An Roinn Oideachais agus Eolaíochta
Department of Education and Science
Subject Inspection of English
Saint Patrick’s Community College
Naas, County Kildare
Roll number: 70710D
Dates of inspection: 7 and 18 February 2008
This report has been written following a subject inspection in St Patrick’s Community College, Naas. 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 of the school was given an opportunity to comment on the findings and recommendations of the report; a response was not received from the board.
St Patrick’s Community College is one of ten post-primary schools maintained by Co. Kildare Vocational Education Committee (VEC), and is the only co-educational school in the town of Naas. It provides post-Leaving Certificate courses and an extensive adult education service in addition to the full range of second-level programmes. At present located on a town centre site and in a mix of permanent and temporary accommodation, the school is to move to new accommodation just outside the town for September 2009 and will be renamed Piper’s Hill Community College. This impending move has given the school community a strong focus on planning for the future, and this report takes cognisance of both present circumstances and future possibilities.
Timetable provision for English is very good both in the number and distribution of lessons. It is especially commendable that all junior cycle classes have an English lesson every day, as do fifth year and sixth year classes. Four lessons per week are allocated in Transition Year (TY) and in the Leaving Certificate Applied (LCA), in line with programme recommendations.
The English teaching team comprises seven teachers. Most teach English to a number of year groups and thus have a good level of contact with the subject. This is good practice as it promotes the teaching and learning of English as a continuum of knowledge and skills development from first year to sixth year. However, currently only three of the team teach English in the senior cycle to established Leaving Certificate and Leaving Certificate Applied (LCA) classes. At present, there is no established Leaving Certificate sixth-year group, because of the re-introduction of Transition Year in September 2006. When the sixth-year cohort is back to full strength, it will create opportunities to deploy more teachers in senior cycle. Such a deployment is advisable wherever possible, as it increases the pool of experience available to the subject department in the future. The inspectorate’s composite report, Looking at English, should be consulted in this regard, and for exemplars of best practice in a number of areas. A teacher with a postgraduate diploma in special educational needs (SEN) is involved in team teaching in first year English, and this is commended as it provides a very supportive learning environment in a setting other than the standard withdrawal model.
First-year students are placed in class groups according to the ability levels indicated by pre-entry assessment and liaison with the feeder primary schools. In this way the school seeks to meet the needs both of students with high levels of ability and those who may have some learning difficulties. The school’s commitment to supporting both able and less able students is acknowledged, and in this context ongoing vigilance in relation to the effectiveness of streaming is advised.
Concurrent timetabling of English for two class groups in second year creates an upper band, with the laudable aim of encouraging as many students as possible to take higher level English in the Junior Certificate. Full concurrence does not occur in third year and it is recommended that this be addressed in next year’s timetable so as to continue the policy now established in second year. The support offered to students identified as having literacy needs involves the creation of smaller class groups and co-timetabling of teachers, and this provision is commended. The formation of classes in the senior cycle is based on the students’ chosen programme and level, and students are encouraged to take the highest appropriate level.
Resourcing of English is very good in many respects. Access to audiovisual equipment was reported to be good, with an effective booking system in place. In a very enlightened initiative on the part of school management, all teachers have been supplied with laptops for the preparation of teaching materials. With the improved information and communications technology (ICT) facilities that will be available in the new school building, this opens up possibilities for the teaching and learning of English which the teaching team should begin to explore now. The school has no library at present but will have one in the new building. In the meantime, book boxes are in use to encourage students to read for pleasure. In planning for the optimal use of the future library, the work done by the Junior Certificate School Programme (JCSP) demonstration library project should be of particular relevance to the school. Further information can be obtained through their web site, www.jcsp.ie. The school’s book rental scheme was reported to be cost-effective and flexible.
Some class groups, for example TY and LCA, are based in their own classrooms, and some teachers are classroom-based. A number of the classrooms visited had displays related to English, including word charts, key quotations and themed displays relating to studied texts, and this is commended. The learning support room visited had computers, data projector, books and chairs and tables arranged so as to facilitate team-teaching and student interaction. While the level of teacher movement between rooms makes it difficult to develop the rooms as resources in themselves, consideration should be given to creating a more print-rich classroom environment now, in preparation for the greater scope that the new premises will provide.
School management supports the continuing professional development of teachers. Staff in-service on the JCSP, and individual teacher in-service in other programmes and curricular areas has taken place in recent years. Members of the English teaching team have in the past also been active members of the subject association and are encouraged to renew these links.
Recent co-curricular activities include a media studies workshop in conjunction with NUI Maynooth. Students have also participated in inter-schools debates, talent shows and musicals. The school is commended on its support for these activities, which significantly extend the students’ communication and oral language skills.
As part of school development planning (SDP), a subject department structure is in place in the school. Collaborative planning is facilitated through meetings at the beginning and end of the year, and it forms part of the ongoing SDP activity with other meetings held during the year. This good practice is commended. A voluntary subject co-ordinator system is in place, and is currently agreed to have a term of three years. It is suggested that consideration be given to a two-year term, allowing a more frequent rotation and therefore a greater opportunity for all members of the department to gain this experience and to move forward the subject department’s aims. The role of the co-ordinator should be discussed by all members of the department and a brief description included in the subject plan.
The English subject plan, which should always be regarded as a work in progress, broadly follows the SDP template and comprises at present some details of subject provision and a year plan for each year of the junior cycle and for fifth and sixth year. In further developing this plan, the subject department should include the programme for English in TY and also the LCA programme in English and Communication. Some further development of the year plans would also be useful and could incorporate some aspects of the very detailed individual schemes of work which were made available to the inspector. For example, in keeping with the emphasis in all the syllabuses on the development of skills, a year plan could include the level of writing competence that should be achieved at the end of the first term, the different strategies such as writing frames that could be used in the process, and the relevant form of assessment to ensure that the required skill has been acquired. Developing such plans for first year would be a useful next step.
The English department is to be commended on the action taken to implement a recommendation in an earlier inspectorate report to increase the number of novels read in the junior cycle. Students now read a novel each year, and a range of novels is available through the book scheme. Good and suitably challenging choices of texts have been made for all years and programmes.
A comprehensive plan for literacy support has been drawn up, and the school and the special educational needs (SEN) team are warmly commended for their work. The plan gives details of the year’s work for all support classes and it is notable that support is available to students throughout the school. In the junior cycle, the JCSP statements are used effectively to give students in support classes a sense of achievement and to promote cross-curricular work. A commendable level of information for colleagues has also been provided by the SEN team, and this should serve to promote an understanding that all teachers are teachers of literacy.
In furthering the process of subject department planning, the English department should look ahead to the opportunities that will be available in the new school. In this regard, planning for the greater use of ICT in the English classroom would be timely, and the many ways in which ICT can be used to promote subject department planning, for example through electronic folders, should also be explored. Consideration could also be given to the optimal layout of the English classroom, taking particularly into account the teachers’ admirable emphasis on student-centred learning. The conventional classroom arrangement described in the current subject plan could perhaps be revisited.
Eight lessons were observed during the course of the evaluation, covering all years, levels and programmes. All classes were competently managed, and reflected the good classroom management practice set out in the school’s Teacher Handbook. Students participated well, and were co-operative and responsive. Lessons were well paced, ensuring that a satisfactory amount of material was covered, and there was a good sense of structure. A clear statement of the lesson topic was made at the outset in a number of cases and was often stated in terms of what the students would be doing. This good practice should be followed in all lessons as it focuses the students on their active participation in their own learning.
Materials to support the teaching and learning of the lesson topic were well chosen and ready for use. They included well-designed worksheets for group and individual work, film studies response templates, and visual texts displayed via smartboard. Junior cycle groups had anthology-style textbooks and these were used appropriately. The board was used to gather key points and to give the layout and plan for writing tasks. In many instances it was used very effectively and provided a useful model for students’ writing and a means of reinforcing vocabulary and spelling. Care should be taken to ensure that all work on the board is accurate and clearly set out. The use of a spelling margin is recommended so that vocabulary can be recorded in one area and the rest of the board used for planning and layout.
Among the teaching and learning methods observed were direct teaching, pair and group work, other examples of active learning approaches, and a range of questioning techniques. Where direct teaching of the whole class was observed, it was particularly successful in senior cycle lessons where teachers held the attention of the class with clear explanation, good links with prior learning, effective illustration and an obvious enthusiasm for the material and ideas being discussed. Teachers should minimise their use of direct teaching where the class has a limited ability to be a receptive audience, and where active, task-based learning would be more productive. Commendably, however, direct teaching was not the dominant approach and the emphasis on students’ engagement and participation was noteworthy.
Students were set a variety of tasks in class. One group exercise in a junior cycle lesson involved small groups deciding what questions they would ask a central character in a novel about various aspects of his life. Each group was assigned a different aspect and the resulting whole-class activity allowed all the questions to be asked through the format of a chat show interview with the central character. This was an excellent example of student-centred learning, with a clear sequence of activities, high levels of participation and very affirming use of students’ engagement and responses. In a senior cycle lesson focusing on the reading of film as text, students had a response template which they used to record impressions and perceptions. They quickly jotted points while watching and then expanded on these after some focused group discussion. This approach ensured that students were actively and critically viewing the film, and a high level of engagement and response was observed.
Questioning was used effectively for a variety of purposes in the lessons observed. At the simplest level, questions were asked of named students to check that they understood a task or topic and had retained information. Questions of this kind were also used to keep students focused and to set a brisk pace for whole-class review. In this context, a measured use of whole-class answering was effective as a means of motivation and reinforcement. Higher order questions were also posed, and a variety of responses was encouraged. Teachers should ensure that sufficient time is given to students to formulate such responses, and a period of silent thinking before a response is given is to be encouraged.
Students in examination classes were working on questions from past papers to improve their examination techniques. While the importance of this work is acknowledged, care should be taken to ensure that the questions chosen provide a good learning and training experience for the students, and provide a good reinforcement of the skills described in the relevant syllabus documents. In one lesson observed, students were planning an answer to an examination question asking them to describe an important scene, and many had chosen different scenes. To optimise this as an exercise in planning, it is suggested that it would be more useful to focus on the same scene initially and, when the structuring of such a response is clear, to ask students to make their own choices.
There was an appropriate emphasis on the development of writing skills, and students were engaged in writing tasks in most of the classes visited. In further developing the very good strategies observed, it is recommended that teachers build up a shared bank of writing frames for tasks such as character studies, accounts of key moments and responses to poems, which will assist students to structure their ideas and to produce more substantial and structured written work.
The classroom atmosphere was supportive and purposeful, and there was a good rapport between teachers and students. Affirmation of student effort was observed in many cases, and its importance should not be overlooked. Teachers displayed a good knowledge of their classes, and had appropriately high expectations of what they could achieve.
Teachers were observant of students’ levels of participation and response in class, and monitored classwork by circulating to check on students’ progress and to offer help where necessary. Particular attention was paid to the expansion of students’ vocabulary, and a number of homework assignments that required students to use new vocabulary were checked orally at the beginning of the lesson, with clarification where necessary. This is good practice in reinforcing meanings and spellings.
Some Assessment for Learning practices were observed. In a junior cycle lesson, students were asked to choose an emotion icon or “emoticon” to express their level of satisfaction with the work they had done in class. This encourages reflection and responsibility, and is a practice that could be extended to include self-grading with older students.
A review of students’ written work indicated a wide range of competence and included work of a very good quality. The work set was generally appropriate to the ability of the class group, and presented opportunities for reinforcement of learning but also for imaginative and creative work. It was pleasing to see a number of extended compositions set in both the junior and the senior cycle. Where students may find such work daunting, it is suggested that the use of writing frames as already described would be helpful. Short, very focused writing tasks and creative modelling or imitation also provide useful stepping stones to more substantial writing.
Some good developmental feedback was given to students in the form of affirming written comment and suggestions for improvement. This is a very valuable means to improvement, and should be established practice for all substantial student writing. The review of the homework policy currently in progress is commendable, and it is recommended that it establish school-wide practices in relation to the presentation of written work. Some students’ work was headed and dated very clearly, thus aiding revision, and this is an example of the good practice that could be written into the homework policy and implemented across all subject areas.
The following are the main strengths identified in the evaluation:
· Timetable provision for English is very good both in the number and distribution of lessons.
· School management supports the continuing professional development of teachers.
· Good and suitably challenging choices of texts have been made for all years and programmes.
· The emphasis in the classroom on students’ engagement and participation was noteworthy.
· Effective teaching and learning methods observed included direct teaching, pair and group work, other examples of active learning approaches, and a range of questioning techniques.
· The classroom atmosphere was supportive and purposeful.
As a means of building on these strengths and to address areas for development, the following key recommendations are made:
· The English subject plan should always be regarded as a work in progress and should now focus on maximising the opportunities for teaching and learning that will be available in the new school.
· Consideration should be given to creating a more print-rich classroom environment now, in preparation for the greater scope that the new premises will provide.
· Next year’s timetable should ensure concurrence of English in both second and third year to maintain the current banding.
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 October 2008