An Roinn Oideachais agus Eolaíochta
Department of Education and Science
Subject Inspection of Gaeilge
Our Lady’s College
Drogheda, County Louth
Roll number: 63850F
Date of inspection: 22 January 2008
Report on the Quality of Learning and Teaching in Irish
This report has been written following a subject inspection in Our Lady’s College as part of a whole school evaluation. It presents the findings of an evaluation of the quality of teaching and learning in Irish 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 subject teachers and to the principal.
Our Lady’s College is a voluntary Catholic secondary school for girls in the trusteeship of the Presentation Order. There are 881 pupils enrolled for the current school year 2007/08 and 103 of these pupils have an exemption from Irish, equivalent to slightly over 11 per cent of the total number of enrolled students. Nearly half of all students with exemptions are students for whom Irish or English is not the native tongue and nearly half are students with recognised learning difficulties. The small remainder consists of students who received their primary education outside the state. The principal confirmed that exemptions from Irish are only granted subject to the provisions of Circular M10/94. In addition to the established courses, the Junior Certificate and Leaving Certificate, there is provision for Irish on the Transition Year programme and the Leaving Certificate Applied.
Irish has standing in the school’s life and the principal supports the Irish teachers’ efforts to promote the subject. Irish is presented to the students as an academic subject worth the effort and as an important part of Irish life and culture. Irish is important as a subject in the school curriculum and every effort is made to attract the greatest number of students to attempt higher level. The teachers are to be commended for the prominence of this positive attitude amongst themselves and with the students and for setting challenging targets for the students as regards achievements in the subject.
The subject is taught in mixed-ability classes in first year. It would be worth considering assessing all students’ language ability early in first year in order to register students’ achievements under the revised primary curriculum for Irish as a reference point in learning. Such assessment could be discussed with the teachers in the feeder primary schools, if it is felt that this would be advantageous. This assessment should be set in the context of the primary curriculum learning objectives, however, as opposed to the Junior Certificate Irish syllabus context. Spoken Irish should be included in such an assessment. A link with the primary teachers regarding such a proposed assessment would confirm that the Irish teachers of Our Lady’s College were keen to identify all students’ ability in Irish early and to set out a programme for them to focus on their specific learning needs. The assessment would also help to focus attention on Our Lady’s College Irish teachers’ expectations that spoken Irish would be central to the language skills expected of the students coming from primary school.
From the start of second year the students are placed in classes commensurate with the various levels in the subject. A large number of students and their parents are recommended to undertake higher level and higher level classes are in a large majority in second year and third year in the junior cycle and still to the fore in Transition Year as regards the number of students undertaking that level. In the case of classes at ordinary level, an equal number of students as regards ability are distributed. This arrangement ensures that there are various abilities in all classes and the students with lesser ability have examples from other students. The Irish classes are run concurrently on the timetable in all years except in first year which involves mixed ability classes. These arrangements ensure that students have the opportunity to change levels in the subject. Attempts are made to organise other classes for those students with exemptions from Irish and who are entitled to other resources when Irish is on their timetable and the teachers confirmed that these students do not interfere with the Irish classes. All these arrangements are commended.
There is a large number of Irish teachers in the school, with fourteen teaching the subject in the current school year. Irish is a small part of certain teachers’ teaching programmes. There are good planning arrangements in place which ensure that such teachers are kept informed of the Irish department’s activities and that they are kept up to date in planning matters. One teacher is nominated in charge of planning matters in each particular year. This arrangement is commended as it ensures that meetings of fewer Irish teachers’ may be convened and that the focus can be on the issues of that year only. As a result none of the Irish teachers is marginal in the teaching of the subject despite dealing with another subject also. The teachers have the opportunity to add to their Irish classes in another school year and the current arrangements ensure that they can retain contact with the subject and with the department even if they only have one Irish class to teach in the year. These arrangements also ensure that no Irish teacher goes out of practice in teaching the subject.
The principal has an empathy with the subject arising from many years’ experience as an Irish teacher and he understands the requirements of the courses and the students. He consults the teachers about timetabling the subject and nominates the teachers for the various years. He gives the teachers the freedom to divide the teaching of classes in the various levels amongst themselves. This indicates his confidence in the ability and effectiveness of the Irish teachers. The management supports the teachers’ professional development and great use has been made of, and benefit gained from, the Second Level Support Service (SLSS) for Irish in the current school year. Two teachers have attended an SLSS in-service course for the teaching of the subject in first year in the current school year and two other teachers have reserved places later in the year. Two teachers attended an SLSS pilot course a year ago. In addition to this eight Irish teachers have done a course on the use of information and communication technology resources (ICT) arising from the teachers’ own demands for such a course. It was indicated that the teachers who attend in-service courses in the subject share all worthwhile information obtained on those courses with their colleagues in the Irish department, a commendable practice.
The management provides good support for resources for teaching the subject. Twelve of the Irish teachers have classrooms in their care. The teachers have CD players and there is access to DVD players with televisions. Certain Irish teachers have started using data projectors and laptop computers in class. There is one data projector and laptop computer available specifically for the Irish department. It is intended to add to these resources as the school’s financial resources allow and in some cases teachers have acquired and used such ICT resources of their own accord. The teachers have access to the Dréimire, Staighre and Céim booklets for use in the classes. Irish notices have been purchased for the classrooms as well as a comprehensive collection of books in Irish for young people, registered in the subject plan. The teachers confirmed that the principal was supportive of requests for resources for the subject.
The number of periods provided for the subject in the school timetable is satisfactory. There are four periods per week in first year, Transition Year, and for the Leaving Certificate Applied course which is completed in one year. There are five periods for second year, third year, fifth year and sixth year. Single classes, one per day, are involved in each case, in keeping with best practice.
A wide range of activities is organised during Seachtain na Gaeilge to promote Irish. Renowned guests have visited the school in recognition of Irish. In recent years these included Mícheál Ó Muircheartaigh, Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill and Tadhg Mac Dhonnagáin. The school’s Irish debating teams take part in the Gael Linn competition. A four-day trip to the Gaeltacht is organised as part of the Transition Year programme. Various trips to Irish-language activities are organised with students, such as theatrical productions and students are entered for Gaeltacht scholarship schemes and essay-writing competitions. Gaelic football has made great progress in the school and the school’s name and motto is in Irish on the school football team jersey. The football team captain gives the speech in Irish when a final is won. Mock oral examinations are organised for Leaving Certificate students in the teachers’ free time. The Irish department and the school in general is commended for these great efforts to promote Irish in the Irish class and in the life of the school.
At the start of the year, the teachers themselves agree upon a subject co-ordinator for that school year. It is recommended that this duty be spread among the greatest number of people willing to undertake this work. In the current school year two teachers are acting as joint co-ordinators of the Irish department’s work. One person deals with the junior cycle and the other with the senior cycle. In addition, individual teachers are assigned responsibility for each of the six years in the school. This arrangement is commended due to the size of the school. This arrangement means that many of the Irish teachers have a direct involvement in the department’s planning duties.
Time is provided for major planning meetings in the subject twice a year on average. One is held at the start of the year and the other at another time in the year which best suits the school development planning - not necessarily at the end of the year. Apart from those major meetings the teachers organise meetings in their own time depending on the requirements at the time. These meetings are held at break time or lunch time to focus on matters relating to a particular year-group. The principal attends most of the subject major meetings, which are held in Irish, and copies of meeting minutes are given to him. Due to the excellence of these arrangements the school management is fully informed about the Irish department’s activities.
The Irish department has made good progress in subject planning work. A comprehensive folder was presented which was completely neat and well-ordered. Attached as a self-contained booklet was the subject plan for Irish for the current 2007/08 school year. the subject plan layout was in accordance with the School Development Planning Initiative (SDPI) planning template. The plan’s aims and objectives were in keeping with the syllabi and the school’s mission statement. This booklet contained valuable content relating to resources, in particularl the noticeable development of ICT resources in the subject. Copies of PowerPoint presentations were observed which were prepared in the school as support for teaching grammar and teaching prose. The members of staff clearly had good skills in this work. This content included good pictures and high-quality maps which would stimulate the students’ interest in the subject. Another electronic file dealt with video and audio items taken during Seachtain na Gaeilge 2007 as a record of Mícheál Ó Muircheartaigh’s visit to the school as that week’s guest speaker. This development of ICT in the subject is highly commended and other examples of the use of ICT with various classes were observed during the inspection.
The subject plan gave a general overview of the work of the teachers in general. It is recommended that the following small amendments be made so that other worthwhile information is easily available to the teachers. It would be worth giving an overview of all classes in the subject for the current school year, the levels of such classes and the teachers who are teaching them. The inspector circulated such an account among the teachers during the inspection which showed that information clearly on one page. It would be worth registering an account in the subject plan of the students’ participation in the subject at the various levels in the certificate examinations together with an account of the students’ achievements in the subject in those exams. Also, it would be worthwhile adding to the information available in the plan for the current school year on page five about the timetable and showing a copy of the timetable as applies to each year in the school year by year for each day of the week as well as the lesson times. This does not involve much work and it is a great help to the department members to have that information available clearly on one page in order to co-ordinate activities, especially when there are so many teachers involved with the subject. It would be worth placing a guidance note in the general plan about registering learning objectives and teaching methodologies.
Other plans were attached to the folder, dealing with each year group. These plans provided common guidance regarding the work of the various years equivalent to the various levels in the subject for the two halves of the school year. The guidance was very clear regarding the material to be implemented with the classes. In some cases there was guidance about the appropriate teaching methodologies to be practised. It would be worth using the same headings in all the plans. These documents were accompanied by the individual plans of the teachers responsible for classes in that year, with the teachers’ names on them. In the case of first year classes where mixed-ability classes are involved it would be worth registering a common approach as regards placing a clearer emphasis on developing spoken ability and the methodology to be used to achieve this and the assessment associated with it. Some plans for that year contained references to the development of the spoken language and the same approach should be implemented in all plans.
The plans prepared by one teacher in the junior cycle showed an approach to advance spoken language with the students in the class. Though spoken practice in those plans was limited to questions relating to the topic from the textbook, at least speech was recognised in the plans as an integral part of the class work. There was an emphasis on the spoken language as an aspect of the language skills to be practised in an integrated way to be observed in one plan in third year, a plan which showed a pro-active approach to speech with the help of items of live speech from the broadcast media. This plan mentioned the number of students in the class. It would be worth rewriting this plan in order to make the emphasis on spoken language clear with headings. This plan was commended for the understanding the author showed of the students’ own range of interests and of the use of items from TG4 programmes to stimulate that conversation. The approach set out in this plan was later observed being implemented effectively in a senior cycle class. It would be worth extending the emphasis on developing spoken skills as contained in this plan to other plans.
Appropriate attention to developing oral skills was to be seen in the Transition Year plans together with attention to cultural awareness relating to singing, dancing, the Irish-language broadcast media and tasting the life of the Gaeltacht on a four day visit. These plans were in keeping with the objectives of the Transition Year programme. The plan for communicative Irish in the Leaving Certificate Applied was very clear about that course’s objectives and requirements. The plan for fifth year contained a clear reference to methodologies and to teaching methods and there were references to the same matters in individual plans. There was appropriate attention to preparation for the oral examination in the senior cycle plans. It would be worth recognising the speaking of the language in the plans as a language skill which will be practised in an integrated way with the other language skills as opposed to a skill to be practised by itself for topics associated solely with the oral examination.
The accounts observed in the folder of the proceedings of the Irish teachers’ meetings showed that the teachers were engaged in co-ordinated and individual planning in order to present the subject to the students effectively and to prepare appropriately for the certificate examination requirements. The quality of planning work throughout was commended. As another step in the planning work it would be worth registering a summary account in the plans of the learning objectives set for the students, year by year commensurate with the various levels in the subject. These could be shared among the students at the start of the year and examples given to them, based on an assessment of work in the previous year. This may be done just by specifying the four language skills and providing examples of the quality of work in those skills which will be expected of the students by the end of that year. It would be worth looking at the framework set out in the European Languages Portfolio in which there are checklists of the learning objectives specified in the Junior Certificate and Leaving Certificate syllabi as a facility for this.
Nine lessons were observed with nine teachers during the inspection. Five lessons related to the junior cycle and four with the senior cycle. A range of teaching methodologies and learning activities was being practised in those classes and in the vast majority of cases these methodologies were appropriate for the students in those classes and there was appropriate attention to students’ abilities. Questions were asked questions orally during lessons, reading was practised, written lessons given as homework were reviewed and in certain cases recordings were played of authentic items from the Irish-language broadcasting media in order to sharpen listening skills. Good practice includes providing a variety of learning activities in the lesson in order to focus the students’ attention on the lesson’s objective.
The objectives of all lessons observed were clearly presented and the good organisation and structure of the lessons helped to advance learning in each case. Some lessons showed continuity with material which had gone before and care was taken to revise and consolidate the amount already learned. Handouts were distributed in many lessons which were well-chosen and which helped the students to remain attentive to the lesson’s objective. The students’ copybooks observed were neat and tidy and there was comprehensive work to be seen as well as teachers’ acknowledgement of that work.
Effective use was being made of ICT resources, specifically data projectors and laptop computers, in the case of many classes. In some cases authentic texts taken from websites were being used and copies provided to the students as handouts to assist learning. This indicated the extent to which ICT skills have been acquired among members of the Irish department. Non-use of ICT resources is not regarded as an omission in a lesson. The use of ICT is mentioned favourably here for the excellence of the material prepared in advance, which was presented and which progressed learning. In certain classes there was no use being made of ICT yet the students were still focussed on the lesson’s work. ICT is mentioned to those teachers as a resource which could be used from time to time to present material in a pleasant way and which would give additional variety to teaching and learning.
All the teachers had the same approach to class management, more or less. A roll was called at first, homework was corrected, the content of the lesson was presented, that content was practised with the students, the lesson’s work was revised and homework was assigned in order to strengthen that material. In the case of all classes observed the teachers had full co-operation from the students and this was a great help in advancing learning. The students and teachers clearly had respect for each other and the learning atmosphere in all lessons was of a high quality.
There was an attractive display of material in Irish on the walls in some of the classrooms as well as attractive material dealing with the other subjects being taught by the teachers. The best of these displays are recommended as examples in other cases to provide an attractive atmosphere for Irish as an environment for the students, especially where nearly every teacher has their own classroom. This material should be renewed from time to time.
The speaking of Irish was the normal practice for the teachers with the students in all the classes. Active learning was being practised with certain classes in a very effective manner, which gave variety to the work and gave the students the opportunity to ask each other questions as well as answering questions. Group work was an integral part of the classes observed in first year. The students formed groups of four or the entire class was formed into a circle immediately when directed by the teacher. It was clear that the students were used to this as a common practice form the way in which furniture was moved aside, and subsequently restored in position, without delay and without noise or clatter. The group work ensured that the students had the opportunity to communicate with each other in Irish and that they were not relying solely on the teacher to practise the language. The teachers directed the group work well.
Two different lessons in the junior cycle dealt with discussion of weather matters, one lesson at higher level, the other at ordinary level. These two lessons were excellent in terms of preparation, direction of active work, the quality of the handouts prepared and the use made of ICT resources. All the language skills were being consolidated in those lessons and they were superbly developed step by step. In one case a vocabulary was shown on a large screen from a laptop computer which dealt with discussion of the weather with excellent photographs as background showing the kind of weather involved. The focus was then placed on the type of vocabulary which would be heard on a weather forecast broadcast on the radio or television. In the other lesson a handout was distributed containing a map of Ireland with attractive symbols of different kinds of weather in the four corners with spaces beside them in which to write in appropriate vocabulary. A map of Ireland projected on the whiteboard was on display throughout and used by the teacher as a guide. In both lessons examples were provided of the extent to which references to the weather are found in normal talk. A vocabulary store was provided relating to geographical matters, directions, the four provinces, various counties, natural features etc.
Later in the higher level class an item recorded on DVD was shown of the weather forecast on TG4 for which the preparation had already been fully done by that time in the lesson. This broadcast was shown four times and there was a typed questionnaire prepared by the teacher to be completed by the students while they were listening to and watching the television item. This work was corrected and a copy of a contemporary song in Irish dealing with the weather was distributed as preparation for the following day’s lesson. The lesson ended with the attention of the students being drawn to the weather to be observed outside the window and they were asked to give a spoken description of it. This final activity finished the lesson by practising vocabulary about life as it was around them. The students succeeded in using the new vocabulary practised beforehand. In the ordinary level class more time was spent on practising vocabulary in preparation for viewing the weather forecast in the next lesson. These two particular lessons were examples of effective integrated practising of the language skills and of using a range of methodologies which gave variety and provided pleasure in learning. Both lessons paid appropriate attention to the level of ability of the students in the two classes and to setting an appropriate pace for teaching. These lessons were highly commended.
It was noticed during the group work in certain classes that certain students were particularly fluent in spoken Irish. It was revealed that these were students who had attended an all-Irish primary school. It would be worth setting a particular challenge for these students or to set them a more challenging role while doing group work, such as noting down a written record of the group’s work, with the teacher expecting a particular accuracy of them in such an account, or giving an oral report of the group’s work.
When certain teachers were asking questions about work that had been completed they showed awareness of the various abilities of students in the class. In one case in the junior cycle, for example, where revision was being done at the start of the lesson of a reading comprehension piece done beforehand, the teacher asked different students a series of questions orally. Some of the questions were information questions like the questions in the book but other questions were asked which required the students to express an opinion about the subject of the piece. These were questions which were not in the book and showed not only that the students remembered the piece read before but also that some of them were able to express opinions also. This care to serve the various abilities in the same class was good.
A group of higher level students were succeeding well in answering an Irish vocabulary with translation. They were asked to explain various Irish words. They answered these questions with accurate translation to English and these answers were praised. It is recommended that simple Irish be sought from students, especially in a higher level class, as an explanation of vocabulary instead of translation. If, for example, a higher level student is asked to explain an athletics silver medal it would be much better for the student to answer that the silver medal is awarded to the person who comes in second place instead of giving ‘a silver medal’ as an explanation.
The quality of teaching and learning in the classes observed in the senior level was good in each case and excellent preparation made for most of them which ensured great variety in the activities. Three of these were higher level classes and the students displayed a spoken ability in keeping with the spoken language objectives in the Leaving Certificate syllabus. The self-confident lively presentation of the teachers greatly encouraged these students to speak. ICT resources were in use effectively in most of these classes. Photographs, maps, new vocabulary, questions and summaries were displayed and handouts were distributed which gave a summary of the lesson work and guidance for doing other work. In this way, a great amount of time was saved as the students did not have to take this work done in class.
Particular attention was drawn to a video item shown in one class as an aid to stimulate thoughts about an essay to be written that night about the place of Irish in contemporary life. The item contained the speech given by the captain of the victorious Cork hurling team on accepting the All-Ireland trophy in 2005. That speech was in Irish only. The speech itself was short and was played a couple of times. Other images of Sharon Ní Bheoláin were shown as additions to that theme. A series of images and points was shown to stimulate discussion of the subject. These images succeeded in encouraging the students to discuss and express their opinions. Other photographs were taken from the Internet and used in a PowerPoint presentation about an aspect of the language’s history and a handout was distributed on the same subject. The quality of the presentation was excellent. The same quality applied to other classes and a PowerPoint presentation which greatly helped to stimulate discussion and summarise the play ‘An Triail’ and the poem ‘Deireadh Ré’. Suitable work was given to Leaving Certificate students preparing for written composition in paper one.
All the lessons observed showed that there was a high quality of teaching and learning in the school and that students and teachers were working together to achieve the highest standards. It would be worth considering issuing occasional invitations among the Irish department to visit each other’s classes, in order to share the good practices, as observed during this inspection, and to promote continuous professional development internally in the school.
The Irish teachers adhere to the school policy regarding assessment. A report is sent home to parents each term. The reports for the first term and the second term are based on the teacher’s continuous assessment. The first year students sit an additional examination in December as a guide to the progress of the students in those mixed-ability classes. These marks are used as a guide for the changes made at the end of the year to divide the classes according to the different levels in the subject from the start of second year onwards.
Parents are kept informed of progress in the subject through reports sent home by post each term, parent-teacher meetings, acknowledgement of homework and composition in the copybooks and notes in students’ diaries if necessary. It would be worth attaching the analysis of students’ achievements in the certificate examinations to the subject plan. It is recommended that statistics of achievements should be attached there relating to a period going back between three and five years. This information would provide a trustworthy picture of trends in students’ achievements in the subject. It would be a useful reference point for review of the subject plan.
If it is decided to perform start-of-year assessment tests on the first year students, as set out on page two of this report, it would be very worthwhile recording the results of those tests and attaching them to the subject plan. In that way all the department members would have access to that information in their own copies of the plan as a reference source for planning and review of individual students’ learning requirements.
Members of the Irish department are advised to make a decision soon about the changes to teaching and assessment that will be required to serve the new arrangements to be introduced for allocation of marks in the certificate examinations from the year 2010 onwards. These arrangements relate to the students already registered in first year in the current school year (2007/08) who will be undertaking the Junior Certificate examination in the year 2010. It would be worth considering the optional oral examination for the Junior Certificate examination. A common assessment system should be agreed among the teachers soon in recognition of the students competence in spoken Irish in the junior cycle and spoken Irish should be promoted more in planning work and class work.
There was plenty of evidence available during the inspection that both teachers and students of Our Lady’s College would be fully competent for the challenge associated with the change in marks allocation towards spoken Irish in the certificate examinations.
The following are the main strengths identified in the evaluation:
· All the lessons observed showed that there was a high quality of teaching and learning of Irish in the school and that students and teachers were working together to achieve the highest standards. Irish has standing in the life of the school and as a subject on the school curriculum and a large number of students undertake higher level in the certificate examinations.
· Overall the quality of planning work was commendable. Good arrangements are in place in the Irish department which ensure that a large number of teachers are involved in the subject planning and that all the teachers are informed of the department’s activities, even those teachers who only have a small amount of teaching in Irish as part of their teaching programme.
· The principal greatly supports the provision of resources for the subject and has confidence in the ability and effectiveness of the Irish teachers.
· The Irish teachers are very alert as regards attendance at in-service courses in the subject and the use of ICT resources has been greatly advanced among them and effective use was made of ICT resources, specifically data projectors and laptop computers, in the case of many of the classes.
· A wide range of activities is organised to promote Irish in school life in general in addition to Irish in the classroom.
· There was total co-operation from the students in the classes observed and there was a good quality learning atmosphere in all the lessons.
As a means of building on these strengths and to address areas for development, the following key recommendations are made:
· To make a decision soon about the changes which will apply to the certificate examinations from the year 2010 onwards and to consider the optional oral examination for the Junior Certificate examination.
· To consider assessing the language competence of all the students early in the first year in order to register the students’ achievements under the amended primary Irish curriculum as a reference point in learning.
· To record an account in the subject plan of the learning objectives for the various years and the various levels. A guide to the learning objectives is available in the Irish syllabi and in the European Languages Portfolio.
· To place a clear common emphasis in first year plans regarding spoken language development.
· To consider issuing invitations, among the Irish department members, to each other’s classes, in order to share the good practices, as observed during this inspection, and to promote continuous professional development internally in the school.
Post-evaluation meetings were held with the teachers of Irish and with the principal at the conclusion of the evaluation at which the draft findings and recommendations of the evaluation were presented and discussed.
Published September 2008