Scenario 2 – Ballymore College

School Context

Ballymore College is an all-boys school in a long-established suburb. The school had a WSE-MLL three years ago, and the main teaching and learning recommendations were to introduce more active and enquiry-based learning, and to raise expectations for students’ attainment. Inspectors had particular concerns about the number of students taking ordinary level in the Junior Certificate. The present school principal was appointed in September 2015, and 8 of the 28 teachers are also relatively new to the school. The principal would like to advance the implementation of the recommendations using the SSE process and Looking at our School 2016.

Step 1: Identify Focus

At the first staff meeting, the principal led a session on the progress made in addressing the WSE recommendations on teaching and learning. Uptake of higher level in JC Irish and Maths had increased, but he thought there was still scope for improvement in a number of subjects. He then turned to the recommendation about active learning, and said that he’d like to see it progressed in a structured way, using the SSE process. At that point, he asked two teachers – a long-serving teacher of English, and a science teacher in his third year in the school – to recount how, in different ways, they had surfaced some interesting insights from students.

The teacher of English described how she had asked her first-year class to write about the experience of going into secondary school. While their pieces were often not well developed, they engaged well with the topic. Building on this, she asked them to prepare a short oral presentation in groups of three on ‘what school should be like’. The staff wouldn’t be surprised to hear that some of the ideas were pretty hilarious, but certain themes emerged: school should be a place where:

  • learning was enjoyable
  • it was okay to ask for help
  • you didn’t have to sit and listen all the time

A ‘eureka moment’ for her about the writing process was when a bright but disorganised lad said “I could write something good about this after doing the presentation, because the things I want to say are clear in my head.”

The science teacher then explained that in a first-year class test he had given last year, the final question he had set was actually a student survey, asking students to say what they had enjoyed and why, what they had found difficult, and what had helped them to understand. They enjoyed doing experiments, and finding out things. They found the language of science difficult – not just specialised terms but the particular meanings that more familiar words have in science. The thing that helped them most was being asked about what they were doing and why, and trying to explain the experiment and what they had found out using the correct words. What he found most insightful was their awareness that it wasn’t just the language itself but understanding and using it that mattered.

The principal asked the staff to do a ‘think, pair, share’ exercise to reflect on their colleagues’ inputs and to agree on two or three key points emerging from them. The points most mentioned were the following:

  • Students feel that they learn better when learning is linked to or arises from an activity
  • Students need to articulate their learning; explaining their learning is a key part of the process
  • Students are better motivated when they feel they can achieve something good

At this point, the principal introduced the quality framework from Looking at Our School 2016. He displayed the graphic below as a visual summary of the teaching and learning domains, then asked the staff to scan the overview of the teaching and learning dimension (see page 2 above) and to identify the domain(s) and standards they saw as most relevant to the aspects of learning they had discussed and the WSE-MLL recommendations that they needed to address.

A consensus emerged quite quickly. The domain of ‘learner outcomes’ was the one most directly relevant to them. As one senior teacher put it, “that first standard covers everything we’ve been talking about”:

Students enjoy their learning, are motivated to learn, and expect to achieve as learners.

Teachers also commented on the links between domains, and between standards in different domains; they could see that focusing on one domain or standard naturally drew them to consider others as well. They decided their focus for self-evaluation would be active and reflective learning approaches to raise students’ levels of motivation and attainment.

Step 2: Gather Evidence

One of the lessons the school had learned from the first SSE cycle was the importance of only gathering a manageable amount of relevant evidence. Teachers saw that they had already tapped into a number of sources of evidence in identifying a worthwhile focus: the Inspectorate evaluation report; some state examination data; and views gathered from two junior cycle class groups. They felt that each of these sources could be further used to yield both ‘hard’ statistical information and ‘softer’ information about students’ dispositions and needs, and the approaches that would lead to improved outcomes for them.

They agreed on the following actions to build their evidence base:

  • revisit the WSE-MLL report and focus on the positive aspects of teaching and learning practice identified, so that the good practice could be shared and developed (the deputy principal would lead this work)
  • conduct a more detailed analysis of Junior Certificate outcomes for the last three years, and focus on establishing trends in uptake and attainment, looking also at results for a sample of students (the principal would work with a junior cycle year head on this analysis)
  • survey the current first-year students to gather more information on ‘what’s good, what’s difficult, and what helps’, using the Science teacher’s approach during class tests

Step 3: Analyse and Make Judgements

The school gathered evidence from three sources: the WSE-MLL report; an analysis of uptake of levels, and outcomes, in the Junior Certificate; and a survey of first-year students on their experiences of learning.

The analysis of the WSE-MLL report identified the positive aspects of teaching and learning that teachers could reflect on, share and develop, so as to improve practice. The report had commended practice in practical lessons observed, for eliciting high levels of engagement from students, establishing high expectations regarding students’ attitudes to preparedness for work and application to the task, and providing opportunities for students to critique and improve their work. The report noted some very good questioning techniques that gave students an opportunity to reflect on lesson material and deepen their understanding. The team reported that these were the key strengths identified, and should now be fully exploited.

three-year analysis of Junior Certificate results yielded rich information. The WSE-MLL had raised concerns that uptake of higher level, and outcomes in general, indicated low expectations, and that low junior cycle attainment was affecting senior cycle aspirations. The school’s analysis focused on investigating patterns and trends, and also on results from a representative sample of students. It found that:

  • Uptake of higher level in core subjects had risen, with improved outcomes from a low base in Maths and Irish.
  • Science was an area where outcomes were on a steeply upward curve, and ‘fails’ were not occurring.
  • Other subjects were not improving, and the sampling of individual students’ results showed that even good students preformed less well in certain subjects.

The principal and a junior cycle year head worked on the analysis. They highlighted the Science results and the WSE-MLL finding of good practice in practical subjects, and suggested a possible correlation.

The survey of first years served very usefully to corroborate the findings of the mini-survey of the previous first-year cohort. These surfaced three key points:

  • Students feel that they learn better when learning is linked to or arises from an activity
  • Students need to articulate their learning; explaining their learning is a key part of the process
  • Students are better motivated when they feel they can achieve something good

Step 4: Write and Share Report and Improvement Plan

The whole thrust of the report and improvement plan was to enable all teachers to capitalise on the strengths identified, to map out how these strengths could be applied in their own subject areas, and to work together to improve outcomes for their students. They took and adapted a report and improvement plan templatefrom the SSE website.

The report and plan referenced the Learner Outcomes standard they had initially focused on, and added another from the same domain to inform how they would address the areas identified for improvement. Their two guiding standards were:

Students enjoy their learning, are motivated to learn, and expect to achieve as learners.

Students attain the stated learning outcomes for each subject, course and programme.

Linking with the first of these standards, the plan identified a number of process or action targets aimed at raising students’ levels of enjoyment, motivation, and expectations for achievement. Building on the good and successful practice identified, these included:

  • the incorporation of an enquiry-based approach into at least one key topic in each term or unit
    • regular opportunities for students to explain their learning, both to consolidate subject learning and to develop good oral communication skills

Linking with the second of these standards, the plan set out targets for increased uptake of higher level and improved outcomes in a range of subjects. These were generally, but not always, expressed in percentage increases, and related to school-based figures more than national norms.

The principal brought the plan to the board, which approved it and then completed the regulatory and policy checklist. The SSE team then adapted the template from the SSE website to provide parents and the school community with a useful summary of the SSE plan.