Subject Inspection – English

This report has been written following a subject inspection in Saint Paul’s 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

Saint Paul’s Community College is a co-educational school.

There are four English classes in first year and in second year. There are five English classes in third year. There are four English classes in Transition Year, in fifth year and in sixth year. There is one Leaving Certificate Applied 1 class and one Leaving Certificate Applied 2 class. Two first-year classes have four English lessons per week due to the wider range of subjects being studied by these students. This is adequate provision. Two first-year classes have five English lessons per week and this is good provision. Second-year classes have English lessons five times per week. This is good provision. Third-year classes have English lessons five times per week apart from one class which receives six lessons in English per week. This is good provision. Transition Year classes have English four times per week and this is good provision. Fifth- and sixth-year classes have English five times per week and this is good provision. There are four lessons in English and Communications per week in year one of the Leaving Certificate Applied programme. This is good provision. There are three lessons in English and Communications per week in year two of the Leaving Certificate Applied programme and this is adequate provision. Classes retain their teacher for the duration of junior cycle or senior cycle. This is good practice, allowing consistent pedagogical approaches to be developed with particular groups of students. Teachers are circularised at the end of the academic year regarding which classes they wish to teach in the following year. Teachers also meet about allocation of classes at the end of the academic year. In general, however, a system of rotating levels and year groups between the different teachers obtains. This is worthwhile, allowing for the development of a wide skills’ base across the English department. A number of English teachers are provided with baserooms and this is positive.

A system of banding and setting is used in the organisation of class groups. In first and second year there are two bands with two classes in each band. The second band is allocated three teachers to facilitate withdrawals for learning support, team-teaching and classroom support. In third year there are three bands comprising a top band with three classes, a middle band with one class and another band which consists of a class receiving learning support. There is limited concurrency between English classes in junior cycle. In order to facilitate movement of students between levels in junior cycle the school is encouraged to move towards concurrent timetabling of these classes where practicable. Students are assigned to classes in first year on the basis of an assessment test. There is a meeting of English teachers at the end of first year to examine whether there should be a change of class for any student. Transition Year comprises four classes which are of mixed ability. This is positive as such a system is in keeping with the spirit and aspirations of the Transition Year programme. Classes in fifth and sixth year are organised using a system of setting. This is good practice, allowing for ease of movement between levels for students where necessary. Students are assigned to levels in fifth year based on their Junior Certificate results in English and on teacher assessments. Wherever possible students are encouraged to attempt the higher-level examination.

The school has an exceptional library facility, funded by the Junior Certificate School Programme Demonstration Library Project. There are excellent ICT facilities in the library comprising ten desktop computers, and a suite of eighteen laptop computers. Another suite of twenty PC laptop computers is available for use in the library and throughout the school. A wide selection of software to be used with these computers in enhancing students’ literacy levels is also kept in the library. A range of DVD and video resources has been purchased for the library, many of which are connected to the Leaving Certificate English syllabus. An eclectic mix of reading material is maintained, including high-interest low-reading-ability books, class sets of novels and dictionaries, fiction and non-fiction texts and graphic novels. All of this is most positive as these texts may be used as tools in the encouragement of reluctant readers. A number of listening stations are distributed throughout the library and a range of readalong titles is accessible in connection with these. A most positive feature of the library is the recent addition of a teacher resource area. This development will not only aid in the storage and availability of professional development material for teachers, but will also serve as an encouragement towards teacher modelling of reading behaviour for students. The school maintains close links with the local public library service and has an institutional membership under which it can borrow up to two hundred items at a time. This serves to enhance the range of materials available and also facilitates individual book requests from teachers or students. The library is a colourful area in the school with prominence given to student displays. There is a wide range of projects associated with the library, as an aid to developing literacy, throughout the year. Amongst these are included: a writers-in-residence programme; a writers-in-schools programme; peer mentoring; JCSP Make-a-Book Project; literacy-based competitions; reading challenge and library- and information-skills classes. Teachers can book their classes into the library for particular class periods and the library is also available to students at lunchtime and after school. Teachers report that the library has become ‘an integral part of English teaching’ in the school. The school and its librarian are to be highly praised for the development of this excellent facility.

There are some audio-visual facilities available for use by English teachers. However, the ease with which English teachers can access audio-visual equipment is somewhat restricted due to the limited number of machines available. It is therefore recommended that means to extend access to audio-visual equipment for English teachers should be investigated. The mounting of such equipment in some English baserooms is one possibility which might be examined.

The school has recently been connected for broadband internet access. As has been mentioned, there are excellent ICT facilities in the library and a significant number of these computers can be brought from room to room as a support to classes. Leaving Certificate Applied students are given access to a special, small ICT room where they can utilise the computers made available to them in the writing of their key assignments. English teachers display an awareness of the potential impact of ICT on students’ literacy levels and first-year students are given a number of lessons each year to explore the use of word-processing packages which are then used to enhance their writing skills. The suite of laptops in the school library is frequently used in connection with the excellent literacy programs which have been purchased for the English and learning-support departments. The school’s proactive approach to the provision and use of ICT in the teaching and learning process is commended.

There are good induction procedures for new teachers. A post-holder meets new teachers and monitors their progress, offering assistance should it be required. A meeting between a learning-support teacher and new teachers is also organised in order to discuss useful methodologies and approaches to adopt with students. Substitute teachers receive copies of the absent teacher’s schemes of work. Senior management also monitors the progress of any new teachers and seeks to assist them should such a need arise. All of this is very positive. A further extension of these induction procedures might be to develop subject induction processes which would serve to further familiarise new English teachers with the English-teaching culture of the school and allow them to avail of the subject-related pedagogical knowledge which exists within the English department. Such subject-induction procedures could be included within the English subject plan which, in turn, could serve as a central plank of English teachers’ induction.

The school is supportive of teachers’ continuing professional development. SLSS (Second Level Support Service) material is distributed to staff and relevant material is targeted towards English teachers. The principal is also supportive of any teachers who are partaking in further education through third-level courses. This is commendable.

Teachers are involved in the organisation of a range of co-curricular activities. Some of these include: writers-in-residence workshops; visits to the JCSP Make a Book exhibition in Dublin; outreach drama with the Abbey theatre; theatre visits; debating and a visiting journalist six-week programme for Transition Year students. Teachers’ efforts in this regard are laudable.

PLANNING AND PREPARATION

The English department holds regular formal meetings once per term, with the meeting held in the third term generally being used to organise book lists for the coming year. In addition to these meetings teachers frequently volunteer their own time to attend lunchtime meetings of the English department. Informal notes are taken of decisions made at these meetings. It is suggested that these brief minutes should be stored in the English subject folder and that a co-ordinator for English should be appointed on a rotational basis. English teachers are to be highly commended for their commitment with regard to attending and organising these meetings.

The English subject plan is in the early stages of development. It is anticipated that the SDPI (School Development Planning Initiative) will provide training in this area towards the end of this academic year. This is positive and it is recommended that the English department focus on the development of the subject plan. Typical areas for exploration in the development of the plan might include: the creation of common termly skills-based plans for each year group, the analysis of State examination results and uptake versus national norms, a list of methodologies used in the teaching of English and the use of ICT. It should be emphasised that each of these areas should be dealt with in turn in order to approach the development of the plan in a graduated, manageable way.

Texts are varied at junior and senior cycle to suit class interests and ability and this is positive.

Planning seen for the Leaving Certificate Applied Programme in English and Communications was of a good standard. Planning documentation was also in evidence for the Transition Year programme in English and this was commendable. It is recommended that the subject-specific programme for English in Transition Year should be further developed by the English department. This should be done as a means of consolidating and building on the good practice which already exists. Areas which might be explored in such a development might include: a widening of the opportunities for experiential learning in the programme; oral presentations by students; portfolio assessments and the ‘publishing’ of Transition Year students’ work through the use of ICT. Aid in this endeavour can be accessed through the Transition Year Support Service website at www.transitionyear.ie. The area on the website dealing with resources provides guidance on the creation of subject-specific programmes for Transition Year.

There are a number of international students who are in receipt of language support. Students in need of language support are identified through meetings with parents, contact with their primary school or an assessment test. It is suggested that the school should investigate the service provided by Integrate Ireland Language and Training. This organisation provides material in the area of language support for use in a post-primary context and also presents seminars for principals and language-support teachers twice a year. The Integrate Ireland Language and Training website can be found at www.iilt.ie.

Students are selected for literacy support in first year, based on contact made with their sixth-class teachers in the previous year. Applications for additional resources for students who may be in need of them are then made at the earliest opportunity. Incoming first-year students also participate in an entrance assessment in March. Further assessments are conducted in September of first year. Students in need of literacy support receive extra help through a combination of in-class support, one-to-one withdrawal from class, team-teaching and small-group withdrawal. The learning-support department also acts as a resource for other teachers through the sharing of good practice and appropriate methodologies. Literacy-support students are retested annually, with their results being logged and filed diligently by teachers. The flexible and imaginative approach adopted towards the provision of literacy support for students is to be praised.

The school has a well-developed Special Educational Needs and Learning-Support policy which recognises the need for a whole-school approach to the development of students’ literacy. The creation of education plans for students has been underway for approximately two years and the need for the involvement of parents in this process has been acknowledged and facilitated. The school is encouraged to continue with the development of students’ education plans. A wide range of literacy initiatives is provided in the school and a ‘book buddies’ programme which provides Transition Year students with the skills needed to enhance younger students’ literacy has been developed. Students who are entitled to a scribe for the State examinations are also provided with one for house examinations. Learning-support department meetings are held regularly with set agendas. Minutes of meetings are kept and are filed in the learning-support department folder. Formal meetings are held between the learning-support co-ordinator and English teachers and informal links are also maintained. Planning for literacy support is very good.

TEACHING AND LEARNING

Overall, a very good standard of teaching was seen during the inspection. In many instances, planning was of a very high standard and evidence of planning was presented in almost all classes. In the one instance where the potential to plan for students’ needs might have been more fully realised, the provision of additional material supports for those students who had missed the previous lesson would have been of benefit. Lessons were paced well and objectives were clear in all cases. Where high expectations were shown towards students during lessons, students rose to the challenges presented. A good relationship was evident between students and teachers. Teachers were affirming to students in all classes.

A wide range of resources was used by teachers. Some of these included: the blackboard; photocopies; television, video and ICT. The use of reality-based genre exercises in a report-writing class with senior-cycle students was especially positive as a means of enhancing students’ engagement with the material being presented. The English department is commended for its use of a selection of resources to engage students’ interest and is encouraged to broaden this range of resources, particularly visual resources, to be incorporated into the teaching of English.

Clear, energetic presentations featured in many classes. Questioning was used appropriately as a means of accessing previous material covered and of providing an access point to new knowledge. A mix of global and directed questions was used in classes, while a consciousness of the need to distribute questions evenly across class groups was also evident.

Teachers and students read aloud during lessons and this was sound practice. In the case of drama extracts, students’ adoption of the roles of different characters allowed their appreciation of the theatrical origins of the text to be developed. Equally, the reading aloud of poetry in a senior-cycle class was used to good effect to draw students’ attention to the use of sound in the poem being examined. In one class students were encouraged to model their written work on other students’ exercises and this was most positive. It is suggested that this type of ‘creative modelling’ might be extended to include opportunities for teacher modelling of genre writing in English classes. In examination classes, the possibility of extending this to incorporate limited time frames for the completion of such exercises might also be explored.

There was often a good focus on the importance of language in English classes and this was most worthwhile. However, while there was some evidence of the integration of the language and literature elements of the syllabus in classes, in general this was not the case. It is recommended that the English department integrate the language and literature elements of the syllabuses more widely, using literature as a ‘springboard’ to the study of the language skills which the Junior and Leaving Certificate examinations require.

The use of active methodologies was observed in some lessons. In one junior-cycle lesson students were encouraged to act out a scene from a short story which they had been reading. The exercise engaged students’ interest while also placing the responsibility for learning on themselves. The appeal to students’ kinaesthetic and interpersonal intelligences was also very beneficial. However, in general, active methodologies and, in particular, pair and group work did not feature regularly in English classes. It is recommended that the English department increase its use of pair and group work as an aid to differentiation and as a strategy to place responsibility for independent learning on the shoulders of students.

There was some evidence of a print-rich environment in English classrooms. This was praiseworthy, given the positive impact a visually-stimulating environment can have on students’ learning. Teachers are encouraged to continue with and expand this practice wherever possible, incorporating keyword displays, character diagrams and displays of students’ genre work as a means of creating an ‘English environment’ for the study of the subject and the enhancement of student literacy.

ASSESSMENT AND ACHIEVEMENT

Students were attentive during lessons and frequently showed a willingness to contribute to class discussions. Students displayed a good understanding of topics being explored. In a number of classes students engaged in spontaneous notetaking, suggesting a sense of responsibility for their own learning. This sense of responsibility was particularly evident in one class which worked diligently on a set of projects while the teacher facilitated where necessary.

Evidence of homework being regularly set and corrected was presented in almost all classes. There was evidence of formative, comment-based assessment being used in most classes. Teachers are encouraged to continue with and expand this approach where practicable and within time constraints. A useful resource with regard to the development of assessment practices in the English department might be accessed through the NCCA website, www.ncca.ie, which contains an area dealing with research on Assessment for Learning. Excellent practice was observed in one junior-cycle class where students’ reviews of the novel Buddy by Nigel Hinton were ‘published’ in a class binder and were then displayed using a guitar-shaped stand that the students were constructing in one of their other subjects. Their reviews were written using ICT, an approach which greatly enhanced the presentation of the pieces. This strategy not only highlighted the importance of drafting and redrafting as part of the writing process, but also emphasised the importance of audience and created a clear objective towards which students’ writing could aspire. A further advantage of this approach was the integration of a genre exercise with the study of the class novel. This integrated approach served to increase students’ engagement with the text while simultaneously enhancing students’ appreciation of the genre in question. While this was positive, in general, the integration of the language and literature elements of the syllabus was not evident in students’ homework. Consequently, it is recommended that this strategy should be used more widely in the teaching of English and should incorporate the writing of a diverse range of genres by students.

Third- and sixth-year students have formal house examinations in November. Mock examinations for third- and sixth-year students are held in late February or early March each year. All other year groups have informal class examinations at Christmas and sit formal house examinations at the end of the academic year. Common plans for examination papers are created for some year groups by teachers. This is good practice and should be expanded to all year groups, where appropriate. Such practice, in concert with common marking schemes, would allow for a clear picture to emerge regarding student achievement across the cohort in a particular year group.

Parents and guardians are informed regularly about student progress through bi-annual reports and an annual parent-teacher meeting for each year group, which is good practice.

Summary of Main Findings and Recommendations

The following are the main strengths and areas for development identified in the evaluation:

• There is a good relationship between teachers and students.
• There is a Special Educational Needs and Learning-Support policy in the school.
• Planning for literacy support is good.
• English teachers show a high level of commitment.
• Subject department planning is in the early stages of development. The English department is encouraged to continue to develop the subject plan.
• The school is supportive of teachers’ continuing professional development.
• The English department utilises ICT as part of its practice.
• The school has an excellent library facility, developed as part of the Junior Certificate School Programme Demonstration Library Project.
• Common examination papers are created for a number of year groups. This is good practice and should be expanded to all year groups, where appropriate.

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

• Access to audio-visual equipment should be increased for English teachers.
• The integration of the language and literature elements of the syllabus should be increased.
• The Transition Year English programme should be further developed.
• The potential for the use of pair and group work in classes as an aid to differentiation should be explored by the English department.

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.