An Roinn Oideachais agus Eolaíochta
Department of Education and Science
Subject Inspection of English
Ballsbridge, Dublin 4
Roll number: 60500J
Date of inspection: 25 October 2007
Date of issue of report: 22 May 2008
Report on the Quality of Learning and Teaching in English
This report has been written following a subject inspection in Marian 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.
Class groups in each of the three years of junior cycle have four English lessons each week, with lessons being either forty or forty-five minutes in duration. This is satisfactory provision. Transition Year (TY) students have three English lessons and one Public Speaking and Debating lesson each week which complements English. This is good provision. Provision of English lessons is also good in fifth, sixth and the Repeat Leaving Certificate Year as students have five English lessons each week. The school has one class group of repeat Leaving Certificate students. These students come to Marian College from other schools and are well integrated into school life. Management is aware of the benefits of evenly distributing English lesson periods across the week and, in most cases, the timetable reflects this good practice. Concurrent timetabling of English classes is provided in TY, fifth and sixth year which is commended as it allows for students to change level and for whole-year group activities to be organised.
There is a culture of self-evaluation and reflection evident in the school. One of the school’s priorities for this year is to improve academic standards. Teachers are very aware of the wide range of abilities in each class group at junior cycle and have discussed the merits and demerits of placing students in mixed-ability class groups for English in junior cycle. They have also discussed the introduction of setting for English in third year but are committed to mixed-ability teaching in junior cycle, which is commended. Those students who opt for Transition Year are also placed in mixed-ability class groups. Banding is used to form class groups in fifth and sixth year, which is good practice. In fifth year, the two higher-level class groups are of relatively similar ability, as are the two ordinary-level class groups. There are three class groups in sixth year; one higher-level and two ordinary-level. The majority of students in the Repeat Leaving Certificate Year English class are aiming for higher-level in their state examinations.
There was evidence of good liaison between English teachers and the Special Educational Needs (SEN) department. Management has facilitated the dissemination of relevant and non-confidential information on students with SEN among all teachers. English teachers presented as having a good awareness of strategies for teaching such students in their classrooms. This is highly commended. The level of extra literacy support for these students is also highly commended. There are a number of newcomer students in the school who do not have English as a first language. These students are given extra support in English. They are very well integrated into their classes and many are reported to achieve very well in English in the state examinations at both higher and ordinary level. Many students also receive support through the Trinity Access Programme which has a high profile throughout the school.
Due to constraints on space in the school, the library is now a classroom. However, teachers have, to a certain extent, overcome this problem by employing various praiseworthy strategies to promote reading; reading lists are made available to first years and Transition Years, students are encouraged to read for pleasure and are required to write reviews of the books they read and students are encouraged to participate in the Readathon. All first-year students study a novel in English class and are brought on a visit to a public library. Incoming first-year students and their parents are given a talk on the importance of reading, which is also stressed on the college’s laudable website. Paired reading takes place between first year and TY students. In addition, small libraries are in place in some classrooms and a Reading Club is in operation. Such initiatives are commended.
Management allocates English teachers to programmes and levels taking into account teacher strengths as well as teacher requests. This was currently seen to be working well. However, it is important that all teachers gain experience of teaching all levels and programmes at junior and senior cycle and a policy on this is suggested for future years.
Co-curricular activities pertaining to English include the annual school musical, trips to the theatre and cinema, and students are encouraged to enter writing and other competitions. In addition, cross-curricular links are often created between English and other subjects. For example, it was reported that students studying ‘The Plough and the Stars’ went on a walking tour of Dublin in conjunction with the teacher of History. The work of teachers in organising such events is praiseworthy.
There is very good whole school support for English in the school provided by a very enabling school management. Most English teachers have their own base classroom and these are well resourced with televisions, videos, DVD and CD players and overhead projectors. Many of these classrooms were decorated with samples of students’ work and posters pertaining to different topics on display. Notice boards in some of the base rooms displayed information on competitions, students’ work and a writers’ corner. This is commended.
There is one computer room in the school and it was reported that laptops are being purchased over a three year period. There was evidence that teachers use information and communication technology (ICT) to download resources for use in their classes.
English teachers collaborate to share resources and teaching strategies. It was reported that newer members of the department are very well supported by their colleagues. Good practice was seen in that an inventory of resources available for the teaching of English is part of the English subject plan. Although there is no official co-ordinator of English, it was reported that one member of the department is the de facto co-ordinator of the subject. English teachers liaise informally. There is one formal subject planning meeting timetabled at the start of the school year and others provided on a needs basis. A member of the senior management team chairs these meetings. It is recommended that additional subject planning meetings be facilitated. It is suggested that the chairing of these meetings be rotated among English teachers, with a record of the key decisions taken passed on to management so that there is no onus on management to attend all subject meetings. Alternatively, it is suggested that the co-ordination of English be rotated so that all members of the English department can avail of the opportunity to gain experience of this important role, as well as ensuring that there is an equitable distribution of the responsibilities for the development of the subject.
An English plan is available which outlines the English course content for each year group and some of the learning outcomes that each year group should achieve. This is a very useful document, especially for new teachers entering the school. However, it is recommended that English teachers examine the programme for English as a continuum from first year through to sixth year to ensure that the skills and content of the junior cycle programme are challenging enough to prepare students for the greater challenges of Leaving Certificate. Therefore, it is recommended that the key skills or learning outcomes that each year of junior cycle should achieve be expanded so that there is a clear sense of an incremental approach to learning. It is also recommended that all third-year class groups be given some exposure to Shakespeare. There was evidence that this was the case in some class groups in previous years.
Teachers generally make joint decisions on texts, but flexibility is allowed to enable teachers to work with texts that they believe are suitable to a particular group. This is appropriate. The modes of comparison outlined in the ordinary-level schemes of work at senior cycle should be adjusted to reflect the different modes examined at higher and ordinary level.
The English plan presented as part of the overall TY plan is in need of updating to reflect current practice. It is good practice that students study a novel and a play, generally Shakespearean, a film and poetry. Students also examine and discuss newspaper articles on a regular basis. However, material from the Leaving Certificate English course, particularly poetry and some texts, is taught in the current year. It is recommended that the TY English course be revised to avoid, as much as possible, Leaving Certificate material as outlined in Circular M1/00.
There is good practice in that the concurrency provided on the timetable is used to move students between classes if it is found that they are incorrectly placed in class groups in fifth year. It is recommended that fifth-year English teachers agree on what to teach for the first few months of fifth year and that a common examination be set, perhaps at mid-term in fifth year, to ensure that students have been correctly placed in class groups.
A striking feature of all classroom visits conducted as part of the English inspection was the very good student-teacher relationships observed. English teachers presented as being committed to their students, having a close interest in their welfare and knowing them very well. All teacher-student interactions were respectful and positive; there was a warm atmosphere with no classroom management issues.
There was a clear purpose, good structure and a variety of activities evident in lessons observed. There was one example where the purpose of the lesson was written on the board and the teacher checked with the class at the end of the lesson to see if the purpose was achieved. This is very good practice. Links were created between texts and with life so that students’ learning was put in context. Teachers’ explanations and instructions to students were clear.
Very good use was made of the board to record key points, spelling and homework. These are all strategies which are effective in ensuring that all students are on task and participating. In all lessons, there was good involvement of students in their learning. Students were, in the main, given frequent opportunities to participate by asking and answering questions, by speculating about the meaning of texts, and by being engaged in discussion, which they did enthusiastically. Most teachers motivated their students through lively teaching and there was solid work done in lessons. Students were also given responsibility for their own learning by being asked to read on in their text, by being assigned written work and by being asked frequent probing questions about their texts.
Very competent questions were asked by teachers of their students. Best practice was seen when teachers endeavoured to ask all students a question by naming students as opposed to asking for hands up. In addition, lower-order and higher-order questions were asked which catered for all abilities. Skilful questioning of an open-ended nature often led to interesting discussion and to students making good points on their texts. Students from first year to Repeat Leaving Certificate Year were comfortable enough to ask questions and to participate freely in class which is commended as evidence of a secure environment.
In all lessons, good attention was given to individual students. For example, when work was given for a portion of the lesson the teachers discreetly helped the less able students. This awareness of the importance of helping the less able students was seen in most lessons. However, it is equally important to challenge the more able students especially at junior cycle. This could be better achieved through more demanding course content at times, or by ensuring that set tasks are suitably challenging for all abilities. This is in keeping with one of the school’s own objectives, identified in the School Plan for 2007/2008 of “enhancing the experience and achievement of well-motivated and talented students while continuing to meet the needs of weaker students”. There was evidence at senior cycle that standards were high and that students were suitably challenged.
There were some very good examples observed of teachers raising students’ awareness of the importance of writing. Such examples included: integrating the teaching of language and literature, for example asking students to write diary entries from the point of view of characters in studied texts; using the studied text as a model for effective writing; using peer assessment to raise awareness of the importance of mechanics and of writing to a purpose; and creating dossiers on poets.
There was evidence that students were given regular pieces of written work at junior and senior cycle. The work set at senior cycle tended to be longer, essay-style questions and there was one example observed where students were given regular essay-style homework on a weekly basis. The quality of this work was very good. It is recommended that all junior cycle students be given more regular longer pieces of work for homework also, from first year through to third year, rather than leaving a lot of the longer written work until third year. Good practice was seen in that the students were given opportunities to write poetry and to draw their impressions of characters from texts they were reading. In addition, there was a strong emphasis on correct spelling which is commended.
The school has a policy of encouraging as many as possible to take higher level and an analysis of examination results is carried out by management each year. The number of students taking higher level has remained quite steady in recent years considering the range of abilities. Students are achieving well at their chosen level. No student has taken foundation level in recent years; this is evidence of the encouragement of high standards.
In all lessons students were articulate and answered the questions put to them by the inspector in a respectful and confident manner, displaying clear evidence of learning.
Students are given frequent class-based tests in English and are assessed formally at Christmas and in the summer. Teachers keep records of students’ achievement in tests and longer pieces of work, and a parent-teacher meeting is held annually for each year group in the school. Examination classes sit ‘mock’ examinations which are marked by teachers.
In line with the range of abilities observed, the standard of work presented was varied. In general, most students’ work was presented to a good standard. Some students use hardback or manuscript copies for their English work. This is good practice, as generally students maintain these copies well. It is suggested that students are allocated some marks in end-of-term examinations for maintenance of these copies as a further motivation to keep them well. Good practice was also seen where students had folders for storage of notes. When work was allocated for a portion of the lesson the teacher often corrected this work in class. In many cases, very good written feedback was given to students on their homework, which is important for longer pieces of work in particular. However, in some cases there is a need for more formative assessment of longer pieces of work so that students are constantly reminded of where they need to improve. It was reported that senior cycle students are aware of the discrete criteria of assessment. It is recommended that all students be made aware of where they gain and lose marks in their written exercises.
There is a homework club available for students with literacy support needs and evening study is also offered to Junior and Leaving Certificate students. Good practice was seen in that homework was written on the board at the end of each lesson so that all students were aware of their assigned work. In addition, the homework assigned was to a purpose and complemented the work being done in class as well as providing a framework for the next lesson.
The following are the main strengths identified in the evaluation:
· There is a strong culture of self-evaluation and reflection evident in the school.
· There was evidence of good liaison between English teachers and the Special Educational Needs department. SEN and newcomer students are well supported and integrated into school life.
· Teachers have developed many strategies to promote reading.
· Students are given opportunities to participate in a range of co-curricular activities pertaining to English.
· There is very good whole school support for English in the school.
· A collegiate atmosphere exists among English teachers in the school.
· A secure learning environment and very good student-teacher relationships were in evidence.
· There was a clear purpose, good structure and a variety of activities evident in lessons observed. There was good involvement of students in their learning. Students were often engaged through lively teaching and solid work was done in lessons.
· Students were given regular pieces of written work. Work assigned was to a purpose and complemented the work being done in class.
· The school has a policy of encouraging as many as possible to take higher level.
· In all lessons, students displayed clear evidence of learning.
As a means of building on these strengths and to address areas for development, the following key recommendations are made:
· English teachers should develop the programme for English as a continuum from first year through to sixth year so that there is a clear sense of an incremental approach to learning achieved. Third-year class groups should be given some exposure to Shakespeare, and junior cycle students should be given more frequent longer pieces of work for homework. In addition, in keeping with one of the school’s own objectives, it is also important to challenge the more able students.
· The English plan presented as part of the overall TY plan should be updated and the TY English course should be reviewed in order to avoid too much Leaving Certificate material.
· It is recommended that fifth-year English teachers agree on what to teach for the first few months of fifth year until the students are correctly placed in class groups.
· More subject planning meetings should be facilitated and chaired by a member of the English department.
· It is recommended that some teachers engage in more formative assessment of longer pieces of work.
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.