An Roinn Oideachais and Eolaíochta
Subject Inspection of Irish
Navan, Co. Meath
Roll Number: 72010I
Date of inspection: 29 September 2009
Report on the Quality of Learning and Teaching in Irish
This report has been written following a subject inspection in Beaufort College. It presents the findings of an evaluation of the quality of teaching and learning in Irish 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 to the subject teachers. The board of management was given an opportunity to comment in writing on the findings and recommendations of the report; a response was not received from the board.
Beaufort College is a post-primary school for boys and girls which is in the trust of County Meath Vocational Education Committee. There are four hundred and twenty five students enrolled for the current 2009/10 school year. Nearly eighty per cent of those are boys. The school is included in the Department of Education and Science’s action plan Delivering Equality of Opportunity in Schools (DEIS). Social inclusion is to be seen in the composition of the number of enrolled students. For example, foreign students make up a significant portion of the students and a considerable number of other students belong to a native minority social grouping.
There is a very high number of students with exemptions from Irish. They number about forty five per cent of the total number of enrolled students, nearly half. Other resources are provided for those students who have an exemption from Irish when Irish is on the timetable and it is reported that students with exemptions are not present at the Irish lessons. This was the case in the classes observed during the inspection.
The school management and teachers are doing well in facing challenges to the teaching of Irish in the context that applies in Beaufort College. They are positive about that work. School management relates to the subject and teachers are supported and encouraged in their work. A librarian has been appointed under the DEIS scheme who will consult with the Irish teachers in order to provide suitable reading material in Irish and to promote reading Irish among the students independently of the textbooks used in the class. It is recommended that this project be diligently pursued and that the students be fully encouraged to engage with it. It is recommended not to be too ambitious at first regarding the number of students taking part but to give suitable recognition to the efforts of the students who do participate. If these efforts succeed it would be worth considering inviting an irish language author to the school at a later stage as proof for the students of the language’s functionality as a language in contemporary life.
There is very good provision for the subject on the school’s timetable. The provision consists of five class periods per week for each year in the junior cycle. The provision is six per week in the senior cycle and three for the Leaving Certificate Applied. The Irish classes are run in parallel in all years and, as a result, students have the opportunity to change levels without difficulty. There is a mixture of students attempting different levels in most of the classes. This arrangement poses a significant challenge, especially in the senior cycle, where there is a large difference between the learning objectives associated with different levels. The teachers acknowledge this challenge and the need to practise differentiated strategies to serve the needs of the different learners.
School management is fully supportive of continuing professional development in the subject. At present there are three teachers teaching the subject. One of them has wide experience of teaching the subject and the other two are starting their profession. One of the two is a short-term substitute. All teachers have attended in-service courses with the Second Level Support Service (SLSS) and one teacher has attended the SLSS specialised course in the use of information and communications technology (ICT) in the Irish classroom. There are advantages in using ICT resources to present the subject in a more stimulating way. ICT resources are available in the school for this purpose and two of the three teachers are proficient in ICT skills. It is recommended that the use of ICT be extended.
Irish does not have a strong standing as an academic subject among the students and few students attend a Gaeltacht course, despite the support of the Vocational Education Committee for a scholarship scheme. Statistics from recent years show that the vast majority of students take the subject at ordinary level in the certificate examinations, that a significant number take the foundation level and that a limited number take higher level. A significant number of students attempt Irish in the Leaving Certificate Applied and, including the significant number of others who undertake foundation level in the senior cycle, a picture is available of the challenge associated with the subject in the case of a large number of students. Good attempts are made to steer students in the direction of the highest level commensurate with their ability in the language.
Due to the small number of students who usually attempt higher level the subject is provided to these students in mixed-ability classes throughout. In this case mixed-ability classes mean higher level and ordinary level and usually there is a small number of students taking higher level as against a significant number of students taking ordinary level. Good efforts are made to provide additional support for those students taking higher level, including additional classes after school as a separate group. This is done on a voluntary basis. The commitment in encouraging students to take higher level is commendable. It is recommended that these efforts continue for the students’ sake and for the benefit of the teachers’ own professional experience.
Mixed-ability classes are established in the subject at the start of first year. This positive arrangement gives students who are weak in the subject the opportunity to start Irish afresh. the students are usually divided according to ability after the first term. It is a positive sign that this approach is flexible, however. For example, it is intended in the current first year not to make the division so soon as the teachers feel that the students in the current first year have a greater potential. The primary schools should be informed about this positive trend which the teachers have noticed. This is a good indication of teachers performing a review with the students’ benefit at its core. A common foundation level is frequently established in second year and third year especially where there is an over-large ability gap observed between those at foundation level and those at ordinary level. This is an indication of a significant number of students with a weakness in the subject from the outset.
The teachers have charge of classrooms, an arrangement which benefits the subject as regards providing a good atmosphere and a stimulating environment for the subject. Good efforts are being made to this end. It is recommended that signs in Irish in the classroom and displays of the students’ work be updated. It is recommended that students be reminded of samples of Irish to be seen in their own area by displaying them in the classrooms. It would be worth encouraging the students to take photographs of Irish as it can be seen on local road signage for example or to remind them of public buildings in the town or in the Meath Gaeltacht with pictures. The school’s own name can be seen bilingually on a road sign near the school. The greatest encouragement that could be given to the students for the subject would be to hear it spoken by members of the school staff. This would help to widen the link between the language as a subject associated only with textbooks and examinations in the students’ minds. It would be worth investigating the possibilities of promoting Irish more during Seachtain na Gaeilge as a language of communication in the school itself.
There is a subject coordinator. The duties include planning activities relating to the subject within the school. Collaborative planning meetings in the subject are held once per term and more often as required. The subject plan presented and the associated work schemes were of a high quality. The plan contains essential information on the teaching of the subject and the plan is well organised and up to date. The plan gives priority to the basic objective of Beaufort College’s mission statement which seeks to provide high quality education for its students.
There is evidence in the plan of self-assessment by the teachers in collaboration with each other, an aspect of the plan which is commendable. Reference is made to plans which the Irish teachers have in conjunction with each other for the current 2009/10 year. For example there is a mention of the aim of the Irish teachers to attempt assessment for learning in the subject this year and to discuss provision of the optional oral examination for students in the Junior Certificate examination. It is recommended that aims like these be compiled under a heading such as ‘development plan for the subject 2009/2010’ and that they be more visible in the document.
The copies of the reference and guidance documents included in the plan are well-ordered, indicating that the teachers are familiar with this essential material. The subject plan is in accordance with the objectives of the Irish syllabi and copies of the syllabi are available as reference resources as well as copies of appropriate documents and circulars. These include a National Council for Curriculum and Assessment information leaflet on learning outcomes for the student who studies Irish to Junior Certificate level, for example. It would be worth providing a simplified version of this leaflet to the students themselves. It is recommended that copies of the chief examiners’ reports in the subject at the certificate examinations be included as a guide to the work schemes. They frequently contain helpful guidance for teaching the subject in the classroom.
The teachers are advised to devise an action plan to improve the standing of the subject in the school in general and among the students themselves. The objective of such a challenging step would be to raise the expectations of the students and the parents in respect of the subject and to seek more support for this than is available within the Irish department itself. it is recommended that consideration be given to publicising such a challenging step. Therefore it would be good to record a frank account of the subject’s status in the school at present in the subject plan and to set out objectives in line with a timeframe. It would be good to invite the feeder primary schools to support this initiative and to cultivate good relations with the primary school teachers so that more students will have a positive attitude to the subject by the time they start out in the post-primary school. It would be worth investigating the possibilities of cultivating a link with an all-Irish post-primary school as an eye-opener for the Beaufort College students to Irish being spoken by students of their own age, of their own accord. However there must be a benefit in the link for the other school and the support of other subject departments may be required for this.
The above recommendation is intended as a matter for consideration as opposed to a prescriptive approach. This recommendation is made in order to effect improvements in the subject. The Irish department staff contains a good mix of wide experience in teaching the subject and fresh enthusiasm and the school management is supportive of the subject. If an action plan for improvement in the subject led to an increase, within a reasonable amount of time, in the number of students attempting the subject at a higher level than indicated by the current trends, that would be a major step forward. In addition to this, and independent of it, it is recommended that priority be given in the short-term planning to the effective use of ICT resources to add variety and freshness to the Irish lessons.
All the teachers made diligent efforts in teaching. Six lessons were observed, divided equally between the junior and senior cycles. These lessons illustrated the limited ability of many of the students in the subject based on the quality of the answers given to the teachers’ questions. There was also a good illustration of worthy efforts from the teachers to set reachable targets for the students during the lessons. Most of the efforts dealt with preparing students for specific aspects of the certificate examinations. This is not enough in itself, of course, to encourage the students to participate. Worthy efforts were made in certain cases to present the subject in a more pleasant and interesting manner. However all lessons lacked practice of free conversation and instead they were focussed on tasks which largely dealt with the requirements of the examination papers. It is recommended that a short item of free conversation be attempted in the lesson with students as a common practice from the outset.
Each lesson had a clear objective and it was clear that good short-term preparation was made for them. It is worth sharing the lesson objective with the students at the start, however, to encourage them to attempt the task and to return to it from time to time, especially at the end of the lesson in order to assess progress. This is even more important when it is clear that the students have significant difficulties with the subject.
The teachers were using the target language throughout but the students’ understanding was being tested too frequently by translation to English. It is recommended that care should be taken with this approach. Translation to English, as a guide to essential Irish vocabulary, could be seen in a lot of the work in the textbook being used in a lesson in the senior cycle. The over-use of translation is an impediment to language acquisition as opposed to an aid. It is not mentioned at all in the subject plan as a teaching and learning method. Reference is made to translation in the syllabi, which recommend avoiding it. Though that practice may be in force in certain textbooks, it is not recommended as a language acquisition strategy.
According to the subject plan, the teacher is free to choose teaching methods to adapt for the classes’ needs. As a result there was a variety in the practice. The different practices had certain advantages. One of the greatest differences was the use of resources to clarify the lesson content. ICT resources were used effectively in certain cases to attract the students’ attention to the content of the lesson. In other cases the teacher, the textbook and the white board were the central resources. On the whole the efforts which used ICT resources to stimulate the students’ interest were more successful. In other cases the teacher’s own personality and ability had the advantage in providing a fine example of fluent accurate spoken Irish.
One of the six lessons, above any other, succeeded in achieving a positive learning atmosphere. The lesson was well organised, and the learning activities were varied. This lesson was the one in which students participated in most, of their own accord, and a positive result was observed as a result of the students’ participation in the lesson. The students had their hands up to answer the teacher’s questions more than any other lesson observed. The class was in the junior cycle. The lesson objective – to describe the school in a letter to a friend – was clearly stated. The teacher’s lively approach and praise elicited good efforts from the students on a subject which was not interesting in itself but essential in the case of these students who were preparing for the Junior Certificate examination. Students were asked questions rapidly about their understanding of the correct usage of useful phrases. This class contained higher level and ordinary level students. Guidance was given in writing the letter and memorising vocabulary and they were set to work in groups to compose the letter among themselves. The students responded well to the challenge. An important recommendation made in a case like this where there are two levels of ability, is to pay more attention to differentiated questions and to expect answers at different levels from the students. It was not clear in this case or in other cases that such a differentiation was being implemented in the questions or answers.
Two lessons in the senior cycle involved practice of spoken Irish. In one case there was a continuous practice at pace of a range of questions which could arise in the Leaving Certificate oral examination. These efforts worked well in the case of the stronger students. In other weaker cases the students showed a lack of confidence in their own ability by laughing, without much cause, about the quality of the answers they gave. The weakness in the approach is that the questions were being asked from one individual person to the next and that students were not engaged with the questions except when they themselves were being questioned. It was done rapidly, however, and the students were given an opportunity to speak. In the other lesson the students had extensive printed notes with both questions and answers written out in Irish and English. This approach was not effective. The task set for the students was to learn by heart the questions and answers predicted for the oral examination. The students showed little interest in this work. This time would be better spent on conversation on normal activities instead of focussing too soon on questions for the oral examination as a method to develop spoken Irish.
It would be worthwhile for the teachers to visit each other’s classes, from time to time, to observe the various talents in their midst. Such an arrangement has its challenges when all the Irish classes in one year are held in parallel as they are in each year. Special arrangements could be made, however. The parallel timetable facilitates greater co-operation among the teachers also. By making good preparations, two classes could be brought together now and again so that two teachers could implement aspects of teaching the subject together in a more active way. Consideration should be given to implementing a different co-operative approach like this in first year initially in order, for example, to advance spoken Irish more. The teachers’ roles in such a lesson could be divided and swapped among themselves. Where teaching methods are developed in this mould an honest assessment should be made together of the success of those efforts.
Recognition is due for the ability shown in a particular lesson in the senior cycle using attractive video material as a stimulus to the students to tackle a discussion of Irish culture. This involved short video items from YouTube and the content was well chosen and suited to the students’ interests. The students’ response to the video items showed that care must be taken with items such as these so that they are not merely entertainment and that sight is not lost of the initial aim of the lesson. Such resources should be secondary in the lesson as opposed to being predominant.
Efforts were made with a class in the junior cycle to practise a different reading matter with the students, independent of the content of the textbooks. Efforts such as this are highly commended. However it was clear that the vast majority of the students were not able to tackle the material or to enjoy it. In a particular case however, a student showed potential to undertake this challenging material. The same content was continued with throughout the whole lesson. The problem to be resolved is the huge gap between the very few students who are able for this and the majority in the same class who are not able for it at all. As with the video resources above, it would be worth discussing such a resource at a planning meeting and attempting it in conjunction with another teacher. It would be well worth while getting a second opinion on the value of the content, on progress with it as a resource and to make a decision on it soon on leaving it aside in the case of the majority if it does not show good results. That, or arranging and simplifying such reading material for the majority of the class which cannot attempt the original text. It is good therefore that the teachers have differentiated learning as an objective.
The teaching and learning were greatly influenced by the examination papers and reasonable progress was being made to that aim. As regards the quality of learning in the subject among the students in all the classes observed it was clear that this was limited.
The range of assessment for the subject in the school is in keeping with the range of assessment associated with the certificate examinations, for the most part. Recognition is given to spoken Irish with a school-based oral examination as part of the school Leaving Certificate mock examination, as is appropriate. The missing link in the school-based assessment at present is the neglect in the in-house examinations of the students spoken ability in the subject, especially in the case of junior cycle students. However it is recorded in the subject plan that the Irish department aims to discuss providing the optional oral examination for students in the Junior Certificate examination. it is recommended that this discussion be intensified and that a decision be taken soon especially in the case of the students who will be taking the Junior Certificate examination in 2010.
Whatever decision is taken in this matter, it is recommended that the in-house examinations from now on acknowledge the students ability in speaking the language and that the allocation of marks for that aspect of language skills be agreed carefully among the teachers. It is not recommended to start out immediately by allocating forty per cent of the total mark for spoken language but to achieve that allocation gradually from first year on. It should be remembered that the assessment is merely an attempt to show the progress being made in attaining the syllabus objectives and that the oral examinations are not an objective in themselves. The free use of spoken Irish is a central objective in the syllabi. The best way to do this is to attempt to practise spoken Irish naturally. If the speaking of Irish is regarded as a collection of questions on a limited number of topics which could be asked by an examiner in an oral examination and practising prepared answers for those questions little progress will be made with the syllabus objectives and the students and teachers will take little satisfaction in practising spoken Irish.
The teachers are well aware of the students’ strengths and weaknesses in the subject and a good account is kept of the students’ progress. Oral questioning is used regularly during lessons but it is restricted in places. The oral questioning is a worthwhile indicator to the teacher of the students’ understanding of the material being dealt with and on the progress in the subject in general. It was noticed in the classes observed that it is mostly limited answers which are available, for example answers being expressed with one word. Questions should be differentiated to get around this. In a particular case there was a good result when more challenging questions were asked of a student and it was good to see this differentiation in the questions.
All the copybooks observed were well organised. Teacher recognition of the students’ efforts was to be seen as well as corrections. It is recommended that students be asked to rewrite the corrections to signal that they have been addressed. The practice of translating to English was greatly to the fore in some of these copybooks and absent in other cases. The use of translation should be discussed in an attempt to lessen it.
It is recommended that the account of the students’ participation and achievement in the subject which was provided during the inspection be placed in the subject plan as well as the data associated with the subject nationally for information. It would be worth setting out a reference point based on the school’s records in recent years and focussing on achieving improvements gradually.
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 and with the principal at the conclusion of the evaluation at which the draft findings and recommendations of the evaluation were presented and discussed.
Published April 2010