises explored in all lessons. Students displayed knowledge of the topics they had covered during the year when questioned and frequently exhibited a great willingness to answer teacher questioning. Questioning was used as a means of encouraging and evaluating student learning in all classes. In most classes, teachers displayed a consciousness of the need to distribute questions across the class group, which was good practice.
There was evidence of the integration of the language and literature elements of the syllabuses in students’ homework in some classes. This is most worthwhile, adding to students’ motivation, along with their ability to view their reading as informing their written work and vice versa. The English department is encouraged to expand its use of this strategy, linking ‘real world’ written tasks to the texts students are studying as part of their course. The exploration of as wide a range of genres as possible is another tactic which should be borne in mind when adopting this approach.
A print-rich environment was in evidence in English baserooms. Where this was of exceptional quality there were instances of student work being displayed, media posters, newspaper headlines, maps, motivational posters and quotations. ‘Mini-libraries’ further added to the development of an ‘English atmosphere’ in these baserooms and teachers are to be complimented on their furthering of students’ experience of the subject by this means. It is suggested that the maintenance and further development of a print-rich environment should be set down as a key strategy to be pursued in the English subject plan.
The school has a homework policy. Homework was assigned regularly in English classes. There was evidence of formative, comment-based assessment of homework in all classes. This is good practice and teachers are encouraged to continue to expand their use of this strategy, where practicable and within time constraints. The use of English subject statements for students participating in the JCSP was a very positive feature of teachers’ approach to these class groups. A number of teachers were most diligent in maintaining records of student achievement. In one instance, students themselves were expected to maintain a record of their results at the front of their English folder, adding to their sense of achievement and progression in the subject. The use of comprehension questions in one, senior cycle, class was worthwhile, however, it is suggested that this strategy might profitably be expanded to incorporate a wider range of writing tasks. These tasks could be based around specific genres, thus allowing greater scope for a wider range of writing experiences for students.
Formal house examinations are organised at Christmas and summer. In addition, there are also mock examinations for those students participating in the state examinations. Common examinations for classes in the same year group have been organised, where such an arrangement is worthwhile, and this is good practice. Common marking schemes, modelled on those utilised in the state examinations, are used in formal house examinations. Some informal moderation of marking occurs. This is most positive and it is suggested that these arrangements should be formalised. Students with difficulties in literacy have records of achievement maintained by the special educational needs department and are periodically retested in order to assess their progress.
Parents receive reports on student progress in October, at Christmas, in February and in the summer. This is worthwhile. Parent-teacher-student meetings are organised for each year group at least once per year. In the case of first-year, third-year, fifth-year and sixth-year students there have been two parent-teacher-student meetings this year. These arrangements are commendable.
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.