An Roinn Oideachais agus Eolaíochta
Department of Education and Science
Subject Inspection of English
Eureka Secondary School
Kells, County Meath
Roll number: 64410F
Date of inspection: 23 September 2008
Report on the Quality of Learning and Teaching in English
This report has been written following a subject inspection in Eureka Secondary School, carried out 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.
Eureka Secondary School, Kells, is a girls’ school under the trusteeship of CEIST (Catholic Education an Irish Schools Trust). Its current enrolment is 689 including twenty-three students who are repeating the Leaving Certificate examination. These students are fully integrated with the sixth-year class groups. The Junior Certificate, the established Leaving Certificate, the Leaving Certificate Applied (LCA), and the Leaving Certificate Vocational programmes are provided in the school. An optional Transition Year (TY) programme is also available in senior cycle. English is a core subject on all curricular programmes and timetabled provision for the subject is very good in all cases.
Students in first year are offered the full range of subjects on the school’s curriculum and they make choices about the subjects they wish to study for examination at the beginning of second year. Class groups are mixed ability for English in first year and students’ progress is monitored through the year. This is an effective way of ensuring that all students are well placed to reach their potential in English. Based on their achievement in a common examination for all first-year class groups, students are placed in banded class groups from second year. Generally, four higher-level classes are formed and, this year, there is a single class grouping following the ordinary level course. The policy of delaying the decision about the level at which English will be studied for certificate examination until the end of first year is very good practice. It allows the student time to ‘settle’ in post-primary and provides the teacher with a very good knowledge base on which to make recommendations.
Concurrent timetabling from second year through to sixth year enables students who wish to do so to change levels where appropriate. Students in both junior and senior cycles are encouraged to attempt the higher level courses and generally students rise to the expectations of their teachers. As a consequence, uptake in English at higher level for certificate examinations is very good.
Deployment of teachers is in line with their qualifications, skills, knowledge and interests. Management encourages and facilitates continuing professional development for teachers and the English department has benefited from whole-school in-service on special educational needs and on differentiation, for example. In addition, members of the department have attended, in their own time, modular courses relevant to English provided by the Second Level Support Service. The interest of the department is evident in the opportunities they have created to share new ideas and good practice within the subject department.
The school is to be commended on its excellent library facilities. There is a part-time librarian and students can borrow books at break and lunch times. The range of activities provided through the library is very good. They include regular participation in the Writers in Schools programme, the recent establishment of a book club for all students and promotion of poetry and creative writing competitions. The teachers of English make good use of the library, through bringing their junior cycle students to the library and their active encouragement of student participation in library activities. The successes of students who have won prizes for their writing are celebrated in the school.
Access to shared teaching and learning resources is very good. The strong collegial spirit among the teachers of English means that they share teacher-created resources freely. Two interactive whiteboards are available and training in their use has been provided. All English class groups are timetabled at least once a week in the audio-visual room and information and communication technology (ICT) is available in the computer rooms. Teachers of English use the internet to download material for use in the classroom and students are encouraged to access the wide range of learning materials available. The school also makes funds available on request to enable teachers to purchase resources as needed.
The teachers of English are commended for the co-curricular activities that they facilitate. These range from trips to the theatre, to debating and public speaking, to encouragement to write creatively. Students have participated in a number of competitions and have enjoyed some success. The learning experiences that these activities provide are valuable supports to the development of practical communication skills and social literacy.
In summary, there is very good support for the teaching and learning of English in Eureka Secondary School.
Very good planning documentation was available for inspection and it was clear that a thorough, structured approach is taken to planning the delivery of the subject. School management has made dedicated time available for the eight teachers of English to meet formally each term. Minutes of each meeting and the decisions made are kept. The collaboration which this arrangement facilitates and supports has allowed the department to develop a comprehensive plan for the subject. It was clear that the teachers also meet one another informally throughout the year to offer support and share resources. The collegiality which results supports best practice in the classroom.
The curriculum content of the department plan reflects all aspects of syllabus and programme requirements. A particular strength of the junior cycle plan is its emphasis on the development of students’ skills in each of the four language domains—speaking, listening, reading and writing. As the subject plan is reviewed, it is recommended that the focus on teacher input which characterises much of the plan should change. Including an indicative list of intended learning outcomes places the student at the centre of planning and facilitates effective assessment of learners’ progress. Particular care should be taken to ensure that sufficient study of the short story is included in the junior cycle plan.
A written programme for each of the two TY classes was available for inspection. The aims and objectives are written in general terms and correspond with the aims of TY as a whole. The programme planned is very good, providing students with a range of projects which have the potential to encourage and advance the development of independent learning skills which will be particularly valuable in senior cycle.
Teachers’ individual planning was also of a high standard. Schemes of work for each class group were carefully described and all were included in the subject department planning folder. The very best of these schemes include information about the way that students’ progress through each unit of work will be assessed. It is recommended that, as schemes are reviewed, a description of the assessment modes to be used should be added. It is suggested that the teachers should also agree a common template for their individual schemes.
The curriculum planned for English and Communications on the Leaving Certificate Applied programme is very good. As it is written, this plan includes opportunities for students to study language use in a variety of real communicative contexts and to have a rich encounter with language and literature. The LCA English and Communications plan should be included in the subject department plan.
There is good liaison between the subject department and teams supporting students with additional educational needs. The department plan references the role of all teachers of English in meeting the specific learning needs of students and the in-service support that has been made available to the whole staff to meet these. Team teaching, involving the resource teacher and teachers of English, is one of the principal modes used in the school to deliver support to students with additional learning needs.
A small number of students who do not have English as their first language are offered English language support. Information was provided to the school during the evaluation regarding the need to use appropriate tests to assess proficiency in the English language and attention was drawn to Circular Letter 53/2007.
In all classes visited, there was evidence of very thorough planning for learning. Lessons were well structured and purposeful. Appropriate stimulus materials and learning resources were available and utilised by teachers. Clear objectives were set out and pursued in all lessons, providing a structure and continuity with prior lessons which greatly aided student learning. For example, lessons opened with a brief, student-generated, summary of what was already known about a topic. In four lessons, where it was appropriate, students had pre-read the text being explored and had prepared a brief note of their first impressions. In one instance, a handout had been supplied to students to support their initial work. Pre-reading is particularly effective in facilitating a personal response to texts and works well with students across the ability range.
A very clear routine for the beginning of lessons has been established. Students were, as a result, very quickly focussed on their work and teaching and learning time was used productively. Interactions between teachers and students were at all times warm and respectful and a good learning atmosphere ensued. The variety of tasks planned for each lesson and the way transitions from one to another were smoothly managed were the key factors in ensuring that students were engaged throughout each lesson.
The commitment of teachers in Eureka Secondary School to a participatory teaching/learning style was reflected in the range of teaching strategies used to keep students focussed and actively involved in their own learning. In two lessons, for example, audiotape was used to present material for study. In addition to giving concrete expression to concepts or texts which some students might have found challenging, tape work improves students’ listening and attending skills. In both instances, it was very successful in engaging students. In many of the lessons observed, students were encouraged to work together in groups or pairs while the teacher moved through the room to interact with them. The use of strategies which allow students to work independently of the teacher, is very good practice. It creates opportunities for students to learn from each other and for the teacher to offer discreet encouragement to less able students.
Teachers were skilful in their use of questioning to check students’ understanding of the work being done and their responses were very positively affirmed. As a result, some interesting classroom discussions were facilitated. Teachers regularly used the whiteboard to reinforce learning and to record students’ input. In general, a balance was maintained between asking global questions to the class and direct questions to individuals so that all students were ensured to be on task. The teachers of English are asked to remain conscious of the need to distribute questions evenly around the class in order to minimize the level of predictability for students and to maintain an ongoing assessment of all learners and ability levels in the classroom.
There were some examples of student work being displayed in classrooms. In general, however, insufficient use was made of the classroom environment to support students’ learning. The display of student work and other visual resources for English is of benefit in engaging students with texts at all levels and can greatly enhance their experiences of English. Additionally, students’ awareness of a potential audience of their peers for their written work can provide a powerful motivating tool with regard to the drafting and redrafting of their work. It is recommended that greater use should be made of posters, students’ work and projects in creating a strong visual environment for students of English in the school.
Students’ interaction with the inspector indicated that they had achieved the level of competence expected and were confident when discussing the texts they have studied. The quality of work in students’ copies was generally very good. Students were given regular opportunities to master the skills in each of the modes of writing and are acquiring the appropriate language skills. Where weaknesses were noted in higher level classes, they were limited to inaccuracies in the use of a quite sophisticated vocabulary or to an under-developed sense of audience. Generally, their work was well controlled and tightly focussed on the tasks set, with very good use of supporting reference and quotation. Less able students of English encountered some minor difficulties relating to establishing a sense of purpose in their writing. In some instances, their arguments were poorly developed or sustained. Again, however, the overall quality of their work was good.
The careful planning of lessons and the use of appropriate and tailored teaching strategies evident during the inspection visit indicate teachers’ expectations of excellence regarding effort, organisation and achievement. It is suggested that similar high expectations should be held for the current LCA class groups. These students have completed all the assignments required by their programme but a review of their written work suggests that they have the potential to improve on the quality of the assignments they submit.
Students’ understanding of work done in class is checked regularly by teachers through the use of questions. Care should be exercised to avoid inappropriate use of ‘leading’ questions. Such questions have a use where the teacher wishes to direct attention to particular points or to aid the forward movement of a lesson but are not helpful as a mode of assessment.
There is a homework policy in place as part of the school plan. Homework is set and assessed on a regular basis and it was encouraging to note that some teachers used formative comments to aid their students’ progress. Exercises were regularly marked and the focus on encouraging students to practise a range of writing skills is commended. A broad range of writing exercises is set for homework on a regular basis and this supports classroom work. Teachers had assigned a number of imaginative exercises to support student engagement with texts, for example, prediction work; writing from the point of view of a character in the studied texts and diary or media reports of events. Students in TY are required to maintain a journal in which they record their learning in English on a regular basis. This is a very good idea, as it encourages student self-evaluation and can provide a useful insight for the teacher regarding what is working well in the English programme planned for them. While it was evident that a wide range of assessment methods, including written and oral assignments, together with the completion of projects or portfolios, is used by the teachers of English, not all class groups benefit from this variety. It is therefore suggested that the English department should explore the use of a wider range of assessment methods for all class groups.
Teachers maintain a record of students’ work and, in some instances, these referenced specific weaknesses which could then be addressed through class work. This is excellent practice and is commended. Students are provided with feedback on their work both orally and through advisory comments following the correction of homework. Examinations in English are held each Christmas and summer and reports issue to parents at those times. All parents are invited to meet the English teachers at a parent-teacher meeting once a year.
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 May 2009