An Roinn Oideachais agus Eolaíochta
Department of Education and Science
Subject Inspection of English
Our Lady of Mercy Secondary School
Drimnagh, Dublin 12
Roll number: 60991I
Date of inspection: 10 December 2008
Report on the Quality of Learning and Teaching in English
This report has been written following a subject inspection in Our Lady of Mercy Secondary School, Drimnagh. 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. 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.
Our Lady of Mercy Secondary School, originally established to provide second level education for girls, became co-educational in 1973. The school provides English in the Junior Certificate (JC), Junior Certificate School Programme (JCSP), Leaving Certificate (LC) programme, and English and Communications in the Leaving Certificate Applied (LCA) programme.
Timetabling allocation for English is very good for the junior cycle with five periods in each year of the programme. Timetabling is very good in the LC programme, with six periods allocated. Distribution is generally good with most classes having contact with English on each day of the week. First years, however, do not and it is recommended that future timetabling ensures an even distribution of lessons for all classes. Timetabling is adequate to meet programme requirements in the LCA. Classes are timetabled concurrently in the JC and LC programmes and this is very positive since it facilitates inter-class activity and team teaching, as well as providing opportunities to move from one level to another. The team should maximise the use of concurrent timetabling.
Classes are streamed from entry. However, the school adopts a flexible approach to placement. Students are monitored and encouraged to achieve their full potential and this is commended. Nonetheless, first year is too early to assign students to levels and it is strongly recommended that students be placed in mixed-ability classes with additional supports being put in place for those who have specific learning needs. In the context of school review, consideration could be given to moving away from the discrete JCSP model of class organisation and towards integrating JCSP students into mainstream classes, taking due cognisance of the full range of criteria that should be used for assigning students to the programme.
Uptake of higher-level English is relatively low, but contextual factors must be taken into consideration and a significant number of students enter the school with literacy needs. Absenteeism is an issue in some cases. As many students as possible are encouraged to take higher-level English. Evidence gathered during the evaluation indicates that a very significant number are over-achieving at ordinary level. This indicates a great deal of hard work on the part of both teachers and students. It is reported that some students lose confidence and opt for an ordinary-level paper even though capable of higher level. The school is aware of the ongoing consequences for uptake in the senior cycle and the effects this may have on later career choices. All students are encouraged to achieve their potential and there is evidence to suggest that some individuals who have taken the ordinary-level paper have gone on to take higher-level English in the senior cycle. A multi-faceted approach is necessary to raise students’ expectations. As part of the ongoing process of school improvement, it is suggested that management in conjunction with the English department review organisation and support, analyse patterns of uptake and assessment outcomes, set targets and draw up an action plan with the goal of increasing the number of students taking higher-level English.
A team of six is involved in the teaching of English in the current academic year. It is generally the practice of the school to rotate the teaching of higher-level English and this is commended. While it is not the case in the current academic year, this is reported to be an aberration due to specific circumstances. In planning for future deployment, management should ensure that all teachers involved in the delivery of the subject are subject specialists. It is commendable that the school encourages participation in continuous professional development (CPD) and a number of in-staff events have been organised. In addition, the school is willing to help fund teachers who undertake appropriate CPD. The English team has participated in various in-service courses and this represents a very good level of professional commitment to the teaching of English.
Provision for students with additional learning needs is very good and the school adopts a caring approach. Some groups are in the JCSP programme and discrete classes are formed. Standard assessment instruments are used. The school has three qualified learning-support teachers. This is very positive since a large cohort of students presents with needs. There is good liaison between those involved in learning support and the teachers of English. It is commendable that students with learning needs are placed in small classes.
Resources for English are generally good. English teachers have good access to audio-visual equipment. A book-rental scheme is in operation. Management is supportive regarding the acquisition of resources for the subject and this is commended. There are book shelves, a filing cabinet and a catalogue for the English department in the main staffroom. There is no specific annual budget for resources, but requests are met favourably as far as possible. The school has a modest library that is also used as a designated teacher’s classroom. It is commendable that arrangements can be made to exchange classrooms allowing other classes to avail of the facility. In the long term, the school should consider establishing a working group from a broad range of teaching subjects, to examine ways in which a discrete working library might be established for the school. Learning support (LS) is well resourced in terms of texts and use is made of a very good range of JCSP materials. Centralised facilities such as a general learning-support and storage room are limited for the LS department but there are some in the main staffroom. The LS department has concentrated efforts on the development of resources in teacher-based classrooms. A great deal of time and effort has been devoted to building up text resources in the classrooms of the LS teachers and this represents a commendable level of engagement. Ideally, there should be a well-resourced central room, as current arrangements have the potential to generate an overlap. It is very commendable that there is a willingness to share resources. Access to, and use of, information and communications technology (ICT) resources is limited. All classrooms have internet connectivity but all do not have computers at present, although this may change as the ICT plan is rolled out. All classes have computer skills lessons and it is suggested that the English department liaise with the ICT teacher to find out areas of common interest: for example, students learning a word-processing application could practise using English composition texts to enhance learning in both areas. The school has a computer room but there is no booking facility: it is recommended that a booking form be made available to all staff, indicating the time slots when the facility is available and the English department should take full advantage of this. In a good example of ICT use, a mainstream third-year class is brought to the computer room and learn how to use Word application for composition and editing purposes. Computers in the staffroom facilitate teacher use. Software suitable for learning support is available but in general there is scope for the development of ICT resources in this specific area.
The department does not have a reading policy but individual teachers promote reading in different ways, and this is highly commended. Classroom libraries are maintained. It is reported that some students participate in the MS Readathon competition, at the discretion of individual teachers. Very good practice was observed regarding the promotion of reading in the JCSP and LS departments. A reading week is held in first and second year; silent reading is encouraged in lessons; students are assigned reading tasks for homework and the task is formally monitored; paired reading is organised; reading programmes are designed for individual students. This represents very good practice and should be extended in appropriate forms to all programmes. To build on and consolidate existing good practice, the English department should develop a reading policy that is consistently implemented in all classes.
Students have opportunities to learn in other settings besides the classroom and this is commendable. They have been encouraged to attend the LC poetry lectures in Trinity College, Dublin. They participate in debates, have attended the Poetry Aloud competition, and the school has participated in local partnership cultural events.
The English team meets formally three times a year on average with further lunchtime meetings taking place according to need. The team is commended for its professionalism in this regard and a good deal of informal interaction takes place. The teaching and learning of English would benefit from a more formal and collaborative approach to planning. Robust structures need to be instituted. It is recommended that formal meetings take place on a more regular basis to advance planning for all programmes and to share good practice in the teaching and learning of English. Agendas should be drawn up, full minutes of meetings maintained and action plans developed. The role of co-ordinator has been undertaken on a voluntary basis and this is commended. It is recommended that the role of co-ordinator be rotated in order to distribute leadership and share responsibility among team members. The role should be agreed by the teaching team and the tenure should be of sufficient duration to allow individuals develop experience in the area of co-ordination. A timeframe for syllabus delivery should be agreed at departmental level. Management should facilitate formal planning.
A good deal of work has already been done in the general area of planning and the folders contain some useful references and information, including record-keeping procedures, a document reflecting the initial stages of the draft homework policy and in-service courses attended. To build on this, teachers should include a brief report on any courses they have been facilitated to attend by the school, in order to share information and good practice.
An outline plan has been formulated, based on the School Development Planning Initiative (SDPI) template. While this has given the school a useful framework to begin planning, it lacks detail. It is strongly recommended that the department develop a common comprehensive plan for English in the school and this should be a priority target. It is commendable that the department planning folder contains a copy of the draft rebalanced JC syllabus and this should now be used to inform the junior cycle plan: the learning outcomes for each year group should be detailed across the four skills (reading, writing, speaking and listening) and three literacy areas (personal, social and cultural), underpinned by the syllabus, and with a sharp focus on the incremental development of skills over each of the three years. The plan should document the texts that are to be used as resources. A common plan should also be developed for the LC, based on the syllabus and guidelines. The integration of the teaching of language and literature should be emphasised in all programmes. The department should consult Looking at English, a composite report published by the Department of Education and Science that can be downloaded at www.education.ie.
The teachers of English have engaged in planning for their individual classes and have developed year-long schemes of work. Some of these are commended for the level of detail and indicate that a great deal of time and thought is invested in the teaching of the subject. When the common plan is fully developed, individual teacher’s schemes should mirror the plan (with a focus on learning outcomes) and should list the texts to be used to achieve the syllabus aims. One of the modules of the LCA programme is assigned to a post-graduate diploma in education student. Where such arrangements are in place, it is recommended that a complete record of collaborative planning between the two teachers be documented. Particular care should be taken to ensure an integrated approach to the LCA programme syllabus.
There is some degree of planning for resources, for example, the department has begun to develop sets of novels for class groups. There is no central designated storage room, since teachers are classroom based, and the department should consider targeting this as an area for development in future planning. The department should also catalogue all commonly held resources, preferably in electronic format, to inform all staff of existing resources, to identify areas for development, and to facilitate action planning to achieve goals. ICT should be specifically targeted and a policy on ICT should be itegrated into the plan for English. While there is discussion about texts, there is no co-ordinated approach to choice and the number and nature chosen varies according to the individual teacher. It is recommended that the department adopt a common approach to the choice of texts with differentaiton being intorduced for specific classes. Planning for English should ensure that a full range of genres are chosen to achieve syllabus aims and objectives. In addition, the department should access the primary curriculum (www.curriculumonline.ie.) and liaise with feeder primary schools to help inform choice of first-year texts and ensure that there is no overlap with texts chosen for the junior cycle.
Planning for LCA English and Communication is carried out independently from other programmes and the LCA teacher does not attend English department meetings. The discrete LCA English and Communicatins planning folder indicates a good level of preparation for each of the four syllabus areas. Learning outcomes for each area should be written into the plan. There should also be a comprehensive list of the resources to be used, including texts and ICT resources. Since all aspects of the teaching and learning of English are the remit of the teaching team, and since all teachers should be completely familiar with all programmes, planning for LCA English and Communications should be fully integrated into the department plan.
The school has a homework policy in the process of development. The English department should customise the school policy on homework (on its completion) and the roles of the student and teacher should be defined. The emphasis should be on assessment for learning. In addition, the department should agree and document the number of substantial written homework assignments to be completed by each year group.
Lesson content was appropriate to syllabus and programme. Topics included drama, poetry, fiction and creative writing. In many classes visited, very good practice was observed in the area of lesson planning (to include preparation of resources). The initial stage of lessons was used to indicate the general theme of the lesson. It is recommended that clear and achievable learning outcomes be shared with students, and written on the board, at the outset of all lessons. In this regard, very good practice was observed in a lesson. The pace of lessons was good in most cases. The closure of lessons should be reviewed to check if learning objectives have been achieved. Very good practice was noted where explicit links were made with earlier learning. In a small minority of cases, where there was no discernible learning intention, the lesson lacked purpose and the quality of learning achieved was poor.
Resources were used appropriately in the lessons observed. The board was very well used in some lessons, for example, key points relating to the lesson content reinforced learning. In another case, the points on the board provided a good framework for students involved in a writing task. Good use was also made of wall space in classrooms, where posters and teaching aids were highly visible to students. It is commendable that lots of books were on display, especially in rooms used for learning support. Letter samples were displayed on the notice board as exemplars, in a classroom visited and this is a useful learning aid. A good level of preparation for specific tasks ensured a purposeful and efficient use of the lesson time. Text was the most frequently used resource and there was no evidence of audio-visual equipment being used during the evaluation. It is reported that audio-visual resources are used on other occasions. It is recommended that a more creative range of resources be used in all lessons to cater for a variety of learning styles.
Very good practice was observed where clear instructions were given to students to enable learning and there was a focus on a specific task It is commendable that students were given sufficient time to note information down. Good practice was observed where questioning was used to check understanding of concepts, review the effectiveness of earlier learning and prepare for new material. During questioning sessions, care should be taken to ensure that students are not spending an excessive amount of time on lower-order cognitive skills, such as recall of narrative, and insufficient time on developing evaluative judgments based on analysis. This is of particular importance where students are being prepared for the higher level in English: the development of higher-order thinking should receive adequate emphasis. While in general, a good balance was maintained between questions addressed to the class as a whole and those aimed at individuals, in some cases there were too many global questions or not all students were targeted to elicit responses. Students should be encouraged to share responses with learning partners and the “think, pair, share” process could be used. While the involvement of students in learning was commendable in some groups, in a minority of cases, students disengaged due to a lack of stimulation and challenge; learning activities lacked creativity and variety, with just one teaching strategy in use. It is recommended that teaching practice be reviewed in these cases, to ensure the engagement of all students through a creative use of resources, planned learning activities with an emphasis on active learning, pair or group work, and the creation of a stimulating learning environment such as characterised many of the classrooms visited. The emphasis should shift to students being facilitated to take responsibility for their own learning in all classrooms and good practice should be shared.
In some lessons, good practice was observed where there was an emphasis on skills development. For example, in the area of writing, criteria for a creative writing task were imparted verbally and a poem was used as a stimulus. While students were engaged in the task, the teacher had an opportunity to circulate and monitor and support individuals. This is commended. Good practice was also observed where students were encouraged to order their work in sequence. Students read out their work in class and this was useful in providing exemplars and stimulating responses. The standard of copybook maintenance and presentation was very good in some classes. Some classes get adequate writing practice in a range of genres. Very little sustained writing, that is likely to give practice in a broad range of skills, was evident in some copybooks. Instead, there was a focus on short sentences and lists of words. Good practice in the teaching and learning of writing and reading skills should be shared and standards agreed. Writing frames can be used for reluctant writers and more use could be made of ICT in this regard. It is essential that students learn to write full and accurate sentences in English, as part of the drafting, editing, rewriting process and, for this reason, portfolios of work at various stages of development should be kept by all students. Understanding of vocabulary was checked and this is commendable. In general, there should be a greater emphasis on the development of an expressive, active vocabulary (using words as distinct from understanding them), and a wide range of strategies should be deployed in all classes. Good practice was noted in regard to the development of oral communication in some lessons and this is commended. All lessons should attempt to generate a good deal of focused discussion and dialogue. In some lessons observed, students lacked confidence in interaction. The development of verbal communication skills should be a focus for teaching and learning in all classes and good practice observed and noted should be shared and emulated in all. Reluctant learners with low self-confidence require particular attention in the area of developing verbal communication skills. More should be done to encourage students to document an immediate personal aesthetic response to literature, and students should maintain a personal response journal. It is very commendable that reading was promoted in lessons, and the novel chosen for a second-year group stimulated considerable interest. In a lesson observed, it is commendable that every student read aloud, and each was encouraged to think and make decisions on issues arising out of the text, and to discuss these in class. This represents very good practice. Follow-up writing activities should be linked into the theme, in order to develop the full range of skills in an integrated way.
Student interaction with teachers was very good in some lessons. Feedback in whole-class activity was encouraged. However, it was noted that not all students contributed to exchanges. The teaching team should share experience and practice on ways in which all students can be encouraged to participate and engage in learning. Students were asked to read out their homework and this was useful in providing an opportunity for feedback from the teacher and for modelling. This could be taken a stage further, and peer review and discussion could take place to arrive at a consensus, from the group as a whole, as to what constitutes good answering. Students were able to focus on specific tasks that were well chosen and suited to examination preparation. They learned quotations from their texts and this gave them confidence to support their views with textual evidence. Copybooks indicated that students learn to use graphic organisers to help them manage learning, and this is commended. Folders of notes, in some cases, were well organised, indicating that high standards are maintained: in other cases, students did not have their materials to hand, and consistent practice should be implemented. The good practice should be emulated. Copybooks indicate that senior cycle students have covered a great deal of syllabus work and this will allow them adequate time to revise before the examinations. This is commended.
Classrooms were conducive to the teaching and learning of English It is very commendable that the wall space was used to display students’ work, as this gives students pride in their learning and acts as an incentive. There was a very good rapport between teachers and students. Students were encouraged and affirmed when they responded in lessons and there was a very positive learning environment in the school. Attainment is generally good, and particularly so at ordinary level.
Summative assessment is practised through class and in-house tests and state examinations. Assessment for learning takes place through homework marking and class questioning, and the monitoring and observation of students involved in tasks.
Assessment feedback was very good where student learning was directed, and effort encouraged and rewarded, with positive remarks and incentive stamps. Verbal feedback was regularly provided to students in lessons observed and this provided valuable guidance in a meaningful and immediate way. Some copybooks examined indicated that there was very little teacher assessment, so that students would not have learned from the writing exercise. It is commendable that the discrete criteria used in the LC examination are used in the marking of students’ written work.
Where assessment is used for assigning students to levels, it is essential that robust criteria are used and this should include common examinations, with common marking schemes and moderation. In general, there should be common assessment papers for common levels, wherever applicable and the recommendation of an earlier report in this regard should be implemented.
It is the department’s policy to maintain records of attendance and assessment, and this is commended. Students’ progress is communicated to parents through formal and informal reports, parent-teacher meetings, and the students’ journal, where used.
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.
Published, June 2009