An Roinn Oideachais agus Eolaíochta
Department of Education and Science
Subject Inspection of English
Abbey Community College
Ferrybank, County Kilkenny
Roll number: 76082H
Date of inspection: 1 May 2009
REPORT ON THE QUALITY OF LEARNING AND TEACHING IN ENGLISH
This report has been written following a subject inspection in Abbey Community College. 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, deputy 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; the board chose to accept the report without response.
Provision of English lessons for students in the college is generally very good as second-year, third-year, fifth-year and sixth-year students have five English lessons each week and all of these lessons are concurrently timetabled. First-year students have four English lessons each week, which is satisfactory provision. Transition Year (TY) and Leaving Certificate Applied (LCA) students have four weekly lessons of English and English and Communication respectively and this is good provision. There is an even distribution of English lessons across the week for most class groups.
All students are placed in mixed-ability class groups in first year and students are then set into ability groupings for English in second year. Good practice takes place in that all first-year students sit a common examination in English in the summer and this helps to determine the class in which they are placed in second year. Mixed ability pertains again in TY and students are set into ability groups in fifth year. While the school policy is to encourage as many students as possible to take higher level in state examinations, it is recommended that English teachers and management consider continuing with the mixed-ability placement of students until at least the end of second year as this may further improve the uptake of higher level.
There is a strong focus on continuing professional development in the school. The draft curriculum policy outlines the school’s expectations of teachers in relation to their planning; teaching and learning, including engaging in professional development and discussion with colleagues; gathering appropriate resources to enhance delivery of their subjects; and fostering an interest in learning. This is highly commended. Management supports and has facilitated a range of in-service for all teachers including in-service on teaching students with special educational needs (SEN) and in-service on Assessment for Learning (AfL). Some English teachers are also involved in the teaching and learning 21 (TL21) programme run by the National University of Ireland, Maynooth. Participation in this programme has yielded benefits for students and teachers as seen from the project on examining the intrinsic motivation of fifth-year students in the school.
A well organised, innovative and highly commendable system of peer observation takes place in the school and it was reported that up to twenty teachers participate in this. It involves teachers reflecting on their own practice through the observation of lessons and discussion with colleagues. Such a strategy is praiseworthy and there was clear evidence that it has enhanced practices in the classroom.
All nine English teachers in the school are suitably qualified to teach English to the highest level and they are very well deployed with evidence of continuity of teachers for students within cycles and of fair rotation of teachers across programmes and levels.
There is very good whole school support for English. Teachers have their own base classrooms and most of these are very well decorated with samples of students’ work, key words, key quotations and other relevant displays. Good practice also occurs in that displays are frequently changed to reflect the current work of students. Classrooms are well resourced; most had data projectors and teachers often use their own laptops to make presentations in lessons. In addition, there are three computer rooms available in the school. A book rental scheme is in operation for all students. However, students purchase the English books on their course, which means the teachers are not restricted in their choice of texts for students.
The school library is open daily at lunchtime. There is a firm focus among English teachers on encouraging students to read during their time in school. For example, students participate in the ‘Readathon’ and some class groups maintain reading journals containing reviews of the many books they have read. There is a debating society in the school and students are also brought on regular theatre and cinema trips.
Provision for students with SEN is a developing area in the school. Two teachers are currently undertaking diploma courses in this area and it is useful that one is a Mathematics teacher and one an English teacher as the main focus is to improve students’ literacy and numeracy skills. At each September staff meeting, the SEN team highlights difficulties that students in all classes and year groups have. Consideration could also be given to using some time at staff meetings to brief staff on suitable strategies for teaching students with SEN or learning support needs in mainstream classes. Two learning support rooms are available and these are very well resourced. Students are withdrawn for support if they have an exemption from Irish or otherwise they may drop a subject. Co-teaching has also taken place in Mathematics classes and this strategy is commended.
Management facilitates subject planning meetings each term. Minutes of these meetings are recorded and they provide evidence of discussion on a wide range of matters. As well as discussing issues such as choice of texts and placement of students, teachers also use these meetings to share successful teaching methodologies, to discuss strategies for the encouragement of reading among first years and to evaluate AfL strategies. There was also evidence of very good collaboration among English teachers and of sharing of methodologies learned at in-service courses. The position of co-ordinator of English is rotated and this is good practice. Good practice also takes place in that the principal meets with each subject department every April to plan for the coming school year.
The subject plan for English includes the worthy aims of promoting enjoyment of language and literature and encouraging students to take the highest level possible in state examinations. The first-year subject plan, which is followed by all teachers, covers all genres and there is an emphasis on reading, which is commended; so too is the thematic approach taken when teaching poetry. A further novel and play are introduced in second year. It was noted that there is some crossover of texts including poems between first and second year so, in reviewing the plans for each teacher, it is recommended that this be avoided. It is further recommended that another novel or play be taught in third year so that more new material is introduced in this year, rather than it being mainly focused on revision. It is commendable that the subject plan is written in terms of learning outcomes for students. Of note in the subject plan is the encouragement of students’ debating and presentation skills from first year.
The TY plan is highly commended as it covers all aspects of English and the methodologies outlined are innovative and enjoyable. Students take part in a module on debating, as well as modules on media studies, drama (including attendance at two performances), reading, film studies, creative writing and poetry. The interdisciplinary module, introduced this year, involving religion, modern languages, history, European Studies and English is particularly commended for the variety of learning outcomes and activities that it integrates. The plan for LCA students of English and Communication includes provision for the study of some work from the Leaving Certificate course and this is commended as a motivating strategy for these students.
Teachers in fifth and sixth year generally choose a common single text and then have flexibility around choice of comparative texts. However, there is a need for all teachers in fifth year to agree on a common approach and common texts until perhaps Christmas to facilitate students who move between classes. It is suggested that a common examination held around October might be introduced to ensure that students are correctly placed in class groups in fifth year.
A list of resources available to the English department has been compiled and English teachers are in the process of developing an electronic folder for storage of useful English resources on the school intranet system. This is very much to be encouraged as there were so many useful resources observed in lessons.
There was a very high quality of teaching and learning observed in lessons. All teachers were very well prepared and a variety of teaching resources, which enhanced learning, was used. There was a clear learning intention communicated to students in all lessons and best practice in this regard was seen when the learning intention was written on the board. This practice could be adopted by all teachers as well as checking with students at the end of the lesson that the learning intention was achieved. There was very good continuity with previous learning so that all lessons were put in context for students. In addition, the pace and structure of all lessons were appropriate so that there was a good break up of tasks and smooth transitions from one section of the lesson to the next.
Dynamic teaching and active learning were a feature of almost all lessons which led to much self-directed learning on the part of the student. Students worked in groups or pairs to study aspects of their course and this work was well organised and structured appropriately. Brainstorming was used to good effect to revise main characters in the single text as a pre-reading exercise. Another effective pre-reading strategy observed was when students, in pairs, had to speculate on the meaning of a visual image presented on screen before being shown the full clip, which put the image in context. Teachers also reported using other very effective teaching methods including students making presentations in class; role play; students writing their own book in class and illustrating events from their texts; mind mapping and storyboarding. Lessons observed were engaging and enjoyable and students were presented with authentic learning experiences.
Teacher questioning was very good and, in most instances, included all students as the teachers asked ‘named’ questions of students. There were many examples where teachers also challenged students to think more clearly about their learning by asking probing questions. This is a very good strategy as it leads students towards more critical thinking, and is more enhancing than just accepting students’ answers without comment. Good practice took place in that questions were both lower order and higher order to suit the abilities in the classroom. When work was assigned, individual attention was given to students in almost all instances. The inclusive nature of lessons was a particular strength observed.
Information and communication technology (ICT) was very well used in many lessons. For example, it was used to play a recording of a poem, to make a PowerPoint presentation about advertising and to present visual images and a short film clip. The displays on the classroom walls were often used as a resource. In addition, the board was very well used to record key words and points made. Teachers are commended for sourcing and creating very useful and interesting resources to supplement their teaching. It was also clear that they gave students opportunities to take responsibility for their own learning, which is commended. For example, students had to research their favourite poem by a particular poet and the results of this work were displayed.
Appropriate practice took place when students’ personal response or initial reaction was sought, for example when a new poem was introduced. This is preferable to immediately analysing the piece of writing for the student and should be applied in all instances. In addition, good practice was seen when students had the opportunity to discuss their answers to questions among themselves or with the teacher before beginning assigned written work.
There was excellent integration of language and literature in all lessons. For example, students wrote diary entries from the point of view of a character and wrote newspaper reports on events in their studied novel. In this way, all students were taught to see the course as an integrated whole as opposed to a series of isolated genres.
Students’ oral as well as written skills were developed in a variety of ways. The college’s Abbey Debating Society involves all year groups. An internal class debating competition is organised for first and second years, while TY and fifth years have opportunities to participate in national competitions. In addition, as part of their debating module, all TY students are required to make a speech. Homework, including regular practice in longer pieces of writing, was regularly assigned and it was purposeful and challenging. In some instances, students had redrafted their written work. It is suggested that teachers focus more on this area and that students use a particular copy, perhaps a manuscript copy, for their redrafted work.
The overall pleasant atmosphere in the school was reflected in the very good atmosphere in lessons observed. Students were engaged and well behaved and there was evidence of very good student-teacher relationships. The members of the English department are hard-working and clearly enjoy their subject and their students. This provides foundation for the very good learning observed.
Management and English teachers conduct an analysis of English results in state examinations on an annual basis and compare results to national norms. This is highly commended. So too is the fact that the results of incoming first-year students’ assessment tests are compared with their results in their first-year Christmas examination. The principal also conducts an analysis of examination classes’ ‘mock’ examinations and the relevant year head then meets each student to discuss the results. Very good practice also takes place in that the principal meets each teacher annually. There is clearly a strategy for encouraging students to take higher level in senior cycle, as seen from the work with fifth-year students where their examination results are closely monitored. The uptake of higher level fluctuates from year to year with a better uptake of higher level in English in the Junior Certificate compared to the Leaving Certificate. A move towards mixed-ability groupings in second year and perhaps in third year might help in improving uptake of higher level.
First, second, TY and fifth years sit examinations at Christmas and in the summer. All examination classes sit Christmas examinations and ‘mock’ examinations in the Spring. It is recommended that a ‘mock’ oral examination be introduced as a component of the LCA English and Communication ‘mock’ examination. All first-year students sit a common examination in the summer. It is recommended that this good practice be extended to all year groups where students are sitting examinations at the same level. Parents receive two formal reports annually. The Christmas report also includes a continuous assessment mark based on work done up to Halloween. Comments from both the principal and the year head are included on these reports which is very good practice. Teachers keep very good records of students’ work.
Teachers have received in-service on AfL techniques. AfL strategies in use by the English department include peer evaluation, self evaluation and the inclusion of constructive comments on students’ work on areas where they need to improve. Student work in copies and folders was very well corrected by teachers. Students are commended for the high standard of maintenance of these copies and folders. Students’ folders provided evidence of the range of work covered and the very good resources used to assist learning.
An awards day is held annually in the school where awards for academic excellence are distributed. Evening study is available to students and a homework club is in operation for first-year students, who are given homework support by TY students.
The following are the main strengths identified in the evaluation:
· There is a strong focus on continuous professional development in the school.
· There is very good whole school support for English.
· Students are encouraged to develop their reading, debating and presentation skills during their time in school.
· There was evidence of very good collaboration among the English teaching team. Teachers share teaching strategies and plan very well together.
· The TY plan covers all aspects of English and is innovative and enjoyable. Of particular note is the interdisciplinary module, which has a variety of learning outcomes.
· There was a very high quality of teaching and learning observed. Dynamic teaching and active learning were a feature of most lessons.
· Lessons observed were engaging and enjoyable for students. The inclusive nature of lessons was a particular strength.
· There were excellent resources used in lessons, including ICT, worksheets and handouts, the board, and the classroom itself.
· There was excellent integration of language and literature.
· The overall pleasant atmosphere in the school was reflected in the English classrooms. Students were engaged and well behaved and there were very good student-teacher relationships.
· Students received regular, purposeful and appropriately challenging written work. Their folders and copies were well maintained and contained a range of useful resources and work.
· Management and relevant teachers conduct analyses of English results in state and school examinations on a regular basis.
· Very good AfL strategies were in evidence in English.
As a means of building on these strengths and to address areas for development, the following key recommendations are made:
· English teachers and management should consider continuing with the mixed-ability placement of student at least until the end of second year.
· The English department should ensure that there is no crossover of texts between year groups, consider introducing new material into the third-year programme and agree
a common approach and common texts in fifth year until student movement has ceased. A common examination around October might help in this regard.
· The learning intention of the lesson should be written on the board in all instances and it would be good practice if teachers checked at the end of the lesson to see if this was achieved.
· A ‘mock’ oral examination for LCA English and Communication year two students should be introduced. The setting of common examinations should be extended to all year groups
where students are sitting examinations at the same level.
Post-evaluation meetings were held with the teachers of English and with the principal and deputy principal, at the conclusion of the evaluation when the draft findings and recommendations of the evaluation were presented and discussed.
Published November 2009