An Roinn Oideachais agus Eolaíochta
Department of Education and Science
Subject Inspection of English
Gorey Community School
Gorey, County Wexford
Roll number: 91492N
Date of inspection: 22 March, 2007
Date of issue of report: 6 December 2007
Report on the Quality of Learning and Teaching in English
This report has been written following a subject inspection in Gorey 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 three 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 some of the subject teachers.
Provision of lesson periods in English is satisfactory in junior cycle with first, second and third-year class groups having four English periods each week with the exception of the resource class groups who have two extra periods of English in first year and one extra period of English in each of second and third year. This is good practice. A small group of students in both first and second year are following the Junior Certificate School Programme (JCSP) where such extra support in literacy is recommended. Transition Year (TY) students have three periods of English a week which is satisfactory provision. So too is the provision of three English and Communication periods a week for Leaving Certificate Applied (LCA) students. Provision of English is good in fifth and sixth year with students having five class periods each week. Post-Leaving Certificate (PLC) students have three class periods of Communication each week which is satisfactory provision.
Most students are placed in mixed-ability classes in first year which is good practice. Those with mild general learning difficulties or other special needs are placed into two smaller special needs class groups where they follow English at a slower place. Second and third-year students are set into class groups depending on their ability. Students may opt for higher or ordinary level English within these groups. In addition, there are two special needs classes in each of second and third year where students may do ordinary or foundation level. English teachers place students in these class groups based on their examination results and assessment results. The same practice occurs in fifth year where students are set for English into higher or ordinary level class groups by their English teachers. School management has adopted the commendable policy of encouraging as many students as possible to sit English at their highest achievable level. However, it was noted over the course of the inspection that lower-ability class groups are comprised of a majority of boys. In future years, consideration might be given to extending mixed ability into second year and indeed third year for English as placement of students into lower ability classes may affect students’ self esteem and research indicates that mixed-ability has positive benefits for all students regardless of ability. In this way also more boys might be encouraged to take higher level English.
English is concurrently timetabled in TY, fifth and sixth year. In addition, in second and third year there are two bands on the timetable. Each band is concurrently timetabled. This concurrency is very good practice as it allows students to change level and study English at a pace most suitable to their needs. In addition, the possibility of exploring further the benefits of concurrent timetabling has been identified by the English department as a priority. This is commended as concurrency can also be used for whole year events, such as the screening of films, and for experimenting with teachers teaching different aspects of the course across class groups. On the whole, English is evenly distributed on the timetable across the week and across the school day which is commendable practice. On a few occasions the teaching of a single class group is shared between two teachers. This is not an ideal situation as it disrupts continuity in the learning experience of students. It is recommended that this situation be avoided in so far is possible.
Students in Gorey Community School have access to a range of co-curricular activities. These include debating and public speaking, theatre trips, visiting speakers, contributing to the school magazine, and involvement in national writing competitions. The Arts week in the school is highly commended for the range of activities including drama, creative writing, film appreciation to which students are exposed. The commitment of English teachers in organising these activities is highly commended and is indicative of the goodwill and dedication of the teaching staff.
Teachers are facilitated to attend a range of inservice courses pertaining to English. Teachers have benefited from inservice on film studies, poetry and creative writing. First-year teachers have recently received inservice on fostering good learning habits among students. It is planned that more inservice will be provided to these teachers which is highly commended. This is particularly important as a number of teachers teach English to first years only and such inservice will enhance their teaching strategies.
Twenty one teachers teach English in the school. Those teachers who teach the bulk of English in the school are qualified to teach English to the highest level. Others who teach English to special educational needs (SEN) students on the whole have SEN qualifications. There are a few teachers who have not studied English in their degrees and who have one class group for English. Having just one class group for English is a situation best avoided as a degree of subject expertise is lost when teachers have irregular contact with the subject. It is recommended that management endeavour to give English classes to those teachers who have English at least to first year in their degree, with the exception of those teachers who have an SEN or learning-support qualification and who teach SEN class groups.
English classes retain the same teacher from second into third year and from fifth into sixth year which is good practice. Management allocates the teaching of higher and ordinary level and the teaching of programmes among English teachers after consultation with individual teachers. This is good practice. It was reported that the teaching of higher and ordinary level and the teaching of programmes is rotated which is good practice as it spreads the subject expertise in the school.
There is good whole school support for English in the school. A department budget is available for English which is fully utilised by the English department. Recent resources acquired include the purchase of televisions, DVD and video players for the English department. As well as these resources it was reported that other resources to support the teaching of English include CDs, class sets of books and videos and DVDs.
There is a school library which has recently been reinvigorated in the school. Although due to constraints of space the library is sometimes used as a classroom. It can be booked by teachers in advance for individual classes.
Some teachers have their own base classrooms. In a few cases English is timetabled in practical rooms due to constraints of space which is a situation that all agree is not ideal. In the context of the school acquiring additional classrooms in the future this is a situation that might be avoided in future years.
There was no evidence of information and communication technology (ICT) being used in the teaching of English although teachers use ICT to prepare resources for their students and some class groups, particularly LCA students use ICT to type up their key assignments. The potential for use of ICT should be explored in the English classrooms as it can prove a valuable teaching and learning tool.
Students with literacy support needs are identified through liaison with feeder primary schools, assessment tests, parents, reports from outside agencies and subject teachers. As already stated special classes are created from first year for English. In addition, the practice of team teaching of certain class groups has been introduced which is highly commended and observation of such team teaching showed that it works very well as it allows more individual attention to be given to students. Team teaching is also a valuable tool for sharing of teaching methodologies and for managing students. Students are also withdrawn in small groups. Paired reading between first-year SEN classes and TY students and between students and their teachers and a reading challenge are some of the initiatives to develop reading in the school. Parents attended a celebration and presentation of certificate after this reading challenge initiative which is commended. It was reported that these initiatives are very successful in increasing students’ reading ages and they are highly commended. In addition, a pilot reading recovery programme has been introduced. Students benefit from learning support all the way through the school although the difficulty of accessing timely resources for SEN students was highlighted during the evaluation.
The position of co-ordinator of English is voluntary and English is ably co-ordinated in the school. Currently there are two co-ordinators for English; one for junior cycle and one for senior cycle. The aspiration that English will be promoted as a subject during this period of co-ordination and that confidence will be instilled into both students and teachers as to the students’ ability in English is a highly commendable one. In recent years, since the appointment of the present co-ordinators for English, theatre trips have been organised, students have been entered for competitions and the English budget is fully spent on resources. In addition English teachers now meet as a group more regularly. There was evidence of very good collaboration and discussion among English teachers. While this work is highly commended it is recommended that consideration be given to rotating the position of co-ordinator in future years.
There is a current focus on teaching and learning in School Development Planning. Management supports the enhancement of teaching and learning by giving time for subject meetings approximately one to two times per term. In addition, English teachers meet together on the last Wednesday of each month during their lunch break which is highly commended. The core group of twelve or thirteen main English teachers generally attend these meetings but it is difficult for all twenty-one teachers who teach English to meet. This is another reason why a smaller team of English teachers is desirable. English teachers could also meet as teachers of particular year groups to plan for each year of their subject.
Good practice was evident in that English teachers have recorded minutes of their meetings for the last number of years. These meetings reflect a department which is keen to improve its practices. Items discussed include a need to access more information on teaching students whose first language is not English, a discussion on maximising the benefits of concurrent timetabling, the need for an inventory of available English resources, the development of schemes of work for TY English classes and the acquisition of inservice. It is recommended that teachers continue to pursue these issues as they are all important. English teachers compare their students’ state examination results with national averages which is very good practice. Information on inservice is disseminated at these meetings also which is important as not all teachers of English can be facilitated to attend inservice at the same time given the large number of teachers. These meetings reflect good communication and collaboration between English teachers and good sharing of ideas and discussion.
The English department has commenced writing a department plan for the subject. Currently there is agreement on what topics to teach to first-year class groups from December until May. This plan outlines the teaching of a novel, a range of poetry, and drama extracts from the textbook. The plan also documents suggested student activities for each aspect outlined. This is good practice. The second-year plan outlines the study of three short stories, functional writing, poetry, fiction, media studies, personal writing and drama and suggests some learning outcomes for each of these aspects of the course. The third-year plan again outlines what aspects of the course should be taught and there is a strong focus on acquisition of examination technique.
This planning is commended as it contains a record of what students should have achieved for each year and reflects a clear progression in their learning. Although the planning documentation is seen as a guide to teachers’ work and is not prescriptive there was evidence that some class groups, particularly at junior cycle and in TY were doing considerably more or a broader range of texts than others. While it is inevitable that some class groups will cover more ground than others given their ability levels, it is recommended that the common plan for each year group be expanded to develop agreed learning outcomes or key skills that each student should achieve within their chosen level, and a list of suggested teaching methodologies and suggested texts. In this way students of different abilities will learn skills and content commensurate with their ability and teachers’ good practice will be shared. In addition the possible overlap of texts, including poems from year to year will be avoided.
There were times when the yearly content of lessons was not as challenging as it should be for junior cycle students. Teachers are encouraged to challenge all students to reach their highest achievable level and to study course content commensurate to their abilities. In addition, teaching specifically to the examination, so that students only study a very narrow course in junior cycle in particular should be avoided as students will not gain the necessary skills to prepare them for senior cycle and for life. In addition, students’ self esteem will suffer if they have not covered sufficient work and they are deemed unable to cope with texts. There was evidence that when given a range of challenging work students responded well.
The overall TY English plan needs to be updated to reflect current practice in English and as recommended above TY teachers should agree common learning outcomes for their students. The TY teachers should try to avoid any possibility of teaching texts that could be on the Leaving Certificate course. A range of texts such as the study of a novel, play, film and poetry is taught in many TY classes. This is good practice as it shows that good solid work is done in class and that students are exposed to a range of genres. TY teachers should also take the opportunity afforded by the year to teach English in a ‘significantly different’ way to mainstream Leaving Certificate. It is also recommended that the TY English plan and the English and Communication plan be included in the English overall plan. The plan to teach a novel or novel extracts to LCA students is commended.
Decisions on core textbooks are made jointly at junior and senior cycle level. However, teachers have the flexibility to choose their own literary texts to suit the ability and tastes of their students.
Most first-year class groups study a novel in class. This is good practice and it is recommended for all class groups. Students are encouraged to read for pleasure in many classes by choosing books to read at home or during their allocated ‘tutor time’. Students also write book reviews. This is a practice to be encouraged throughout junior cycle and TY. Good practice was also seen in that links have been created with the mobile library and students are involved in the M.S. Readathon. In addition, the practice observed in some fifth-year classes of students being given a choice of comparative texts and poems to study is commended. It is recommended that good higher-level classes should study a further novel or drama text over the course of second and third year, to enhance their literacy development and to keep them challenged. In addition, in line with syllabus requirements, all Leaving Certificate ordinary-level students should study three comparative texts.
All higher-level class groups study a Shakespearean drama which is good practice. The class groups which contain a mix of higher and ordinary-level students should be given some exposure to Shakespeare, be it through the showing of a film version of a text or reading an extract from the play. This is in order to prepare them for the possibility of studying Shakespeare in fifth year.
Fifth-year teachers agree on what to study prior to Christmas to facilitate movement of students - this is good practice. Fifth-year students study two comparative texts and two poets during the year as well as having practice in writing and language development. There was evidence that sixth-year students have most of their courses covered prior to their mock examinations.
There is good planning for students with SEN and learning-support needs in the school. Some members of the SEN team attend English meetings and English teachers have been given strategies to deal with SEN students in their classes and showed an awareness of these students in their classes. JCSP students had statements pertaining to English stored in their folders and these were filled in. In such classes students had individual checklists of what they were to do which is excellent practice. The good practice of the SEN teachers attending English meetings should be continued where strategies to deal with SEN students and students whose first language is not English should be disseminated. SEN teachers of English should also consult to share ideas and content for their class groups.
Many teachers had prepared their own schemes of work for their classes, which is good practice and showed clear progression in students’ work. Most lessons had a clear purpose which was communicated to the students. These lessons had a clear structure. Best practice was seen among classes of lower ability when the purpose of the lesson was written on the board. In general, where there was a clear structure to the lesson and when lessons were planned the lessons were most successful. In a minority of lessons where there was no clear structure to the lesson it was not always clear what the purpose was or what the learning outcome was.
Good links were sometimes created between texts. For example in some lessons students were asked to make comparisons between poems with similar themes. In addition, good practice was seen when links were created across genres so that students were given an essay based on a theme they had studied in poetry for example. In this way students were encouraged to see language as a whole as opposed to a series of fragmented genres. Links were created between texts and contemporary life to place learning in context which is good practice. This was often done as a pre-reading exercise where, to gain students’ interest, they were asked to discuss or give their opinion on an issue to be confronted in their text.
Resources such as the textbook, handouts, audio tapes and the board were used in lessons. There was evidence that the core textbook was used as a resource as opposed to teachers adhering to it only. This is good practice and one that is particularly important given the fact that the same core textbook is used from first to third year. The board was used well in lessons to record key points for students to in turn record. This is very good practice and is important especially for lower- ability students. Some classes were assiduous in jotting down points made by their teachers.
Students were given clear instructions on how to structure their work and good scaffolding techniques were in evidence. Best practice was also seen when vocabulary acquisition and grammar were seamlessly introduced into a lesson as opposed to being taught in isolation. Activities such as creating a class magazine are reported to take place in SEN English lessons. In addition, good practice was seen where students created their own poetry and these were being compiled into an anthology. Students were also sometimes asked to illustrate poetry in their copies.
Good practice was seen in the integration of language and literature in junior and senior cycle so that students had to write a diary entry or letter for example, from the point of view of a character in a studied text or write a letter to a poet they have studied. Other good examples included students writing newspaper articles based on the novel they had read. This practice is recommended in all classes. Good practice was also evident where it was apparent that students wrote speeches and delivered these to their class groups. In addition, students are encouraged in some classes to discuss the book they are reading for pleasure with their class. These strategies for encouraging oral participation in class are highly commended.
A range of abilities were in evident in classes. Some students were potentially challenging but were well managed and kept on track. There was evidence of some teachers teaching too much to the examination at the expense of developing critical thinking skills, the skills of personal response and fostering an appreciation of the subject. This needs to be addressed. Teachers need to agree what their overall aim is when teaching the subject
Teaching was on the whole too teacher dominated and students were not given the opportunities in many classes to participate adequately. It is recommended that opportunities for more student discussion be facilitated in lessons. Students could be put in pairs or groups to discuss texts for a portion of the lesson so that they are given more responsibility for their own learning in some classes. In addition, other activities to engage first-year students in particular, such as hot seating and role play could be used. Best practice was in evidence when the students’ voices were equal to the teachers so that the teacher did not dominate with too much teacher talk. This was mainly achieved through skilful questioning, often challenging and open ended in nature which led to good discussion. English teachers should explore and share strategies to involve their students actively in their learning rather than often being passive participants. Where this was in evidence there was generally higher expectation by teachers of students which was equally met by the students so that students responded positively to the tasks being set. The suggestion recorded in English minutes that students should be used to working in groups from first year should be implemented.
Although all English teachers were aware of the SEN students and students of lower ability in their class groups, there were times when more differentiation could have been used. Opportunities for more individual attention to help students in their use of language could have been exploited when students were set work for a period of time in a minority of classes. On the other hand, where teachers had experience in this area there was excellent differentiation evident.
Questioning was generally very good. Most teachers often made an effort to ask all students questions by naming students when asking questions. In this way all students were involved in their lessons. When skilful open ended questions were asked students were challenged to think more deeply about their texts and good learning was in evidence. In addition, some teachers’ language use in the classroom was an example of good practice in that students could easily model the terminology and expression used by the teachers.
There was a good teacher-student relationship in evidence in most classes. This was particularly the case when teachers were affirming of their students. Students were comfortable enough to ask questions and to participate. Some teachers brought their texts to life by encouraging students to see the writer’s point of view and by showing enthusiasm for their subject matter. A secure teaching environment and good student teacher relationship led to good learning situations and good student participation.
Those English teachers who have base classrooms had them well decorated with posters pertaining to English, key words and some samples of students’ work. This is commended. Good practice was in evidence when teachers used key word posters as resources for teaching in their lessons. This is good as students will be constantly reminded of literary devices and most students benefit from seeing their work displayed.
English teachers analyse their results against national averages. This is excellent practice. There was evidence that there is a gradual increase in the number of students sitting higher level English in state examinations, particularly at Junior Certificate. In addition, the number of students sitting foundation level English is kept to a minimum.
Formal examinations are held at Christmas and summer for non-examination classes, with the exception of TY, after which written reports are sent home. Parents of fifth and sixth students receive three reports each year. TY students are continuously assessed. Parents attend annual parent-teacher meetings. First-year students sit a common examination with a common marking scheme. This is good practice. Common tests are also generally set in second and fifth year within appropriate levels. Third and sixth-year students sit ‘mock’ examinations. While some students will have reasonable accommodation in state examinations and have, for example, computers to work with, they do not have opportunities to practice this during ‘mock’ examinations or in class. This is an area that could be prioritised in future years.
The school provides homework support for students with SEN and supervised study for all students from second year. There is an overall homework policy in the school. However, it is recommended that English teachers devise their own homework policy which might include a policy on how often longer pieces of writing should be given to class groups so that all students receive regular practice in writing. Students’ tests results are recorded by teachers but there should be more recording of grades obtained in longer pieces of writing to develop a fuller profile of students’ strengths and weaknesses.
Students’ work varied in standard in keeping with the range of abilities observed. In some classes students have folders for notes and use hardback copies for handing up homework. This is good practice and it was evident that these were very well maintained. The standard of presentation of work in some cases was poor. Consideration could be given to allocating some marks for maintenance of work and homework for end of term examinations. Again there was evidence that when high expectations by teachers of students’ work were communicated to the students, they rose to this challenge. For example LCA Year 2 students have a well maintained folder for storage of resources and early drafts of work done.
Teachers need to be assiduous when correcting work of lower-ability students in particular and point out any mistakes in spelling or grammar. The good practice of students having to draft and edit work was seen in some senior cycle classes. In general, good use of formative assessment was in evidence so that students not only received a grade but a comment which instructed them on areas where they need to improve. This good practice should be developed by all teachers.
Senior cycle students were aware of the discrete criteria for assessment which is good practice.
The following are the main strengths identified in the evaluation:
· The achievement of concurrently timetabling English from second year is commended.
· Teachers are highly commended for organising a range of co-curricular activities pertaining to English.
· There is good whole school support for English in the school. Teachers are facilitated to attend inservice and a budget is available for the subject.
· The practice of team teaching is highly commended as an excellent strategy for assisting students of lower ability and for sharing teaching strategies.
· A range of commendable initiatives to improve students’ literacy levels have been implemented.
· English is ably coordinated in the school and the aspirations of the coordinators are commended.
· English teachers meet on a monthly basis to plan for the subject and this is highly commended. Records of meetings reflect a department which is keen to improve its practices.
· The board was used well in all lessons and questioning was generally appropriate.
· When students were actively involved in their lessons learning was most in evidence.
· A secure teaching environment and good student teacher relationship led to good learning situations and good student participation.
· When high expectations by teachers of students’ work were communicated to the students, they rose to this challenge and in these classes copies and folders were very well maintained.
· In general, good use of formative assessment was in evidence.
As a means of building on these strengths and to address areas for development, the following key recommendations are made:
· In future years, consideration might be given to extending mixed ability into second year and third year for English as placement of students into lower ability classes may affect students’ self esteem and research indicates that mixed-ability has positive benefits for all students regardless of ability.
· On a few occasions the teaching of a single class group is shared between two teachers. This is not an ideal situation as it disrupts continuity in the learning experience of students. It is recommended that this situation be avoided in so far is possible.
· It is recommended that management endeavour to give English classes to those teachers who have English at least to first year in their degree, with the exception of those teachers who have an SEN or learning-support qualification and who teach SEN class groups.
· The potential for use of ICT should be explored in the English classrooms as it can prove a valuable teaching and learning tool.
· English teachers should decide their overall aim for the subject and the common plan for each year group should be expanded to develop agreed learning outcomes or key skills that each student should achieve within their chosen level and a list of suggested teaching methodologies and suggested texts. Teachers are encouraged to challenge all students to reach their highest achievable level and to study course content commensurate to their abilities and the syllabus.
· English teachers should explore and share strategies to involve their students actively in their learning rather than often being passive participants.
· English teachers should devise their own homework policy which might include guidelines on frequency of homework, recording of this work in teachers’ diaries, allocating some marks for maintenance of work and homework to end of term examinations and use of formative assessment.
Post-evaluation meetings were held with some of 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.