An Roinn Oideachais agus Eolaíochta
Department of Education and Science
Subject Inspection of English
Holy Family School
Newbridge, County Kildare
Roll number: 61682A
Date of inspection: 18 September 2008
Report on the Quality of Learning and Teaching in English
This report has been written following a subject inspection in Holy Family Secondary School, Newbridge, 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.
Holy Family Secondary School provides English in the Leaving Certificate (LC), Transition Year (TY) and Junior Certificate (JC) programmes and English and Communications in the Leaving Certificate Applied (LCA) programme. Whole school support for the subject is good in some areas with scope for development in others.
Five lessons per week are provided in the LC which is in line with national norms for the programme. Allocation of time to the teaching and learning of English is poor in the junior cycle with four lessons per weak in each year of the programme: this is below average. In TY there is a poor allocation of just two lessons per week. For information on time allocation for English, see Looking at English, a composite report on the teaching and learning of English that was issued to all schools and is available for download on the Department of Education and Science website: www.education.ie. The school reports that student intake encompasses a broad range of ability. In view of this, and taking into account achievement in the senior cycle, it is strongly recommended that allocation for English be increased in the junior cycle. Furthermore, consideration should be given to allocating an additional period in the TY, resources permitting. Provision for LCA is in line with the minimum allocation suggested in the programme guidelines. Four lessons is optimal and the school should move towards this provision as a long term goal particularly in view of the cohort’s additional learning needs as reported by the school.
Distribution of lessons is good on the whole, except in the case of sixth-year students in the LC programme. Current distribution does not provide optimal learning conditions and the needs of high-stakes examination classes should be prioritised in future timetabling.
It is very commendable that students are assigned to mixed-ability classes in each year of the junior cycle. In the JC programme, uptake of higher-level English is in line with national norms.
Mixed-ability setting is used in both the TY and LCA programmes. In the LC programme, students are assigned to higher-level and ordinary-level classes. Access to level is determined by performance in the Junior Certificate English examination (according to planning documents) but it is reported that other criteria are also considered. Uptake of higher-level English in the LC programme has been lower than might be expected and below national norms when averaged out over a number of years. The school reports that this trend may now be reversed. Nonetheless, it is essential to keep this matter under review since uptake in the senior cycle has a significant impact on career paths. It is recommended that the English department conduct a review of current criteria for assignment of students to higher-level classes in the LC programme. It is important that a very broad range of criteria is applied for access to levels and these should be documented in the plan for English. There should be a strong emphasis on positive promotion of higher-level uptake expressed in the document and in procedures. Concurrent timetabling facilitates movement form one level to another. Any student identified with potential for higher level should be moved upwards without delay, irrespective of past achievement or behaviour. In classes visited, there is some prima facie evidence to suggest that some students may be capable of a more challenging level or programme. Expectations should be raised from school entrance onwards. It is understood that LCA students are advised to take the programme based on interest and suitability. Again, this should be monitored to ensure that the programme meets each student’s needs irrespective of past attendance history or behaviour. Criteria for and selection of students for LCA should be listed in the plan for English. A whole-school approach is needed to include a range of supports for individual students.
Resources for English, including information and communication technology (ICT), are good and it is reported that management is very supportive in this regard. The school is currently in the process of developing the library that is now used as a multi-purpose resource room. Management envisages that the goal to develop the library for the purpose of research and reading for pleasure will be achieved in the short to medium term. Presently, a staff member has taken considerable interest in increasing the book stock, and resources have been enhanced with modern titles that are chosen to interest students. This is commendable. The school might find it helpful to contact the School Library Association of Ireland (SLARI) and local library services.
At the present time, ten teachers deliver English across the various programmes. The school reports that it is whole-school policy to ensure that teachers are deployed in line with subject specialisms and across programmes and levels as far as is practicable. Almost all of the teaching team is deployed in line with subject specialisms. Half of the teaching team is deployed in one programme only and four of that number teaches two or one class of English per week. Good deployment practice recommends frequent contact with English in all programmes and across levels. The school should consult Looking at English, (pages eight and nine) in this regard. Management should review the barriers that appear to be preventing the implementation of the school’s deployment policy in the current year and should strategically plan for future deployment in the area of English to ensure that teachers have significant contact with the subject across all programmes and levels.
It is commendable that management is supportive of continuous professional development (CPD) and that members of the teaching team share expertise. The team is particularly commended for the manner in which it welcomes input from new teachers in the area of pedagogical developments. Individual team members have personally undertaken CPD and are commended for their professionalism and commitment. Expertise within the team should be fully exploited by the school and department: one such area of expertise identified is drama.
There is good liaison between the English department and the learning-support department and it is reported that a great deal of information is exchanged at an informal level to ensure that the learning needs of all students are met. Students whose home language is not English are placed in the most suitable classes. It is commendable that a student whose level of language proficiency has not yet fully developed but whose intelligence and ability are clearly in evidence has been placed in a class where she is likely to receive every opportunity to develop her language skills and to work with groups in a challenging learning environment. The school is monitoring the student’s progress on an ongoing basis. This represents good practice as every effort must be made to ensure students whose home language is not English fully access the curriculum at a level commensurate with their general ability and are not barred from high achievement because of the initial language barrier.
A good range of extra-curricular and co-curricular activities enrich students’ experience of the subject and these are listed in the plan for English. In addition to the usual outings to the theatre and cinema, students are encouraged to enter writing and public speaking competitions both locally and nationally. The dedication of teachers to the subject is highly commended.
The department has a formal structure and for operational purposes has a co-ordinator at junior level and at senior level with the senior cycle co-ordinator taking a leading role. This is reported to be very useful at the present time in view of the school’s deployment practice and the size of the team. However, it is desirable that co-ordinators are fully aware of programme and syllabus continuity. Therefore, it is suggested that one co-ordinator leads planning across all programmes and is assisted by the second team member who is equally conversant with all programmes.
The subject team meets regularly, both formally and informally and there is a strong collaborative ethos in the team. Good progress has been made with the plan for English and existing documentation contains a great deal of useful information. It is commendable that teaching methodologies listed for the junior cycle range over the four key components of reading, writing, listening and speaking.
The English plan expresses the aspiration of promoting a more culturally diverse society. To build on such positive awareness, the team should list concrete examples showing clearly how this aspiration is realised in the practical day-to-day delivery of English throughout all programmes.
The quality of planning for specific programmes varies. In the JC programme, planning for the year groups is good. Yearly schemes of work have been drawn up and a timeframe has been documented. Learning outcomes in line with those in the draft rebalanced JC English syllabus are listed separately, as are teaching methodologies. To build on the good work already done, it is recommended that a more integrated approach be adopted, that is, that the learning outcomes and methodologies be integrated into the term and yearly schemes. The overall informing structure should be the three areas of personal, social and cultural literacy in the junior cycle. A clear emphasis on the integration of language and literature should be expressed. The team might examine the themed unit approach that appears in the syllabus. A planning continuum throughout the three years should demonstrate an incremental approach to the development of skills across the three literacy areas with a common template used for each year. The syllabus requires that a “wide and varied language programme” be planned and this should be made explicit in the plan. The titles of poems that must, should and could be studied should be documented for each year group and this could appear in an appendix.
The plan for Transition Year indicates that it is well thought out and very much in line with the spirit of the TY programme. There is a strong emphasis on the spoken word in the programme and students are given specific goals to challenge them. This year, it is anticipated that TY students will be involved in preparing a publication to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the school. This will provide an opportunity to practise writing skills. It is of the greatest importance that writing is not neglected in the TY English programme.
Some good work has been done in the plan for the LC programme but there is scope for development in both the LC and LCA programmes. It is strongly recommended that this be prioritised. The LC syllabus and guidelines should be consulted and the plan should be integrated. Some learning outcomes for the LC programme that are documented in the plan for English give cause for concern since only some students are expected to achieve standard learning outcomes. Planning and implementation should ensure that all students achieve the relevant syllabus objectives in whatever programme or at whatever level they are learning. It is recommended that appropriately high expectations be set for all students when planning and delivering the relevant English syllabuses.
The LCA programme plan presented to the inspector was skeletal and provided very little information on the work planned for fifth year and sixth year. It is strongly recommended that a comprehensive plan be drawn up without delay and in line with the syllabus and LCA guidelines. The term plan for LCA (only term one of the current academic year was presented) indicates that far too much time is unnecessarily devoted to some segments of a module and the details are vague. This scheme should be reviewed immediately and rewritten in line with syllabus guidelines. The specific learning outcomes for each of the four modules that are written down in the LCA guidelines should be clearly reflected in the LCA scheme of work. A full range of texts and other resources that are to be used to achieve the learning outcomes should be listed in the plan and again in the scheme for each term. When selecting texts for the LCA programme, students should not use the same texts that they have already studied in the junior cycle. This practice was noted during the subject evaluation. Since the likelihood is that LCA classes represent an amalgamation of students from different groups in the junior cycle, the same rule should apply and no text that was already studied even by a minority of the class should be repeated. Texts should be age appropriate, stimulating and challenging. Texts required for study in module four, Critical Literacy and Composition, should be sufficiently varied and challenging to achieve syllabus aims. Texts (including poetry) that appear on the LC syllabus could be considered. The LCA plan should include methodologies designed to develop syllabus skills including oral communication (a key syllabus component). For example, ways in which meaningful discussion and debate are promoted should be written down. The list of visitors and outings should be clear, the activities and dates around the visitor exercise should be noted and the dates when these will take place (even if the dates are projected) or have taken place should also be written down. Since best practice indicates that LCA students should be using ICT on a regular basis, the plan should reflect how and when it is used. In the course of planning, the teaching team should consult the LCA guidelines for English and Communications. LCA students should have appropriate practice in writing in order to develop key skills. If it is anticipated that some students will lose or forget written homework assignments or written class assignments, appropriate arrangements should be made to store these in school.
Given that there is likely to be a range of ability in all programmes and within levels, differentiation should be built into planning for all programmes and into individual planning documents. The special educational needs of students in the highest range of ability should be specifically addressed along with targeting those who require additional learning supports.
It is recommended that individual planning be in line with the department plan in all cases. Individual lesson planning was good in some cases but there is considerable scope for development in others. In the best examples, an imaginative approach was used in planning for teaching and learning. However, in some instances, lesson plans should be reviewed to ensure efficient use of the allocated time and to ensure that the sequence of activities is appropriate and challenging. In the lessons observed, a good range of resources had been prepared in advance to ensure that lessons ran smoothly and efficiently. To maximise use of class time, song lyrics for the specific unit of the LCA course to be examined in whole-class activity should be typed either onto a slide or copied onto an acetate for an overhead projector.
Choice of texts for all year groups is discussed at department meetings and there is a great deal of agreement. It is of particular importance that at least one class novel is chosen for each year of the junior cycle to ensure as much variety as possible since this is a syllabus goal. Texts chosen for JC should take cognisance of the need to provide a good foundation for the senior cycle. In choosing texts for ordinary level in the senior cycle, care should be taken to ensure that these are sufficiently challenging. In the LC ordinary-level programme, consideration could be given to attempting Shakespeare using an appropriate edition that allows students to access texts: some editions have “translations” into contemporary vernacular side by side with the original language.
Reading is encouraged by the teaching team and efforts in this regard are highly commended. To ensure cohesion, a policy and procedures should be written up in the plan that reflect the good practices in the school.
Lesson content was appropriate and ranged over themes such as poetry, including the poetry of popular song, public speaking, creative writing, and appreciation of language. The execution of lesson plans varied over the seven lessons observed. Exemplary practice was noted in some cases where the learning intention was explicit. Particular commendation is given to the practice observed of sharing the aim of the lesson with students. In one case, this was written on the board at the start of the lesson.
There was some variation in quality with regard to the range of planned learning and activities, the strategies used and the pace of delivery. Best practice was noted where a planned programme ensured that students were appropriately stimulated and that there was adequate reinforcement of learning. In a small number of cases, the plan was over-ambitious so that there was too little time spent on some key activities. This is a matter that can easily be addressed with review of specific lesson segments. In a few lessons, there were indications that the organisation of the lesson required major review. Areas for development observed were: a pace that was too slow, content that was insufficient or insufficiently challenging, non-adherence to the lesson plan through the making of extraneous announcements in the middle of the lesson and drift towards the end of the lesson where an unplanned activity was used to fill in time. In general, specific and achievable learning outcomes should be shared with the class and written on the board. The final section of the lesson should be used to recap and assess learning. To make maximum use of class time, learning activities should be varied and time bound. Activities should be directly linked to planned learning outcomes. Class discussion should be focused on developing the learning intention.
Resources were deployed well in the classes visited. Visual and aural stimuli were used to interesting effect and an interesting text was used in another lesson to stimulate discussion and interest. The board was used well in most lessons. Particularly commended is the use of the board to record students’ contributions and suggestions. ICT was integrated into lessons to good effect in a couple of instances. PowerPoint slides organised information and a laptop was used by students to play popular songs. Further opportunities for the integration of ICT into teaching and learning should be sought in order to build on existing good practice. Students could be encouraged to research and present material (with clearly defined criteria) using presentation software. A music recording was used in a lesson to stimulate the imagination for a creative writing exercise and this is highly commended.
A range of teaching strategies was used. Links with former learning were established in a number of lessons. Questioning strategy was generally good and it is very commendable that many lessons balanced information retrieval and comprehension style questioning with higher-order questions that induced students to think for themselves and to make judgments. Good practice was observed where teachers patiently teased out issues with students through further questioning in order to encourage them to develop their responses. Students were given enough time to reply. In some lessons observed, there was a tendency to ask too many global questions. Care should be taken to target individuals in questioning in order to keep all students on task and to more accurately assess the effectiveness of learning.
Group work was used effectively as a learning strategy in some cases and this is a good way of encouraging active participation. Care should be taken to avoid large groups and to ensure that roles within the group are clearly defined. It is reported that drama techniques have been used in some classes and this good practice should be shared with all teachers of English.
A good range of skills, including listening and speaking, featured in all lessons. Oral communication was specifically taught in one lesson. Students were encouraged also to voice opinions in other lessons. These practices are commended. In a minority of lessons, the creative imagination was stimulated and a personal aesthetic response was cultivated. This represents good practice. As the evaluation took place early in the school year, not a great deal of work had been written in copybooks. In general there is scope for developing students’ competency in writing and this can only be achieved through practice. It is recommended that writing be a focus in all classes. Attention is drawn to the JC syllabus where students should learn to write for different audiences, for real purposes and in a variety of genres. In work examined, there was a preponderance of short comprehension questions and diary entries. When teaching genre, it is important that conventions governing genre are clearly explained to students. LCA portfolios and student journals examined suggest that students have insufficient practice in writing. Therefore it is recommended that more written work be assigned and assessed. By sixth year, LCA students’ writing portfolios should provide a complete picture of the work completed in fifth year and should accurately reflect the quality and quantity of work done. The portfolio should contain drafts at various stages of work in progress. Very good practice was observed in one lesson where students read out their views and this generated class discussion on a relevant topical issue.
Where language skills such as spelling are learned, these should be directly linked to specific contexts and not isolated exercises. Good practice was noted where the students learned a spelling list but were reminded that some of these words either had or would have a direct relevance to their study of literature. To build on this, a context should be provided for all words: it would be helpful to have a slide or overhead prepared in advance showing students specific contexts for the words that are to be learned. It is also praiseworthy that spelling and punctuation were taught in a focused whole-class activity and this arose from common errors that had been detected. To build vocabulary, teachers checked students’ understanding of words encountered in texts. This is good practice and should be reinforced in all cases through the writing of the word on the board. Students should also be encouraged to use the words in appropriate contexts in order to ensure that passive vocabulary becomes active vocabulary. The development of an advanced critical vocabulary was noted in an ordinary-level class and this is commended.
In the classes visited, there was evidence of a good level of student engagement and this reflects well on content, use of resources and range of strategies. In the best cases, students were enthusiastic, focused on task completion and anxious to ask questions. In a lesson observed, students were sufficiently interested to look for background biographical information regarding a particular poet. This is a very positive response and indeed, could make a useful starting point for the setting of some research: students could be required to report back to the class (using presentation software for example) on their findings and this is an excellent way of developing independent learning and ICT skills and of integrating language and literature. Such projects should be attempted irrespective of ability level. Very good practice was observed in one lesson where senior cycle students were required to research and evaluate social networking websites. A very good level of interest was registered. During interaction with the inspector, many students were articulate and confident. More reinforcement of learning may be necessary in a small minority of cases.
Classrooms were well managed in all lessons observed and there was a very good relationship between students and teachers in all cases. In Holy Family Secondary School, students learn in a caring learning environment. Particularly commended are the print-rich classrooms that generated a positive atmosphere for the teaching and learning of English.
Achievement in the junior cycle is very good. Achievement in the LC programme at higher level is lower than might be expected. It may be possible that poor timetabling provision up to fifth year does not enable the comprehensive development and embedding of key language skills that provide the crucial foundation for a very demanding LC English higher-level syllabus. Other factors however may be at play. Achievement in higher-level English at LC level should be thoroughly examined both by the English department and within the context of a whole-school review of all subjects.
Records of attendance are kept in all cases. Some good practice was also observed regarding the recording of assessment outcomes. The keeping of accurate assessment records should be mandatory in all classes. It is understand that a review of assessment practice is currently being conducted for the TY programme and evidence so far suggests some very positive approaches are being considered.
Good practice was observed in copybooks where helpful assessment feedback enabled students to become better learners, and where homework was regularly assigned and carefully corrected and dated. This should be replicated in all cases. In some instances, an award system was in place (for example use of stickers): this is an effective motivational strategy and is commended. Grammatical and spelling errors should be addressed at both individual level and in a whole-class context. In some lessons, students were required to read out their written answers that they had completed as a homework assignment. This is good practice provided that the exercise has a clear and explicit learning purpose such as, for example, the cultivation of evaluative skills or writing for a specific audience. In such cases, criteria for writing and assessment should be shared with students and students should be encouraged to discuss and engage in peer and self assessment within strict parameters that have been previously laid down. Specific, relevant feedback also needs to be given.
For examination classes, the discrete criteria used for the LC examination should be introduced early in the year so that students are familiar with these, and, moreover, can identify their strengths and address weaknesses. Care should be taken to ensure that criteria used are in line with standards applied. Teachers and students should be encouraged to read the chief examiner’s reports for English relevant to their programmes and levels.
Student progress is communicated to parents through end of term reports and parent-teacher meetings in addition to the students’ journal and direct communication.
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, June 2009