An Roinn Oideachais agus Eolaíochta
Killarney, County Kerry
Roll number: 61320M
This report has been written following a subject inspection in St Brendan’s College, Killarney, 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 deputy principal and subject teachers.
Five teachers, one of whom is a substitute teacher, form the English teaching team in St Brendan’s, and all have English to degree level. The recent death of an esteemed colleague has been a great loss both personally and professionally to the teachers of English. They spoke warmly of his leading role as head of department in creating the culture of reflective practice and of meaningful planning within the subject department that was noted and commended during the inspection of English.
Timetable provision for English is generally good, and is more than generous in fifth and sixth year with six lessons per week, including a double lesson. However, a timetabling anomaly was noted whereby students following the Leaving Certificate Vocational Programme (LCVP) in fifth year miss one English lesson. It was reported that this unsatisfactory situation will not arise in next year’s timetable. Students following the Leaving Certificate Applied (LCA) programme have just three lessons per week, although the programme guidelines recommend four (see www.lca.ie). In the junior cycle, English is timetabled daily in both second and third year, and this represents optimal provision. The allocation is less satisfactory in first year, with only four lessons per week. The overall thrust of timetabling suggests an emphasis on preparation for certificate examinations. However, it should be borne in mind that the syllabuses for English are based on a view of the subject as a continuum of knowledge and skills development from first year to sixth year. Therefore good provision for English in first year assists teachers and students to create a firm foundation on which to build in subsequent years, and it is recommended that an English lesson per day be provided in first year. The inclusion of both thirty-five and forty-minute lessons on the school timetable is another factor to consider in evaluating provision for English. At present, some first-year class groups receive ten minutes less tuition in English per week than others, amounting to a significant disparity over the school year. This finding points to the desirability of a uniform lesson length.
Although the school has not offered the Transition Year (TY) programme for many years, the English teaching team would greatly welcome the opportunity to design and deliver a TY English programme. Since there is clear evidence from national studies of the beneficial effects of TY on subsequent student attainment, it is suggested that school management review programme provision and consider the re-introduction of TY.
It was reported that practice in the past was to assign teachers on a more or less permanent basis to higher or ordinary level classes. Commendably, the English teaching team had itself identified the need to vary the teaching workload, and to add to the pool of experience and expertise within the team by ensuring that all teachers are allocated to both higher and ordinary level and to both junior and senior cycle. This policy has been implemented to a significant extent, and school management is commended in this regard. In continuing to build capacity within the English teaching team, management and teachers should also ensure that the teaching of LCA is included in teacher rotation to optimise potential for the sharing of experience and good practice.
First-year students are placed in mixed class groups. Senior management reported that the intention is to ensure a range of ability, a good social mix and a positive class dynamic in each group. The English teaching team was uncertain as to the criteria applied to the creation of the first-year classes, and it is suggested that these be communicated clearly to the whole staff. Helpful information gathered about students prior to entry should also be communicated to staff, with due regard for confidentiality. Following a common assessment at the end of first year, students are assigned to ability groups for English in second year and these are identified as higher or ordinary level. While acknowledging that the concurrent timetabling of English in both second and third year permits student movement from one class to another, this report recommends that serious consideration be given to deferring the creation of ordinary and higher level groups until the beginning of third year. This system would allow students more time to demonstrate their capabilities, especially at an age when they are experiencing rapid developmental change.
In a new initiative promoted by the school management, a class group representing a top set for English has been created in the present fifth year, comprising students who achieved high grades in Junior Certificate English. The aim is to raise the performance of such high-achieving students in the Leaving Certificate. The English teaching team recorded their view that student achievement had been very satisfactory in the established system of mixed higher level classes, and state examinations data for the last three years show a strong upward trend in the proportion of students achieving very high grades in English in the school. Nevertheless, the new system should be thoroughly trialled so that a considered judgement can be made on its effectiveness.
The subject is generally well resourced. There is no set budget, but funding is made available on request for the purchase of new materials and equipment. All teachers of English have base classrooms and among these was an exemplary instance of the creation of a print-rich and visually stimulating environment for the teaching and learning of English. This excellent practice should be followed as far as possible. Good audiovisual facilities were available in most English classrooms. The policy to promote private reading for pleasure through class libraries was noted and is warmly commended. However, the school should seek to re-stock and develop the school library which is currently used as a classroom.
The teaching team has identified the usefulness of information and communication technologies (ICT) to assist in planning and collaboration as well as in the preparation of material, for example through the creation of an electronic subject folder to which all English teachers would have access. Further work in this area is encouraged. The availability of data projectors in the school opens up rich possibilities for the teaching and learning of English which should be considered in future planning for the subject.
Although many members of the current teaching team are relatively new to the school, the English department has a strong esprit de corps and there was evidence of well-established collaborative and reflective practice, supported by meaningful planning. This is a significant strength, given that English is a core subject. Minutes of department meetings which are held as part of staff development days were made available. Informal meetings also take place very regularly. The proactive and dynamic approach to subject development which is evident in the minutes and the subject plan was noted and is highly commended.
By custom and practice, the head of the English department has been the most senior teacher. The subject plan includes the suggestion that an additional role of rotating co-ordinator be introduced. This would be a commendable development, and would allow all members of the team to contribute to the organisation of the department’s work with the assistance of experienced colleagues. A two-year rotation could be considered and a description of both roles should be agreed and included in the subject plan. In this regard, reference should be made to the planning section of the inspectorate’s composite report, Looking at English.
The subject plan is firmly based on the various syllabuses while also recognising and reflecting the specific context of the school and its students. It is comprehensive and focuses on learning outcomes and the appropriate content, methods and formative assessments. This represents very good practice. In order to maintain the momentum generated by the intensive planning activity of the last academic year, the plan should continue to be a focus of subject department meetings and should be amended and augmented as necessary in a way that supports reflection and collaboration, and assists forward planning.
The planned programmes for Junior and Leaving Certificate include a commendable range of texts and materials across a broad range of genres and contain an appropriate mixture of the challenging and accessible. The inclusion of new material in each year of the planned programme for junior cycle ensures that the possibilities of the open syllabus are well exploited. However, an area for development is the planning for the LCA programme. It is recommended that collaborative planning for LCA English and Communication form a more significant part of subject planning, to complement the recommendation that the teaching of LCA be included in the teacher rotation for English.
All lessons observed were well prepared, and teachers engage in individual planning in line with the agreed programme of work.
Eight lessons were observed during the evaluation, involving all programmes and levels taught and including all members of the teaching team. All lessons observed were competently and conscientiously delivered, and the practice in a number of instances was of a very high standard. There was clear evidence of student learning, and the emphasis placed on active and participative teaching and learning methods was especially noted and is commended.
Pacing and structure of lessons was effective in most cases. In some instances, the class was capable of moving at a faster pace, and setting a more challenging pace is recommended as an effective means of encouraging greater participation where able students tend to be silent or less responsive. The lesson topic was clearly identified at the outset in all lessons observed, and an emphasis was placed on student learning and not just on the content to be covered. An explicit statement of the learning intention is commendable practice as it serves to focus students’ attention and to increase their active involvement in the learning process. The sequencing of lesson activities was generally very good, although in some instances an over-ambitious plan meant that the links between activities were somewhat unclear.
In addition to the board and the classroom space itself, a variety of resources was deployed in the lessons observed. These included teacher-designed writing templates to aid personal response; good and imaginative visual and concrete resources to assist students’ understanding of new concepts and material; and poetry recordings and illustrative film clips. Students’ folders contained useful handouts both on forms of writing and on individual writers and texts. Very effective use of these resources was noted. For example, a clip from Angela’s Ashes was shown in a junior cycle lesson to prompt students towards recollection of their early experience of school and to elicit detailed and colourful description. In a senior cycle poetry lesson, the board was used effectively to tease out the distinction between how John Montague’s father is perceived and how he actually feels. Commendably, teacher writing led directly to student writing and the work on the board provided a guide and stimulus for students and was not a mere transcription exercise.
Various methods promoting students’ active engagement with the text were observed. Students in a junior cycle lesson engaged in a “hot seat” activity in which a number of them took on a central character in Julius Caesar and answered questions from the class relating to motive, future plans and so on. This was an enjoyable and well-executed activity, and students displayed good knowledge of the text and awareness of the dramatic form. A pre-reading exercise in a senior cycle lesson focusing on the title of the poem “Filling Station” produced some very acute student responses, and prepared the way for a careful and nuanced reading of the poem. Teachers were supportive of students’ efforts to engage with texts and to articulate a personal response. It is important to convey to students that there is no conflict between the development of a personal response and an engagement with literary technique or with the details of a writer’s life and preoccupations: indeed, as students grow in their ability to read knowledgeably, they are acquiring and developing an informed personal response.
The teaching and learning of writing skills in a range of genres featured largely in the subject plan and in the practice observed. Good use was made of the creative modelling approach in a number of junior cycle lessons where students were developing skills in narrative writing. Judicious use of material from their anthology textbooks and other sources provided stimulating exemplars. One class worked in small groups to devise short dramas with a narrator, which were performed in turn and critiqued in positive terms by the audience. This then led to an extended writing exercise with a focus on third-person narrative and the omniscient narrator, and exemplified a staged approach to the acquisition of writing skills in this genre. The process of writing, drafting and editing was emphasised to a commendable degree in all lessons observed.
The teaching team’s encouragement of students’ reading for pleasure has been noted and commended above, and some teachers included references to their own and students’ reading in the classroom discourse. However, a clear policy in relation to reading as a class activity should be discussed and agreed. Where a story or poem is being encountered for the first time, it is generally advisable that the teacher read to ensure comprehension and clarity. Where the intention is for students to practise the skill of reading aloud, prior reading and preparation of the text will assist confidence and achievement.
Student learning was evident in the classroom interactions and activities observed. The concept of assessment for learning informed the range of questioning techniques used, from the rapid checking of facts and basic information to the much more slowly-paced questioning designed to elicit thoughtful and considered responses. Aspects of co-operative learning and peer learning were also employed: for example, students working in groups had specific tasks to do, and students read each other’s work to gather further ideas on a topic.
In all lessons observed, there was an expectation that students would engage and co-operate with the learning activity and a purposeful classroom atmosphere prevailed. While teachers supported and affirmed students’ efforts and responses, they also challenged students appropriately. Very effective use of follow-up questions and thought-provoking comment led to lively discussion and clearer articulation of students’ opinions. Different copies and hardbacks are used by students in following the various stages in the writing process from draft to final version, and provide them with a very good record of their growing skills and knowledge. Uptake of higher level English in both junior and senior cycle is high and achievement in the certificate examinations suggests that students are taking the subject at the appropriate level.
Ongoing monitoring of students’ participation and performance in classroom activities was good. Teachers ensured that questioning was directed towards all students and used it effectively to gauge understanding and recall. Some lessons began with a brief check on prior learning so that links could be made with the new lesson topic. In other instances, written homework assignments were part of work in progress, and were read and commented on by the teacher or by students with a view to extending and improving them.
A review of students’ work indicated that homework is set regularly and that useful developmental feedback is given on all substantial assignments, in keeping with the principles of assessment for learning. The emphasis on redrafting and improvement was commendable, and there was good evidence of the active monitoring required to achieve this end. Thus, assessment supported the building of skills and this is commendable practice.
Teachers keep records of students’ attendance and their attainment in homework assignments and class tests. Very good practice was observed where teachers noted in their class records particular strengths and areas for development pertaining to each student. Some in-house examination papers were included in the subject documents inspected and these were appropriate and of good quality. Common assessments where applicable complemented the good collaborative planning and agreed programmes of work.
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 deputy principal at the conclusion of the evaluation when the draft findings and recommendations of the evaluation were presented and discussed.