An Roinn Oideachais agus Eolaíochta
Department of Education and Science
Subject Inspection of English
Meán Scoil Mhuire,
Convent Road, Longford
Roll number: 63760E
Date of inspection: 24 September 2009
Report on the Quality of Learning and Teaching in English
This report has been written following a subject inspection in Meán Scoil Mhuire, Longford. 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 to the group of subject teachers who attended the scheduled meeting. 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.
English is provided in the Junior Certificate (JC), the Leaving Certificate (LC) and the Transition Year (TY) in Meán Scoil Mhuire, Longford.
The quality of whole-school support is generally good across a number of areas. Timetabling allocation is very good. All junior cycle classes and fifth years have five lessons distributed over the week. Transition Year (TY) students are allocated three lessons while sixth year students have six lessons, four single and one double.
As many students as possible are encouraged to take higher-level English and it is very commendable that uptake of higher level exceeds the national average in both the senior and junior cycles. Numbers taking JC foundation level are relatively low given the school’s intake of students with additional needs. In first year, classes are formed on a mixed-ability basis. After assessment, those requiring more intensive learning support are taught in a separate group and this is consistent for the three years of the cycle. The same organisational pattern emerges for those in need of language support. While this model may seem to counter a spirit of inclusion, it does ensure that appropriate teaching is targeted at those most in need. Students are integrated in other subject areas. A common examination at the end of first year determines access to levels for the JC. At senior level, a flexible approach is adopted and a range of criteria is taken into account alongside performance in the JC examination.
Teachers are appropriately assigned to classes and the teaching of higher-level English rotates. This is positive since it deepens expertise in the teaching team. It is reported that challenges in relation to staff allocation necessitated the splitting of classes between two teachers in the current academic year and this has affected two second year groups and one third year group. Such arrangements do not ensure optimum learning conditions for the students since they militate against continuity and the delivery of an integrated approach to the teaching and learning of English. Moreover, they place an additional planning burden on teachers. It is recommended that this practice be discontinued in all future timetabling arrangements.
The teaching team is characterised by a collaborative ethos that supports new teachers of the subject. A great deal of informal sharing of expertise and resources was noted. The team should develop a formal induction policy for newly appointed teachers of English to systematise informal arrangements currently in place. It is very commendable that teachers of English engage in continuing professional development (CPD) to enhance teaching skills. It would be useful to develop a formal CPD policy to help the department identify current and future needs and to document procedures for the dissemination of good practice gleaned from attendance at school-supported CPD events. The subject planning folder lists CPD activities that have already been availed of by individual teachers. It is reported that teachers of English as an additional language (EAL) have benefited from recent training and from the assessment kit provided by the Department of Education and Science. Since the school is fortunate in having a very good and well-balanced team that has developed a good level of expertise, it is suggested that meeting times be used to share good practice in a formal setting and to encourage reflective practice.
Resources available for the subject are generally good and the school is currently engaged in the roll out of an ambitious information and communication technology (ICT) programme. To complement the work being done at whole-school level, the English department should now consider setting up a small representative working group to investigate and document the practical ways in which ICT can be integrated into the teaching and learning of English for all year groups. This could then be discussed at a plenary session of all of the subject teachers, (mainstream and special educational needs groups). The school’s library is also the teachers’ work room and resource room and therefore books are accessed through teachers. The department is currently developing the book stock and is supported by the school in this regard. Reading is encouraged by all teachers at an individual level. It is particularly commendable that a very productive relationship has been established with the local county library services and has resulted in stimulating co-curricular activities being made available to the students of Meánscoil Mhuire. This represents very good practice. Resources for learning support are very good and good reflective practice ensures that these are regularly reviewed and updated where and when necessary. It is laudable that management has supported the learning-support department in this regard.
The school recognises that valuable learning takes place in other sites besides the classroom and a programme of extra and co-curricular activities is provided by a dedicated team of teachers. Activities such as debating and theatre visits, among others, enrich the learning of English and assist in the development of a variety of skills highlighted in the syllabuses.
The school has developed effective planning structures. Meeting times are assigned, agendas set, records kept and planning is well organised. The role of co-ordinator rotates and this ensures that responsibility is distributed and that team members gain experience of leadership. It is very positive that the learning-support and language-support teams attend meetings of the English department and input into planning.
Planning for LC English is good and appropriate to the syllabus. It is very commendable that learning outcomes are specific. Teachers should ensure that planning for their individual class groups mirrors this approach.
A priority area for development is planning for junior cycle English. Existing planning is conscientious but is structured on the JC examination. In most cases there is a fair amount of detail. Planning for first year is more co-ordinated and points to the fact that discrete meetings are held for first year teachers: a common internal examination is staged at the end of first year so individual class plans need to be aligned. However, evidence gathered during the evaluation points to a limited and limiting approach to junior cycle planning in general that is not likely to fully achieve syllabus aims and objectives. The range of texts and genres documented in the plan are too few in number and, in some cases, are insufficiently challenging. It was noted that the third year of the programme is largely confined to examination preparation. While these approaches may assure immediate success in the JC examination (which tests two of the four skills referred to in the syllabus) they do not provide a secure platform for the Leaving Certificate programme in English and are not in keeping with all aspects of the JC syllabus. It is therefore recommended that a root and branch review of the plan for junior cycle English takes place. The rubric is already available in the draft rebalanced JC English syllabus that is currently in the department’s planning folder. Specific learning outcomes ranging across the four skills (speaking, listening, reading and writing) should be documented. The resources (whether text or other media) chosen to achieve learning outcomes for individual classes and students should be documented in line with good differentiation practice. These resources should be regularly reviewed.
A stimulating Transition Year programme in English is provided. A brief outline scheme for each programme segment, film study, drama and regular English, is contained in the folder and it is reported that there is a good deal of co-operation and consultation between the teachers involved, which is commendable since it indicates a co-ordinated approach. It is suggested that thematic and cross curricular links be made more explicit and that the focus shift to learning outcomes in each of the three units to ensure continuity with the junior cycle across skills and to form a bridge to the LC programme. All resources used should be fully documented.
Planning for teaching and learning should take cognisance of the need to develop students as autonomous, life-long learners. This requires the team to collectively review planning for teaching methods and assessment across all of the English programmes with the two goals of transferring more responsibility to students for their own learning and of developing creative, innovative thinking.
To harness the very good work being done by individual teachers and to achieve consistency and cohesion, a reading policy should be documented, integrated into the plan for English and implemented in all year groups.
Where classes are split between two teachers, it is vital that the teachers of these classes meet regularly for planning purposes and ensure an integrated approach to all aspects of the teaching and learning of English; common assessment strategies should be agreed.
Planning for individual lessons was good on the whole. Very good practice was observed in the planning for the use of resources in a lesson observed where a variety of resources was appropriately used. A film lesson was well planned to ensure that supporting film clips were ready for the lesson. In all cases lesson planning should be reviewed to ensure that expected learning outcomes for the lesson are clear and achievable and these should be written on the board at the start of the lesson.
The pace of lessons was appropriate in almost all cases and very good use was made of lesson time in most cases. Review is needed in a couple of instances. Good practice was observed where the teacher shared the learning intention with students. In most lessons, the resources used to support learning were text based (books and handouts). In all lessons these were appropriately chosen and used. It is commendable that supporting background information is provided to students to support learning, for example photocopied handouts. To make best use of these, students should be required to know and understand the content. The board was well used in lessons observed and effective use was made of graphic organisers, such as “T” bars and grids, to help students locate, order and review information, reinforcing knowledge and comprehension of texts. This is good practice. Exemplary practice was observed in a class visited: the resources chosen took account of a variety of learning styles and were designed to interest students and reinforce learning. They were particularly appropriate to the target group, members of which find learning challenging. This should be a model for all lessons irrespective of ability level. While there was evidence that audio resources were included in other lessons, none was noted during the evaluation. In a film study class visited, good quality film clips underpinned the lesson.
Teaching methods were effective and traditional. There was a strong emphasis on oral questioning for a variety of purposes, for example, to ensure engagement, to monitor/check understanding and knowledge and to deepen learning by encouraging students to draw on previous knowledge. This is commended. Best practice was observed where higher-order skills were developed through questioning: for example, students were asked to form judgments based on evidence they themselves had gathered and were required to order, categorise and to analyse. It is particularly commendable that students in a senior cycle class were required to prepare and research their texts as a homework task and to reference these when offering views in class. The tendency to “spoonfeed” students was thus avoided and responsibility for learning transferred to the students. Where alternative or dissenting views are proffered, students should be challenged to justify these by reference to evidence and should be led towards evaluation and review in the light of evidence gathered. Questioning technique was generally good but there are some areas for development that the team should consider individually and collectively: care should be taken to ensure that students are given sufficient time to answer questions; the level of questioning should be moderated upwards for the purpose of differentiation and for developing learning; there should be an appropriate balance between global and targeted questions. It is very commendable that students were affirmed and warmly supported by their teachers in their answering. There was a notable atmosphere of trust that ensured very good quality interactions between teachers and students.
With one exception there was no evidence of peer collaboration through group and pair work in classes visited and this is an area for development. Teachers should explore how in particular, cooperative learning techniques can be used in lessons. Learning was encouraged through the reading out of homework assignments. This method afforded the teachers an opportunity to use assessment for learning strategies since immediate feedback could be provided. In addition, students modelled skills and other students were able to learn by listening to their peers’ responses and hearing these being affirmed and moderated by the teacher. This teaching strategy is effective and could be further developed by encouraging self assessment and peer assessment to reinforce the learning of a range of skills.
Writing skills were practised through written homework assignments. The evaluation took place early in the academic year and copybooks indicate that a fair amount of work has already been done. There was a strong emphasis on the development of comprehension and knowledge in the junior cycle samples, for example completion of anthology questions or examination paper questions, but less on the cultivation of creativity and application of understanding through writing in a variety of genres. This is an area for development. Planning and implementation in lessons indicate that there is a tendency to segment rather than integrate the teaching and learning of English in both the senior and junior cycles. It is recommended that this be reviewed. It is commendable that copybooks were well organised and presented in most cases, indicating that high standards are expected.
There was a very positive learning atmosphere in the classes visited. Students were generally confident in their learning and were secure in the knowledge base they had already built. It was noted that in some cases they were less confident when applying knowledge in unfamiliar contexts and this is worth noting when planning for teaching and learning. In all lessons there was a very good level of engagement.
Achievement is generally very good and the vast majority of students achieve their full potential. It is possible that some may be over achieving at ordinary level when measured assessment outcomes are taken into consideration. However, this is also testimony to good quality teaching and learning. The team should review achievement at the ordinary level on an ongoing basis. Given the high uptake of higher level as adverted to in section one of this report, and the caring approach that the department takes in supporting students who wish to take higher level, it is possible that little change may be needed. However, other factors may be at play. Students whose home language is not English should be particularly monitored. Ongoing analysis of assessment outcomes and setting of strategic goals should be considered, particularly for this target group.
Assessment is conscientious and a good effort is made to vary modes. Apart from annual end of year examinations, and in-house tests, continuous assessment is also used, for example, in TY. It is commendable that a common examination is held at the end of first year. This should be extended for common levels throughout the junior and senior cycles. It is reported that individual teachers share in this way from time to time and such good practice should be extended. This would ensure cohesion and consistency and relieve individual teachers of the burden of producing several different papers for summative assessment.
Assessment for learning was noted during class interactions. In many cases there was evidence of written teacher feedback being given to students in copybooks. This is good practice since the purpose of assessment is to improve learning, to inform teaching and assist in reflection and review. In a small number of cases however, it was noted that students’ inaccuracies of expression were not marked for improvement and the writing of full, accurate sentences was not expected. Students should learn to write clear, syntactically correct English as a basic requirement. Good practice was noted in a lesson observed: the teacher used information gleaned from assessment to improve learning and the whole class group benefited. The department should agree a common assessment policy, as distinct from the school’s homework policy, and the purpose of assessment should initially be discussed and agreed and should then inform policy and procedures.
TY students engage in a co-curricular short media course that is FETAC accredited and this indicates an innovative approach to assessment that is highly commended.
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 at the conclusion of the evaluation when the draft findings and recommendations of the evaluation were presented and discussed.
Published, January 2010