An Roinn Oideachais agus Eolaíochta
Department of Education and Science
Subject Inspection of English
Bridgetown Vocational College
Bridgetown, County Wexford
Roll number: 71610E
Date of inspection: 21 January 2009
REPORT ON THE QUALITY OF LEARNING AND TEACHING IN ENGLISH
This report has been written following a subject inspection in Bridgetown Vocational 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.
There is good provision for English on the timetable in Bridgetown Vocational College for most class groups. Students who follow the Junior Certificate programme have four English lessons each week in first year and five lessons each week in second year and third year, while students who follow the Junior Certificate School Programme (JCSP) have five English lessons each week in all years. Management has undertaken to provide five English lessons for all first years in the coming school year. Fifth-year and sixth-year class groups have five English lessons each week. The Leaving Certificate Applied (LCA) groups in both year one and two of the programme have four lessons of English and Communication each week. There is an even distribution of English lessons across the week for all non-examination year groups. Third and sixth years have a split double period on one day a week which was reported by the teachers to work well. However, an English lesson each day would be ideal to allow for continuity of student experience.
Each year group in junior cycle is banded. First-year students are placed in bands according to their performance in the school’s assessment tests and on information gathered from the primary school. The two bands in first year both consist of three class groups and the students in the lower ability band all follow the JCSP. Students are placed according to ability in the class groups in the lower band to allow for more specialised teaching in the two lower-ability groups by teachers with learning support or special educational needs (SEN) qualifications. This is commended. In second year, the top band consists of two class groups and the second band contains three JCSP class groups. Third-year students in the top band are placed into ability groupings by English teachers early on in the school year. This year, within the top band of three class groups there are two higher-level class groups and one ordinary-level group formed. As JCSP was just introduced into the school two years ago there are no JCSP students in third year. However, the second band contains students who will follow the ordinary-level or, in very exceptional circumstances, the foundation-level programme. Students are also banded for English at senior cycle with the top band containing two higher-level class groups and the second band containing two ordinary-level class groups. There are two class groups for English and Communication in each year of LCA.
Management facilitates concurrency on the timetable within bands in second and third year and for all English class groups at senior cycle. This is highly commended as it allows for students to move class groups quite easily if it is found that they have been misplaced for English lessons. Good practice occurs in that each November a staff consultation meeting takes place where the placement of first years is reviewed and students may be moved between bands or within bands. In addition, the close collaboration between teachers ensures that students will not be disadvantaged if they move classes.
There is good whole school support from management for English in the school as evidenced from the frequent opportunities that English teachers have to meet, the facilitation to attend in-service courses and the set of available resources for English. The library has recently been revamped and there are plans to formalise access for English teachers and their students. The work in this area is highly commended. English teachers have been facilitated in attending in-career development on a range of important topics including: information and communication technology (ICT) in the classroom, co-operative learning, and teaching English in JCSP and LCA. There was evidence that useful information and resources from these meetings are disseminated among all English teachers. This is highly commended. There are two computer rooms in the school and a computer with data projector has recently been installed into the library. English teachers were seen to use ICT both in preparation for their lessons and during the course of their lessons. For example, worksheets downloaded from the internet were often in use. This is highly commended. A room has been provided for storage of resources in relation to English and a list of all available resources has been disseminated among English teachers. To build on this very good practice, it is suggested that a common English folder be established on the school’s intranet for storage of electronic resources.
There are ten teachers teaching English in the school. All are suitably qualified for the teaching of English to their particular class groups. Management deploys English teachers in a fair and appropriate manner to encounter students across a range of levels, although there was a case where a wish was expressed to be deployed to teach other mainstream class groups apart from the LCA.
There was evidence of very good collegiality and collaboration among the English teachers in the school. Many of the English teachers are quite new to the school but they all reported on the strong support they receive from colleagues and management. This collaboration also facilitates planning, and the outcomes of very good planning were clear to see during the course of the inspection. English teachers are planning to set up a book club for students, to display more work pertaining to English in the school and to work further towards common testing. These plans are to be encouraged and there was evidence of very good progress made in some of these areas. English teachers are commended for their planning for co-curricular activities pertaining to English. For example, students are brought to the theatre to see performances of texts that are on their course and visiting groups are invited into the school to perform. Students are also entered for a range of writing competitions. Of particular note is the first-year writing competition organised by the English department. This is also commended for the cross-curricular links it develops. Individual teachers also organise in-class writing competitions. This too is commended.
The co-ordination of English is rotated among English teachers and the co-ordinator has a defined role, as is good practice. English is very well co-ordinated at present in the school and work in this area is highly commended. Minutes of English meetings show much discussion on a range of issues, all with the purpose of developing the subject in the school. In addition, they show evidence of close monitoring of student placement in class groups.
A comprehensive written plan for English is available which opens with worthy aims and objectives. As well as outlining the organisation of English in the school, the yearly plans also document what is to be covered in each term for each year group in the school. It is commendable that these plans not only document course content, but also the learning outcomes to be achieved by the students. The content of the course for each class and year group in the school was appropriate and it was clear that all genres were taught in all years. It is recommended that in junior cycle a thematic approach be adopted at times rather than teaching each genre in isolation. This was observed in one instance where a poem related to the theme of the studied novel was taught. The very good practice of teaching a number of poems on a similar theme already takes place.
A particular strength of the English department is that the course content for each class group was suitably challenging. It was particularly gratifying to see LCA students studying a play and a novel and JCSP students well able to negotiate a range of poetry and short stories.
There is very good liaison between the SEN department and the English department and there is very good support for the large number of SEN students in the school. There is also very good support from the SEN department for those teachers who teach SEN classes and a number of useful resources, developed by the SEN department, are available to all teachers. Students with exemptions from studying Irish receive extra English lessons at least twice a week and these lessons are very well planned for.
There is a good focus on developing reading skills among students. First-year class groups study a novel. JCSP students are involved in a range of reading initiatives including the Reading Challenge, the Spelling Challenge and paired reading which is done with LCA year one students. The JCSP statements are well used and there was evidence that JCSP students are making very good progress. To further develop the very good work of the English department, it is recommended that teachers focus more on the development of students’ oral skills from first year. This could be achieved through organising in-class debates or by students making presentations on their book reports.
Individual teacher planning was very good and a seating plan for students was in evidence in most lessons visited.
The quality of teaching and learning was very good in Bridgetown Vocational College. A range of teaching methods was used throughout the inspection and these were all effective in engaging students. Of particular note, was the way in which the subject matter was made interesting by the teachers and this was often achieved by giving information to the students on the background to the studied writer or text and discussing students’ reactions to the texts during the lesson. In addition, links were sometimes created between texts or between the text and contemporary life. The fact that English teachers teach a range of class groups with a range of abilities means that they have to differentiate their teaching to match the abilities of each group. It was observed that this was working very well.
The purpose of the lesson was communicated to the students from the beginning and teachers ensured that students were well organised in their work. Instructions were always clear and the teachers moved around the classroom to ensure understanding when work was assigned. In most instances, the board and overhead projector were well used to record students’ contributions in class and this is very good practice. Students were good at taking down points made in class and their contributions were encouraged in all lessons.
Whether during whole class teaching or group work, the teachers worked hard to ensure that all students were on task. In many cases, students participated in the lesson by answering questions. These questions ranged from lower order to higher order as teachers differentiated their questions to suit the range of abilities present. Good practice was seen when teachers asked questions of named individuals as opposed to asking global questions or asking for hands up all of the time. It is recommended that a ‘hands down’ approach be adopted by all teachers from first year onward. This will ensure that all students have to participate and will also ensure that a few students do not dominate the lesson. In many instances, the skilful questions asked by the teachers led the students to think more clearly about the topic they were studying. This is very good practice as it involves students in taking responsibility for their own learning which is better than the teacher giving the information all the time. Texts were interrogated by the teachers and students so that an in-depth knowledge was gained and the homework set on these texts gave students scope to explore them in more detail. It was gratifying to see that in no instance was there a linear translation of poems as, instead, teachers invited students’ responses and led them, through the probing nature of their questions, to understand the poems more clearly. Students had a very good knowledge of specific technical language related to English including poetic and media terminology and this language was often reinforced during the lessons so that students were able to apply examples in their work.
Some very effective approaches observed during the course of the inspection included pre-teaching key vocabulary and using the board as a graphics organiser to recap on what students had already learned about their studied text. Another very good strategy used was looking for alternative meanings of words and there was an appropriate focus on acquisition of basic skills, including spellings.
In most lessons, there were many examples where the teaching of language and literature was integrated. For example, students wrote diary entries or letters from the point of view of a character in a studied text, or wrote travel pieces based on places studied in poems. The encouragement of students’ personal response was also in evidence in both junior cycle and senior cycle and this is very good practice. This was observed both in students’ copies and in lessons, as their initial reaction to poems or other texts was sought. Other effective approaches observed included the display of enlarged visuals of poems which were used as a teaching tool in class and the playing of recording of poems in class.
Group work was well executed and its use ensured that all students had a voice in the classroom and had to take responsibility for their own learning. It was particularly effective when, in plenary session, each group had to report back on their work as this developed both oral and listening skills. In order to ensure that all have a voice in the lesson, it is suggested that during whole-class teaching, the teacher occasionally asks students to discuss the answer to a question in pairs and then invites one of the students to share the answer with the class.
Classroom management was effective in lessons observed. Teachers were firm but friendly to students. All lessons began promptly and time was effectively used. Teachers were observed to be committed to their students and their subject and the work ethic among them is highly commended.
In almost all lessons, students had folders which contained handouts, worksheets and other resources as well as, in some instances, longer pieces of their own written work. Worksheets were often very well used in lessons. Folders were divided to match the different sections of the course. The quality of these folders is highly commended and demonstrates that high standards are set in the classroom. There was evidence of clear progression in learning from the beginning to the end of each lesson. Examination of students’ copies and folders and teachers’ written plans revealed that a good amount of work has been covered by each class group since September and demonstrated good progression in learning.
Not all English teachers have their own base classrooms but, where this was the case, the rooms presented as stimulating learning environments. Students’ own work was on display as well as key words and key quotes. In many instances, these were used as teaching tools during the course of the lessons.
The uptake of levels in the state examinations has varied somewhat for English at both Junior Certificate and Leaving Certificate with evidence of a recent increase in higher-level uptake in Junior Certificate English and a recent decrease in higher-level uptake at Leaving Certificate. It is recommended that the English department analyse the English results at both Junior Certificate and Leaving Certificate level over the last number of years to examine both the uptake of levels and the number of students achieving a higher level grade in the subject. A whole department strategy might be considered to encourage more students to take higher level in the state examinations. The fact that very few students take foundation level is acknowledged. It is also of note that the school offers after-school supervised study and that it operates a student awards scheme for achievement in different areas of school life.
Non-examination students sit formal examinations at Christmas and in the summer and results of these tests are communicated to parents. Examination groups sit in-class Christmas tests and ‘mock’ examinations in February. The English department has begun to set common assessments for some year groups or bands within year groups. This is highly commended and further common assessment is to be encouraged. There was evidence of teachers keeping detailed records of students’ results during the year.
As noted already, students’ folders were of a very high standard. In some instances, students’ homework was presented on A4 sheets and in other instances it was presented in copies. Regardless, in almost all cases, there was evidence that students receive regular written work in a range of genres. This is important as frequent practice in written work is necessary for students to make progress. In addition, constructive feedback on areas where students should improve was given to students both orally and in written format. An examination of students’ journals also demonstrated that most class groups receive regular homework as is appropriate. It is recommended that the English department should agree a policy on frequency of homework, especially longer pieces of work including essay work, for each year and ability group. Teachers are adopting many of the recommended strategies for ‘Assessment for Learning’ and continued development of these strategies is recommended. Encouraging students to engage in self and peer assessment will also develop their work and some examples of this were seen during the inspection.
The following are the main strengths identified in the evaluation:
· There is good provision and support for English from school management.
· The positive outcomes of very good collaboration and planning were evident in the inspection of English.
· English is very ably co-ordinated.
· The quality of teaching and learning of English was very good. A range of effective teaching methods was observed.
· Students’ responses were encouraged and students’ participated very well in their lessons.
· Teachers were observed to be committed to their students and their subject and there is a strong work ethic among them.
· The quality of maintenance of students’ folders was very high and these folders were evidence of the range of work that students had covered and the high standards in the classroom.
· There was evidence of good progression in student learning.
· In all lessons, regardless of ability, students were presented with course content that was suitable and challenging.
· Teachers assign regular homework and keep detailed records of students’ results.
· The standard of correction of homework was good and teachers have adopted ‘Assessment for Learning’ strategies.
As a means of building on these strengths and to address areas for development, the following key recommendations are made:
· The English department should analyse English results in the state examinations over the last few years to examine trends in uptake of levels and should consider a
whole department strategy to encourage more students to take higher level.
· It is recommended that the English teachers focus on developing students’ oral skills from first year and that a ‘hands down’ approach be adopted by all teachers from first year onward.
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 2009