An Roinn Oideachais agus Eolaíochta
Department of Education and Science
Subject Inspection of English
Presentation Secondary School
Cannon Street, Waterford
Roll number: 64970U
Date of inspection: 20 February 2008
Report on the Quality of Learning and Teaching in English
This report has been written following a subject inspection in Presentation Secondary School. 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.
Presentation Secondary School is an all-girls’ school. Classes in first year have four lessons of English per week. This is adequate. If practicable, within the necessary constraints of timetabling and resources, the possibility of expanding this provision to five lessons per week should be explored. There are five English lessons per week provided for classes in second year and in third year. In the case of one class undertaking the Junior Certificate School Programme (JCSP) in second year, these English lessons are further supplemented by a number of additional lessons for literacy each week. This is positive and, overall, timetabled provision for English lessons in second year and in third year is good. In the case of third year classes, the timetabling of two English lessons on a Monday with none on a Wednesday should be avoided in the future, in order to facilitate daily contact with the subject. Again, the inevitable constraints of the timetabling process must be acknowledged in making this comment. There are three English lessons per week provided in Transition Year (TY), which is adequate provision. English classes in fifth year and in sixth year have six English lessons per week which is very good provision. The Leaving Certificate Applied (LCA) class has four lessons in English and Communications per week, which is good provision. Classes retain their English teachers from second year to third year and from fifth year to sixth year in so far as is practicable. This is positive.
English classes in first year, TY and the LCA are of mixed ability. English classes are banded in second year, third year, and sixth year. In fifth year there are banded classes in ordinary level, while there are two set higher level classes. Students are selected for literacy support in first year on the basis of assessments in March and October, meetings with their primary schools and teacher observations. Students’ psychological assessments are also utilised in this process, where applicable. All of this is good practice. Students are assigned to levels in second year based on their initial entrance assessment, classwork, performance during the year, end-of-year examination result and the advice of their teachers. In addition, students’ own interest and choice forms part of this process. A similar strategy informs students’ placement in senior cycle class groups, along with their performance in the Junior Certificate and their performance during TY, where applicable. Where students change levels, they do so through consultation with their teacher, their parents and the guidance counsellor. Classes in third year, TY and fifth year are timetabled concurrently. Three of the four English classes in second year are timetabled concurrently, while there is also some use of concurrent timetabling in sixth year. The use of concurrent timetabling is to be praised and encouraged as it facilitates student movement between levels and classes where necessary. Teachers are rotated between levels and cycles. This is good practice.
There are baserooms provided for English teachers. This is most positive. All English baserooms are equipped with a television, video and DVD player. In addition, the English department uses a data projector in another room for full-length showings of the films being studied in the senior cycle comparative course. The school is to be praised for providing these resources.
There are two computer rooms which may be accessed through a booking system. In addition, a number of English teachers have a computer in their classrooms. Beyond this, the school is in the process of expanding the availability of data projectors, with a number already ordered, while the acquisition of new interactive boards is also planned. Students participating in the Junior Certificate School Programme (JCSP) regularly use information and communication technology (ICT) to support their writing, while students in the LCA complete key assignments with ICT and have access to the ICT rooms. English teachers currently use ICT as a means of researching and supporting their work in class. ICT is also used to facilitate the typing of student work and to aid report writing in literacy support. All of this is very positive. As a means of consolidating and building upon this good work, it is recommended that the English department should submit a proposal for the appropriation of a data projector to support the department in its work. This could then be used as a further element in expanding the use of ICT to support student learning in English. Such an approach should be viewed as particularly appropriate in the context of the school’s current plans to expand the availability of ICT. In addition, the subject planning process could be used as a vehicle through which English teachers could communicate and advance good practice in the use of ICT.
There is a school library. English teachers can bring classes to the library through a booking system. Students can use the library for research and can borrow books at lunchtime. Book boxes have also been used to facilitate student reading and teachers have created a number of classroom libraries. Classes have also been brought to the city library on occasion, to attend different presentations. The library features a number of posters affirming students’ reading. All of this is praiseworthy. Beyond this, the school is involved in a number of initiatives to encourage student reading, including Wordmillionaire, Reading Challenge and the Make-a-Book scheme, along with a paired reading programme between students in the JCSP and the local primary school. Again, this is positive. The school has recently been provided with finances to further improve library services and it is anticipated that ICT facilities in the library will be enhanced. English teachers have been involved in the choice of books for the library and they, in turn, have sought student input in this area. It is suggested that a logical extension of this worthwhile effort would be to seek the formal involvement of the students’ council in book choice. It is further suggested that the English department might profitably examine the creation of a library policy to set out and consolidate the various ways in which the library is used to support students’ literacy attainment.
The school is supportive of English teachers’ continuing professional development (CPD). English teachers have participated in an impressive range of CPD opportunities. These include in-service training courses on mixed-ability teaching and learning, film studies, dyslexia and various courses organised by the National Educational Psychological Service (NEPS). All of this is highly commended. Information from courses has been brought back to be shared in the department and this is positive. It is suggested that, as a means of further embedding insights from inservice training courses in teachers’ practice, the system whereby CPD information is shared between colleagues could be formalised, possibly as an element in subject-planning meetings.
There is a designated subject co-ordinator. However, individual teachers can also convene meetings, chair meetings and take minutes. This is positive as such an approach allows for the development of an awareness of leadership responsibilities across the subject department. There are formal meetings of the English department of extended duration in September and May of each year, while there are two other, shorter, formal meetings held during the course of the academic year. Minutes are kept of meetings. This is good practice. In addition, informal meetings of the English department are organised, when necessary, at lunch time or after school. Teachers’ commitment in taking part in these meetings is commended. There have been tangible advances on areas previously set out in meetings as a focus for development, including liaison with the learning support department, improved access to audio-visual equipment and differentiated learning strategies. This is most positive.
A subject folder has been developed which contains various documents relevant to the teaching of English. These include the recent Department of Education and Science Inspectorate report Looking at English: Teaching and Learning English in Post-Primary Schools, various syllabus documents, relevant circulars regarding choice of texts for the senior cycle English course and copies of the Teaching English magazine produced by the Second Level Support Service (SLSS). The collection and storage of these useful documents in one place for ease of reference is good practice. Further documents which could be included in the subject folder include the primary school curriculum and teacher guidelines for English which may be accessed through the website www.curriculumonline.ie. These documents may prove useful in the department’s facilitation of the transition of students from primary to post-primary experiences of the subject. There has also been significant work directed towards the creation of a detailed and professional subject plan. This includes detailed plans for year groups. As an extension of this very good work, the linking of the current plans to time periods and specific learning goals and assessment activities should be enacted on an incremental basis. Other areas which could profitably be explored alongside this work include the creation of a full assessment policy in English which would incorporate an assessment for learning (AfL) approach and the analysis by the English department of state examination results versus national norms. Support in the former endeavour can be accessed through the AfL area on the website of the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA) at www.ncca.ie and through the SLSS.
English teachers are involved in organising a wide range of extracurricular and co-curricular activities. Among these are speech and drama, an annual musical, debating and public speaking competitions, film workshops, theatre visits and the production of a school magazine in fifth year. English teachers are to be roundly applauded for their involvement in and commitment to these, and other, impressive activities.
English teachers are conscious of the need to constantly evaluate the suitability of texts chosen for study with different class groups. This is positive and the varying of texts in junior cycle and in senior cycle is to be encouraged, across a wide range of genres and within syllabus guidelines. Class sets of various novels have been purchased as a further aid to text choice. The English department should continue to be supported in varying text choice according to class context and interests.
There is a subject-specific written programme for English in TY. The programme is well organised. In the past, a ‘folder of excellence’ has been used as an encouragement for student writing in TY English. It is suggested that this portfolio approach should be reintroduced to the English programme. The portfolio should be viewed as a means of motivating and assessing student writing in TY. A further extension of this strategy might be the creation of a class compendium of students’ best written work. Good planning for English and Communications as part of the LCA programme was also in evidence during the evaluation.
There are two staff members with qualifications in the area of learning support. There is a special needs room with ICT facilities and an excellent print-rich environment has been developed to support students’ literacy needs. There is very good liaison between the special educational needs department and the English department. This is greatly facilitated by an overlap of personnel between the two areas. In addition, collaborative work in relation to individual education plans (IEPs), for students with special educational needs, aids communication between the English department and the special educational needs department. These include subject-specific targets developed by subject teachers, along with general literacy targets. The continued development of this approach is to be encouraged. The use of a spelling programme based on curriculum words is reported to be working well in aiding the literacy development of a number of junior cycle students. There is a special educational needs policy, which has recently been revised. The policy includes identified areas for further development, which is good practice. There has been some whole-staff inservice training in the area of special educational needs.
Students are provided with literacy support through withdrawal classes, small class groups, in-class support and JCSP initiatives. This flexible model of provision is to be praised, particularly with the incorporation of co-operative teaching strategies as a further aid to inclusion and differentiation in mainstream classrooms. The School Completion Programme (SCP) also provides support for these students. There is regular retesting of students’ achievement in literacy. It is suggested that, as a means of consolidating and further developing the very good practice in both mainstream and support contexts in the area of literacy support, the school might profitably consider the development of a whole-school literacy policy.
Students are identified as having needs in the area of English as an Additional Language (EAL) on the basis of observation and information garnered through the admissions process. A range of material associated with EAL has been accessed by the school. EAL teachers are focusing on the language of instruction and mainstream subject teachers are working with them to develop keywords associated with their subjects. This is very positive. Work centred on the language of instruction should remain a strong focus in EAL support contexts. As an extension of this work, the use of DARTS (Directed Activities Related to Texts) such as writing frames for students with EAL should continue to be developed in both the mainstream and EAL support contexts. Bilingual dictionaries and learner dictionaries are used. A further endeavour on the part of the school in its approach to EAL support is the organisation of classes for parents of students with EAL. This is most praiseworthy as a further aid in developing links between the school and students’ homes.
A very good standard of teaching and learning was observed during the evaluation. Objectives were set out clearly by teachers at the beginning of lessons. In one instance this very good practice could have been developed still further through enhanced emphasis on the learning goal which students could expect to achieve by the end of the lesson. The recapitulation of work previously covered and question and answer sessions also featured at the start of lessons. These served to facilitate students’ transition into the study of new topics, while highlighting links with work already covered in the subject. There was evidence of diligent and thoughtful planning in all lessons.
A wide variety of resources was used to support student learning during English lessons. These included photocopies, DVD excerpts, the whiteboard, illustrations and other concrete artefacts. The English department is to be complimented on its awareness of the need to access students’ interests and experiences through the use of a range of materials. A very positive feature in many classrooms was the presence of a set of dictionaries and thesauruses in the room and English teachers are encouraged to continue to grasp opportunities for their students to utilise these texts as an aid to vocabulary acquisition. In one instance, consideration might have been given to the use of an overhead projector or data projector to aid students’ understanding of advertisements. A focus on a single example here, which all members of the class could view simultaneously, would have further enhanced what was already an effective lesson.
Reading and writing activities were frequently undertaken in English lessons. In one junior cycle, class, students’ homework was used as a ‘springboard’ for work on a particular theme in a novel being studied. This served well as a means of engaging students’ interest and as a means of consolidating their knowledge and understanding of the text in question. Particularly good practice was evident in one lesson where a highly effective pre-reading exercise was used to introduce a poem dealing with the theme of love. Here, the use of an onion to focus students’ attention on the multiple ways in which the theme could be interpreted was most impressive. Ultimately, this led to students developing written work on the senses and the lesson was a very good example of the employment of an integrated approach to language and literature. The utilisation of a thesaurus as a means of further boosting students’ written expression is a very minor suggestion which might be considered in the context of a highly successful exercise. In another, senior cycle lesson, the use of a scaffolded approach through the use of worksheets to aid the development of students’ written work was worthwhile.
The use of differentiated and active methodologies was frequently observed during the course of the evaluation. Of particular note was the very successful use of co-operative teaching in a junior cycle class. This approach significantly enhanced teachers’ ability to facilitate students’ group work which was then consolidated on the whiteboard. Students’ self-esteem was conscientiously attended to during the lesson by the teachers involved, ensuring that the views of each group were represented and recognised in their totality through board work. A further successful element of the lesson was the use of ‘hotseating’ in the exploration of the class novel, thus allowing students to access the topic through a number of different avenues. In another lesson, the use of group work in connection with the exploration of a key character in the text being studied was most worthwhile. In particular, the manner in which the exercise was organised so as to ensure that the contributions of all groups were listened to carefully by all members of the class, was most impressive. Students were expected to note each others’ contributions, a practice which the teacher supported through modelling of the activity on the whiteboard. This focus on an aural appreciation of the work of other students was also reflected in another lesson, where students were directed to listen carefully to ideas they had appropriated from work studied in a previous lesson. In a senior cycle class, a move to group work was very positive and served as a useful adjustment in pace, although this might have been still more effective had it been undertaken a little earlier in the lesson. The move from a solely teacher-focused presentation of the topic was, however, to be praised.
Classroom management was very good in all cases and teachers were universally affirming towards the efforts of students. There was a good relationship between teachers and students. There was evidence of teachers displaying a high degree of care towards students and of a general awareness of students’ needs, even beyond the strict confines of the subject classroom. Students were universally engaged during lessons. This was variously exemplified through diligent directed and spontaneous notetaking, contributions to a variety of in-class exercises, discussions in student groups and a clear knowledge of topics explored during the year when questioned. Teachers’ presentation of topics, the use of peer questioning and notetaking from peers all served to ensure a high level of learning in lessons. On a very minor note, in one instance, where a student did not offer a clear answer to a query during the lesson, a return to the question at a later stage in the lesson might have been of benefit.
There was plentiful and emphatic evidence of the development of a print-rich environment in English classrooms with some very good examples of the use of this strategy to further advance students’ learning and literacy development. A range of strategies was used in this respect, with key quotes, key words, character diagrams, newspaper reports and displays of students’ work all featuring in different classrooms. The English department is to be greatly praised for adopting this approach in their teaching of the subject. It is suggested that, in order to consolidate and preserve this strategy, it should be briefly set down as a policy in the English subject plan, emphasising that it is part of the culture of teaching English in the school. A further feature worthy of comment is the maintenance of a noticeboard for English, through which students’ class work or items of interest in the subject may be displayed. This is most worthwhile.
Work is currently underway on the creation of a homework policy. There was evidence of written homework in all classes and in almost all cases significant and appropriate quantities of homework had been assigned. In the one instance where there was less evidence of students’ written work, this might reasonably be attributed to some recent lack of continuity in students’ lessons and strategies to address this difficulty have been suggested. Overall, there was extremely diligent correction of students’ work with the use of comment-based, formative assessment evident in all classes.
There were examples of the integration of the language and literature elements of the syllabuses in all classes. This is commendable. It is recommended that the English department should seek to further expand its use of this strategy. This should involve the use of a wide and varied range of genres, so that written exercises may arise as an extension of students’ exploration of literature, where possible, and provide the opportunity for ‘real world’ writing experiences.
There are formal house examinations at Christmas and summer. Pre-state examinations are also organised. In some year groups students may be allocated a mark for their classwork as an element in their overall result in house examinations. Common examinations are set, in so far as is possible. This is positive, as it facilitates comparison between different students across the same year group. Further developments in subject planning which have been delineated earlier in this report should serve as an aid to teachers’ setting of common examinations. There is some informal discussion of students’ marks among English teachers and this could be developed to incorporate a more formalised method of moderating each others’ marking in the English department. This would be a worthwhile professional development opportunity while also serving to ensure a cohesive approach to marking of written work across the department.
There are parent-teacher meetings once per year for each year group. Reports on students’ progress are sent to parents at Christmas and at the end of the year. Other contacts between home and school include the signing of students’ work by parents, phonecalls and meetings, while postcards regarding students’ participation and progress are also sent to parents of students in the JCSP. All of this is very positive.
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, November 2008