89 Lower Leeson Street, Dublin 2
Roll number: 60540V
This report has been written following a subject inspection in Catholic University School. 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 deputy principal and members of the English teaching team. The board of management of the school was given an opportunity to comment in writing on the findings and recommendations of the report, and the response of the board will be found in the appendix of this report.
The timetable makes very good provision for English with regard to the number of lessons allocated to the subject in each year. The allocation of six periods in fifth and sixth year is especially generous. However, the distribution of English lessons is unsatisfactory in the case of a number of class groups. On the present fifth-year timetable, English is timetabled on three days only, with three lessons on one day and two on another. English is timetabled concurrently in fifth and sixth year, so all fifth-year class groups are affected. This uneven distribution does not support the effective delivery of the English syllabus to students, nor the development and reinforcement of skills and knowledge. A lesson per day represents optimal distribution; where this cannot be achieved, lessons should be distributed evenly throughout the week. It is therefore strongly recommended that a more appropriate distribution be provided in next year’s timetable.
The provision of five lessons per week in each year of the junior cycle, and four lessons in Transition Year (TY), is commended. However, unsatisfactory distribution of lessons also occurs in the case of some first-year and TY classes. Since English is not timetabled concurrently in these years, only some class groups are affected. In addressing the matter of distribution in next year’s timetable, the school management is urged to prioritise the provision of a lesson per day in first year to give all first-year students equal and optimal opportunities to build a solid foundation of skills for English in the post-primary curriculum.
Seven teachers form the school’s English department. The school’s senior management assigns these teachers to class groups. Five teachers take at least two class groups for English and, of these, four have teaching timetables largely devoted to English. This pattern of deployment is commended as it ensures a consolidated delivery of the English curriculum. The fact that teachers’ timetable commitments to their other subjects impose constraints on their deployment is acknowledged. Where possible however, the practice of giving teachers just one class group for English should be avoided. Teachers are generally deployed in both the junior and senior cycles. This is good practice as it underpins the view of English as a continuum of knowledge and skills development from first year through to sixth year.
Students are placed in mixed-ability base classes on entry to first year and they remain in these class groups for English throughout the junior cycle. All class groups pursue the higher-level programme in Junior Certificate English and almost all students sit the examination at higher level. Students who take the examination at ordinary level remain in the base class, and it is commendable that they are supported in this context and enabled to take the examination successfully.
English is a core subject in the compulsory TY programme and is taught in a mixed-ability setting. At present it is not timetabled concurrently. Three teachers take English in TY, and two of the four class groups have the same teacher. It is recommended that consideration be given to concurrent timetabling of English in TY, or even partial concurrence, as this would open up greater possibilities for whole-year activities and for the modular delivery of all or part of the programme. Concurrence and modular delivery would also ensure the involvement of more members of the English teaching team in English in TY. This is desirable, as it would add to the range and variety of the TY English programme.
A realignment of class groups takes place in fifth year, with the creation of two or more higher-level class groups and one smaller ordinary-level group. The placement of students is linked to their attainment in the Junior Certificate and TY, and is discussed with students and their parents. The higher-level groups, depending on numbers and levels of ability within the year, may be designated as upper, lower or mixed. There is limited variation in the assignment of teachers to different classes; the pattern is that some only teach the higher level and some only the ordinary level. The school’s senior management reported regular review of the criteria it applies when assigning teachers to classes, and stated that its primary criterion is whatever is in the best interests of students. However, the criteria applied should also encompass the need to plan prudently for the building of capacity within the teaching team and the desirability of giving teachers an opportunity to extend their repertoire and range of approaches within a wide variety of teaching contexts. It was noted, and is commended, that the teachers of English expressed a willingness to teach a range of years, programmes and levels.
English is well resourced in the school, although some areas for improvement were identified and discussed during the course of the evaluation. It is very helpful that all permanent teachers of English are based in their own classrooms. These were generally well developed as stimulating and print-rich environments. Posters, photographs, written texts, word charts and books were prominent in many rooms, and students’ work was displayed in some. Fixed audiovisual equipment was in place in most of the classrooms visited. Information and communication technology (ICT) is being developed and wireless broadband will shortly be available throughout the school. However, a laptop and projector used in one of the lessons observed was the personal property of the teacher. In order to fully exploit the installation of broadband, it will be necessary to develop the English department’s ICT resources so that ICT-supported teaching and learning can be further progressed.
The original school library cannot be used at the moment owing to weakness in the structure. New facilities including a library have been planned. The interim arrangements whereby the library stock is available in appropriate classrooms are commended, as are the measures taken by the English teaching team to encourage private reading for pleasure. The enduring value of a good school library to support and develop a love of reading should be borne in mind by the school’s management in furthering the planned development of facilities.
School management supports initial training and continuing professional development of teachers through a mentoring programme for student teachers and through staff in-service days. Contact details for the Irish National Organisation for Teachers of English (www.inote.ie) were supplied to the teaching team during the evaluation, and teachers expressed interest in becoming involved in its activities.
Subject department planning is supported through the presence of a subject convenor for English. Formal meetings are held three times a year, at the beginning of the first and second terms and towards the end of the final term. This is good practice as it facilitates forward planning and reflective review of the year’s work. Senior management reported that the voluntary position of convenor rotated among members of the teaching team, but in fact the same teacher has undertaken the role for the last five years. It is recommended that a rota for the role be agreed, along with a role description encompassing both the procedural tasks associated with meetings and the potential the role offers for developing the subject and for promoting and sharing good practice among the teaching team. The term ‘co-ordinator’ might be more appropriate to such a role, and a two-year tenure would give individual teachers more scope to develop it.
The English plan for 2009/10 has been drawn up in the form of suggested guidelines for each year of the junior cycle, a one-page outline of TY English, and guidelines for fifth and sixth year that contain some specific references to texts and timeframes. The junior cycle plans give a brief statement of aims, an outline of the course content, and an indication of forms of assessment. Commendably, a suggested reading list has been drawn up for each year, and this is distributed to students. An admirable book review outline has been prepared as part of the first-year programme, giving very useful directions and suggestions for the three book reviews which students must complete during the year. The outline itself and the assignments it supports represent excellent practice. The junior cycle plan is broad and its focus on the development of skills is in line with the aims of the syllabus. The stated aim of introducing students to the Junior Certificate programme should however be moved from the second-year to the first-year plan. In further developing the programme, the teaching team should consider the target skills in greater detail, and identify learning outcomes in terms of what students are able to do as a result of their engagement with an area of the course.
Stimulating novels, plays and films have been included in the TY programme for English, and one play and one novel chosen are studied by all class groups. However these details were not contained in the written plan submitted. It is commendable that the practice is to develop appropriate senior cycle skills without recourse to the study of prescribed Leaving Certificate material. However, it is also important to ensure that the methods and approaches chosen support learner autonomy and a range of learning styles. It is therefore recommended that a clearer and more detailed plan for TY English be drawn up, giving an appropriate emphasis to the development of students’ capacities to work independently and to take ownership of their learning. To this end, the inclusion of a schedule of assignments agreed by the English teaching team would be very helpful and would assist students to take a greater measure of responsibility for their own work. Links between the core English programme and related modules offered in drama, communications and film studies could also be indicated in the TY plan.
The planned programmes for fifth and sixth year support the aims of the syllabus and respond well to the challenges and opportunities it presents. However, the degree of collaboration actually practised in delivering the programme could be reflected more clearly in the written plans, especially in relation to agreement on texts and the timeframes in which they are taught. In this regard, the possibility of sampling the eight prescribed poets in fifth year and engaging in more detailed study in sixth year, which was discussed during the evaluation, could be further considered and perhaps included in next year’s plan.
The inclusion of Shakespearean drama in the junior cycle programme was also discussed during the evaluation. The present practice of not including it arises from past experience of its taking too much of the available time. It is recommended that consideration be given to a more performance-based and less academic approach to Shakespeare, as this would correspond to the syllabus aim in this area, which is to develop students’ understanding of the genre of drama.
Ten lessons were observed during the course of the evaluation, covering all years, levels and programmes offered in the school and involving all members of the English teaching team. In the main, the quality of teaching and learning observed was good, with some noteworthy instances of teaching that was authoritative yet also invited the active and purposeful engagement of students in their own learning. While traditional teacher-led approaches predominated, it was clear that most of the student cohort were capable of active listening and participation in class discussion. In further developing teaching and learning strategies, the English teaching team should consider a greater use of co-operative learning and of student investigation and discovery.
Most of the lessons observed were well structured, the lesson topics were clearly identified and a satisfactory amount of material was covered. In most instances, a high quality of individual planning and preparation was evident. In one instance observed, the planned lesson was over-reliant on the textbook and this limited the learning activity. Five lessons focused on poetry, three on language and writing skills, and two on unseen drama. The texts and topics covered were appropriate to the class groups and in line with syllabus requirements.
Print resources were most in evidence and included photocopies of poems and drama extracts, textbooks, and handouts giving background material and exercises. In addition to these, audio resources were used very effectively in a number of lessons. A junior cycle group listened to a recording of footsteps and other sounds as a stimulus to writing a descriptive narrative. It was especially noteworthy that this approach encouraged both able and less able students, and was therefore a well-chosen pre-writing activity in a mixed-ability setting. In another junior cycle lesson, work on the story ‘His First Flight’ was introduced with a recording of seagulls. A lesson comparing two poems of lost love was enhanced by a recorded performance of ‘She Moved through the Fair’, which students recognised and responded to. Given the good use of audio resources observed, it is recommended that this approach be extended into the area of drama, particularly to provide a more accessible encounter with Shakespearean drama in the junior cycle.
A good range of teaching methods was used in the lessons observed. In a number of senior cycle lessons, a modified form of the lecture model was used, whereby the teacher set out the key points of a topic and invited comment or challenge in a way that stimulated discussion and the expression of a range of views. The use of genuine questions and the willingness of teachers not to allow their own views to dominate were noted as the critical components in ensuring a good balance between teacher and student talk, and are highly commended. In a number of junior cycle lessons, good student participation was encouraged both through the use of stimulating resources and through the affirmation of students’ responses. In the best instances observed, teachers’ willingness to acknowledge that they were suggesting possibilities rather than giving definitive answers gave liveliness and authenticity to their interactions with students. Greater use of this open and stimulating approach is desirable. In some instances, the necessary follow-on questions to assist students in developing their responses fully were lacking, and teachers amplified the responses themselves.
Five of the lessons observed focused on the appreciation and understanding of poetry. Some teachers reported that students found poetry difficult, although there were very good levels of engagement and response in many of the lessons observed. Students were seen to benefit from a thematic approach to poetry in a junior cycle lesson in which they compared poems of very different styles and contexts but with a common theme. This approach placed an emphasis on how the poems achieved their effect, rather than on paraphrase, and is commended. In other lessons, details of background and context were given in order to help students interpret and understand the poem. Care should be taken to ensure that this approach does not take students’ attention away from the text of the poem itself. A greater focus on the words on the page is likely to benefit all students, and strategies to encourage close and careful reading and to discourage generalisation should be explored. With regard to the teaching of poetic technique, good practice was observed where the emphasis was placed on purpose and effect rather than on mere identification.
The focus on the teaching and learning of writing skills in a number of the lessons observed is commended. Two junior cycle class groups were working on aspects of narrative and descriptive writing. In one lesson, the reading of a short story led to a consideration of the short story form, and the story itself was used as an exemplar and model from which students could learn to develop their own narrative writing skills. In the lesson on descriptive writing, students read aloud short pieces they had written after listening to a recording of sound effects. The teacher affirmed their efforts and then asked the class to pick out words and phrases that worked well. This approach effectively reinforced key aspects of descriptive writing, and encouraged students to listen to and learn from each other’s work. It would be beneficial for the teaching team to collate a range of pre-writing activities in order to ensure that good practice is shared and extended. This would underline the importance of adequate preparation and oral work prior to writing.
A positive and supportive environment was evident in the English classrooms visited. Classroom management was good in all cases, and an expectation that purposeful work would be done during each lesson was communicated clearly to students. Moreover, in many cases there was clear evidence that students were engaged in their work and found it enjoyable and meaningful. Results in the certificate examinations indicate that students are encouraged to take the examinations at the highest appropriate level, and are achieving well.
Good practices to encourage students to organise their work so that it would be a continuing resource to them have been established. For example, a junior cycle group had hardback notebooks with finished work, as well as copies. Many of the senior cycle folders were well maintained so that handouts and the students’ own work were readily accessible for future reference. The setting of imaginative assignments and of extended composition was noted in a number of instances both in junior and senior cycle, and is commended. Discussion and agreement on the nature of the assignments to be set would be a helpful outcome of collaboration among the teaching team.
A review of students’ work in copies and folders indicated that homework is set and monitored regularly. In a number of lessons observed, homework was reviewed orally and key points were reinforced. In one junior cycle lesson, the teacher returned copies to students and reminded them that the first written comment pointed out what they were doing well and that a second comment indicted an area for improvement. This practice is commended, as it focuses on improvement and reminds students of their own responsibility in this regard. It was clear that senior cycle students were aware of the criteria for assessment used in the Leaving Certificate and these were applied in correcting their assignments. Many of the assessment practices observed reflect an awareness of the principles of assessment for learning, and are commended.
The school operates a system of monthly tests to monitor students’ progress, and these are set individually for each class. The English department is moving towards a greater use of common assessment; for example, the most recent summer exam for first year was common for all class groups. This trend is to be encouraged, as it underpins collaborative planning and agreed learning outcomes.
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:
A post-evaluation meeting was held with members of the English teaching team and the deputy principal at the conclusion of the evaluation when the draft findings and recommendations of the evaluation were presented and discussed.
Published April 2010
Submitted by the Board of Management
Area 1 Observations on the content of the inspection report
The school welcomes the report and the strengths identified in the evaluation with regard to the very good provision for English, for subject department planning and the quality of the teaching and learning environment provided and the assessment procedures.
Area 2 Follow-up actions planned or undertaken since the completion of the inspection activity to implement the findings and recommendations of the inspection
In organising the timetable for next year consideration will be given to the suggestions made. The school is currently in conjunction with a Parents Committee reviewing ICT provision for the whole school within the present budgetary constraints.