An Roinn Oideachais agus Eolaíochta
Department of Education and Science
Subject Inspection of English
Balbriggan Community College
Pineridge, County Dublin
Roll number: 70010V
Date of inspection: 24 October 2006
Date of issue of report: 21 June 2007
Report on the Quality of Learning and Teaching in English
This report has been written following a subject inspection in Balbriggan Community College, conducted 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.
The provision for the teaching of English is good. It is acknowledged that the breadth of the curriculum available in the school has influenced the timetabled allocation of four periods of English a week in junior cycle. While this is in keeping with syllabus recommendations, it is less than is generally allocated to the subject in other schools.
On enrolment in first year, students are assigned to class groups which are streamed for English. Three bands are formed – a top band comprising one class group, a middle band where two class groups are formed, and a lower band class group which has been formed to support students who may have special educational needs or have other difficulties achieving success. The number of students in this class is small ensuring that teachers have opportunities to include all students in the learning process and can closely monitor each student’s progress and students follow the Junior Certificate School Programme (JCSP). Students on this programme have English lessons six times a week. In the senior cycle, students are set for English at the beginning of fourth year. English is banded across the timetable for the Leaving Certificate groups in order to facilitate students’ choice of course and uptake of the higher level course is good.
General resource provision for the teaching and learning of English is good. Teachers are allocated to a class group for the duration of a course and this facilitates the development and continuity of positive teaching-learning relationships. Wherever possible, teachers are assigned their own base rooms and some have made excellent use of the opportunity that this affords to create a stimulating print-rich learning environment. In some of the classrooms visited, displays of students’ own work, together with posters and other learning material, adorned the walls. This is commended as good practice and it is suggested that it is equally supportive of all students and should be extended to all classrooms.
Teachers have easy access to up-to-date audio visual equipment and there was evidence that they make good use of the internet to access teaching and learning resources. Leaving Certificate Applied (LCA) class groups have very good access to the school’s computer facilities and teachers may also bring other class groups to the computer room by arrangement.
There is no dedicated school library at present. The book stock in the school is distributed around the classrooms and students may borrow by arrangement with the teacher. The presence of bookshelves in the classrooms certainly added to the learning environments created and teachers have used a number of strategies to encourage reading. These include setting time aside for reading in programme plans and, particularly in the JCSP classes, links with the local library. It is suggested that the development of class library boxes, containing a range of age and ability-appropriate texts, would build on and develop this work and encourage reading for pleasure and for information.
The range of co-curricular activities pertaining to English is very good and it illustrates the commitment and enthusiasm of the English teachers. Students’ understanding of what is being discussed within class is deepened and made relevant by active participation in debating, drama, film and magazine production. Trips to the theatre, for example, bring to life the text on the page and the generosity of their teachers in providing these valuable learning opportunities is commended.
The school is commended for its facilitation of collaborative subject planning through the provision of meeting times on a weekly basis. Subject departments may schedule a meeting on Friday morning as needed and the teachers of English have done so twice this year. In addition, they meet very frequently on an informal basis in the staffroom. As a consequence, a formal department structure is evolving, with the role of chairperson rotating among the group. Planning for the subject has begun and documentation available during the inspection process indicated that this is focussed on determining what is to be taught at specific points during the year. Such a formal, structured approach to planning in English has the potential to provide direction for teachers in their individual planning and to facilitate continuity of work for a class should their teacher be absent for any period of time. In Balbriggan Community College, for example, it ensures that the content taught in the first term in senior cycle does not impede the transfer of students from ordinary to higher level courses.
Individual teachers’ plans were, in some instances, very good and included a record of work done to date with class groups. There is scope, however, to develop a comprehensive department plan for English and the teachers are directed to the website of the School Development Planning Initiative, www.sdpi.ie, where a number of templates are available to support this work. As the work done is reviewed, it is recommended that the plan should include a description of learning outcomes, which focus on student acquisition of key skills, together with broad schemes of work and an outline of the assessment procedures to be adopted. It is suggested that this could be done on an incremental basis, beginning with first and/or fourth years, so that there is an opportunity to review the plans as they emerge.
The responsibility for planning for the JCSP has been devolved to a post-holder who is also co-ordinator of the special education department in the school. Following comprehensive testing and liaison with feeder primary schools students who are identified as needing particular support are placed in the lower band class group. Excellent use is made of the full range of JCSP strategies, including learning statements and student profiles, to provide for their needs. In addition, the teachers of English are making use of all JCSP supplementary materials to deliver the syllabus in English, together with a number of teaching/learning resources devised by the special education department to specifically address the literacy support needs of these students.
Planning for individual lessons was generally good with appropriate learning targets clearly identifiable in all classrooms visited. In two classrooms, the pacing of the lessons did not allow the learning objectives to be achieved, for example, where a number of tasks had been planned or where the sequence of activities was interrupted. Whilst including a number of tasks in a lesson can hold the interest of less attentive students, it is less effective as a teaching strategy when coherence between the activities is lost. It is suggested that ensuring time for recapitulation at the end of each lesson may address this.
Teachers had planned activities which engaged their students’ interests and which provided them with opportunities to study language use in a variety of real communicative contexts. It was evident that teachers in Balbriggan Community College have generated a variety of support materials to supplement students’ textbooks. The internet had been used by some teachers to access material for handouts, models and other teaching and learning aids. Care should be taken to proof read this material for spelling and grammatical errors before using it in class. Overall, the resources used were appropriate for the learning tasks planned.
Very good use of the board was made in one class observed, where the teacher had outlined on the board the aim and stages of the lesson, thus providing students with a specific way to organise new material. The use of a popular magazine in the same lesson was very good practice, facilitating a connection between the classroom and ‘real life’ reading. All teachers began their lessons using positive tactics designed to encourage students to settle into a working frame of mind, such as calling the class roll or reading homework. This latter is a good support, allowing students to situate their new learning in the context of what is already familiar.
The strategy of questioning was used in all lessons observed and best practice was evident where teachers’ questioning was specific, relevant and matched to students’ abilities and where the whiteboard was used well to reinforce learning and to record students’ input. In some classes, there is scope for greater encouragement to students to develop their answers and justify their opinions in order to promote higher-order thinking skills. Where there is a range of ability in the class, as was evident in junior cycle, care should be taken to direct questions to particular students in order to check understanding and ensure that the lesson is not dominated by a small group of vocal students.
Students were actively engaged in learning through the very good use of individual and group-work strategies in many of the classrooms visited. In one junior cycle class, for example, students were working on brief drama sketches in small groups. Having negotiated preparation time with the students, the teacher acted as timekeeper and facilitator, moving through the room to offer support as needed. Meanwhile, the groups worked quietly and efficiently on the task set, sharing ideas and supporting each other. The effectiveness of this strategy was evident in the quality of the sketches presented towards the end of the lesson. Students were encouraged to respond critically to what they had seen and learned. In a senior cycle class, students worked in pairs on identifying the purpose and nature of a CV before working independently to complete a first draft of their own. In both instances, very good use was made of the opportunity these strategies afforded to speak briefly with individual students and check copies, as appropriate.
A key difficulty facing teachers of English in this school is the number of students enrolled across the year groups who do not have English as their first language and who are testing at the Elementary or A2/B1 stage of English language acquisition. While the school is addressing the needs of all students who do not have English as their first language through the provision of special English language support classes, designed to help students to access the school curriculum, there remains a challenge for the mainstream English teachers. The use, as described above, of active learning methodologies and of teaching strategies which allow for differentiation, has the potential to be very effective and it is suggested that a focus on the specific needs of this cohort of students should be developed in the subject department plan.
Discipline was maintained in most classes by clear direction and specific instruction. In one classroom, the class rules were displayed and it was evident in this lesson and in others that students are aware of the expectations their teachers have regarding attention and behaviour. In only one lesson was there an unacceptable level of ‘white noise’ consisting of off-task student conversations, which was not addressed by the teacher. Generally, students were focussed on their work and their talk was directed and focussed. This was achieved by the establishment of a clear working atmosphere and the setting of learning tasks with an appropriate level of complexity and challenge.
Students’ contributions in class indicated that they are making good progress through their courses. In all cases, teachers were very affirming and recorded their contributions on the whiteboard or used them to develop lessons. They were familiar with the concepts being used and were knowledgeable about set texts, discussing them with confidence and their written work in copybooks and notebooks was good. A minority of students, however, are reported not have sufficient receptive skills in the English language to be benefiting from the junior cycle English curriculum and their slow progress was evident in some of the copybooks seen.
A range of assessment modes is used to assess student competence and progress. These include in-class questioning and written exercises which extend students’ learning and provide them with opportunities to practice newly acquired skills. Homework is regularly set and carefully marked. In some copybooks, the teachers had set exercises which reflected the integration of language and literature in syllabus documents. Students wrote diary entries in the persona of a character in a text studied, for example, or wrote an obituary for another character so that links were established between texts studied and personal writing. This is very good practice as it develops students’ critical understanding and expressive skills and is an important teaching technique.
The quality of work in students’ copybooks was generally good, although in a minority of instances some students were careless about how they presented their work. Their attention should be drawn to the importance of organising their copybooks by, for example, dating and titling their work and to using a pen rather than a pencil to complete homework. In many instances, teachers provided students with excellent feedback, by affirming students’ efforts or offering clear suggestions for improvement. This should be done more often in order to motivate students to develop good learning habits for the future.
Formal examinations are held for all classes at Christmas and the non-examination year groups also have summer examinations. Third and fifth years are assessed by pre-certificate examinations in February/March. Teachers of English generally devise their own formal examination papers. It is recommended that they extend the collaboration already evident within the department to include common questions where appropriate in assessment tests for all year groups. In this way, an objective measure of students’ progress relative to each other within a particular band, for example, can ensure appropriate student placement and allow for targeted planning to meet their needs.
Parents are also kept informed of their children’s progress through a variety of means, including the homework journal, which is used as a mode of communication between home and school. Teachers are available at parent-teacher meetings or by appointment to discuss a student’s progress.
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.