An Roinn Oideachais agus Eolaíochta

Department of Education and Science

 

Subject Inspection of English

REPORT

 

Skerries Community College

Skerries, County Dublin

Roll number: 76078Q

 

Date of inspection: 10 March 2009

 

 

 

 

Subject inspection report

Subject provision and whole school support

Planning and preparation

Teaching and learning

Assessment

Summary of main findings and recommendations

  

 

 

 

Report on the Quality of Learning and Teaching in English

 

 

Subject inspection report

 

This report has been written following a subject inspection in Skerries Community College. 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 on the findings and recommendations of the report; the board chose to accept the report without response.

 

 

Subject provision and whole school support

 

Students in Skerries Community College are prepared for the Junior and Leaving Certificate examinations. An optional Transition Year (TY) programme is available and two class groups have been formed. Currently, enrolment is 938 students, of whom 632 are males and 306 are females.

 

There is very good support for the teaching and learning of English in the school. The time allocated to the subject is in line with syllabus recommendations and, generally, lessons are distributed well across students’ timetables. However, this is not the case at present for three class groups, one of which has two English lessons on each of two days and a single English lesson on a third day. Ideally, students should have contact with the subject on each of the days available. It is recommended that, as timetable constraints allow, all class groups should be timetabled for English on at least four of the five days available.

 

Prior to entry, students take a differential aptitude test and sit examinations in English, Irish and Mathematics. The results of these tests, together with information gathered from the feeder primary schools, are used to determine the class placement of all in-coming students. In general, students are allocated to class groups in one of two bands based on ability. Placement is monitored through the first term and, where necessary, students may move to another class group, following review by the school’s board of studies.

 

The number of class groups formed in each band varies from year to year. At the time of this evaluation, there were four class groups in the top band and two class groups in the lower band in each of the three years of junior cycle. Students in the top band class groups take the higher level English course for the Junior Certificate. The banding arrangement in place allows the school to target additional teaching resources to the lower band classes, facilitating the formation of four groups for English in this band in each year of junior cycle. These comprise two mixed-ability class groups, with students being prepared for certificate examinations at both higher and ordinary levels, and two very small support classes. Students in the support classes are taught English by a learning support teacher and are prepared for certificate examinations at either ordinary level or foundation level. Notwithstanding the merits of this arrangement, the school should reconsider determining, prior to entry in first year, the level at which some students will take examinations in English. A mixed-ability setting for all English classes in first year, for example, would allow students to settle into post-primary school and mature in the subject. Teachers would be better placed to advise students on appropriate courses, based on their professional knowledge of their class groups, and students would have realistic expectations of achievement in examinations.

 

Deployment of teachers is in line with their qualifications, skills, knowledge and interests. In keeping with good practice, all teachers of English are allocated class groups across all programmes and levels, thus ensuring the expertise and experience of the full teaching team. Management encourages and facilitates continuing professional development (CPD) for teachers and the English department has benefited from whole-school in-service on assessment and on planning. Membership of the professional associations for teachers of English is encouraged by the board of management, who have paid affiliation fees in the past and provided grants towards the cost of further study. These supports indicate the school’s commitment to CPD.

 

Teachers have been assigned their own base rooms where possible and some teachers have made good use of the opportunity provided to create a stimulating learning environment. There are displays of keywords; supportive mind-maps and posters; students’ own work, including poetry and projects on studied text. All students would benefit from the motivational and supportive effects of a similar ‘English’ atmosphere and it is suggested that this practice should be emulated by the rest of the English teachers. There are excellent library facilities in the school. A full-time librarian manages this facility and the level of management support for the library indicates how valuable this resource is to the school. Students can access the library during lunch break each school day. Teachers of English take small groups on occasion to the library to prepare for debates and do research. Some teachers set aside time for reading on a weekly basis for junior-cycle students and this is commended as an effective support for the development of good reading habits.

 

Resource provision for the teaching of English is very good. Audio-visual equipment is available in classrooms used by the subject teachers. Information and communications technology (ICT) is available in all classrooms, which are networked for internet access. Teachers of English use the internet to download material for use in the classroom and students are encouraged to access the wide range of learning materials available. It is suggested that greater use should be made of these resources to support teaching and learning in the classroom.

 

The range of co-curricular activities pertaining to English available in the school is very good and it illustrates the commitment and enthusiasm of the teachers of English. Students’ understanding of what is being discussed within class is deepened and made relevant by active participation in public speaking; debating; poetry writing competitions and workshops; the production of a school musical; theatre trips and a programme of visiting speakers.

 

 

Planning and preparation

 

It was clear that a thorough, structured approach is taken to planning the delivery of English in Skerries Community College. The thirteen teachers of English meet on a monthly basis, either formally, during time set aside for that purpose by management, or informally, at lunchtime. Their commitment to regular review and planning has resulted in planning documentation of a very high standard which was presented during this evaluation. Drawing on the planning templates available from the School Development Planning Initiative (SDPI), an excellent description of the philosophy underpinning the teaching of English in Skerries Community College was presented. This outlined the approach taken to lesson planning which, whilst it is couched in aspirational ‘we will…’ statements, provides very clear, practical, advice to teachers in relation to lesson structure, teaching strategies, developing skills, and assessing learning.

 

The planning folder provided a very good description of the organisation of the department, including information on pre-entry tests, class organisation, co-ordination of the department and team structure. Given the size of the school and the fact that English is a core subject on the programmes taught, all members of the subject teaching team have, at various times, taken responsibility for management of an aspect of the work of the department. This speaks well of the collegial spirit which was evident during this evaluation.

 

The curriculum content of the department plan reflects all aspects of syllabus and programme requirements. It was evident that, when making decisions about the texts to be taught for each course, the teachers of English are mindful of the need to ensure that this does not limit students’ movement from higher to ordinary level courses or vice versa. A sufficient level of flexibility in text choice was evident in the plan to ensure that this does not arise, whilst also facilitating the diverse interests and abilities of English class groups.

 

The schemes of work for each year developed by the department, whilst carefully written, contrast with the spirit of the department plan. The structure of the certificate examinations dominates, rather than a focus on the range of skills to be acquired by students. In developing their planning, it is recommended that the teachers of English should re-visit these schemes so that they reflect the integrated approach to language and literature which is advocated in their own documentation. Such an approach underpins the syllabuses for English and teachers should consult them during the review process.

 

A written programme for the TY was available for inspection. This indicated that students are given very good opportunities to explore English across each of the domains, that is, speaking, listening, reading and writing. It is important to note that, where Leaving Certificate material is chosen for study it should be done on the clear understanding that it is to be explored in an original and stimulating way (Transition Year Programme: Guidelines for schools, pages 5,6, issued by the Department of Education and Science) and care needs to be taken to reflect this in the plan.

 

The plan acknowledges the key role the department plays in supporting students with special educational needs and this is especially commended. In discussions with the inspector, it was evident that individual teachers are familiar with, and take account of, the particular needs of students in their class groups. Students in the small second-band class groups are taught English by specialist learning support teachers who deliver a carefully planned programme. A set of clear aims which reference the students’ literacy needs directs work in the classroom. The effectiveness of this strategy was evident in students’ copies and folders.

 

 

Teaching and learning

 

The quality of planning for individual lessons was of a very high standard. In all lessons observed, teachers introduced students to the theme of the lesson and, in some instances, outlined specific learning outcomes. In one lesson, very good practice was noted where the aim, lesson outline and homework had been clearly written on the board before the students came into class. Good pacing was seen in most lessons observed, so that students remained on task and the learning intention was achieved within class time. It is suggested that, when more than one learning activity is planned for the lesson, transitions between activities should be marked by a summary of the learning achieved and clear instructions about the next task.

 

Teachers had prepared a wide range of resources for use during lessons. These included a DVD, handouts, leaflets, posters, acetate sheets and a PowerPoint presentation. In all instances, these resources were used very effectively to both focus students’ attention and direct learning. In one instance, a still image on DVD was used to promote a classroom discussion on a novel. In another lesson, an excellent combination of resources enabled the teacher to annotate a PowerPoint image which had been projected on the whiteboard. As students responded to questions about the image, their contributions were used to build a list of themes for further exploration. In a third lesson observed, leaflets were distributed to students to provide them with a variety of real-life examples of this form of advertising. The time given by teachers of English to planning for and producing these materials was well-invested. In the lessons observed, students responded well to the way resources were used during lessons and it was clear from their contributions in class that there had been a positive impact on students’ learning.

 

Teaching approaches observed included a well-judged balance of whole-class and individual activities. Pair work and small group work allowed students to engage closely with texts. This worked well because teachers clearly indicated the amount of time available to students to work on the task and specified what students were expected to achieve through its completion. In most cases, a good match was achieved between the level of complexity of the task and students’ ability. For example, a junior cycle lesson on poetry required students to complete a cloze-type exercise on an unseen poem. Working in pairs, students supported each other as they acquired an understanding of the theme. This exercise prepared students for a whole-class discussion on mood and atmosphere and ensured that they were focussed on the language of the text throughout. Their contributions to that discussion, which included spontaneous comparisons with other poems, indicated that the level of challenge inherent in the task was appropriate in this higher-level lesson.

 

Teachers modelled good practice in the expressive reading of poetry or in role-play to demonstrate a point and employed a variety of strategies to keep students engaged and learning. A particular strength of some of the lessons observed was the encouragement given to students to adopt a critical stance to texts being studied. The effective use of questioning in lessons, where there was a progression from recall and comprehension questions to those which required students to describe, analyse and evaluate, was important in this regard. Students were provided with time to reflect on and prepare their answers, often with the support of a partner. They were pushed to support their opinions and to ask their own questions.

 

Language development featured in the classrooms visited. Key words were written on the board, students were encouraged to look up words in the dictionary and teachers constantly checked to ensure that words were understood. In all classes, the language used by the teachers was appropriate to the class group being taught so that the lessons were communicated in a way that was understood by all students.

 

Students were confident contributors to class and their responses to questions indicated that they are making very good progress in the subject. The facility with which students in a junior cycle class made connections between new material and previously studied texts demonstrates a high level of learning. In many of the lessons observed, students had no difficulty pointing out the language devices used by writers, though, in ordinary-level classes, they were less assured when discussing the effects of those devices. Teachers provided a number of supports for students, including the use of mnemonic devices, to act as aide-memoire and two lessons observed provided evidence that these are very effective.

 

An examination of students’ notebooks and copies indicated a good range of work covered, so that students write across a range of genres and for different purposes. The standards achieved reflect the full range of ability in the school. The students on higher-level courses are generally writing good, well-focussed, responses to questions. In the majority of cases, they have no difficulty extracting and using relevant detail from their studied texts to make a point or to advance an argument. In the very best examples, students are employing a sophisticated vocabulary and complex syntax to very good effect, particularly in their personal writing. A good awareness of audience and purpose was evident in this work generally. Weaknesses which need to be addressed with this cohort of students relate to some carelessness with spelling and, in junior cycle classes, a tendency to engage in circular reasoning.

 

Students on the ordinary-level courses are doing quite well. Their written work is generally good and they have been well supported by the writing frames, cloze exercises, outline notes, writing models and other scaffolded approaches which have been provided by their teachers. In many of the copies examined a very thorough knowledge of studied texts was evident, though, in some instances, students lacked sufficient mastery of language skills to express their opinions clearly. Clumsy phrasing and weak expression limited the coherence of some of their work. A minority of students, many of whom are receiving learning support, are reluctant writers. Despite the level of support available to them, their written responses to questions are undeveloped and often remain at the level of summary. The inclusion of some written work in every lesson planned for these students would provide opportunities for skills development and practice in a supportive environment and those teachers who already plan for this are commended.

 

Excellent rapport between teachers and students was evident in all classrooms visited and discipline was well maintained in all classes. Students were encouraged to contribute to class discussion by the creation of a respectful and supportive learning environment in all classrooms visited. Teachers consistently affirmed students’ responses and integrated them into lessons. Any difficulties in understanding the topics being addressed in lessons were identified and dealt with quickly as the teachers moved through the classroom. This ensured that all students were included in the lesson and allowed the teachers to give individual attention where necessary.

 

 

Assessment

 

The school has a homework policy and there was evidence in the majority of classes visited of the regular assigning of homework. The lessons observed began with a review of homework or of work done in a previous class. This very good practice reinforces students’ learning and helps them to situate the new material to be addressed in the current lesson. In the majority of classrooms visited, a wide range of writing exercises has been set. These include formal and personal writing exercises and those which require students to express, explain and defend their own analyses of texts. The setting of exercises which encouraged students to ‘enter in’ to the world of studied texts is particularly noted as good practice, for example, where students are asked to write a story inspired by a poetry text or to write letters or diary entries from the point of view of a particular character. Third-year and sixth-year students’ proficiency in the interpretation and answering of examination questions is developed by the setting of examination-style questions.

 

Generally, those students’ copies which were reviewed at the time of the evaluation were well maintained. In the majority, exercises are labelled and dated and the legibility of students’ work is well-supported by the neatness of their handwriting. It is recommended that the teachers of English should agree common expectations in regard to both the range of written exercises to be set for students and the standards of presentation expected. This would be very beneficial for both teachers and students.

 

The quality of feedback to students was generally good. In some cases, students’ work was acknowledged by a tick and short comment. In other cases, the teacher comment offered developmental feedback that affirmed the strengths in the piece of writing and gave concrete ideas for improvement. More extensive use of this type of constructive feedback is recommended. It would provide students with clear information so that they can acquire an understanding of their strengths and weaknesses in English.

 

In-house examinations are held at Christmas, Easter and the end of the summer term for students in first year, second year, TY and fifth year. Third-year and sixth-year students also sit Christmas assessment tests and these are followed in the spring term by pre-certificate examinations. Teachers maintain very good records of students’ achievements and these inform reports sent home to parents.

 

 

Summary of main findings and recommendations

 

The following are the main strengths identified in the evaluation:

 

·         There is very good support for the teaching and learning of English in the school.  

·         The school recognises the value of CPD and the English department has benefited from whole-school in-service.

·         Very good opportunities are provided for co-curricular activities in English.

·         Planning documentation of a very high standard is available. This provides very clear, practical advice to teachers in relation to lesson planning.

·         There is close liaison between the learning support department and the teachers of English. The teachers of English take account of the particular needs of students in their class groups.

·         The quality of planning for individual lessons was found to be of a very high standard. A wide range of resources had been prepared and the teaching strategies employed ensured that

      students were engaged throughout the lessons.

·         A particular strength of some of the lessons observed was the encouragement given to students to adopt a critical stance to texts being studied.

·         Students’ written work reflected the range of ability in the school and indicated that they are making good progress through their courses.

·         Teachers maintained good records of homework tasks and the standards achieved.

 

 

As a means of building on these strengths and to address areas for development, the following key recommendations are made:

 

·         As timetable constraints allow, all class groups should be timetabled for English on at least four of the five days available.

·         Schemes of work for English classes should reflect the integrated approach to language and literature which underpins the syllabuses for English and is advocated in the school’s own

      planning documentation.

·         The teachers of English should agree common expectations in regard to both the range of written exercises to be set for students and the standards of presentation expected.

·         More extensive use should be made of feedback on homework exercises which affirms specific strengths in the work and gives clear advice for improvement.

 

A post-evaluation meeting was 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 November 2009