An Roinn Oideachais agus Eolaíochta
Department of Education and Science
Subject Inspection of Classical Studies
Saint Mary’s Diocesan School
Beamore Road, Drogheda, County Louth
Roll number: 63841E
Date of inspection: 19 September 2006
Date of issue of report: 21 June 2007
Report on the Quality of Learning and Teaching in Classical Studies
This report has been written following a subject inspection in St Mary’s Diocesan School and has been incorporated into a subsequent Whole School Evaluation. It presents the findings of an evaluation of the quality of teaching and learning in Classical Studies 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, deputy principal and subject teachers.
There is a good level of whole-school support for Classical Studies in St Mary’s Diocesan Secondary School. The subject benefits from a positive and nurturing school atmosphere led by senior management. The subject is offered in all programmes. Based on entrance assessment tests, first years are divided into two bands, upper and lower with about eighty students in each band. Classical Studies is offered to both bands and two class groups are formed one of which is higher level, the second of which is mixed ability. The school is highly commended for offering the subject to students across the ability spectrum. To help first year students make informed choices, the school operates a sampling programme for approximately one month at the start of the academic year. In the senior cycle, the three class groups are mixed ability. Students can take the subject ab initio in the senior cycle and the school is commended for making the subject available to as many students as possible.
Four lessons per week consisting of single and double periods are allocated to junior cycle students. Single periods distributed evenly over the week represent best practice for the subject. Periods vary in length between thirty-five and forty minutes each. The teaching of Transition Year (TY) Classical Studies commenced late in September and students have two periods. Timetabling allocation at Leaving Certificate level varies but all students receive a minimum of five periods per week in each of the two years of the Leaving Certificate programme. This is adequate to meet syllabus requirements. Some class groups are provided with five periods in one year of the programme and six in the other, which represents good provision. It is reported that other groups can be allocated as many as six periods in each year of the Leaving Certificate programme. This is generous and of considerable benefit to students, given the length of the Classical Studies syllabus.
The Classical Studies department has access to a range of audio-visual equipment and a budget of five hundred euro is made available annually. The school has a spacious library with a good Classical Studies section and seven to eight networked computers. Teachers can book the facility for their class groups and routine use of the library to foster independent learning could be explored in the context of departmental planning. Teacher-based classrooms facilitate storage and the development of class libraries. The subject teachers have been proactive in developing resources. A collaborative ethos exists and teachers share these resources. Class sets of attractive books, one for Greek civilisation, one for Roman, were noted during the evaluation. The school operates a book-rental scheme. While this is useful for students, a delay in the issuing of core texts poses challenges for efficient syllabus delivery. To offset this, it is advisable to have class sets of photocopied material (taking due note of copyright restrictions) so that students are ready to commence the study of their topics without any delay at the start of the school year. Teachers avail of ICT facilities for personal research but Classical Studies students do not routinely use the facility in the course of their lessons. Although there is considerable demand for the school’s computer room, it can be booked and the teachers of Classical Studies could ensure that their classes avail of this facility on an occasional basis. It is reported that teachers give students a list of useful websites. The department could consider establishing a shared electronic folder containing notes, worksheets, exemplars and other such material that could be accessed by each member of the teaching team. Since many syllabus topics studied in St Mary’s require a high level of visual content, the teaching and learning of Classical Studies would benefit from access to and use of a data projector in order to avail of good quality visual material on the internet. Advantage could also be taken of e-learning software such as the resource that complements the Cambridge Latin Course. It is understood that some classrooms are networked and have a computer. Existing good quality visual material, such as post-cards that are on display in some classrooms, could be scanned to form useful slides. Some individual notes presented in the evaluation were of a very high quality.
The subject is taught by a very experienced and enthusiastic team. Students generally retain the same teacher in each of the junior and senior cycles and this ensures continuity. Continuous professional development (CPD) is encouraged and facilitated by management and, with that support, the team has the opportunity to identify subject specific CPD areas for development. In this context, and given the collaborative ethos that currently exists in the department, opportunities for sharing good practice could be generated. Members of the teaching team are, or have been involved in the teachers’ professional subject association and this is commended.
The school has placed particular emphasis on whole-staff development in the area of special education and Classical Studies has received specific focus. The learning support teacher interacts with the Classical Studies teachers on an informal basis. There is potential for the team to take fuller advantage of this level of support. For example, some team members may feel it necessary to access additional ICT training and this may be possible through in-house coaching or an external facilitator.
In the past, St Mary’s students enjoyed widespread success in classical table quizzes organised by the Classical Association of Ireland. There have also been student exchanges to Sicily and school tours, for example, Rome in 2002. Such activities promote the subject and are highly commended. It is reported that an exchange with a school in Rome is currently being actively investigated; this would prove of considerable benefit to students of Classical Studies.
Teachers work co-operatively, have regular minuted meetings and undertake subject co-ordination on a rotating basis. Decisions are made jointly. The Classical Studies department has made a good start on subject planning, following the School Development Planning Initiative (SDPI) templates. The subject plan reflects an awareness of students with special educational needs and lists some specific methodologies and this is commended. The plan makes reference to homework, but this needs to be fleshed out further. Cross-curricular approaches are mentioned in the plan and this is positive. However, it is not clear how, when, or in what programmes these are used and more specificity is required. A story-based approach for delivery of the first year syllabus is documented in the plan and this is positive as a way of engaging student interest.
To develop the subject plan further, the department should now engage in planning to deal with identified weaknesses in students’ competencies and should document and implement a comprehensive range of strategies. Selection of prescribed syllabus topics should be reviewed in the junior and senior cycles. Currently, although there is some overlap, the selection of topics varies year on year to reflect the individual interests of teachers. Moreover, some topics may not be meeting the learning needs of the students. It is recommended that the department agree a set of topics at both junior and senior level taking cognisance of student ability range and the interests of the learners. In agreeing a common range of topics, care should be taken to ensure progression from junior to senior cycle without compromising richness and variety of experience. It is recommended further that the pace, sequence and timeframe of syllabus delivery be agreed and regularly reviewed. There is no cohesive department plan for the sampling period in first year. It is recommended that the department devise a common approach so that all first year students are given an attractive yet realistic view of the subject. The department could agree a policy on the maintenance of folders since teaching and learning in the subject frequently demands additional supplementary material which this requires effective management.
The TY Classical Studies plan is a skeletal outline, as provision of the subject only became feasible around the time of the subject evaluation. The theme of the first term’s TY programme is philosophy. There are some good elements in the list presented, such as a visit from a guest speaker. However the plan needs to be fully written so that a clear bridge is established between the junior cycle and the senior cycle Classical Studies syllabuses. The plan should also reflect the principles of the TY programme. It is recommended that the department work collaboratively on the TY plan. Consideration could be given to varying content to include other topics and themes in addition to philosophy. Content, methodologies, resources, cross-curricular approaches should be fully documented. Moreover, the schools’ assessment policy should be clearly written into the TY plan. Contact should be made with the Classical Association of Ireland – Teachers (CAI-T) who have developed a number of modules for TY and resources are available on a CD ROM.
A long-term scheme was presented in one case and this is commended. Individual lesson plans were presented in all cases. Most of the lesson plans were over-ambitious for the time allocated and these should be reviewed, evaluated and modified in the light of experience. The emphasis should be on achievable and measurable learning outcomes within the lesson timeframe. Double periods are common in all year groups and good practice was observed where lessons were planned to ensure variety of content and/or activities. Resources such as handouts for individual lessons were prepared and appropriate use was made of the overhead projector.
A variety of syllabus-appropriate themes was covered in the lessons visited. Instructions were clear. Links were effectively made with earlier learning in most lessons. Wall mounted resources such were used as an effective teaching tool in a lesson visited: students were required to identify features on a mounted display and areas were also pointed out to students on a wall-map. This greatly assisted review and learning of new material. The board was used most effectively to focus attention on important issues, to record terms that assist students answering and to remediate difficulties that had been diagnosed in the course of questioning. Students in one group were instructed to compile a personal glossary of key words and this is good practice. In the best lessons, students were given the opportunity to use, describe and explain subject specific technical terms and thus gain confidence. In one lesson, a wide variety of teaching strategies was deployed, including illustration, humour and lively anecdotes from everyday experience, in order to clarify difficult concepts. Animated interactions resulted. This is highly commended. In all lessons, questions were directed both to class groups as a whole and to individuals. Student responses were dealt with in a sensitive manner. Students regularly asked questions in many lessons to clarify points, or voluntarily supplied additional information, thus showing a good level of understanding and engagement. In most lessons, key concepts and skills were emphasised. Vocabulary building was emphasised and this is commendable. Students could become actively involved in this process through the use of dictionaries and worksheets.
It was noted that, in some teaching, too much time was spent on peripheral material. Given the demands of the syllabus, lengthy and complex introductions and elaborate terminology should be avoided and the text itself should be central to the lesson. It is recommended that the learning outcome be written clearly on the board and time be allocated at the end to check if the outcome has been achieved. This can be done through a short writing activity or through questioning. During interaction with the inspector, students were, for the most part, confident in their answering. They showed familiarity with important themes, sequencing of events and evidence of analytical thinking. However, learning deficits were also noted. In such cases, teaching strategies should be evaluated. Strategies for differentiated teaching referred to in departmental planning documents should be fully integrated into individual lessons.
In all lessons, classrooms were very well managed and students settled to work quickly. Discipline was firm but relaxed. Students were affirmed and encouraged. In most of the classrooms visited, the wall space was enhanced with attractive, stimulating visual material and this is commended. Of assistance to students was a time chart to help clarify the diversity of early historic periods that some students find challenging. The display of students’ work was a very positive use of wall space but care should be taken to ensure that such display is renewed regularly. A lively interest in and enthusiasm for the subject was noted in a majority of lessons. In an interview with a first year class group, students showed a considerable degree of intellectual curiosity that had been stimulated by their brief contact with the subject during the sampling period. A very good rapport was noted between students and teachers in St Mary’s Diocesan School.
Formal in-house tests occur three times per year and mock examinations are also held. According to the departmental plan, individual teachers also carry out assessment tests or set homework after topics or units have been completed. As the subject evaluation occurred in the early stages of the academic year, a small number of written assignments were available for examination by the inspector and in a minority of lessons, copies were not available. It is reported that, in such cases, the emphasis has been on introductory material, or on reading and oral preparation. Nonetheless, it is advisable to give students writing practice as early as possible in the school year especially after the intervention of a long summer vacation when writing skills may have deteriorated. It is recommended that the department agree a minimum number of substantial homework assignments to be completed for each year group, taking due cognisance of programme, level and year group. In some assignments seen, there was evidence of useful comments designed to encourage students and give helpful feedback. This good practice could be extended widely. It is advisable to date all homework assignments so that students can track their progress. In order to ensure consistency and cohesion, the department could agree common criteria for the assessment of assignments in the context of departmental planning. In tandem with this, the teaching team could also agree common procedures on the recording of homework assignments in order to ensure the accurate charting of student progress that is referred to in planning documentation.
In some of the lessons visited, students were instructed to document their assignments in their journals and this is good practice. Very good practice was noted where written homework assignments were carefully thought out and clear strategies were recorded on the board to assist learners to complete the task, to ensure good standards and to clarify difficulties. It is recommended that common papers relevant to level be set in the interests of standardising timeframes for course delivery and ensuring consistency of practice. It is strongly recommended that the Classical Studies department should engage in the formal evaluation of in-house tests and State examination outcomes on an annual basis and, where relevant, formulate a range of strategies to address areas of concern that emerge. If deemed necessary, departmental and individual practice could then be adjusted. In planning documentation, reference was made to short written tests designed to monitor reading (of which there is a great deal in Classical Studies). This is positive and individual teachers could combine their resources in this regard. In a lesson visited, good use was made of a questionnaire to assist students with revision. Students were made aware of criteria for assessment in the state examinations and were offered practical advice in one lesson. This is good 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 Classical Studies and with the principal and deputy principal at the conclusion of the evaluation when the draft findings and recommendations of the evaluation were presented and discussed.