An Roinn Oideachais agus Eolaíochta
Department of Education and Science
Subject Inspection of Irish
St Finian’s Community College
Roll number: 70120F
Date of inspection: 1 May 2008
Report on the Quality of Learning and Teaching of Irish
This report has been written following a subject inspection in St Finian’s Community College, as part of a whole-school evaluation. It presents the findings of an evaluation of the quality of teaching and learning of Irish and makes recommendations for the further development of the teaching of this subject in the school. The evaluation was carried out over two days, during which the inspector visited classrooms and observed the teaching and learning. The inspector interacted with the students and teachers, examined students’ work, and had discussions with the teachers. The inspector reviewed school planning documentation and teachers’ written preparations. Following the evaluation visit, the inspector provided oral feedback on the outcomes of the evaluation to the subject teachers and to the principal.
St Finian’s Community College is one of four second-level schools in Swords. The school provides the following educational programmes – the Junior Certificate, the Junior Certificate School Programme (JCSP), the Leaving Certificate (Established), the Leaving Certificate Applied and the Leaving Certificate Vocational Programme. In the current year 2007/08, almost six hundred students are enrolled.
The timetabling arrangements in operation at present for Irish result in limited flexibility regarding student access to an appropriate class level. Classes are streamed from the start of first year, for Irish and other subjects. From the outset, students are placed in classes having two bands – a higher-level band and an ordinary-level band – based on the results of entrance assessment tests. Mixed-ability classes are formed within these bands. Although Irish is one of the subjects assessed for entry to the school, the results of the Irish test are not taken into account when allocating students to classes in those two bands. The entrance-test in Irish is an attempt to indicate that Irish is an important subject on the school programme. The results of the Irish exam are used at present only as a guide to the teachers on students’ ability in the language. Under this system, it is possible that some students in the second band actually have the ability to take the higher-level course, and that there are some in the first band for whom ordinary-level Irish would be more appropriate. If a teacher notices that a student is obviously misplaced for Irish, that student is moved to another class, but this involves a class change in the other subjects also. Other changes in the Irish classes are reviewed at the end of first year.
It is recommended that these arrangements regarding the formation of first-year classes be reviewed. It is suggested that the formation of mixed-ability first-year classes right through be considered – even if only for the first term. This would ensure that students are not presented with a low-level language-target from the start, as happens at present, in classes where students in general have only a limited ability in the language, and they would be afforded the opportunity of engaging with the language at a higher level. This would require timetabling of first-year Irish classes concurrently – which is not the case at present. The suggested arrangement would obviate other implications for the student who would move from one class to another. Irish classes for second-year students and for third-years do not run concurrently either, at present, even within the bands formed by the school. Only in fifth and sixth years are Irish classes timetabled to be taught concurrently.
A significant reduction has been made this year in the amount of time allocated to Irish on the timetable. With effect from the beginning of the current school-year 2007/08, four class-periods per week is the provision for all junior cycle classes and five class-periods per week for senior-cycle classes. The previous norm was five class-periods per week for junior-cycle classes and six for senior cycle. Whatever about cutbacks for senior-cycle Irish classes, the reduction from five class-periods to four for junior-cycle classes is considered too severe. Although the teachers of Irish did not seem perturbed about these changes in the timetable, it is recommended that the effect of such a radical cutback on the teaching and learning of Irish be reviewed and that a request for extra time be made in due course, if necessary. It is considered that four class-periods per week for Irish in each of the three junior cycle years is an insufficient allocation for students to engage satisfactorily with Irish, especially at the higher level.
There is a total of five teachers of Irish in the school, three of them appointed since 2004. These significant changes of staff resulted from teacher-retirements. The result is a very good blend on the staff, of teachers with many years’ experience of teaching the subject and recently-appointed teachers who bring new skills to their work, among them information and communications technology (ICT) skills, which can be further developed and more widely used later on.
Three of the five teachers have their own classrooms. This is conducive to providing a stimulating learning environment for the students and to having ready access to resources. Good efforts were made at making these classrooms attractive and one was of a very high standard in providing a pleasant environment for the teaching and learning of the subject. There was a television set and DVD-player in three of the rooms although only limited use is made of these resources. The use of ICT is peripheral to the subject because ICT resources are restricted. It is recommended that planning be undertaken for making appropriate use of the TV set and DVD-players to show excerpts from TG4 programmes in class. It would be worthwhile also to formulate a plan for using ICT in Irish classes and to submit it to the Principal shortly, to support a request for a laptop computer, a data-projector and an internet link in one of the three classrooms already available for Irish. Depending on the success of this project, the use of ICT can be gradually increased once the requisite skills are mastered by the teachers of Irish.
The number of students with exemptions from Irish has increased considerably and twenty-two per cent of the total number of students now enrolled in the school have exemptions. The school policy on exemptions ensures that exemptions are agreed only according to the provisions of Circular M10/94. The majority of these are students who have recognised learning difficulties – a little over half, and a little under half are students whose mother-tongue is neither Irish nor English. Extra resources are involved for many of these students. An effort is made to provide these resources, as far as possible, when Irish is scheduled on the timetable and teachers attest that Irish classes are not upset in any way. The number of students with exemptions from Irish should be continuously reviewed. Teachers need to be alert to a consistent increase in the number of exemptions lest it reach a critical point which could hinder teachers’ efforts to engage other students with Irish. It is recommended that greater efforts be made to encourage students who have exemptions to make an effort to learn Irish.
Only a limited number of students in the school attend courses in the Gaeltacht, although efforts are made to promote these courses. It is recommended that the school management endeavour to enlist sponsors for Gaeltacht scholarships in the school and to convince parents of the value of those courses. The school makes impressive attempts to promote Irish. A draft policy, entitled ‘Irish language and culture procedure’ has been published, to promote students’ knowledge of and respect for Irish language and culture and to develop a generally positive attitude among them. A committee of teachers compiled this document – a committee which also included teachers of other subjects apart from Irish. Irish is promoted through a cross-curricular input involving other subjects, with the co-operation of the teachers of those subjects – English, History, Geography, Art and Music. A great effort is made, on a whole-school basis, during Seachtain na Gaeilge (Irish Week) to promote a positive attitude to Irish language and culture among the students. The school is commended for these great efforts.
To build on efforts already being made, it would be worth considering the formulation of an ambitious plan for Irish as a subject on the school programme, to enhance the standing of Irish in the school. There are two primary Gaelscoileanna (all-Irish schools) in the catchment area of the school. It would be worth doing a feasibility study on the possibility of establishing an all-Irish stream in St. Finian’s Community College in order to entice students from the primary Gaelscoileanna, by raising the profile of St. Finian’s in the promotion of Irish. No such all-Irish stream is in progress in any second-level school in Swords, a town with a very large population.
As an interim step to that end, it would be worth investigating whether any staff-teacher of another subject apart from Irish would be interested in teaching that subject through the medium of Irish. If this enquiry yielded a positive result, it would be worth trying such a challenging project. As another option, a limited CLIL (Content & Language Integrated Learning) project might help students make striking progress in the language. Such a project would mean that another subject would be made available for those students interested in learning it through the medium of Irish, in order to improve their standard of Irish. Such a project would need parental approval from the outset. This recommendation is made to encourage the school community to discuss the possibilities and the opportunities of raising the status of Irish considerably in the school, of developing a more positive attitude to the language and culture and helping the students towards greater achievements in the subject.
One of the most senior teachers has assumed responsibility for co-ordinating the work of the department of Irish for the past couple of years, in order to promote co-operation among new staff-members and provide advice. It is recommended that newly-appointed teachers take on this responsibility in turn, later on, for an agreed time, so that everyone will gain experience of this type of work.
The management supports the provision of plenty of time for planning and teachers are afforded equal opportunities of teaching all levels. Three planning-meetings have been held during school hours, so far in the current school-year 2007/08. As a result, good progress has been made in planning matters. The equal opportunities of teaching all levels enhance staff-skills and promote joint planning among them. The school is commended for operating this arrangement. It was evident from the meeting held with the teachers that there is a great spirit of co-operation among them and that they were concerned with the welfare of students in general regarding the subject, rather than with the progress of their individual classes only.
The plan prepared by the department of Irish accords with the aims of the syllabuses for the subject. The plan has been prepared in an accessible way and bound elegantly in booklet form. It offers a good outline of the aims and objectives of the teaching of Irish in the school, as well as clear guidance for teachers newly-appointed to the school. It would be advisable to show the teachers assigned to each class on a single sheet at the beginning of the plan. The current year’s timetable for Irish class-periods for each class could be presented clearly on another page, with the name of the teacher included – as was provided on a separate sheet for the inspectorate. All of this could offer a very clear overview of the year’s work. The timetable could then be examined at any time of the year to experiment with and promote co-operation among teachers of a particular year-group.
A central aim of the plan is that every student should take the highest level in the certificate examinations that their ability in the language will allow. This is a laudable aim. A particular emphasis is placed on the development of oral Irish and on the ability to understand and make normal conversation, as the aim of all the courses. A synopsis is given in the plan of effective teaching-methods without giving any specific guidance. It would be worth making particular reference here to the practicalities of developing students’ ability in oral language, in addition to mentioning that objective as a desirable skill. It would be worth bringing active-learning methods such as group-work, pair-work or self-directed learning to mind in this part of the plan as well as distinguishing the different kinds of question that should be used in the lesson. The use of translation as a teaching method should be discussed and an agreed approach to this method included in the plan.
Although a good number of websites for Irish are listed in the plan, there is no specific reference to the use of these resources. Reference should be made to the possibilities of using ICT in class, as well as the benefit that can be derived from using well-chosen excerpts from TG4 programmes. This is an element of the work that teachers should share with one another. It is recommended that a particular teacher would choose a topic for one year-group and then take responsibility also for related work, such as the preparation of typewritten questionnaires; another teacher could take similar responsibility for a different year-group, and so on. There is considerable work involved in choosing an appropriate topic to implement such an approach. The effectiveness of such work should be regularly reviewed and outdated topics, which no longer stimulate students’ interest from year to year, should be discarded. In this context it is necessary to keep in mind that the teachers are severely limited in their work by the meagre weekly provision of time for Irish on the timetable, especially in the junior cycle.
It would be advisable to identify learning-objectives in the plan for the various aspects of language at the different levels, year by year, in the junior cycle. There is a good account in the plan of learning-objectives for the acquisition of oral skills in the Leaving Certificate course. In short, it would be a good guide for every teacher if the plan provided a written outline of the linguistic competence expected of students in oral work, written work, reading comprehension and listening comprehension, within the year, for every year in the school and for every level. Guidance for this approach is available in the Council of Europe publication Punann na dTeangacha Eorpacha (European Languages Portfolio), which accords with the aims of the Irish syllabuses.
The teachers have drafted their own plans and have made out yearly schemes of work for the current year, on a term-by-term basis, for their respective classes. These plans are thorough and well organised. In addition to specifying subject-matter for the lessons, it would be worth referring also to the development of the main four language-skills. As another alternative, those skills could be used as page-headings and the material to be used to develop the skills indicated under the appropriate headings, so that the teacher will have a continuous account of the integrated development of the skills as an objective.
The plan for the department of Irish should include an account of the professional development of the teachers. One teacher attended the in-service course run by the Second Level Support Service (SLSS) this year for the teaching of Irish in first year. The number of teachers attending should be increased. It would be advisable also for the teachers to consider, in their planning, the advantages to be derived from observing their colleagues’ teaching practices from time to time during the year. This is particularly useful in developing the use of ICT in teaching, but it is also valuable in exchanging good practices and widening their use among the teachers.
Although the plan contains specific mention of the development of oral Irish among the students, it would be worth reinforcing this part of the scheme of work and tackling the development of a plan to cope with the challenges involved in the major changes announced in Circular 0042/2007, concerning the raising of the proportion of marks for oral Irish in the certificate examinations to forty per cent. A clear strategy must be agreed to prepare for this change.
Five classes were observed during the inspection – three in the junior cycle and two in the senior cycle. The teachers had prepared well for these lessons and their presentation of the lessons showed self-confidence in every case. In all of those classes, the pupil-teacher ratio was favourable – an average ratio of seventeen students per teacher. Allowing for student absences, the average ratio present was thirteen students per teacher.
All lessons had a clear objective, which was communicated to the students in every case. All teachers had the same approach to managing the lessons. The roll was called, a short conversation was conducted, homework was checked where appropriate, the students were told what the subject-matter of the lesson would be, oral questions were asked, the students were encouraged to participate fully in the work involved in the lesson and a variety of class-activities was undertaken. The teachers had a good command of Irish and the target-language was used in all classes. English was used in certain classes to ensure that the students had a clear understanding of the vocabulary being used. In some cases there was over-use of this methodology, so that the skill being practised was that of simultaneous translation. The teachers should discuss such over-use of translation and adopt an agreed approach in all classes.
The teachers did not stint in their praise for students’ efforts and all teachers did their best to involve the students in the work of the lesson. Overall, however, the greater part of the burden of the lessons was borne by the teachers and it was they who did the bulk of the talk, despite every effort to encourage the students to get to grips with the subject-matter of the lesson.
Oral language was practised in all classes in the junior cycle. Questions were asked about straightforward topics such as the student’s age, the time that students have lunch, the time they finish classes, how they come to school and the day’s weather conditions. Those questions were well answered and students’ answers came without hesitation. In one lesson, the teacher used gestures and mime to clarify the questions and encourage the students to answer. The answers given in this class were livelier than the norm. Up to half the time in this particular class was spent practising oral language in that way and the students responded well to that. In the other classes students spent only about two minutes on average, at the outset, on oral work. No attempt was made in any of the classes to talk about any topic of current public interest, or any general topic concerning teenagers’ lives. The questions were very focused, but limited to topics concerning the immediate environment of the students themselves. In senior cycle classes, no conversation was initiated about everyday events; the talk was confined to the subject-matter being dealt with, which was related to the prose and poetry.
In that respect, class practice did not quite accord with the objectives of developing general conversation skills, as specifically set out in the plan for the subject. It is recommended that work on general conversation, as laid out in the plan for Irish, be given a more central place in the class-work. Similarly, to support this work, homework should be set which will help students to realise that preparation for oral work is a regular part of the classwork. An excerpt from a TG4 programme would greatly help to advance this work and there is a reference to this strategy in the subject-plan. Alternatively, an excerpt from a news or sports television programme could be shown in class and a conversation then based on it – once a clear aim was worked out beforehand concerning what students would be empowered to do and say as a result. The element of conversation-work observed which was most closely linked to a topic of current interest to the students on the day of the inspection, was a discussion of ‘the weather outside’. That much was praiseworthy.
It would be helpful to play short excerpts from the weather forecast in Irish regularly for the students, so that they would become acquainted with the relevant terminology. It would not matter if students did not understand the forecasts initially. Key-words could be gradually explained and the vocabulary later expanded. After some time, one of the students could be chosen to act as commentator and asked to give an ex-tempore weather report. It would also be worth considering the practice of group-teaching in order to develop conversation-skills and to further promote the expansion of students’ vocabulary. This approach could first be tried in the junior cycle. Although lessons for same-year classes are not taught simultaneously at present, certain classes are scheduled for the same time: group-teaching could be tried with these on a regular basis. Class-sizes are quite favourable to the practice of group-teaching.
Student behaviour was excellent in every one of the lessons observed and it was evident that the students were doing their best to play an active part and give answers as necessary – even if their participation was on a limited scale. A copy of a letter sent to the parents of students in a particular class a few weeks before the inspection was seen by chance; this was a letter of praise for students’ efforts in preparing for the Leaving Certificate orals. In advance of the orals, a teacher from another school was brought to St. Finian’s Community College one weekend to conduct ‘mock’ oral exams with the students. No fee was charged for this extra help and, in the letter, the teacher was praising the students for attending the test and for doing their best in these ‘mock’ orals. This was a good illustration of the admirable work being done to help the students to get the best mark their ability would allow. The school is highly commended for this support.
A senior class offered a good illustration of how open and honest the students and teacher were with each another. Some of the students and the teacher sat in a circle, while higher-level students in the same class were involved in other work. The circle-work involved revision of a prose story from the prescribed Leaving Certificate course. To spare time, the teacher asked the students to tell honestly whether or not they had sufficient understanding of the story to allow them to answer questions of the standard they would encounter in the Leaving-Cert. exam paper. There was an apologetic negative response. The teacher tried to provide extra explanatory notes, as well as some sample answers. This was a class who had been unexpectedly assigned to this particular teacher in the second year of their Leaving Certificate course. The students had sufficient confidence in the teacher to request help courteously and the teacher was prepared to serve their current needs with her own handouts which discussed the characters and themes of the story and which suited the ability of these weak students. This lesson was praiseworthy also in so far as the teacher had made every effort to serve the needs of both higher and lower-level students in the same class. It is important, however, not to yield unduly to the temptation to overuse translation to English, even under time-pressure.
That same helpful approach was apparent in the classes in general. In another senior class, the poem Jack, by Máire Mhac an tSaoi, was presented to the students with the help of notes prepared by the teacher, which analysed every aspect of the poem. Copies of a sample answer were distributed, to support this work. The teacher attempted later to set the notes aside and elicit the students’ own opinions. Those efforts yielded only limited results. In other classes, the teachers took it on themselves to provide every help they could for the students to master the task involved in the lesson. Two of the lessons required a short description to be written, as on a postcard. The teachers provided every possible guidance and then helped the students to compose the description.
The only fault one could find with any of the lessons was that the teachers undertook too much of the responsibility. That aspect of the work showed the teachers’ enthusiasm for helping the students and all the classes observed illustrated the respect of teachers and students for each other. The school deserves congratulations on this atmosphere, observed during the inspection, especially as regards a subject in which the students showed a fairly limited ability. Overall, the students’ ability in the language was limited and they were heavily dependent on the teachers to achieve the aims of the lessons. The teachers made a conscientious effort, in every possible way, to prepare the students for the requirements of the certificate exam-papers. The teachers’ reward for all their work was limited enough, and the results depended on students’ ability to prepare for the type of questions they would encounter on the exam-paper. Both students and teachers were tackling that challenge admirably.
All the teachers have kept good records of the achievements of their classes in the subject. An account is kept of all tests set – both class-tests and house-exams. House-exams are administered at Christmas and in the summer and classes preparing for the certificate exams sit ‘mock’ exams in the spring. Records begin with the results of the ‘entrance exams’ in Irish for first-years. It is recommended that the name ‘assessment test’ be used in reference to this test, rather than the name in current use, because this exam in Irish plays no part in eligibility for entry to the school, although prospective entrants are under the impression that it does. Only a written test is involved. Oral Irish should be taken into account in the assessment of new first-years’ ability in Irish and it would be advisable to make the results of these tests available to the feeder primary schools.
Assessment of oral Irish is common practice with Leaving-Certificate students. The admirable work already being done in this area of assessment has already been commended. The implications of Circular 0042/2007 should be taken into account immediately and teachers should ensure that the importance of oral Irish is recognised in the results of house-exams in the subject at all levels. It is recommended that consideration be given to entering students for the optional oral Irish exam for the Junior Certificate. From 2010 onwards, 40% of the total marks for Irish in that exam will be awarded for ability in oral language. The optional test would be good preparation for a corresponding change in the marking-system for Leaving Certificate from 2012 onwards. The oral will be a compulsory, rather than an optional component of the exam from then on.
Most of the copybooks inspected contained a comprehensive variety of work. Of particular note was a set of copies in which the teacher gave recognition to the students’ work and had included notes of commendation to encourage the students in their efforts. It would be worth operating a common practice regarding entering a teacher’s signature, date, a comment on the quality of the work or a raw score, or both, in the copybooks. A certain proportion of the marks awarded in house-exams could be reserved for work done in students’ copybooks, especially in the case of junior classes.
It is recommended that a special section dealing with assessment and achievement matters be included in the booklet Plean Gaeilge: Coláiste Fhionáin (A Plan for Irish: St. Finian’s College). All of this information is available, but it would be a good idea to make it more conveniently available to all members of the department of Irish and to the management. Comprehensive statistics were provided concerning the number of students attempting the various levels of the subject in the certificate examinations in recent years. Those data indicate that a trend has been established which presents a major challenge for the teachers to reverse. It would be really beneficial to the subject if a reasonable number of students were encouraged to take the higher level and a limit were set for the number attempting the foundation level. It is particularly important to reverse these trends as early as possible in the junior Cycle. The recommendations already made in this report, regarding initiating an all-Irish stream or a CLIL (Content & Language Integrated Learning) project might help in implementing these objectives.
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 Irish and with the principal at the conclusion of the evaluation, meetings at which the draft findings and recommendations of the evaluation were presented and discussed.
Published January 2009