An Roinn Oideachais agus Eolaíochta
Department of Education and Science
Subject Inspection of Gaeilge
St Louis Secondary School
Dun Lughaidh, Dundalk, County Louth
Roll number: 63910U
Date of Inspection: 13 May 2008
Report on The Quality of Learning and Teaching in Irish
This report has been written following a subject inspection in St. Louis Secondary School, Dundalk. 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. The board of management was given an opportunity to comment in writing on the findings and recommendations of the report; a response was not received from the board.
St. Louis Secondary School, Dundalk is an all-girls school, which has been providing second level education in the area for more than a half a century. There are 550 students enrolled for the current 2007/08 year. The following education programmes are available in the school – Junior Certificate, Transition Year, Leaving Certificate (Established), Leaving Certificate Applied and the Leaving Certificate Vocational Programme.
Irish has a strong position in the school, on the school programme and amongst the school community. It is expected that as many students with the ability to do so will take the higher level in Irish in the Junior Certificate examination at least and that the students will achieve high results in the subject in the certificate examinations together with the other subjects. As a public illustration of this commitment to Irish the big number of awards won by the school team in the Gael Linn debating competition over the years were on display. Irish debating remains strong in the school and teams reach the regional finals, at least, of that competition on a regular basis. The school staff supports the events that are extensively organised during Seachtain na Gaeilge. There are teachers in the Irish department with experience of teaching on summer Gaeltacht courses. Gaeltacht colleges are publicised and a significant number of students go on Gaeltacht courses as an accepted custom in the summer. There were a lot of students in the classes which were visited who had done such a course or who were doing a course in the coming summer.
Ten per cent of the total number of students enrolled are exempt from Irish. Most of these are students with recognised learning difficulties (fifty per cent of them). The second biggest group are students whose mother tongue is neither Irish nor English (thirty four per cent) and there are a small number of students who undertook their primary education outside of the state up to eleven years of age (eleven per cent). The teachers were satisfied with the arrangements made for these students when they have Irish on the timetable.
There are nine teachers teaching Irish currently and Irish is a significant part of the teaching programme in the case of five of them. At present there is one teacher on secondment from a post having been appointed as a member of the Second Level Support Service (SLSS) for Irish. The school is fortunate to have so many other Irish teachers with experience in teaching the subject and as a result there is flexibility in relation to the amount of sharing in the teaching of the subject amongst them. The teachers are given an equal opportunity to teach the subject at all levels and the teachers avail of those opportunities. This is commendable.
School management strongly supports the Irish teachers' professional development as well as the whole of the teaching staff. There is a good attendance from the Irish teachers on in-service courses in the subject. The current SLSS course on teaching Irish to first year students has been completed by three of the teachers this year. In addition to that, the Irish teachers are participating in an initiative of the SLSS in the interests of creating Leabhrán Eagraithe Grafacha (Organised Graphics Booklet) as an aid to teaching Irish in the class. There are two teachers involved in team teaching with a class in the junior cycle. The teachers themselves voluntarily set up the initiative, on a trial basis this year, to see how much progress could be made in the subject with team teaching instead of individual teaching in their own classes. Both work in another subject area where they have experience of working together for a number of years. The teachers are to be commended for their initiative.
Two teachers with two higher level classes in sixth year are also co-operating with one another this year in special circumstances. These examples demonstrate the co-operation amongst the members of the Irish department. The teaching staff in general is focussing on teaching methods with mixed-ability classes at present and this work will be integral to the planning activities of the 2008/09 school year. The staff will focus on assessment for learning as a particular topic in August 2008. The school is to be praised for this attention to the teachers' continuous professional development.
The amount of time allocated for the subject on the school timetable is satisfactory. Five periods per week are provided in second year, third year, fifth year and sixth year. There are four periods in first year and in year two for Irish in the Leaving Certificate Applied. Three periods are provided in Transition Year. Those lessons are allocated well with one lesson per day at most. However, the case such as that of the third year in the current school year should be reviewed and an effort should be made to avoid this allocation, if possible, when the timetable is being compiled. At present all of the lessons are in the afternoon for all the classes in third year every day of the week. In the review that is carried out on the Transition Year activities it is recommended to keep an accurate account of the number of Irish lessons taking place throughout the year, and to take into consideration other activities which impinge on Irish lessons. The Transition Year Irish programme should be amended accordingly or it should be ensured that the provision of Irish classes is not overly affected due to other activities.
The students in first year are in mixed-ability classes and Irish is not taken into consideration in the assessment made of new students for the purpose of distributing them amongst the different classes. As a result the first year classes are genuine mixed-ability classes. The classes are not set up based on the different levels in the subject until second year and the classes are organized concurrently on the timetable from then onwards, other than Transition Year where the classes are of mixed ability and in the Leaving Certificate Applied. There are good options available to the students to allow them to find the level best suited to them because of these arrangements. These arrangements are praiseworthy as every student is given the opportunity throughout first year to achieve the higher level or at least there is encouragement in the classes from other students who have a higher ability in Irish.
Due to the lack of space the school does not have the capacity to provide teachers with their own classrooms and rooms are not available therefore to provide a supportive environment of notices in Irish for display. There is limited use made of information and communications technology (ICT) resources in Irish. The most use made of ICT is when teachers take material from websites as part of their preparation. It was understood that the Transition Year classes make limited use of ICT resources in the computer room. The same applies in the case of the limited use made of TG4 programmes in the teaching of Irish. The school maintains an annual budget for the subject. This is used to buy teaching resources and in supporting the debating teams. In the absence of classrooms the Irish teachers have a resources' room available to them so that they can store resources and find them with reasonable ease. These resources are being added to on an ongoing basis. If the space is available, it is recommended that one classroom be made available specifically for Irish which would be divided amongst a certain number of Irish teachers. If the school can implement this recommendation it is advised that a television and DVD player should be wallmounted, and that a laptop, data projector and internet connection should also be made available. The teachers should set out a programme in order to confirm the use that would be made of those resources. A demonstration on the use of ICT was given on the SLSS in-service course which was attended by three of the teachers this year. It would be good to have the use of ICT and a good selection of clips from TG4 programmes as an aim for the Irish teachers and that this practice could be expanded over time. It would be good for the students to see that Irish is adaptable to modern life and present-day technology.
The teachers and management wish to implement innovative changes such as these for Irish in the school if the funding is made available. The school is open to the idea of considering an initiative in the teaching and learning of Irish at second level that would integrate ICT with that work. The school may consult with another school of the St. Louis Order in Northern Ireland, where Irish is also on the school programme, and explore the possibilities of making a joint cross-border application for submission to one of the all-Ireland bodies in the interests of attracting significant funding for ICT resources for this initiative. It is recommended that the school give further consideration to pursuing an innovative project such as this.
It is clear that the school management has confidence in the Irish teachers. The principal confirmed that there is a high morale amongst the Irish teachers and that this, along with the expectations and professionalism of the teachers, has a lot of influence on the high numbers of students who undertake the higher level and on the good results achieved in the subject. The observations and findings of the subject inspection support this self-assessment. Also the enthusiasm to make progress in the subject, shown by the students in general in the classes observed, is noted among the reasons for the success of the teaching and learning of Irish in St. Louis Secondary School, Dundalk.
Planning and preparation matters have been well developed in the Irish department. Time is made available to the Irish teachers twice a year, in August and in May, to formally convene department meetings. Other arrangements are made at Christmas when internal examinations are in progress on request from the teachers themselves. All members of the Irish department take the responsibility as a co-ordinator of the subject for a period and experience in this work is extensive in the department. Copies of important documents for the subject are attached to the Irish department's plan and the teachers can access these easily – the Irish syllabi, relevant circulars, and a copy of Dr. David Little's discussion document Teangacha sa Churaclam Iar-bhunoideachais / Languages in the Post-primary Curriculum. This latter document is an illustration that there is knowledge of the teaching of other languages amongst the teachers and two of the Irish teachers are also teachers of modern languages.
It is recommended to add a copy of the Council of Europe's publication European Languages Portfolio to this material also as a guide for the teachers in defining learning objectives for Irish, and for other languages, equivalent to the various language fields. These guideline objectives are linked to the Irish syllabi which are being used at second level and include worthwhile guidance on various language skills and on the quality of those skills which would be reasonable to expect from students who study Irish for the Junior Certificate and for the Leaving Certificate.
The Irish department's plan is clear and readable in relation to the contents which are to be taught in each year and it is set out well for every term as a guide to teaching common courses. This planning work is in accord with the Irish syllabi. The teachers’ individual plans are faithful to the department plan. All of the teachers have gathered together significant material as an aid for them to teach the programmes. The teachers have compiled that material together in folders and divided it out under the various language skills and in accordance with the certificate examination papers' requirements. It would be worthwhile listing the learning objectives in addition to the table of contents. The learning objectives are the same as the language functions as noted in the syllabi. It would be worth listing these under the four language skills and to note an explanation or exemplars of the quality of those skills which would be acquired by the students by the end of their course. This would be a very good guide for the students themselves and their parents on the type of work that the students would complete in a particular year or at a particular level.
It is noted in the planning work that the teachers appreciate the class practice that is required to implement the significant changes that have been announced under the Circular 0042/2007 on the increase of the proportion of marks for the spoken language. It is recognised in the plan that there will be a particular emphasis on the development of oral skills with the current 2007/08 first year students. This task will have to be extended gradually to the other years. It is recommended to register an indicative allocation of the amount of time that will be spent specifically on practising spoken Irish. However, this skill should not be restricted in itself with attention being paid to it only on a given day per week. Speech is an integral part of the work of every lesson but care should be taken that sufficient time is allocated for the students to practise free conversation, not just with the teacher but amongst themselves as well.
It would be worthwhile trying out other possibilities in the interests of providing conversation opportunities outside of the class. Could students be enticed to establish a conversation club at lunchtime or spend lunch one day a week in a particular room where the only rule would be that Irish would be spoken during that time? Would a teacher be happy to attend such an initiative once a week as an incentive to the students to speak amongst themselves? It was noted that most of the students in the classes observed had good will and an effort such as this could be successful. This trial could enhance independent learning well and the work could still be enjoyable. None of this time should be spent with homework or with the Irish course itself but its sole purpose should be to create a social and friendly location.
The planning work on the use of ICT resources is limited in its description which corresponds to the limited use that is being made of those resources. A recommendation is made regarding this in the first section of this report and it is recognised that possibilities are being considered by the Irish department and school management to improve these matters. In the meantime it is recommended to give every support to the Irish teacher who is most at ease with ICT matters in order to set out a working programme which would see the use of ICT resources and that the teachers would work in co-operation with one another in using clips from TG4 programmes as much as possible with the classes.
It is recommended to clarify the Transition Year Irish programme in relation to the learning objectives of that programme and to pay attention in the planning to the students' differentiated needs in those mixed-ability classes. Innovation in learning should be taken into consideration on the Transition Year programme as well. Since Irish films and media studies are on the current Transition Year programme it is recommended to consider submitting an application to the Gael Linn radio programme competition for the Transition Year students or to the TG4 film competition for the Transition Year group.
Six classes were observed during the inspection – four in the junior cycle and two in the senior cycle. The average number of students registered in the Irish classes was eighteen, and the average number of students present for those lessons was fifteen. Those figures and the concurrent timetable that is in most of the years demonstrate that there are possibilities to merge classes, to conduct team teaching, or to exchange teachers between classes. There could be an advantage with this latter model so that teachers could specialize in certain aspects of various courses. Such an arrangement would also enhance the co-operation and closer review between the teachers on the progress made by classes. One teacher would not be solely responsible for one class any more as that duty would be divided on a wider basis.
The standard of teaching observed was good and it was evident that most of the students were able for the challenge placed before them and that they wished to take part in the lessons' activities. The management of lessons was good and good preparation was made for them. Although teachers had to move from room to room during the day the lessons started punctually, rolls were called and homework was requested. There was a clear purpose to all the lessons and that purpose was articulated. It was evident that the lesson work linked with work done previously and that homework was given to create that link.
Every teacher received full co-operation in all of the lessons. This applied equally in a class in the junior cycle where there were students who were very weak in Irish. It was noted in one junior class, for example, that all of the students raised their hands to answer various questions. The Irish teachers spoke Irish in the lessons and it was evident that the students understood the instructions they were given as well as the questions. The teachers spoke Irish regularly, even in the class with the least ability. The teachers employed variety with the students between oral questions and written work. The questions varied according to the different abilities of the students. The higher level group were asked to answer where it illustrated that they could engage with the language in a high level capacity. In the case of the weakest students they were asked for information answers and their vocabulary was enhanced in stages through the use of repetition and rewriting.
Particular note was taken of the two teachers who were team teaching a weak class in the junior cycle. The two teachers worked in complete co-operation with one another, sometimes with one of them asking questions, while the other one was writing short answers and drawing attention to new vocabulary on the white board. At other times one teacher moved amongst the students directing answers while group work was in progress. This lesson was being controlled very positively with students who had great difficulty in expressing themselves in Irish beyond a limited level. This lesson was an example of a balanced approach to encourage weak students to make their best effort.
The attention paid in the planning work to the development of spoken Irish with first year students was noticeable in class practice. In the two first year classes observed the students were eager to speak due to the continuous questions from the teachers as encouragement to do so. In one instance a discussion began on the school's sportsday activities which occurred the previous Friday. The students gave good answers to the oral questions and the teacher expanded on those answers to give a more complete account and during that time new vocabulary was written on the white board. Particular emphasis was placed throughout on broadening the vocabulary and the list of adjectives was gradually expanded. The teacher gave some of these but students gave a lot of them based on an approach in the questions that encouraged effort. In another case, group work was applied and the teacher moved from one group to another helping with the task that was given earlier in writing a letter. The students were talking with one another in Irish in the groups as they were trying to complete the task. It would be worthwhile providing opportunities for conversation for these students to speak on ordinary daily activities as well as displaying a capacity with the vocabulary central to the lesson aim. Talk on the sportsday matters was in accordance with that. It would be good to give oral homework to these students and that students would be chosen randomly to come before the class and to give a speech on anything that occurred or on something that interested them. Questions could then be asked on what they heard. These students were well able for a challenge like this and there was a wonderfully co-operative atmosphere between teachers and students that would permit this to be done regularly.
Very good use was made of the class game ‘Xs and Os’ with one class in the junior cycle in order to go through a poem in detail. These students had a good ability in the language and the teacher presented the students with more of a challenge over time. Although the students were enjoying winning the game, the task of the accuracy and phonetics of the language was being undertaken throughout. The students were corrected without interrupting the game or delaying it. An answer such as 'is maith liom' was not allowed when the answer to the question was 'ba mhaith liom'. But the corrections were made as if it was a surprise to receive such an answer from that particular student. The corrections were accepted willingly and they were practised with speed and then moved on to other questions.
In some cases handouts were prepared which assisted in keeping up the speed of the lesson work. This applied to a lesson in the senior cycle which discussed one of the genres of Irish literature, the folklore stories. This material was complex and had substance and was quite challenging for a class with a range of abilities and the teacher and students succeeded well in dealing with this topic. It is recommended not to go too deeply into a subject like this with a class of this kind and to try other material as well which would give an illustration to the students of engaging with the subject in a creative way. This was included in the programme of that year.
Oral and written Irish was practised to a very high standard with another class in the senior cycle which demonstrated the students' proficiency in Irish. The discussion was on social problems concerning drink and drugs in society. Aural comprehension was practised at the beginning of this lesson which was in accordance with the same topic. The subject was discussed and the vocabulary was enhanced. It was evident that these students were well capable of engaging in material like this and in expressing their opinions effortlessly. A handout was distributed later which gave additional material to the students to undertake the writing of an essay on this topic.
As the students had good ability to engage in the work presented to them it would be good to present them with more opportunities to advance to another stage and to express themselves on the big events of the day or on daily ordinary events. A lot of help would be available for this through watching sections of various programmes on TG4 regularly. The programmes Adhmhaidin or Seó Beo an tSathairn from Raidió na Gaeltachta are mentioned as other options for the higher level group. The teachers would require a lot of co-operation in order to divide that work. The selection and recording of programmes would be under one person's charge, for example, and preparing questionnaires on various items of the programmes would be under another person's charge. It is recommended that the Vifax service of the National University of Ireland, Maynooth be taken into consideration as well in order to practise contemporary news material with students at various levels. Websites would also provide other possibilities of locating up-to-date stimulating material.
With such an approach the students would receive contemporary material in Irish regularly and the teacher would not need to be the information and material source as much. However, on the whole, as it is, the school's students and Irish teachers are achieving a high standard and technology resources, such as are being planned, would enhance the good work and the enjoyment of the subject which was seen in the classes.
Regular assessment on the progress of the students is done through asking questions in the class, homework, short class tests and formal internal examinations at Christmas and in May. The teachers keep an account of the various tests and they are used as an indicator in the instance where a student achieves a result that is not in line with the marks achieved during the term. This is commendable. A common internal examination is arranged for all the classes in first year. This ensures that a valid comparison is made of all the students' achievements for the benefit of establishing balanced classes with the various levels in the subject from the beginning of second year onwards.
A very comprehensive account can be seen in the Irish department's plan on the students' achievements in Irish in the certificate examinations. The breakdown on the number of students who undertake the various levels in the subject is illustrated and the results are recorded. These statistics are compared with the national average figures. This information is a valuable reference point on the healthy state of Irish in the school and it can also be used as a guide for teachers with regards to agreeing even higher objectives that are to be achieved. As a sign of the importance placed on attainments in the certificate examinations a report is sent home to the parents of those classes in third and sixth year once a month.
It is recommended to download copies of the reports of the chief Irish examiners in the certificate examinations from the State Examinations Commission website and to circulate copies of them amongst the teachers as extra guidance on the same examinations. This information can be found at www.examinations.ie
During the inspection, copybooks were examined which illustrated that attention was being paid to the school policy in relation to assigning and correcting homework regularly. On the whole, the copybooks were of a high standard with regards to tidiness, showing evidence of teacher recognition of students' work, through signing, dating, notes of encouragement and a mark as appropriate. In the case of weak students the teachers were keeping their folders in the class which illustrated that the appropriate work was being done with them.
It is recommended to have an assessment of spoken Irish as an integral part of the internal examinations from now on in support of achieving the objectives of Circular 0042/2007. There will be forty per cent of the marks to be attained for the optional Irish oral test in the Junior Certificate from 2010 onwards and in the Leaving Certificate oral Irish examination from 2012 onwards. Preparation should be made for this immediately. There is no need to conduct individual oral tests with the students but sufficient time should be ensured in order to practise free conversation with the classes. The correct time allocation for this will be arrived at through planning and reviewing class practice.
It is recommended to include the optional oral test in the Junior Certificate Irish examination when the Irish department is deliberating assessment matters. In the case where a decision is made not to enter students for that examination it should be ensured that spoken Irish is part of the internal examinations and that the same percentage of marks is awarded for this part of the examination. The same approach should be implemented in all the years. It would be better to introduce this mark gradually and not to start with forty per cent from the outset, but to work towards it in stages. In the case of Leaving Certificate classes, for example, an oral test where the marks are worth twenty per cent in the internal examinations is being used by one teacher. There should be a common approach.
The account on the students' achievements in the subject in the certificate examinations is a morale boost for Irish as a subject in the school. It is recommended to progress quickly with new opportunities to enhance the recognition of oral Irish and to further increase the achievement objectives. There was widespread evidence during the inspection that the appropriate factors for this were available in the school.
The following are the main strengths identified in the evaluation:
· Irish has a strong position in the school with regards to support from the management and school community, allocation of time for the subject, the students' achievements in debating competitions and certificate examinations.
· School management has confidence in the Irish teachers, in the classes observed the students in general wished to make progress in the subject and morale is high amongst the Irish department.
· The school gives a lot of support to the teachers in the interests of expanding their professional development in teaching and learning matters and one of the Irish teachers is on the Second Level Support Services staff for Irish. Innovative work has begun amongst the Irish teachers in the establishment of team teaching in the junior cycle.
· Every teacher received full co-operation in all of the lessons and it was evident that the teachers and students respected one another.
· The standard of teaching was good and the questions were varied to match the students’ different abilities. Students and teachers are achieving a high standard.
· The students' copybook work was of a high standard.
· The attention paid in the planning work to the development of spoken Irish with the first year students was noticeable during the class practice.
As a means of building on these strengths and to address areas for development, the following key recommendations are made:
· That one classroom, if possible, be dedicated to the teaching of Irish and that the ICT resources be made available in this room with the understanding that a definite programme is followed.
· That thought be given to devising an innovative plan for the teaching and learning of Irish where ICT resources are central to the cross-border initiative that is being planned and that the National University of Ireland, Maynooth's Vifax service is considered.
· That the Transition Year Irish programme is clarified in relation to the learning objectives and recommendations that are made in this report with regard to innovative learning be included.
· That the assessment of spoken Irish is included as an integral part of the internal examinations from now on and that the optional oral test in the Junior Certificate Irish examination is included when the Irish department is deliberating assessment matters.
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 November 2008