An Roinn Oideachais agus Eolaíochta
Department of Education and Science
Subject Inspection of English
Saint Brendan’s Community School
Birr, County Offaly
Roll number: 91491L
Date of inspection: 23 October 2007
Report on the Quality of Learning and Teaching in English
This report has been written following a subject inspection in St Brendan’s Community School 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.
St Brendan’s Community School provides English in the Junior Certificate programme (JC), Leaving Certificate programme (LC), Leaving Certificate Vocational Programme (LCVP) and Leaving Certificate Applied programme (LCA). Students in the LC and LCVP follow the same English syllabus.
Timetabling allocation is good in first year. After the short taster-programme has been completed, five lessons are allocated per week. The number of lessons in second and third year is not ideal with just four lessons provided for English. It is recommended that five lessons be provided in each year of the junior cycle. In the LC, five periods are provided in fifth year. Sixth year and repeat students have six lessons. This is a generous allocation and benefits those in the LC examination year. Transition Year students have four lessons of English per week. Allocation for LCA students is very good with five lessons allocated in year one and six in year two.
Classes are taught in a mixed-ability setting in the junior cycle. Students choose level for the JC exam after consultation with teachers and parents, and taking the JC “mock” examination and other assessment outcomes into account. In the LC, access to levels is determined by a combination of criteria, for example, previous results and consultation. Students’ wishes also influence access. It is commendable that most students are encouraged to attempt higher-level English. LC lessons are timetabled concurrently and this facilitates movement from one level to another. In the junior cycle, lessons are timetabled concurrently in third year. Uptake of higher-level English is good. Students generally retain the same teacher from one year to another in order to maintain continuity.
Teachers of English consult with the learning-support department in order to support students with special educational needs (SEN) and those requiring learning support. The school has a small number of newcomer students with additional language support needs.
Deployment of teachers is appropriate and teachers experience a range of programmes and levels. Teachers of English have availed of in-service for LCA.
A good range of DVD/video and CD recordings is available for the use of English teachers and there are also class sets of novels and other text resources. Since the majority of teachers are classroom based, it is possible to store resources. There is also access to a resource filing cabinet. More use should be made of the classroom space to create a print-rich environment for the subject. Very good practice was noted in one instance and this should be replicated in all learning spaces where possible. For those teachers who are not classroom based, consideration should be given to locating lessons in a suitable learning space in which a class library can be created and visual material and students’ work can be displayed. The school library is open at lunchtime and timetabled classes are brought there at the request of individual teachers. There has also been liaison with the local library and arts centre. The two computer suites each have twenty four computers. There are two computers in the staff room work area. A data projector is available. LCA students have accessed the computer room to complete their key assignments. There is also access to a lecture theatre that has projection facilities and this is very useful.
Extra-curricular activities support the teaching and learning of English. There is strong emphasis on debating and the debating society stages competitions at lunchtime for both JC and LC students. LC students go on theatre and cinema trips that coincide with the texts studied from the LC syllabus.
The English department has fully engaged in the process of subject-department planning. There is a formal subject department structure. The role of coordinator is undertaken on a voluntary basis and it rotates from time to time. As part of their planning and review practices and as a preliminary to addressing the issues raised in this report, the English teaching team and the school’s senior management should consult Looking at English, a report from the Inspectorate on the teaching and learning of English in post-primary schools. Particular attention should be paid to the report’s recommendations and to the exemplars of good practice it contains.
There is a very good level of co-operation in the English department and a collegial spirit has facilitated a reflective approach to planning. Collaborative subject planning takes place on a formal basis during all staff days. Three to four formal meetings are held per year. Informally the department meets frequently, for example at lunchtime. Minutes of meetings are kept in the departmental folder. There should be clear evidence of strategic planning in the department minutes. English department meetings could be used more for the sharing of good practice.
An outline plan has been put in place and there is a strong and professional commitment to ongoing development. The objectives are laudable. More specificity is needed and reference to Looking at English should prove useful in this regard. It is commendable that the department has identified a need to focus on the mechanics of writing in first year. In line with this, a broader focus on writing skills should be documented and care should be taken to ensure that punctuation, spelling and grammar are taught in the broader context of language experience. This could be clearly emphasised in planning documentation. First and second year schemes have been agreed and a third year scheme will begin in 2008. The fifth year scheme and LCA scheme are in progress. At JC level, texts vary from class to class.
It is commendable that all JC students study Shakespeare. Individual teachers choose texts at JC and LC level. A discussion of first year texts takes place at departmental meetings in May and agreement is reached. Texts are used for three years. In general, it is recommended that students be exposed to a greater variety of texts throughout the junior cycle. These should be regularly reviewed, where necessary, to avoid staleness. The department should integrate planning for the use of ICT into the English plan. A reading policy should be developed and this should be consistently implemented in all classes. Since classes are taught in a mixed-ability setting, clear strategies for differentiation could be documented in the plan. The inventory of DVD and other audio-visual resources should be integrated into the English plan.
The Transition Year programme is modular in structure and taught by three teachers, each with a specialism. This takes advantage of the interests of teachers and is of benefit to students. Sufficient flexibility is built into individual teachers’ schemes of work to ensure that it is student centred and that the interest of each of the three TY groups is reflected in the content. The modules include fiction, drama and film study. While the programme offers a bridge to the LC, care should be taken not to duplicate any texts that may be on the LC programme.
Almost all teachers have individual plans and long-term schemes of work. Good practice was noted in this regard in some cases. There was a great deal of detail in relation to skills development, for example. This good practice could be shared with all members of the team. Individual lesson plans should document specific, achievable learning outcomes.
The department could also find it useful to consult the primary school curriculum in the area of English to establish what skills have already been learned by incoming first years with a view to building on students’ experience.
Lesson content (drama, film, fiction, poetry and functional writing) was appropriate to the syllabuses in both the junior and senior cycle. Lessons were well structured, the time was efficiently used and the transitions from one phase to another were well managed in the majority of cases. In a lesson visited, the theme of the day’s lesson was written clearly on the board and this was helpful in focusing students’ attention. This good practice should be developed further and the lesson’s learning outcomes should be written on the board so that students can assess their progress when measured against these planned outcomes, and teachers can receive feedback on the effectiveness of the lesson at the end through questioning. Homework tasks linked to planned outcomes are also useful information in evaluating lesson planning and delivery. Lack of clarity regarding the purpose of the lesson was noted in a small minority of cases.
The entry stage of lessons usually involved the taking of the roll and review of previous material or of homework. In the best lessons the learning intention was explicit, clear instructions were given to students so that they knew precisely what was expected of them and what they might expect to do in the lesson.
The board and text were the resources commonly used to support learning in the lessons observed. A variety of resources should be considered in order to fully engage students’ interest and to cater for different learning styles. It is reported that audio-visual resources are deployed in other lessons and this is positive. The board was used well to support learning. Graphic organisers were useful learning aides. Salient points of information were recorded. Students were issued with useful headings to guide the organisation of the task. In cases where important additional information is exchanged with discrete groups working together in a classroom, it is advisable to ensure that this is formally recorded on the board to reinforce learning.
There was evidence that students’ expressive use of language is a focus for development in some lessons due to the presence of a word-wall in one classroom. The good practice indicated here should be extended to all lessons for all students. It is a good idea to draw students’ attention to good exemplars of language use. Oral communication skills should be a particular focus: while some students were confident and articulate, interaction also indicated that some students were diffident. They found communication of ideas challenging with a consequent reluctance to answer. Very good practice was noted in the lesson observed where students keep a Transition Year journal in which they write an account of their personal engagement with the programme as a whole. This provides them not only with a record of their year but also an opportunity to reflect on that experience.
Group work was a strategy used to engage students actively in their learning. In the best examples, there were clearly defined roles and the activity was well structured and managed to maximise student learning. Students’ collective responses were recorded on the board to help them organise information and act as a rubric for a writing exercise. This represents very good practice. Group work also facilitated teacher movement and gave an opportunity for teachers to diagnose the effectiveness of learning for individuals and to provide informal assessment for learning. Students participated in class, for example, by reading roles in a drama.
Questioning technique was good in most cases. Question and answer sessions were used to check understanding, and to activate prior learning in order to lay the foundation for the day’s lesson. There was, in general, a good balance between targeted and global questioning. Teachers responded to students’ questions and in the process, clarified and encouraged them to develop their responses and motivated them to progress. Very good practice was also noted in a lesson where a game was used as an aid to revision and students were challenged and engaged. In many classes, interaction with students indicated a good knowledge of material studied. The development of critical analysis should be prioritised and this is of particular importance in relation to comparative texts.
Copybooks indicated that students were encouraged to make their own summaries of texts and this is useful in ensuring a thorough knowledge of the material in hand. Apart from notes and summaries of texts that were being studied, there was not much evidence of significant writing endeavour. There was only some evidence of imaginative writing. It is recommended that all students are given the opportunity to develop both cognitively and imaginatively through use of language and students at all levels should learn to write in a variety of genres. The emphasis on writing process is important and portfolios of their work could be maintained. There is also scope for the use if ICT and through this tool, students can learn the craft of writing, keeping electronic copies of work at various stages to measure progress. Exemplars of writing across a range of genres should be used.
Classroom management was very good in almost all cases. Discipline was firm but relaxed and there was a good rapport between students and teachers in the classrooms visited. In some there was lively interaction between teachers and students. In the best examples observed, students’ queries were treated sensitively and respectfully and their contributions were valued and affirmed.
The department follows school policy regarding assessment: two assessments take place before Christmas. First, second and fifth years have in-house examinations in May, third and sixth years have “mock” examinations in February. English teachers correct their own students’ “mock” papers. There is a move towards common assessment and this is positive.
Homework is regularly set and corrected by many teachers; however there is scope for development in this area. Writing practice is essential if students are to develop their skills. Helpful feedback was noted in some copybooks and this is very important in motivating students and helping them to improve. The good practice of setting, monitoring and dating of homework should be extended to all classes. The department could consider agreeing the number of substantial written homework assignments to be completed in each year group and this should be relevant to level and programme with differentiation built into all procedures relating to the assessment of tasks.
The English department analyses LC and JC results at their first meeting of the academic year. Consideration should be given to monitoring students’ outcomes in all in-house examinations with a view to evaluating the quality of teaching and learning and receiving informative feedback. This would help the department to identify common areas that may need to be targeted for remediation and provide valuable information for target setting.
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 principal at the conclusion of the evaluation when the draft findings and recommendations of the evaluation were presented and discussed.
Published September 2008