An Roinn Oideachais agus Eolaíochta

Department of Education and Science

 

Subject Inspection of English

   REPORT

 

Pobalscoil Éanna, Blakestown Community School

Blanchardstown,Dublin 15

Roll number: 91316Q

 

Date of inspection : 23 September 2008

 

 

 

Subject inspection report

Subject provision and whole school support

Planning and preparation

Teaching and learning

Assessment

Summary of main findings and recommendations

 

 

 

 

Report on the Quality of Learning and Teaching in English

 

 

Subject inspection report

 

This report has been written following a subject inspection in Pobalscoil Éanna (Pobalscoil Éanna, Blakestown Community 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.

 

 

Subject provision and whole school support

 

Pobalscoil Éanna provides English in the Leaving Certificate (LC), Leaving Certificate Vocational Programme (LCVP), Junior Certificate (JC), and Junior Certificate Schools Programme, (JCSP), and English and Communications in the Leaving Certificate Applied (LCA) programme.

 

Time allocation for the subject is good across all programmes, and it is commendable that additional lessons are provided for junior cycle students in the lower end of the ability spectrum. Distribution of lessons leaves scope for improvement and it is recommended that all students have contact with English on each day of the week.

 

The subject is well resourced. There is access to a range of audio-visual equipment and the English department, supported by management, is proactive in the acquisition of a good range of books and audio-books that are appropriate to both reading and chronological age. The school has accessed funding through the Dormant Accounts Funds to provide a large stock of books. The book-rental scheme is reported to be operating effectively and the majority of students avail of it. The school library is regularly used by the teachers of English. The services of a librarian were available in the past and this facilitated even greater use. Resources permitting, the deployment of a librarian would greatly enhance existing provision and would form a key element of a whole-school literacy policy. The department has a compact English resource room containing boxes of books (assorted titles) and whole-class sets. There is a stock book and teachers sign for materials that they withdraw. The need to move to a computerised system is recognised since this would greatly enhance efficiency. As a focus for future stock development, it would be useful to broaden the range of genres, as most titles are fiction. English teachers store sets of books in filing cabinets in classrooms. It is reported that there is good access to information and communication technology (ICT).

 

Taking contextual factors into consideration, uptake of higher-level English in the JC is quite good and is adequate in the LC programme. Over a three year period, there has been a marked decline in the percentage uptake of higher level in the LC programme and this runs counter to national trends. In the JC there is also a decline, though less marked, and some fluctuation is noted. Nonetheless, this downward trend should be noted and targets should be set with the aim of increasing the numbers taking higher level, year-on-year. The uptake of JC foundation-level English has noticeably increased in the last couple of years and this matter should be examined carefully as there is some evidence to suggest that students are not being challenged enough in some classes and expectations are not being sufficiently raised. Classes are streamed for English from first year on. The school should consider moving to a mixed-ability setting in first year: it may be necessary to have one small class for students who require additional learning support. If it is found necessary to assign classes to higher-level and ordinary-level in second year, robust criteria should be used. This year, the fifth year LC students have concurrent timetabling and it is reported that they are assigned to smaller class groups. These two strategies should be an advantage. Concurrency facilitates movement from one level to another and can also be used for shared learning activities and team teaching. Smaller classes should allow for more individual attention to be paid to students, with better learning outcomes.

 

The majority of those currently involved in the teaching of English are experienced. However, it is noted that half of the teaching team does not have English to degree level. In view of current deployment practice, it is of vital importance that a very pro-active approach is taken to continuous professional development (CPD). There has already been a limited level of engagement. It is strongly recommended that a formal CPD policy be developed and that management prioritise this. A number of actions should be taken in the short and medium term: the team should carry out a needs analysis to identify areas for professional development and take appropriate action. Meetings of the English department should be used to share good practice: it may be necessary to have longer and more frequent meetings for this purpose. The department should develop specific structures for the support of teachers, particularly new teachers of English. The Second Level Support Services (SLSS) organises a course for this group and also a number of other courses of particular relevance to teachers of English. All CPD endeavours should be fully supported by management. The building of a professionally qualified team should be a focus for future staff development. Management should review practice where new teachers are deployed in particularly challenging classes and should ensure that strong supports are in place.

 

A member of the teaching team is involved in the learning-support department and this facilitates interaction. It is reported that class teachers are apprised of special educational needs (SEN) students’ test results on a needs basis. It is desirable that clear protocols are in place to ensure that two-way communication is effective and frequent. It is reported that students requiring learning support are assisted through withdrawal in small groups and that special needs assistants (SNAs) are deployed. In a lesson observed, it was noted that an assigned SNA was not present because of yard supervision duties leading to a delayed tea break. The management of SNAs should be reviewed to ensure that they are deployed appropriately and in line with best practice. Written work observed in copybooks suggests that some students may not be appropriately placed in classes. While assurances were given that students in such cases were indeed correctly assigned to classes, that they were monitored, and that, moreover, they can easily move upwards from one class to another if identified as having potential, in reality systemic organisation does not indicate clear and efficient lines of transfer for some students. Where a student has been transferred upwards, it is of great importance that a full history of the student is accessed by the new teacher and is easily available to the teacher, and that planning for the class group ensures that the student’s particular learning needs are met.

 

The team is commended for the efforts that are made to encourage reading and teachers implement a variety of strategies. Examples are the planning of independent reading days, the development of resources, for example, “Readalong” texts, a class library consisting of a box of assorted titles, class sets of books and use of the SRA reading laboratory. A commendable paired reading initiative where sixth-year LCA students supported first years is currently under review: while successful, the period of fifteen minutes allocated was found to be too short and an alternative is currently being considered. Students are also brought to the library and in the past, have been brought to a large local public library where they were given a tour of the facilities. Students in the JCSP programme have engaged in the Reading Challenge. The department, supported by management, should consider organising an independent reading day for the whole school in which all (from senior management down) are obliged to participate. This could be integrated into a school literacy policy.

 

A number of extra-curricular and co-curricular activities enrich the teaching and learning of English and this is commended. Examples are theatre, cinema and library visits, public speaking, the school magazine and participation in the “Writer in Residence” programme. To build on good practice and to cater for diversity, the holding of an Arts week, informed by an intercultural ethos, should be considered that would allow students to showcase world literature and music; other events such as public readings of their own work and drama displays should be considered as part of the event. It may be possible to enlist the support of local agencies that have already interacted with the school in the past.

 

 

Planning and preparation

 

The subject co-ordinator is a post-holder who currently is not teaching the subject. It is desirable that the co-ordinator should be teaching English across programmes and levels. Consideration should be given to rotating the role of co-ordinator to distribute responsibility and leadership. It is commendable that the role of the co-ordinator is defined and administrative and support duties are listed. In the course of review, the role could be extended to emphasise leadership in all areas relevant to the teaching and learning of English. The department has a very strong collaborative ethos and communication between members of the teaching team is very good. Formal meetings are minuted. Informal meetings and consultation also take place. Collaborative planning has taken place and it is commendable that a department plan for English has been written up.

 

Teachers have developed individual annual schemes for their class groups. Very good practice was observed in a minority of cases, with class plans that documented learning outcomes, clearly outlined learning objectives and gave a good deal of additional information, for example, resources used. Other schemes were less well developed and some hardly at all. Good practice should be shared and the department should agree a common approach to planning for individual year groups, using the best exemplars currently in the planning folder as a starting point for discussion. It is important that planning in the junior cycle include speaking and listening, as well as reading and writing, and strategies should be documented and implemented into individual schemes of work. It is commendable that a thematic approach is taken to the teaching of English in the junior cycle. Language and literature should be fully integrated in individual planning documents. The LCA plan is a useful outline but requires much more detailed information. Texts required for study in module four, Critical Literacy and Composition, should be listed and should be sufficiently varied and challenging to achieve syllabus aims.

 

It was observed in the course of the evaluation that the pace of syllabus delivery was slow in a minority of cases. It is strongly recommended that a timeframe be drawn up and rigidly adhered to in all cases and without exception. Planning should focus on the raising of expectations in all classes and programmes. Non-examination classes should not spend a whole term revising as this does not represent a good use of teaching time.

 

It is noted that choice of texts is discussed but there is a strong emphasis on individual choice. The weakness of this arrangement is that in the JC programme, some texts are not challenging enough to form a meaningful bridge to the senior cycle and students’ experience of a range of texts is limited. It is recommended that guidelines on text choice and an indicative list be drawn up for the JC and LCA, informed by the syllabuses, and the list should be regularly reviewed and updated. Students should experience a rich language programme and therefore a variety of genres should be included. Complete plays, not extracts, should be read. It is also suggested that the English department liaise with feeder primary schools to ensure that there is no repetition of texts. The syllabuses at senior and junior level allow sufficient scope for choice of texts within a common framework. In the LC programme the syllabus requires students to study three comparative texts at both higher and ordinary levels. This must be written into the plan for LC English (and the timeframe for the teaching of these texts should be documented). Individual schemes should facilitate the implementation of the department plan with details of the texts to be studied listed for the specific class group.

 

In the context of future planning, differentiation is an area that should be a priority focus. It is recommended that differentiation in content, teaching methods and assessment be developed to cater not only for those with special educational needs (at both ends of the ability spectrum), but also and in particular for those who are learners of English as an additional language (EAL) of which group the school has enrolled a significant minority. To ensure that the needs of this cohort are fully met, and to avoid the very real danger of underachievement, the English department should ensure that planning for the subject across all programmes takes particular note of this group. In the English plan, specific strategies and resources targeted at EAL learners should be fully documented in each programme, and in individual schemes, and should be fully implemented in lessons. Consultation with the EAL department should help to inform planning and practice. It is recommended that ICT be fully integrated into planning for teaching and learning.

 

 

Teaching and learning

 

A range of syllabus appropriate activities was in progress in the eight lessons observed. Narrative, generic writing such as critical reviews and diary writing, comparative exploration of themes, poetry and drama were the subject matter of lessons observed. The lesson aim was clear in some cases but in others it should be more specific and it is recommended that specific and achievable planned outcomes be shared with classes and written on the board. A period for review should be used at the end of lessons to assess if outcomes have been achieved.

 

The best lessons observed were well structured and incorporated a variety of student-centred learning activities aimed at reinforcing learning. The pace of lessons was appropriate in some lessons: however, there is scope for development in others. Good practice was observed where continuity with earlier lessons provided links and aided learning.

 

Useful handouts such as a guide to writing reviews were issued. The use of graphic organisers plotted on the board was a very good way of helping students to organise their learning, focus on key points and help weaker students to recognise narrative sequence. Links were made with films and television programmes to engage interest, and teachers used anecdotes or drew on personal experiences for illustrative purposes. The wall space was used well in some lessons, for example, for teaching aids. There was scope for the development of both teaching methods and resources in lessons observed. Text resources (handouts and textbooks) were central to all lessons and these were appropriate. Only once was a visual image used to add variety, and the quality was poor. The board complemented the text and was well used in many lessons. Very good practice was observed in the use of graphic organisers. More use could be made of the board to record words in order to reinforce vocabulary. Teacher-student interaction took place largely through question and answer sessions. Questioning technique was good where there was a balance between questions addressed to the class as a whole and those aimed at individual students. In some cases, practice in this regard should be reviewed since insufficient use is made of targeted questions. Very good practice was observed where there was a clear focus on higher-order thinking in addition to questions designed to assess understanding of concepts and memory of details such as narrative sequence. ICT was not used by students in any classroom visited however interesting handouts that had been downloaded from a website were disseminated in one classroom visited. Standard seating in rows was the norm in the classes visited. While methods and resources were deployed appropriately, and in some cases very well, a more imaginative approach could generally be adopted to complement conventional methods, taking cognisance of a variety of learning styles. High quality visual and aural stimuli could be used; props are a useful aid to learning; the use of drama techniques helps students to imaginatively engage and to understand in concrete terms. Co-operative learning through group work involves all students and if correctly used as a method, develops a range of interpersonal skills. Ways of promoting independent learning should also be explored. While it is possible that such strategies and resources are used on other occasions, they were not observed during the course of the evaluation. Where the attention span of students is limited, or where some students present with challenging behaviour, a number of focused, varied and short learning activities with clearly defined timeframes should be planned.

 

Language skills were learned and good practice was observed in some classes: for example, advanced reading skills, such as underlining text to select detail and test observation, were developed and the meaning of words was checked to build vocabulary. More use should be made of dictionaries in classrooms. The skill of writing was a focus in some lessons and good practice was noted where the conventions governing a particular genre were taught. Worksheets were used in a lesson to help students organise answers. Assigning a writing task allowed the teacher to circulate and help individual students. Writing in a wide variety of genres (a syllabus requirement) should be practised in all cases. Writing frames could be used to help students develop a sense of structure and to scaffold their answers, as some find writing challenging. The syllabus should be consulted in this regard. Portfolios of writing should be developed in all classes and ICT should be used as a tool to facilitate the process wherever possible. The encouragement of a personal aesthetic response is an area for development.

 

Organisational skills need to be learned and students should therefore be systematically required to write homework into journals. Some examined showed that little had been recorded. Very good standards of copybook and folder maintenance were notable in a couple of lessons and this should be replicated in all classes.

 

Management of classrooms was good on the whole. It is commendable that high standards of classroom etiquette were demanded in some classes visited and students had a clear understanding that ground rules would be enforced. However, in some lessons, a small minority of students presented with challenging behaviour that was intended to disrupt the learning of others and command too much of the teacher’s attention. The effect was that the majority of students disengaged and the classroom atmosphere was not conducive to learning. To deal with challenging behaviour, a range of strategies should be considered. Consideration should be given to team teaching that is designed to give targeted support to individuals and to cater for the diversity of students. Reconfiguration of seating arrangements should also be considered. Negotiated learning techniques could be investigated. The school’s discipline code should be invoked where there is persistent and calculated misbehaviour. A review of planning and teaching methods should also take place to ensure they are tailored to meet the needs of students. It is recommended that the English department share good practice in the area of classroom management. There was a very good rapport between students and teachers in the majority of classrooms visited and, in all cases, students were taught in a patient, caring environment.

 

Given contextual factors, student achievement is quite good on the whole. There are areas for development. At both JC and LC higher level, it is commendable that achievement is quite good given contextual factors. This however, should be judged in the light of declining uptake of higher level. It is possible that some of the students currently achieving C grades may be moved to a B grade. While making due allowances for annual variations in standard, the English department should set targets for this group in particular and in general, for all students to include JC foundation level. While the school’s context is an extenuating factor, a significant number of students take foundation level English. This trend seems set to continue unless some planned interventions take place. Planning should focus on the general raising of expectations for all classes, irrespective of programme or level. A barrier to student achievement is absenteeism and a pattern of poor attendance was noted in some cases. This is a whole-school issue and is best addressed in this context.

 

 

Assessment

 

The department has a brief guide to assessment and this should be observed in all schemes and implemented in all lessons. When reviewing the document, it is recommended that it be developed further and that specific reference be made to assessment for learning. The National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA) website could be consulted in this regard. While it is reported that common assessment papers are set at the end of the year, in practice, this is not universal. It is recommended that common papers be set for common levels without exception and to achieve this, timeframes for syllabus delivery must be rigidly observed in all classes. A copy of all assessment papers should be included in the department plan.

 

As the evaluation took place early in the school year, there was not a great deal of assessed work in copybooks. Even making allowance for this factor, there is scope for the setting of more written work to give students adequate practice. The quality of homework assessment varied considerably from one lesson to another. Feedback in copies was exemplary in a small number of cases and this is highly commended since constructive and informative feedback aids learning. In these cases, it was also noted that the standard of students’ work presentation was very good. Assessment was dated in some cases and again, this represents good practice. Another good example observed was assessment practice that mirrored in some respects, the state examinations. This should be further extended during the year for the examination classes to include the full repertoire of discrete assessment criteria that will be used in the state examinations. In other samples seen, written work was poorly presented, sparse, and little or even no assessment and feedback was noted. It is recommended that assessment practice be reviewed and harmonised at departmental level. The very good standards applied in some classes should be universal throughout all classes. Accurate records of assessment should be maintained by all teachers not only to enable teachers to provide quality information to students, parents and other concerned professionals, but also to inform teaching practice. It is important that copybooks are regularly collected and reviewed for a thorough evaluation and recording of progress. In the JCSP programme, students maintain folders that contain their statements and these are kept up-to-date.

 

Records of attendance were kept in all classes visited. Particularly commended in one case is where there was a regular review and a grid of achievement across a range of skills and behaviours was updated. It is recommended that good records of assessment be maintained and the existing good practice be shared.

 

Parents are informed of student progress in a variety of ways, such as parent-teacher meetings, reports and the student journal that is used to record homework assignments. While homework was set by teachers in all lessons, practice varied with regard to students recording such assignments. Students should be told, at the start of lessons, to have their journals on their desk; should they fail to produce journals, the school’s disciplinary procedures should be invoked. All students should be told specifically to enter their assignments, whether oral or written, into their student journals. Such practice develops life skills, such as the ability to record and organise information.

 

 

Summary of main findings and recommendations

 

The following are the main strengths identified in the evaluation:

 

  • Time allocated for the teaching of English is good across all programmes.
  • Resources are generally good.
  • Reading is actively encouraged and teachers implement a variety of interesting strategies.
  • There is a good collaborative ethos in the department, a departmental structure has been put in place and a plan has been written up that includes policies on assessment and homework and schemes of work for individual classes.
  • Individual planning documents were very good in a few cases.
  • Questioning strategy was very good in some lessons.
  • In some lessons a good range of activities was used to reinforce learning.
  • A good range of skills was learned in some lessons.
  • Taking contextual factors into consideration, achievement is quite good.
  • Very good assessment practice was observed in some cases.
  • A number of extra-curricular and co-curricular activities enrich the teaching and learning of English.

 

 

As a means of building on these strengths and to address areas for development, the following key recommendations are made:

 

  • The department should set targets to raise expectations, improve achievement and increase the uptake of higher-level English.
  • A formal CPD policy should be developed and this should be supported by management.
  • A timeframe for syllabus delivery should be agreed and rigidly adhered to in all cases.
  • Consideration should be given to rotating the role of co-ordinator.
  • Guidelines on text choice should be drawn up for the JC to ensure that students experience a rich language programme and have a good foundation for senior cycle.
  • Specific and achievable learning outcomes should be shared with classes and written on the board at the start of the lesson.
  • A more imaginative approach to teaching methods and selection of resources should be adopted to take cognisance of a variety of learning styles.
  • EAL students should be a priority focus for future planning.
  • Assessment policy should place a focus on assessment for learning, good assessment practice should be shared and common papers should be set for the appropriate levels, without exception. Good records of assessment should be maintained in all classes.
  • Students should have contact with English on each day of the week.
  • The English department should share good practice in the area of classroom management.
  • ICT should be fully integrated into planning for teaching and learning.

 

 

A post-evaluation meeting were held with the teachers of English and English and Communications and with the principal at the conclusion of the evaluation when draft findings and recommendations of the evaluation were presented and discussed.

 

 

 

Published, October 2009