An Roinn Oideachais agus Eolaíochta
Department of Education and Science
Subject Inspection of Irish
Saint Declan’s Community College
Kilmacthomas, County Waterford
Roll number: 72230W
Dates of inspection: 3 October 2008
Report on the Quality of Learning and Teaching in irish
This report has been written following a subject inspection in St. Declan’s Community College. It presents the findings of an evaluation of the quality of learning and teaching 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 learning and teaching. 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, deputy principal and the teachers of Irish. The board of management was given the opportunity to comment in writing on the findings and recommendations of the report, and the response of the board will be found in the appendix to this report.
St. Declan’s Community College is the only post-primary school in mid-County Waterford. The students are therefore drawn from both rural and urban areas.
This inspection was carried out during the first term in office of a newly-appointed principal. The favourable attitude towards Irish displayed at senior management level was a source of satisfaction as was the fact that, as a result, it was possible to conduct the inspection through the medium of Irish only.
Fifteen students have exemption from the study of Irish. This amounts to 2% of the total student population. Eight of these students have learning difficulties and the rest are of foreign origin or received their early education abroad. One of these students has made a decision to participate in the Irish classes and the teacher who encourages and supports this student is to be commended. The small number of students not studying Irish formally was noted. It was suggested to the teachers that this is an indication that these students and their parents have a positive attitude towards Irish and that it is probable that they have acquired a good foundation in the language.
The junior cycle students have four Irish classes per week. It was pointed out to management that it would be expected that, as far as possible, these students would have daily contact with the target language. This was accepted. The attention of management was also drawn to the time allocation in Transition Year (TY), whereby one group has an extra class per week. It was recommended that it should be ensured that all students would be treated equally as regards the number of teaching hours of Irish they receive. The students of Fifth Year and Sixth Year have six classes per week, an allocation which is perfectly satisfactory, and the Leaving Certificate Applied class has three periods per week.
It is reported in the departmental documentation that a system of banding is implemented in the junior cycle and that the students are divided into two bands. On discussing this discussed with the Irish teachers, it became apparent that a streaming system applies in Second Year and Third Year, in that these year groups are divided into two high-ability classes, one class of average ability and two lower-ability classes. It was strongly recommended that the method of dividing students into classes should be changed. It is widely accepted that the mixed-ability class is the most appropriate learning setting, particularly in the case of junior cycle students, and it would be advisable for the Irish department to reflect on the advantages to be gained from having mixed-ability classes in First Year and Second Year at least.
Every effort is made to allocate a selection of classes at various levels to every teacher, thus ensuring that they are all given experience of teaching at the different levels. This is a commendable practice.
The majority of the teachers of Irish have designated classrooms, an arrangement which facilitates the storage of resources and enables teachers to create a stimulating learning environment. While there is a television and DVD-player in one of these rooms, the availability to teachers of Information and Communication Technology (ICT) equipment, such as computers and data projectors, is limited. Management indicated that it is intended to make good this deficiency shortly.
School management gives every encouragement and support to the teaching staff as regards developing their teaching skills. Last year, five teachers participated in the Second Level Support Service (SLSS) workshop for teachers of Irish and found the subject matter of the workshop to be helpful. There is one element of the range of resources to which many of the teachers should pay particular attention, and that is their own proficiency in Irish. Based on discussions with the teachers and on the classroom practices observed, it was felt that many of them need to address their fluency in the language and the accuracy of the Irish which they use in class. It was recommended to the teachers that they should consult one another on the meta-language of the classroom, as well as availing of every opportunity to speak Irish among themselves and with other members of the school community.
It was indicated that co-curricular activities are organised in order to support the advancement of Irish. Students are taken to plays and a programme of events is organised during Seachtain na Gaeilge. It is the practice of some students to spend periods in the Gaeltacht in summer and the County Waterford Vocational Education Committee makes scholarships available for this purpose. Students are also kept informed on the scholarships funded by the Gaelic Athletic Association.
The teachers of Irish function as a department and one teacher (the most senior in the department) has been appointed as departmental co-ordinator. One of the main duties of the co-ordinator is to oversee the subject development planning process. It was recommended that an assistant co-ordinator should be appointed as a means of familiarising other members of the department with the duties of the post.
The departmental documentation gives an insight into all that happens in the school in relation to Irish. The documents reviewed included a mission statement, a description of the organisation of Irish in the school, an account of the language programmes drawn up for the various year groups, references to reporting and assessment methods, copies of correspondence between the department and various parties, as well as the minutes of departmental meetings. The neatness and readability of the documentation gives an indication of the diligence with which the co-ordinator administers the subject. Nevertheless, as all the documentation was in English only, it also indicates that it is the practice of the teachers to speak English among themselves and at departmental meetings. It was strongly recommended that the Irish teachers in the school should speak Irish to one another, particularly at departmental meetings.
The annual work schemes specify the sections of the syllabus to be covered by each year group. They also contain general references to the resources, the aids and the methodologies to be used. It is commendable that common learning objectives have been laid down for students who follow the same study programme. It was strongly recommended that this collaborative planning should be further enhanced, by making specific reference in the work schemes to the learning outcomes to be attained in respect of the various topics. In order to bring this about, there should in the first instance be a focus on the language functions to be addressed during the lesson. These would be linked to (a) the language elements to be attended to - grammar, vocabulary and speech idioms and (b) the activities to be undertaken in order to ensure the acquisition of that language. It would be advisable also to include reference to the particular resources available which could be utilised in support of the learning and teaching process. Furthermore, it might be anticipated that this collaborative planning would stimulate discussion and debate on classroom practice and that all the teachers would develop the learning, teaching and assessment strategies they use in class in order to improve the communicative abilities of the students.
In a small number of instances, it was clear that a lesson plan had been drawn up by teachers. It was in these cases that a positive learning outcome was to be discerned at the end of a lesson and in particular that the communicative abilities of students had been advanced. Each of these teachers had identified a clear objective, and had set out a programme of activities which would enable the students to practise the new elements of language presented to them. The comprehensiveness of the individual folders of these teachers was noted and it was apparent from their contents that they are accustomed to giving careful thought to the lay out of their lessons, to the resources which would encourage the participation of students and to the effectiveness of the learning and teaching. It was recommended that this practice should be extended and that all teachers should evaluate the effectiveness of the learning at the end of each lesson. It was pointed out to individual teachers that this assessment should inform the practice to be followed in subsequent lessons.
It was clear that certain teachers had their own well established system of working and that their students were accustomed to this. In these cases, the students understood how each lesson would begin and they prepared themselves accordingly, whether by revising their notes or by distributing copybooks to the class members. These teachers placed a strong emphasis on note taking and on the neatness of the work. The notebooks were of great assistance to the students when searching for words or speech idioms during the lesson. This practice is associated with independent learning and it was recommended that all students should be obliged to take notes and to keep them tidily in a copybook or file, so as to have them available as a future reference aid. Another approach to making students partly responsible for their own learning is to get them to use dictionaries or to summarise what they have learned during class.
It was in those classes in which the use of Irish was practised that students made the greatest progress in respect of the development of their communicative abilities. In one class, the teacher spoke entirely in Irish to the class from the beginning to the end of the lesson. These students showed a good understanding of what was being said by the teacher and they made an excellent effort to express opinions and to answer entirely through the medium of Irish. This teacher accepted only complete sentences as answers, even from students of lower ability. The speaking ability of these students was noted, as was the confidence which the teacher had instilled in them and the manner in which they spoke Irish among themselves when they were set to working in pairs. It was indicated to all the teachers that it would be expected that an approach such as this be implemented in all Irish classes.
The teachers were reminded that they are models for the speaking of Irish for the students. They were also reminded that this principal source of language for students should not be so diluted by the constant use of English as was the case in most of the classes observed. It was recommended that they should discuss this issue at planning meetings and that a policy on the speaking of Irish should be drafted and implemented. Several suggestions were put to them as to what such a policy might comprise: accurate versions of the phrases most commonly used by them during lessons; approaches which would assist teachers to convey meanings or to explain concepts through the medium of Irish; strategies for creating opportunities of speaking Irish for the students, as well as reference to the times during which Irish only should be used with the students and to the exceptional times when it might be expedient to have recourse to English.
The Irish classrooms were equipped with shelving and decorated attractively with charts. The fact that samples of the students’ work had been put on display was noted, something of which they are very proud. In addition, posters showing vocabulary sets and the most frequently used verbs were displayed on the walls. These posters function as a reference aid for students, especially when they are speaking aloud in class.
Generally speaking, the students willingly engaged in the lesson tasks. It was in those classes in which students were provided with a choice of activities that the participation of students was greatest, from beginning to end of the class. Learning outcomes were most evident in those classes in which students were assigned short, simple tasks creating opportunities for practising the four language skills - listening, speaking, reading and writing. In some cases it was felt that the pace of the lesson was not appropriate to the abilities of the students. One group had been assigned too many tasks for completion without having any thematic link between them and, because of that, it was difficult for them to devote time to reinforcing the newly-acquired language. In other cases, it was felt that the pace was too slow and that the subject matter of the lesson was not sufficiently challenging for the most able students. It was pointed out to the teachers that the students would often have encountered the lesson theme previously, and that the greatest challenge for them as teachers is to revisit the topic by discussing the subject matter in an innovative way, in order that students would consolidate and enhance the language previously acquired by them.
Included among the aids and resources utilised were the textbook, the white board, a tape recorder, aural passages, a piece of music, multi-coloured charts, flash cards and work sheets. Pictures were effectively used, whether on charts or on flash cards, with a view to eliciting opinions from the students. It was recommended that more extensive use should be made of authentic materials from brochures, magazines, contemporary radio or television programmes and newspapers, as these are the types of materials with which the students are most familiar.
The school has an assessment system in place which evaluates the progress of students.
It was indicated that homework is allocated on a regular basis. Some of the students’ copybooks were examined and they showed substantial differences as regards the numbers and types of exercises completed. It was clear that a small number of teachers had adopted a particular approach in relation to the allocation and correction of students’ written work. Those teachers who monitor the work of students on a regular basis and who give them feedback on the progress they are making or have made, are to be commended.
It was drawn to the attention of other teachers that it was not sufficient to award a mark for a written exercise, nor to append a one-word comment, without indicating to the student how this mark was arrived at, and the basis for the judgement and how the mark could be raised or a more positive judgement obtained. It would be worthwhile if Irish teachers made use of certain Assessment for Learning strategies - this would be of great benefit to both students and teachers as everyone’s attention would be drawn to the quality of the learning and the manner in which students learn best. Teachers could utilise the information which comes to light in order to inform classroom practice.
All teachers were advised to devote time during class to the correction of major language errors. Some ideas were shared with them as to how best to use peer assessment in order to introduce variety into the correcting process.
It was reported that class tests are administered regularly so as to assess the effectiveness of the learning. In some of the classes observed, the students’ understanding of the subject matter or of the newly-acquired language was tested through oral questioning. One advantage associated with this approach was that it made the students aware of what had been learned before further development was attempted on the same topic of conversation.
House examinations are held at Christmas and in summer. Students due to sit the state examinations are given preliminary examinations in the spring. Assessments consist largely of written and aural tests, but students of TY and Sixth Year undergo formal oral examinations also. These major examinations are worthwhile, as they afford the students experience of time management, of the layout of examination papers and the rubrics of the state examinations. Nevertheless, it is felt that recognition should be given to the oral skills of all students and it was therefore recommended that a specific percentage of the overall marks for the in-house examinations should be allocated to the attempts made by students to speak Irish in class. Continuous assessment such as this would be of great benefit to the students in respect of the development of their speaking skills.
Each year, the attainments of students in the state examinations are analysed by management and this information is shared with the teachers of Irish. It was noted that a significant number of students take the Foundation Level papers, particularly at Junior Certificate level (14% of the total number of applicants in the 2008 examination). It is considered that this situation may be associated with (a) the manner in which students are streamed in Second and Third Years, and (b) with the low expectations of teachers as regards the abilities and attainments of students. It is the view of the inspector that the main reason for the low standard of learning is the existence of certain weaknesses in classroom practices and that it is these, rather than the learning abilities of students, which are responsible for this situation. It was therefore strongly recommended that teachers should reconsider the effectiveness of the teaching methods most frequently used by them and the bearing which these methods have on the standard of learning.
Parents are kept informed of the progress of students by means of a report after each major examination. Meetings between parents and teachers are also held.
The following are the main strengths identified in the evaluation:
As a means of building on these strengths and to address areas for development, the following key recommendations are made:
A post-evaluation meeting was held with the teachers of Irish, the principal and deputy principal, at which the draft findings and recommendations of the evaluation were presented and discussed.
Published, February 2009
School Response to the Report
Submitted by the Board of Management
Area 1 Observations on the content of the Inspection Report
We accept that 14% of those attempting Irish at Junior Certificate taking the Foundation level paper level is high. In 2007 7% of our students took the Foundation level paper.
This year we have 28 students in the Junior Cycle receiving Learning Support or Resource. 47 students partake in the JCSP. As far as we cam ascertain we have 18 students in the Junior Cycle who received little or no tuition in Irish in primary school. Though we encourage all students to study Irish some because of the reasons outlined above find the subject very difficult and take the Foundation level. Our aim as a school over the next few years is to reach the national average for students taking the Foundation level and maintain that figure.
Area 2: Follow-up actions planned or undertaken since the completion of the inspection activity to implement the findings and recommendations of the inspection
The Irish Inspection occurred in early October and from the time we received the oral feedback we have reflected on the teaching of Irish in the school. The Department was happy to have many good practices in the teaching of Irish acknowledged and affirmed. We have taken on board the recommendations of the inspector and have begun the process of changing teaching practices in Irish in the school.
The Irish Department has had three formal meetings since October and all were conducted through Irish. The documentation of the Department, minutes of meetings, plans for each year group, etc. are being translated in Irish.
One of the chief recommendations of the Inspector was that Irish should always be medium of instruction and for the teacher to model the usage of the language. The Department decided to introduce a number of themes (for example Halloween) each theme would be conducted over the course of a week where the usage of Irish would be facilitated and promoted. This thematic approach would be conducted in all years from first to sixth year and could include all aspects of the language listening, speaking, reading and writing. This thematic approach will facilitate the greater usage of Irish in all Irish classes throughout the school.
The Irish Department with the staff of St.Declan’s have decided to introduce mixed ability teaching in first year from the start of the next academic year 2009/2010. We believe more students studying Irish next year will have the opportunity to take the Higher or Ordinary levels when they eventually sit the Junior Certificate Exam in 2012.