An Roinn Oideachais agus Eolaíochta

Department of Education and Science

 

Subject Inspection of English

REPORT

 

Saint Angela’s Secondary School

Ursuline Convent, Waterford

Roll number: 64990D

 

Date of inspection: 25 March 2009

 

 

 

 

Subject inspection report

Subject provision and whole school support

Planning and preparation

Teaching and learning

Assessment

Summary of main findings and recommendations

    School response to the report

 

 

 

 

Report on the Quality of Learning and Teaching in English

 

Subject inspection report

 

This report has been written following a subject inspection in St Angela’s Secondary 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 principal and subject teachers. 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.

 

Subject provision and whole school support

 

St Angela’s Secondary School is an all-girls school. Classes in first-year and classes in second-year are provided with four lessons of English per week. This is adequate provision. The school is encouraged to investigate the possibility of expanding this provision to five lessons per week, as is recommended in the Department of Education and Science (DES) Inspectorate publication Looking at English: Teaching and Learning English in Post-Primary Schools. The limitations of the timetabling process must, however, be recognised in making this suggestion, along with the fact that classes in both of these year groups are provide with one lesson per week of Speech & Drama, which somewhat bolsters the current provision in the area of English and is worthwhile. Classes in third year have five English lessons per week, which is good provision. Classes in Transition Year (TY) programme have five English lessons per week. This is very good provision. Classes in fifth year and in sixth year are provided with five English lessons per week and this is good provision. English classes in fifth year and in sixth year are timetabled concurrently. This is worthwhile, ensuring ease of movement for students between classes should this prove to be necessary. Teachers are assigned to levels and cycles on a rotational basis and to ensure continuity. This is good practice.

 

Classes in junior cycle and in the TY programme are of mixed ability. Students in junior cycle are not assigned to particular levels for English until third year. This is appropriate. Classes in fifth year and in sixth year are divided into a number of higher-level groups and one ordinary-level group. A number of these higher-level groups are organised on a mixed-ability basis, while one of the higher-level groups consists of students who may ultimately choose to do ordinary-level English. Students in the TY programme are advised by their teachers regarding what levels they should attempt in the Leaving Certificate course. Ultimately, students themselves, along with their parents, choose which levels they will attempt. This is positive.

 

There is a junior and a senior school library. The fiction section of the school library was reorganised last year. Students may borrow books if a teacher is present, using a book card system. Students in first year are brought to the library once per fortnight, while second-year and third-year students are also brought to the library on occasion. TY students use the library for research purposes during one class period per week. A ‘Readers Club’ module is organised for TY, where students visit the library and choose a book to read. This leads to discussions regarding their response to novels and they may also investigate particular authors’ lives and other texts. Trips to the city library are also organised and reviews of books are written. The senior library includes a recommended reading list for students as well as a display of books each month. A paired-reading programme has been organised, involving TY and first-year students. This is held at lunchtimes. This has been developed by members of the special-educational needs team and this is praised. The English department’s efforts in harnessing the library as a tool to enhance students’ literacy are commended and it is suggested that the department could set down a brief ‘reading policy’ in the subject plan to consolidate and expand its current work. Further ideas on the development of school libraries can be accessed at www.jcspliteracy.ie, which includes a valuable evaluation of the Junior Certificate School Programme (JCSP) Demonstration Library Project. Beyond this, useful advice and in-service training may be accessed at the website of the School Library Association in the Republic of Ireland at www.slari.ie.

 

English teachers have good access to audio-visual equipment. The continued expansion of classroom audio-visual units is encouraged, within the necessary limits of available resources. The storage, in a central location, of audio and DVD format recordings of plays and other audio-visual resources relevant to the teaching of English is praised. While these are stored in an audio-visual room, other English resources common to the department are stored in a room in the library. This is positive. A particularly striking feature of the school’s corridors is that they encapsulate an acquisition-rich environment which provides students with numerous opportunities to learn. In English this is exemplified through the current ‘spelling wall’ and displays of students’ poetry. All of this is most praiseworthy.

 

The English department has begun to integrate the use of information and communication technology (ICT) into its practice. There are two computer rooms as well as ICT access in the senior library, a portable data projector and laptop and data projectors permanently based in some classrooms. This is positive. There is a folder for English resources stored on the school intranet. Aspects of the English subject plan have also been placed on the network. The school website has been developed to incorporate links to various websites relevant to the study of English. Students have developed a number of ‘Sixty-second Shakespeares, and a very impressive web-based project (webquest) for ‘Casablanca’ has been included on the website. This webquest was developed within the English department and it is positive that the department has recognised the strong contribution this strategy can make to motivating different students to engage with English. This resource also provides a vehicle to support an integrated approach to the language and literature elements of the syllabuses. Teachers have also explored the integration of ICT into teaching and learning through the use of word-processing packages as an aid to the drafting and redrafting process for students. In addition, students have been encouraged to utilise the internet for research purposes. The English department is to be strongly praised for its harnessing of ICT to aid the development of students’ literacy and to facilitate subject planning.

 

The English department has accessed continuing professional development (CPD) and maintains links with its subject association. The school supports teachers’ subscriptions to their subject association and is supportive of teachers’ engagement in CPD. Sharing the outcomes of in-service training attended by a member of the English department with other subject colleagues is very positive. It is suggested that this good practice should be set down in the subject plan. All teachers, including new teachers of English, attend a meeting of the English department at the start of the school year, when a common plan is agreed. The English subject co-ordinator advises new teachers throughout their first year in the school and they are also supported by colleagues in parallel class groups. This is very good practice. Common resources are shared with new teachers. These arrangements are very worthwhile. During the evaluation there was much evidence to suggest that the department should investigate possibilities with regard to teacher-led CPD within the school. This evidence included the very high level of teacher expertise displayed in classrooms and the opportunities this could offer for both experienced and less experienced colleagues to share their skills and benefit from each other. The possibility of new teachers also sharing their ideas in this manner should not be disregarded. Ultimately, opportunities for observation of each other’s practice could prove very worthwhile as a breeding ground for new ideas. This latter idea is, of course, contingent on teachers’ willingness to participate in such an approach, but this would be particularly beneficial for teachers who are new to the culture of the teaching and learning of English in the school.

 

Planning and preparation

 

A subject co-ordinator has been appointed. The role of the co-ordinator has been set out in the subject plan. This is worthwhile. The role is currently attached to the duties of a post-holder. This system has been discussed in the school and the possibility of sharing the duties between different members of the department has begun to be explored. This is appropriate and such moves are strongly encouraged. A system of shared responsibility, or the rotation of the role of subject co-ordinator, would serve to develop the leadership skills-base within the English department. The English department has approximately four departmental meetings per year, along with numerous informal meetings. Informal meetings are held at lunchtimes. Teachers’ professionalism in giving time to these informal meetings is commended. Minutes are kept of formal meetings. It is suggested that the department should consider the use of ICT to record and store these minutes. The minutes are brief and to the point, as is appropriate. The recent focus of formal meetings includes the planning of the TY Easter assessment, the inclusion of students with special educational needs and a discussion of the school’s policy on assessment.

 

A subject plan has been developed. This includes common plans for year groups and a number of policy documents dealing with, among other items, class organisation, assessment, CPD and extracurricular and co-curricular activities. The work which has gone into the creation of the subject plan and, in particular, the common yearly plans is to be commended. It is recommended that the current common plans should be further developed to incorporate skills-based and time-linked learning goals. A document dealing with Junior Certificate targets which is already contained in the plan would be useful in informing this development. Beyond this, the recently published Draft Rebalanced English Syllabus for junior cycle could be used as a model for this work. This document can be found on the website of the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA) at www.ncca.ie. The further development of the common plans would build on the very good work already in place, while also ensuring continuity in teaching practice. These plans could also support flexibility regarding individual teachers’ choices to study particular texts. The focus on defined learning goals would facilitate assessment of students’ achievement. A useful idea which could be explored is the sharing of the plan for each year with students. This could be achieved by attaching a copy of the plan to students’ folders. Such an approach would encourage students to take responsibility for their own learning during the course of each year.

 

The English department is involved in organising a range of extracurricular and co-curricular activities. These include successful participation in national poetry competitions, a writer in residence programme, and visits to the theatre, public speaking and debating competitions. Of particular note is the school’s involvement in preparing students for the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art (LAMDA) awards. Teachers’ work in these areas is lauded.

 

There was evidence that texts were varied in both junior cycle and in senior cycle, within syllabus guidelines. This is positive and the English department is encouraged to continue to experiment with text choice to suit students’ interests and experiences. It is suggested that the possibility of students studying one additional short novel during the course of their junior cycle may be worth investigating. Aid in choosing suitable junior cycle novels may be accessed at www.childrensbooksireland.com and at www.literacytrust.org.uk. It is suggested that the current worthwhile practice of studying ordinary-level poems for the Leaving Certificate as part of students’ work in higher-level classes should be noted as a departmental policy in the subject plan. This approach would facilitate ease of movement to ordinary level, if this is necessary at some point in the senior cycle. The English department has discussed the possibility of including a requirement for a dictionary / thesaurus to be included on students’ booklists. This is a good idea and its advancement is strongly endorsed.

 

There is a subject-specific TY programme for English. This includes project work which is very positive. The approach recommended earlier in this report with regard to the further development of common plans for English should also be applied to the TY programme. In a number of cases a portfolio approach to students’ work in TY has been adopted. In these instances teachers have chosen a particular theme and have used this to encourage students to produce language exercises of some quality. It is suggested that this portfolio approach should be included as an element in the TY plan. This English portfolio should then form a key element in students’ overall assessment and grading in the subject at the end of the year. This would focus TY students on the importance of drafting and redrafting, along with the notion of audience, to inform their writing. The potential for a webquest to form part of the development of such a portfolio should not be discounted. In a number of classes teachers have used the TY English lessons to experiment with texts that students are unlikely to encounter during the rest of their senior-cycle studies and this strategy is strongly endorsed. There was evidence of effective planning for the LCA English and Communications programme. This is positive. The current approach whereby LCA1 and LCA2 students are not amalgamated for the study of English and Communications should be set down as necessary policy in the English subject plan.

 

The requirements of students with special educational needs and methodologies to support their learning have been discussed in English departmental meetings. The need for differentiated approaches is noted in the English subject plan and is particularly highlighted with regard to the setting of homework. The special-educational needs team has provided input at English departmental meetings and has provided resources for English teachers. Two teachers of English are currently engaged in co-operative teaching and this is to be praised. This strategy occurs in a learning-support context. The school is encouraged to continue to expand its use of this approach where practicable and appropriate.

 

Teaching and learning

 

There is a very professional and expert teaching team for English. The standard of teaching and learning observed during the course of the evaluation was very good. There was evidence of good planning in all lessons. The learning intention was clear in all cases. Particularly good practice was observed where teachers explicitly set out the pattern that the lesson would follow and the skills which students would have attained at the end. Frequently, teachers used the opening of lessons to remind students of work they had previously encountered. This served to activate students’ previous knowledge as an aid in accessing the new topics which would be explored during the lesson. In one lesson it was suggested that, where homework was set, careful consideration should be given to the manner in which this served to further develop the work covered in the lesson.

 

A wide range of resources was used to support teaching and learning in English lessons. These included the whiteboard, posters, photographs, photocopied handouts, television, DVDs and ICT. The supporting of students’ learning through the use of visual resources is deserving of particular praise. A further element of good practice observed was the adoption of audio recordings of plays which served to focus students on the language involved as well as the atmosphere created in pertinent scenes.

 

Questioning was used frequently in English lessons as a means of ascertaining and encouraging students’ learning. This was most effective where teachers moved towards higher-order questioning as a means of developing students’ cognitive skills. This worked particularly well in one junior cycle class where the teacher sought students’ opinions on why they liked a particular image and what had impressed them about it. In another instance, where rapid pair work was used to support students in their answering, it was suggested that the answers provided could be noted on the whiteboard in order to ensure the work done was further consolidated.

 

Reading and writing were frequent elements in lessons. The use of a pre-reading exercise in the form of pair work in a junior cycle lesson as an introduction to a Shakespearean speech was good practice. In another lesson, key sequences in a film were analysed by the teacher and students, with a particular focus on the costumes of the various characters in the scene. In this instance, as the clothes worn referenced films from a previous era, the use of illustrations of the original actors and the context in which they were worn could have further added to a successful lesson. In another lesson, a move to a choral reading of a poem was very worthwhile. This added to students’ understanding of the poem and, importantly, encouraged a personal response to the piece from the class.

 

The use of active methodologies, such as group and pair work, were frequent elements in English lessons, with responsibility for learning often placed on the students’ own shoulders. Teachers’ engagement with active methodologies is to be lauded. These activities were managed to a uniformly high standard by teachers. In one lesson, groups were organised rapidly and were then expected to create five questions with regard to particular characters in a play. These questions were then fed back to the overall class group for discussion. This worked very well. A successful ‘hotseating’ activity followed this group work. A particular area for development is a more frequent focus on the specific language and cognitive skills to be developed through the engagement of students in group activities. Consequently, it is recommended that the English department should explore possibilities in assigning specific roles which are associated with the four skills of listening, speaking, reading and writing when organising group work, where such strategies are appropriate. Teaching strategies which may be useful in this regard include ‘placemat’, ‘snowball’, ‘envoy’ and ‘jigsaw’.

 

There were also numerous examples of teachers further differentiating their practice to cater for the needs of learners. In one lesson the creation of a dialogue sheet connected to a novel being studied illustrated considerable dedication and imagination on the part of the teacher involved. In another lesson a sequencing exercise was used to aid students’ comprehension of a poem. The use of this exercise in the future, as a means of stimulating discussion and even disagreement between different groups of students, is to be encouraged. The use of these teaching and learning strategies is positive.

 

A strong focus on language featured in many English lessons during the evaluation. In one lesson the teacher sought the development of appropriate adjectives by students with regard to characters they had studied. In another case students were guided towards advancing their use of sensual language through the writing of a diary entry. In still another lesson, it is suggested that a writing exercise could have been further enhanced through an explicit focus on the need for students to use specific techniques as elements in their written work. This could then allow for students to develop their higher-order thinking skills by providing explanations for the particular stylistic choices they made during the course of their compositions. In another, junior cycle lesson the sound patterns in a poem were discussed and students displayed a keen awareness of the various techniques used by the author in creating these effects. The consistent focus on language displayed in English lessons is praiseworthy.

 

All the classes visited were well-managed. There was a very good relationship between teachers and students. Teachers were affirming towards students’ efforts. There was clear evidence of students’ learning in all lessons. This was observed in a number of different ways. Students answered well when questioned about their studies during the year. Students were clearly engaged in lessons. In one class, the enthusiasm students felt towards the text they were studying was communicated through the adoption of the characteristics and expressions of characters they had been assigned to ‘read’ as part of their study of a novel. In all classes students worked diligently and successfully at the tasks they had been assigned to complete. In a number of lessons students provided evidence to support assertions they had made regarding the texts they were studying and frequently displayed a strong capacity to engage with higher-order questioning. All of this is very positive.

 

There were examples of the development of a print-rich environment in many classrooms. Very good practice in this regard was exemplified through the display of graphic organisers, keywords and key phrases as well as of illustrations and book covers connected to texts which were being studied. All of these strategies are worthwhile and this focus on visual resources in the classroom supports students for whom English is an additional language, students who experience difficulties in literacy development and, indeed, all students, in their English studies. The further expansion of the very good work already underway in the English department is encouraged. It is suggested that the creation and maintenance of a print-rich environment should be set down as a key aspiration in the English subject plan as a means of aiding the consolidation and development of this very worthwhile work.

 

Assessment

 

Homework is assigned regularly and it was corrected in all lessons observed. In almost all cases there was evidence of comment-based, formative assessment. The use of the rubrics adopted in the Leaving Certificate examination and the sharing of these with students was also a feature of teachers’ practice. This is positive. Teachers’ diligence in providing meaningful feedback to their students regarding their work is strongly commended. In one instance, a useful shorthand system for constructive commentaries from the teacher to students regarding their written work had been developed. The imaginative endeavour exemplified here is praiseworthy. Particularly good practice was observed in one lesson. In this case, peer evaluation was used, where students were expected to comment on each other’s work. A particular focus was brought to bear on devices used by students to appeal to the different senses. To support this, graphic organisers were distributed to the class, with sections where they could note the moments when sensual imagery or language was utilised by their peers. This approach was most effective and an emphasis on peer evaluation is worthy of exploration throughout the department, as a further extension of the very good practice which is already in evidence.

 

An integrated approach to the language and literature elements of the syllabuses was frequently utilised in assigning students’ homework. Examples included the creation of presentations by students based on a text being studied as well as the writing of letters and diary entries arising from the thoughts and experiences of characters encountered in plays, novels and films. Particularly imaginative work was seen where students had been encouraged to create ‘Wanted’ posters and news articles based on the events of a particular film. The exploration of a wide range of genres as a means of enhancing students’ literacy, while also consolidating the work done on particular texts, is encouraged. The use of an integrated approach to language and literature is noted in the subject plan. This is worthwhile. The adoption of an integrated strategy towards the study of the syllabuses should be utilised throughout the English department. A further feature of the very good practice which was evident throughout the department was the assigning of differentiated homework exercises to students. These included the creation of visual displays connected to particular characters, the assigning of bullet pointed summaries for students learning English as an additional language (EAL) and the use of graphic organisers. In one instance the adaptation of the rubrics of the certificate examinations to make them more accessible for students’ understanding was also noted. All of this is most positive and the sharing of these ideas across the department, along with their inclusion in the subject plan as a means of consolidating their use is strongly encouraged. The explicit noting in the plan of DARTS (Directed Activities Related to Texts) and, in particular, writing frames may be worthy of consideration.

 

Formal house examinations are organised in late November for third-year students and for fifth-year students. Mock examinations are organised for students in third year and in sixth year. There are formal house examinations for first-year, second-year, TY and fifth-year students at the end of the academic year. Continuous assessment is undertaken for students in first year, second year and in the TY programme, with three formal marks being credited towards their final grade in the first term. Common assessments within year groups are organised where practicable. This is positive, facilitating comparisons of student performance within a year cohort while also avoiding unnecessary duplication of work within the department. These arrangements are worthwhile. Results in the certificate examinations are analysed and compared with national norms. This is good practice.

 

There is a parent-teacher meeting once per year for each year group, apart from TY. In the case of TY a celebration night is organised at which parents can speak with teachers. Parents may also arrange an appointment to meet a particular teacher. TY students receive a report three times per year, at the end of each of their modules of work. In other year groups parents receive reports regarding students’ progress at Christmas and summer, apart from parents of third year and sixth year students who receive reports at Christmas and following students’ participation in the mock examinations. In the case of LCA students, a report is sent to parents at the end of each module in fifth year and following the first module in sixth year and the mock examinations. This is worthwhile.

 

Summary of main findings and recommendations

 

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 December 2009

 

 

 

 

Appendix

 

School response to the report

 

Submitted by the Board of Management

 

 

 

 

 

Area 1   Observations on the content of the inspection report     

 

The Board of Management welcomes this very positive report on the Teaching and Learning of English in St. Angela’s School.

 

Area 2   Follow-up actions planned or undertaken since the completion of the inspection

               activity to implement the findings and recommendations of the inspection.     

 

The Board of Management and staff acknowledge the recommendations made and have already begun to implement them.