An Roinn Oideachais agus Eolaíochta
Department of Education and Science
Subject Inspection of English
Newbridge, County Kildare
Roll number: 61680T
Date of inspection: 12 November 2008
Report on the Quality of Learning and Teaching in English
This report has been written following a subject inspection in Newbridge College. 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 of the school was given an opportunity to comment on the findings and recommendations of the report; the board chose to accept the report without response.
Newbridge College provides English in the Junior Certificate (JC), Leaving Certificate (LC) and Transition Year (TY) programmes. English enjoys a very good level of whole-school support in almost all areas. Uptake of higher-level English in both the JC and LC programmes is very good and the vast majority of students are encouraged to take the upper level. This is highly commended. It is also commendable that students are taught in a mixed-ability setting in the junior cycle and in the TY programme, with discrete classes being formed for ordinary and higher level in the LC programme.
Access to and uptake of higher-level English is very good in both the junior and senior cycles. Timetabling allocation is in line with national norms in the LC programme, with five lessons per week. It is positive that lessons are evenly distributed over the week as this facilitates regular contact with the subject. Small classes ensure an excellent level of support for LC students. No class has more than nineteen students in fifth year, seventeen in sixth year; those taking ordinary level are placed in class groups with as few as twelve students. Two lessons are provided in TY but these are complemented by a discrete module, once per week, in Media Studies.
Timetabling allocation in the junior cycle is below national norms, with just four lessons per week in each year of the cycle. In real terms, allocation over the three years of the junior cycle is lower when taking the length of lessons into consideration. Lessons are between thirty-five and thirty nine minutes duration, while those on Wednesday average at twenty-eight minutes. Moreover, there is a loss of tuition time due to punctuality issues: because of the scattered nature of the campus, and occasionally other factors, students are frequently late for class and this fact was observed in the course of the evaluation. It is acknowledged that the school has been proactive in dealing with this issue and last year instituted a punctuality initiative. Account should also be taken of the loss of tuition time due to occasional school closures (and this affects all schools) and necessary attendance at games fixtures. Taking all of these factors together, student contact with English is deficient. Since frequent contact with English facilitates an incremental development of skills in the four key areas of reading, writing, speaking and listening, and since the junior cycle provides a firm foundation for the LC programme, it is strongly recommended that timetabling allocation be increased in the junior cycle and that, at a minimum, one additional lesson is provided in at least one year of the junior cycle in the short term. Optimal learning conditions obtain where five lessons, distributed evenly over the week, are provided in each year of the junior cycle and this is the standard at which the school should aim in the medium to long term.
Resources for the subject are very good and teachers have access to an appropriate range of audio-visual and information and communications technology (ICT) resources. Teachers are classroom based and this facilitates storage of resources. The school library is a very good resource for the school and Newbridge College is fortunate in having a school librarian who is very committed to, and supportive of, students. The facility is open at set times. Apart from a very good range of texts (including journals), the library has audio and visual resources and there are a number of computers for student use. Students can access the internet, study and read for pleasure in the library. During the time of the visit, the chess club was also using the facility. It is very commendable that the school library is so well used and provides a very good service for Newbridge College students.
A very committed team of teachers is deployed in the teaching of English and almost all have English to degree level. A culture of continuous professional development (CPD) is well embedded. Teachers share good practice and this is highly commended. The school has provided whole-staff training in the area of assessment for learning and special educational needs (SENs). It is highly commendable that those who attend CPD courses fill out a report on the quality of the course and file it in the English folder for the benefit of all teachers. A post graduate diploma in education student takes a small number of classes under the supervision of an advising teacher.
The school is characterised by an inclusive ethos that promotes diversity and is highly commended in this regard. A significant minority of students present with SENs and the school has a well-organised, professionally-run learning-support department that has developed a very good interface with the English department. The learning-support department makes referral forms available to teachers and this is useful in recording concerns and providing targeted support. There is also a separate assessment form. The department advises the subject department and school librarian on an appropriate range of texts. The school library has augmented its collections recently with a good range of stimulating titles targeted at reluctant readers at various stages and levels. The learning-support department is well resourced. Individual educational plans have been developed for students with SENs. Useful information about specific learning needs is included in the Teacher’s Handbook and there is a good level of informal contact between individual teachers and the learning-support department. As an area for development, formal settings could be provided for the learning-support department to facilitate the sharing of good practice with the staff as a whole.
The quality of provision in the area of extra-curricular and co-curricular activities is excellent overall and Newbridge College students have the opportunity to learn in a wide variety of learning sites outside the classroom. All interests and needs are catered for in the programme. Students of English participate in a variety of subject-related activities, including debating, theatre outings, film workshops, writing competitions, a summer school and book clubs. The team and school are highly commended for recognising the importance of such activities in providing a holistic education for students.
Planning structures are robust and have facilitated a very good level of collaborative planning. Co-ordination is very good. The role of co-ordinator is clearly defined and is attached to a special-duties post. There are regular formal meetings that are documented. In addition, a great deal of professional dialogue takes place in informal settings. Planning records are meticulously maintained.
Schemes of work for each year group have been developed. The team has been proactive in reviewing the JC plan and has been shifting the emphasis to learning outcomes in each section of the syllabus. To assist them in this very good work, the team should consult the draft rebalanced syllabus that has become available on the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA) website at www.ncca.ie. The department has a very positive collegial ethos and new teachers, of whom there have been a significant number in the last few years, are supported and encouraged to share their expertise.
The department is currently consolidating resources and cataloguing these electronically. This is very useful since it will facilitate planning for the development of resources in the subject area. Planning for the TY has detailed aims and objectives, and it is commendable that the texts cited in the plan to teach different styles of writing are innovative. The same approach should be considered for poetry. In practice, it was observed during the course of the evaluation that there is an over-reliance on a LC approach to teaching the TY programme. Therefore the practical implementation of the TY programme on a day-to-day basis should be reviewed. Students could be encouraged to devise an anthology of their own writing, to keep portfolios with a portfolio report on each piece of writing, indicating the student’s rationale for the choice of theme together with an assessment of the quality of their own piece of writing and a brief indication of what the student feels he or she has learned through the activity. The LC plan is in line with the syllabus. In planning for all programmes, a clear focus on the integration of language and literature should be detailed in the plan as the current set of statements lacks both clarity and specificity. The teaching team should refer to syllabus guidelines and, for example, to page thirty-four of Looking at English, a composite report published by the Inspectorate, in order to clarify this area of planning.
Individual planning is very good and in line with the subject plan. Some schemes were more detailed than others and although a common template is available, there was some variation. While this might be expected, in line with individual choice, it is suggested that the team examine some samples and agree what works best with a view to adopting a common approach. In the case of the JC syllabus, this should be in line with the draft rebalanced syllabus, with planned learning outcomes being detailed across all skills and in the three literacy areas. To build on existing good practice, the department should review the number of texts chosen for class study in the junior cycle. The syllabus should inform planning for the development of reading skills. Thus, students should be reading a wide variety of genres in all classes. At the very least, one class novel should be studied in each year of the junior cycle in all classes. The text should be a resource to develop the skills outlined in the syllabus, and not an end in itself to be studied for the examination. The department should plan a structured approach to the teaching of writing. Student portfolios of written work should be maintained in all year groups and classes and should include a wide variety of genres, for example poetry and dialogue in all cases. The integration of literature and language should inform all individual class planning.
While the subject plan promotes the use of ICT in the teaching and learning of English, there are no details as to how this is to be achieved. It is reported that ICT is used in classes on other occasions although this was not observed during the evaluation. Specific details should be written into the plan indicating how ICT should be implemented into teaching and learning (teacher and student use) for each year group, and individual planning should reflect the department plan for each class. Guidance on appropriate sites could be fully documented in the plan. The goal is to encourage more independent learning and develop critical judgment.
Media, fiction, comparative texts, poetry, formal speeches, and drama were the themes of the lessons observed. All lessons were thoroughly prepared. A very commendable emphasis was placed on arranging, in advance, appropriate resources to make best use of the lesson time. Particularly commended is the efficiency of such planning for shorter lessons. Cognisance was taken of the fact that students would be delayed and planning for deployment of resources took this reality into account. Planned learning activities were diverse and a thoughtful range of activities was planned to cater for different learning styles.
Very good practice was observed where the learning intention was shared with students at the start of the lesson. It is commendable that, in a class visited, the lesson objective was written on the board. It is understood that previous in-service, arranged for staff, placed special emphasis on the sharing of the lesson intention as a key strand in assessment for learning. Continuation lessons may lose sight of this good practice and students should be reminded of the planned learning outcomes to be achieved by the end of the lesson, in all cases, in order to make learning more focused. Lessons were generally well structured. The transitions from one stage of the lesson to another were well managed. A good balance was maintained between whole-class activity and individual, group and pair work to ensure variety. The pace of lessons was appropriate in almost all cases. In a very small minority, the pace should be reviewed where too much time may be spent on one activity leaving insufficient time for the reinforcement of learning through whole-class activity at the end of the lesson.
Resources were used appropriately in most cases. The board was used effectively in lessons observed. Mind maps simplified and organised information. Students’ responses to a task were recorded and this ensured maximum participation. The use of audio and visual resources could be explored more, to supplement the written word. In many cases, good use was made of wall space as an additional resource for the display of students’ work and other materials.
Methods used were effective. A very good range of question types was used for a variety of purposes, for example to prepare for learning, to assess, to prompt information retrieval and to develop higher-order thinking skills. Students were required to present a counter argument to a peer’s thesis. In some instances, questions were designed to reinforce the PQE method, that is, “Point, Quote, Explain”. This is a department-wide strategy and all teachers reinforce this technique as need requires. The PQE technique is effective since it gives students a simple framework for learning and is a useful mnemonic on which they can draw when practising written assignments or for use in examinations. It is commendable that a good balance was struck between global questioning and the targeting of individual students in most cases: the latter keeps all students on task and helps teachers to diagnose difficulties. However, care should be taken to avoid overusing global questions, that is, questions addressed to the class as a whole. More confident students tend to respond most frequently in such cases and have the potential to monopolise teacher attention as a consequence. It is commendable that leading or rhetorical questions were used rarely since these can imply that there is only one “right” answer thus foreclosing on critical thinking. In most cases a student-centred approach was adopted and students were encouraged to become independent learners.
It is reported that students at all levels are encouraged to carry out research, for example, using the internet but this was not observed in practice during the evaluation. In a few cases, and for understandable reasons due to contextual factors, there was a tendency to “spoon feed” students so that they were too dependent on the teacher to provide information rather than find evidence themselves. The PQE technique referred to above should be used in all circumstances, with cognisance taken of the relative ability of students to gather sufficient evidence for statements. Consideration should be given to the use of drama techniques when reading texts.
A good range of skills is learned and students are confident in their learning. Students demonstrated a good understanding of the material they were covering and were able to engage with their texts in different ways. Very good practice was observed where a junior cycle group was required to, and succeeded in, identifying the “ingredients” that made a scene in a text interesting. This encouraged critical judgment. Excellent preparatory work had been done on a junior cycle text and background research on the world of the text had taken place with the purpose of enhancing student engagement. Advanced reading techniques were learned: students were encouraged to find and underline evidence. A particularly useful organisational tool that was learned was colour coding with the purpose of separating strands of information and evidence This was also very appropriate in particular for the visual learner’s needs. Students did this automatically, demonstrating familiarity with the technique. Handouts were used to scaffold students’ writing and focus students’ attention. Writing frames were also used to support writing. Good practice was observed in a lesson that prepared students for a theatre visit. To maximise learning opportunities, the lesson was devoted to focused review of key scenes in the play. Group work was used effectively in a number of lessons observed. It would enhance the effectiveness of group work if specific roles were assigned to individuals in all classes, to ensure each is on task. Co-operative learning techniques could be considered. Students also worked in pairs to arrive at answers and this was effective in involving all students and encouraging a good learning atmosphere.
It is very commendable that all first years were required to maintain a personal response journal this academic year. To formalise the process, a designated journal was purchased and while it is very attractively presented, and would be very encouraging for weaker students, the journal is expensive and the format is restrictive for more advanced students since there is no space to develop deeper, coherent responses. In view of these considerations, and to extend this very worthwhile activity to all class groups, the department should consider requiring all students to maintain a personal response journal with a simple hardback copybook functioning as the journal. In lessons observed, very good practice was noted where subject-specific language was modelled and students were able to use critical terms with ease and understanding.
Writing skills were developed in lessons observed, however, in general, there is scope for development in this area. There should be more focus on writing in the junior cycle in particular, and sustained story writing should be practised. Students should also experiment with other forms. The links between texts (poems, play, novel, non-fictional prose) and students’ own writing should be made and texts should form a platform for students’ own creative exploration. In view of the ongoing difficulty that many students have with the mechanics of writing, all lessons should incorporate some element of teaching spelling and grammar, but always in real contexts. When teaching writing, care should be taken not to over-emphasise the LC programme as a motivational tool in TY. Such an emphasis is not strictly in keeping with the laudable broad aim of the Newbridge College TY programme, that “Students will be encouraged to consider themselves as writers.” Speaking skills were developed, formally through discussion and exploration of formal speeches, and informally through answering and volunteering information. Students were able to demonstrate the qualities that make speeches interesting for an audience and they were equipped with relevant terms to enable them to formalise speeches. Participation in a debating league was an effective incentive to learning. Current affairs were used as points of reference and this is highly commended.
Classroom management was good in all lessons. There was a very warm rapport between teachers and students and a good learning atmosphere prevailed in all cases. Students fully participated in class activities. Measured learning outcomes in the junior cycle are somewhat lower than might be expected given context. The shorter than average tuition time available to the subject over three years may be a contributory factor. Attainment is very good in the LC programme.
It is commendable that Newbridge College has an assessment policy. Assessment for learning is strongly emphasised in all curricular areas and in-service was provided for staff last year. A variety of assessment methods are used including formal in-house examinations and class tests. There is a strong focus on continuous assessment and this is very positive. Students are given useful assessment feedback in their copybooks or orally during class interactions and this is commended since one of the purposes of assessment is to direct learning. Dating of assignments was also laudable since it allows both students and teachers to track progress.
Examination outcomes are analysed by management and the co-ordinator, and information is made available to parents, students and the board of management. The analysis is also discussed at subject meetings. This is useful, not just for comparison with national norms, but the information can also be used to target planning and to inform teaching practice.
Parents and guardians are informed of students’ progress through standard mechanisms such as reports home, parent-teacher meetings, individual contact and the school journal. Appropriate arrangements are made for SENs students during the certificate examinations. There is also a separate assessment form that records curricular areas covered by the learning-support students, and goals are set. These are signed by the learning-support teacher and co-signed by the principal. This is very good practice.
Records of attendance and assessment are carefully maintained, in keeping with good professional practice.
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