An Roinn Oideachais agus Eolaíochta
Department of Education and Science
Subject Inspection of English
St Joseph’s Christian Brothers’ School
Fairview, Dublin 3
Roll number: 60390F
Date of inspection: 30 November 2007
Report on the Quality of Learning and Teaching in English
This report has been written following a subject inspection in St Joseph’s CBS, Fairview, Dublin 3, conducted as part of a whole-school evaluation. It presents the findings of an evaluation of the quality of teaching and learning in English and makes recommendations for the further development of the teaching of this subject in the school. The evaluation was conducted over two days during which the inspector visited classrooms and observed teaching and learning. The inspector interacted with students and teachers, examined students’ work, and had discussions with the teachers. The inspector reviewed school planning documentation and teachers’ written preparation. Following the evaluation visit, the inspector provided oral feedback on the outcomes of the evaluation to the principal and subject teachers.
St Joseph’s CBS is a Catholic boys’ school under the trusteeship of the Irish Christian Brothers. The current enrolment is 237, including four girls. In St Joseph’s the Junior Certificate, the Transition Year (TY) and Established Leaving Certificate programmes are available. In addition, a repeat Leaving Certificate group is formed and it is to this class that the small number of girls currently enrolled belong.
First year students are placed in one of three mixed-ability classes for English. In second year, based on achievement in tests and teacher observation, they are placed in higher or ordinary level classes to reflect student ability. In St Joseph’s, an inclusive enrolment policy results in a very wide spread of ability in the subject and teachers and management expressed a concern that able students would have every opportunity and support in tackling the higher level courses. To that end, they are actively reviewing the first year class groupings. In conducting this review, consideration should be given to best practice, which is to delay the decision about which level students should take until they have had time to settle into the subject. Alternatively, class group arrangements which might be considered include banding students, resulting in a band comprising two mixed-ability class groups and a second band of one class. The specific abilities of each year’s first year students should determine how bands are weighted so that the maximum number of students is supported. The allocation of an additional teacher to the sixth year classes is an indicator of this commitment to helping all students achieve to their potential.
Resourcing for English is very good. Teachers have access to TV and video/DVD equipment to support the teaching of film studies and information and communication technology is available. Timetabled provision for the teaching of English is in line with optimum provision, such that students in all year groups have contact with the subject on a daily basis. Classes in senior cycle are timetabled concurrently to facilitate students’ choice of higher or ordinary level courses. Teachers are allocated to class groups for the duration of their courses and this is good practice. It facilitates the development of positive teaching-learning relationships and allows teachers use their familiarity with their students to inform their choice of teaching approaches. In assigning higher and ordinary level courses to teachers, management is conscious of the need to develop and maintain the school’s capacity to deliver the range of programmes for English. The practice of ensuring that all teachers retain familiarity with and expertise in all courses is commended.
The school is particularly commended for the steps taken to implement a key recommendation of an earlier English evaluation report. This suggested the establishment of strategies to encourage and support students’ reading. A school library has been established and the generosity of the board of management in funding the purchase of books is acknowledged. A post-holder has assumed responsibility for the management of the library and is working on developing the facility. It is suggested that training senior students to act as library prefects should be considered. Apart from the support they can offer in terms of supervision of the library and the lending of books, the opportunity to acquire a range of organisational and leadership skills would make their involvement a valuable learning experience for them. Teachers have included time for reading in their programmes for junior cycle and are encouraged to make optimum use of the library. They might also consider some additional activities, like participation in a World Book day or the development of class newspapers or magazines for display on notice boards on the corridor outside the library. These magazines could be compiled, for example, with students’ own writing or with articles of interest, chosen by students during a media studies class.
A range of co-curricular activities is available to students of English. These provide practical experiences of skills and concepts learned in the classroom. Debating and participation in the film programmes offered by the Irish Film Theatre, together with opportunities to see professional productions of plays being studied, are helpful supports to students’ learning, generously facilitated by the school and its teachers.
The work of the English department is co-ordinated by a teacher, chosen with the agreement of the English teaching team. Meetings are held on a regular basis, coinciding with staff meetings which are generally held monthly. The opportunities provided in this way by school management to develop a collaborative approach to the teaching of English are commended. Minutes are kept to record team discussions and these are forwarded to school management. As a consequence, senior management is kept fully informed of issues, decisions and progress made in the English department.
Good progress has been made in writing the department plan for English. Though the document was brief, it clearly indicated that planning was targeted at identifying the particular needs of students in St Joseph’s and devising programmes to support their progress in English. It described the aims and teaching objectives of the English programme in the school. This document was supported by the plans made by individual teachers for each of their class groups. The very best of those available for inspection included schemes of work which, in addition to outlining the topics to be explored, the resources needed and the assessment methodologies planned, included notes on the students being taught and their levels of ability. It is recommended that all teachers should revise their schemes in line with this very good practice and that all schemes should be included in the English plan. This could then be developed further to include relevant developmental aims for each year group. The aim is to create what is essentially a working document which functions as a succinct description of the learning targets to be achieved by students at each stage of their courses.
The Transition Year (TY) programme is taken by the vast majority of students. The planning documentation presented during the evaluation indicated that significant progress has been made since a previous evaluation towards developing TY English as a ‘bridge’ between junior and senior cycles. All genres are covered and the focus on task-driven written assignments is particularly commended. As the plan is reviewed, care should be taken to remove aspirational paragraphs and to include in the plan only those elements which are being realised.
The lessons observed in St Joseph’s CBS were, in most cases, very well structured. The lesson objectives were clearly stated and student learning was facilitated in a decisive and organised way. Most teachers were careful to establish links between new material and work previously done. This is worthwhile as it reinforces prior learning and helps students to situate new ideas. In general, teachers’ notes and handouts were well chosen to support the learning objectives.
The level of student participation in the classes visited is to be commended. In one particular lesson observed, the students, who had recently attended a production of a play that they had studied, enthusiastically demonstrated their ability to engage in critical analysis. It was evident that they had developed the skills and language to do this over time. The teacher stood among the students during the lesson and guided their discussion. There is no doubt that the respect shown for their contributions has given them the confidence to engage on a personal and emotional level with the material on their course. It is clear that this kind of student engagement is valuable and so, it is suggested that teachers take advantage of small class sizes to incorporate pair work, group work or role play, for example, into their class plans.
Teachers used a variety of stimuli to motivate their students. Students read from their textbooks, took part in oral discussion and produced written exercises. Varying the learning activity within a lesson is considered good practice as it helps to keep students on task. At the beginning of one lesson, the teacher played a beautiful piece of music to evoke feelings of nationalism. Students were then given a copy of ‘Canto Sixth’ by Sir Walter Scott, a challenging piece. They were then encouraged to explore the idea of patriotism and their contributions were written on the whiteboard. The teacher’s careful questioning and encouraging feedback motivated the students to fully engage with all of the ideas presented, this is to be commended. In another lesson, the teacher used a well-designed PowerPoint presentation to revisit previous learning. This was particularly effective as it targeted students’ various learning styles by incorporating written, oral, and pictorial questioning, thus engaging all students from the full ability range present in the class.
Most teachers made good use of questioning throughout their lessons. This technique had most success when questions were directed at specific students and when teachers used this opportunity to include those who were reluctant to participate. Their answers to questions asked, though brief, indicated a good knowledge of course content. This was particularly evident where teachers allowed students time to develop their own responses to questions. The pacing of the lessons was generally appropriate. Where there were weaknesses, a change in focus was unsuccessful, largely due to the fact that students were unfamiliar with the material being discussed. Care should be taken, particularly when using a pre-reading exercise, to ensure that the resources selected and exercises set are appropriate to the abilities of students and can hold their attention.
Students showed that they had a good understanding of the texts studied and are making very good progress through their courses. Participation on higher level courses is satisfactory and student achievement reflects the expectations and support of the teachers of English.
Students were provided with plenty of opportunity to develop and practise good writing skills. Work set varied from short answer exercises to more extended, creative, pieces of personal writing. Overall, a good standard was achieved, taking into account the range of abilities of students. Their writing was on task, appropriate vocabulary was utilised effectively and copies indicated a steady progression in their work. The teaching of pre-writing strategies had clearly supported students, for example, first year students achieved good control of their story lines, having ‘mapped’ their stories before writing. Some teachers have made good use of student-generated work and commercial posters to enhance their physical environment. This is commended as it provides visual stimulation and gives students a sense of pride in their classrooms.
It is evident that a mutually respectful relationship exists between the students and teachers of St Joseph’s CBS. This is commended as it has created an atmosphere of great warmth in the school. This good rapport has ensured the prevalence of good behaviour throughout the student body and contributes to the development of self esteem and high social standards.
Students’ understanding of work done in class is checked regularly by teachers through the use of questions. In addition, where appropriate, the teachers moved around the room to support students working in pairs or small groups, thus picking up on areas of difficulty and addressing them immediately.
It was evident from examination of student copybooks that homework is regularly set and promptly corrected by teachers. In many instances, a light touch is used so that students’ work is simply ticked. While this may be all that is necessary for some exercises, particular care should be taken when marking less able students’ work so as to ensure that errors of spelling, syntax and expression are picked up quickly and are not reinforced by repetition. It is recommended that there should be more extensive use of comment-based marking. This provides students with critical feedback which can keep them focused, allows for self-correction and can be a source of positive reinforcement. Teachers also set more formal assessments on a monthly basis, often coinciding with completion of a module or unit of work. Records of the grades achieved are maintained. This is good practice as it provides clear information on how students’ are progressing.
Christmas tests are held for all classes and the non-examination year groups also have formal summer examinations. Third and sixth year students are assessed by pre-certificate examinations in March/April. Reports issue to parents after each assessment and teachers are also available at parent-teacher meetings or by appointment to discuss a student’s progress.
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:
Post-evaluation meetings were held with 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.