The Department

This page is an overview of English as a subject at St Columba’s, and is very similar to the description on the College site here.

The Department, while one of the largest in the school, is still small, and meets formally and informally frequently, and thus closely co-ordinates both policy and practice.

Julian Girdham, BA (Oxford University), HDipEd (Head of Department)
Liam Canning, BA (Dublin University), HDipEd
Evan Jameson, BA (University College, Dublin), HDipEd
Kate Smith, BA (University College, Dublin), PGDipEd


English is a compulsory subject for every pupil at St Columba’s. Pupils from Primary to VI form have five lessons each week (except in II form, where there are four). Throughout the school, Literature and Language learning and teaching are closely integrated. English is not streamed or ‘set’ at any stage as a matter of policy and philosophy.  

Junior Cycle
All pupils sit the Junior Certificate examination at the end of III form, and the previous years – Primary, I and II form – lead up to this exam. We aim to give a broad grounding in the basics of language and literature, partly through a wide variety of models, and in particular to enthuse our pupils to read a lot, and to think about what they read. This is a crucial element in the development of their own writing. In each of these years there is a weekly supervised reading class in the Library, during which pupils must read books associated with English.

Primary, I and II are examined about their reading, and III form complete a major book report; all junior forms are also given suggested reading lists in association with the Library. The Junior Certificate exam is divided into language and literature elements (in two separate papers at Higher Level).

In III form, for drama we always choose to study a Shakespeare play (such as The Merchant of Venice) and a contemporary play (such as Arthur Miller’s All My Sons); in fiction, a novel such as Bernard MacLaverty’s Cal is studied, and an important element is wide reading of other novels, capped by a lengthy individualised book report. A similar mixture of fiction and drama is covered in I and II forms (books such as William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, Aubrey Flegg’s The Cinnamon Tree and Terence Rattigan’s The Winslow Boy). Poetry is covered in a wide-ranging programme that starts in I form. In Primary, pupils are again taught in a way that integrates literary and language study, and that does not overlap with the primary school syllabus.

In 2012-13 we published our own textbook for years 2 and 3 of the Junior Certificate called Green Shoots.

The Department also sets papers in the Junior Entrance Assessments, the Junior Scholarship Examination, and the major Pennefather Scholarship Examination (III form).   

Transition Year
For many years, the English Department has had its own specially-designed course, which focusses on substantial development of pupils’ writing and reading skills in this crucial year, and bridging the considerable gap between the Junior and Leaving Certificates. This is a year when pupils are really stretched.

In the first term, pupils complete a major Extended Essay (of at least 3,000 words) on at least three different literary works by different authors. These are the special choices of each pupil, and focus on a major theme (such as love, family, war, childhood) which is then treated comparatively. While teachers offer advice and guidance, the essay is nevertheless researched, organised and written completely by pupils themselves. In the second part of the course, they complete a Work Portfolio of shorter pieces (stories, personal descriptions, essays) which is submitted at the end of the year. Both the Extended Essay and the Work Portfolio develop the crucial skills of drafting and re-drafting, and there are many examples on SCC English.

During the year a Shakespeare play is studied (in recent years Othello, Twelfth Night or Julius Caesar) and a major novel (recently Great Expectations, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Moonstone or The Catcher in the Rye). In addition, pupils rotate to teachers other than their regular one in short courses on poetry (such as Yeats, Chaucer, Shakespeare and the visual image in poetry) and the use of film. Visits to theatre productions in Dublin are also an important part of the course. About one month into the year, selected pupils take part in the annual House Speech competition in front of the rest of the school (the remainder of the form support and advise them).

At the end of the year, pupils are awarded grades (the highest, Premier, is very difficult to achieve) on their entire year’s work in an evening when the best Work Portfolio pieces are read out in front of their peers, parents, next year’s TY, and a visiting expert, who comments on the pieces and on the nature of writing. In line with general College Transition Year policy, there are exams at the end of the first two terms. 

Senior Cycle
The Department follows the official Leaving Certificate course for these two years. Pupils are set at random, with no streaming at any stage during the course. The four sets have about 15 pupils each. For many years we have had a high level of take-up of the subject at Higher Level. This is possible in the Leaving Certificate course, since most of the material is common to both Higher and Ordinary Level (in the final term, extra directed tuition is given to the few pupils taking Ordinary Level papers). There are internal College exams at the end of every term.

The Leaving Certificate itself is divided into two papers, the first concentrating on language tasks (comprehension and composition), and the second on literature. Therefore we study one major Shakespeare play (King Lear, Macbeth, Hamlet or Othello), three texts (novels and plays) as part of a comparative question (such as, in recent years, Brian Friel’s Dancing at Lughnasa, Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, Claire Keegan's Foster, Pat Barker’s Regeneration, Jennifer Johnston’s How Many Miles to Babylon? and William Trevor’s The Story of Lucy Gault), and eight prescribed poets (such as W.B. Yeats, Adrienne Rich, Derek Walcott, Seamus Heaney, Michael Longley, John Montague, Patrick Kavanagh, Eavan Boland, Elizabeth Bishop, William Wordsworth, Derek Mahon, John Keats and Emily Dickinson).

There are reports on Leaving Certificate results in English at these links (click the years) :-  2013, 2012201120102009, 2008, 2007, 2006.

Co-Curricular Activities
The Department is heavily involved in activities that complement and add to the curriculum. These include:

    * A considerable involvement by several teachers in the College’s excellent tradition of high-class drama. Apart from Shakespeare (see below), these have included in recent years Brian Friel’s Dancing at Lughnasa, the musicals Grease and My Fair Lady, Jean Giraudoux’s The Apollo of Bellac, Anton Chekhov’s The Marriage Proposal, Dario Fo’s The Virtuous Burglar and Peter Terson’s Zigger Zagger.
    * Shakespeare productions in recent years in which English teachers have been heavily involved include Twelfth Night (twice), The Comedy of Errors (twice), As You Like It, The Merchant of Venice, Romeo and Juliet and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The Shakespeare Society also arranges outings to the increasing number of Shakespeare productions at Dublin theatres.
    * A wide-ranging programme of outings to Dublin’s considerable theatrical opportunities. In Recently, amongst the plays seen by pupils of different ages have been Happy Days and Waiting for Godot (Samuel Beckett), The Cripple of Inishmaan (Martin McDonogh), The History Boys (Alan Bennett), All My Sons and The Crucible (Arthur Miller), Stones in his Pockets (Marie Jones), Dancing at Lughnasa (Brian Friel), The School for Scandal (Richard Brinsley Sheridan), The Year of the Hiker (John B.Keane), The Importance of Being Earnest and An Ideal Husband (Oscar Wilde), and Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Hamlet, King Lear, The Comedy of Errors, The Winter's Tale, The Merchant of Venice, and Julius Caesar.
    * Talks and readings by visiting writers and university lecturer, including Professor Terry Dolan, Ian Steepe (on the work of Old Columban William Trevor), fiction writer Claire Keegan, novelist Belinda Seaward and poet Louise C. Callaghan.
    * Voices of Poetry: an evening in the summer term at which pupils and teachers read poems in English and many other languages to the school.
    * Subject Prizes: the Department awards five prizes each year, which are awarded to the best performers in competitions. These are: the Senior and Junior English Prizes, the Willis Memorial Prize for Knowledge of Shakespeare, and the Peter Dix Memorial (senior) and Junior Prizes for Poetry.
    * Entry to a wide variety of external events and competitions, such as Poetry Aloud (we have had several finalists), the Teaching English national poetry competition and the Feile Filiochta International Poetry competition.
    * Public Speaking: the Department encourages and trains pupils in public speaking from the most junior years, with a regular internal competition in I form, the training of II formers for their annual public competition, and the annual Transition Year House Speeches.
    * The Second Bell magazine, written and edited by pupils.

Information Technology
The Department is forward-looking and innovative. It embraces the use of technology in classrooms (such as in the use of digital projectors and an interactive whiteboard), in the preparation of classes, and especially in the widespread use of computers to research, compose and submit work during prep (evening study). This includes both the College computer network and pupils’ own laptops. We are also conscious that computer work is just an enabling technology; our first priority is always the substance of literature and language.

SCC English, the Department blog (, was opened in June 2006, and has become a major driving force behind and gathering place for work by pupils, among other uses. In December 2008 SCC English won the Best Group Blog title at the international Edublog Awards, and was also third in the Best Individual Blog category. In 2010 it was third in the group section at the same awards. In both 2008 and 2009 it was shortlisted as Best Blog in the Eircom Golden Spider Awards in Ireland. It is also a Scoilnet Starsite, a recommended Teachnet resource, and has featured in the magazines ‘Teaching English’, ‘Conference and Common Room’ and ‘PC Live’ ('Blogger in Profile' in April 2009), and at secondary school training sessions, including a presentation at the annual conference of the Computer Education Society of Ireland and 'The Art of English Teaching' conference in Loughrea in February 2009.

In October 2009 the blog featured in a major article in the Irish Independent, here, called 'How to teach English to the Facebook generation'.

The Department started podcasting in March 2009, and broadcasts a range of interviews, book discussions and revision ideas, including Leaving Certificate revision sessions. It also has its own Twitter stream, concerned with all things English and technological.

The Department has published two books collecting the best writing on its blog. Going Places was published in 2008, and Outside the Frame in 2010. Both feature poems, essays, short stories, book recommendations and more by both pupils and staff. They also feature fine drawings and photography by many pupils. The books are available for purchase for €10 each from the Department by emailing scc.english 'at'

The Department regards the College Library as one of its key resources. Opened in 1994 in a fine building in the central garden of the College, it has a well-funded and well-organised collection of 10,000 books, and particularly strong fiction and English Literature sections. The Department liaises on a daily basis with the professional Librarian, and as described in the ‘Junior Cycle’ Section, has an organised and regular scheme of reading classes in the building. The Librarian also teaches pupils about the use of the Library, and the skills needed in searching for information.  The Library also publishes its own excellent termly magazine, The Submarine (also to be seen on the SCC English site).

Department of Education and Science Inspection Report (December 2007).

Below is the summary of ‘main findings and recommendations’. The report also recommended two minor improvements, which we have implemented. The full report may be read via the link here.

Summary of main findings and recommendations

“The following are the main strengths identified in the evaluation: 

    * There is good provision of English lessons in St Columba’s College and there is very good whole school support for the subject.
    * There is a very impressive range of co-curricular activities pertaining to English available to the students in the college.
    * The English department has developed an excellent and innovative website. The website generates an interest among students in formal writing and gives them opportunities to write for a wider public than their teachers.
    * A striking feature of the college is the many opportunities that students have to display their written work.
    * There is a very good library in the school and the college funds payment of a librarian. The library is well stocked and well organised.
    * There was evidence that students’ literacy levels improve as they progress through the year and school.
    * The English department is very ably coordinated. The department engages in real collaboration and is very reflective. It is constantly developing new ideas to cultivate a love of English among students and to develop their skills in English.
    * A strong reading culture has been developed in the school.
    * The English teachers are commended for working in the true spirit of the Junior Certificate and Leaving Certificate English syllabuses in that the wide focus of English lessons goes beyond the examinations and prepares students for life.
    * A range of opportunities are planned to give students a sense of responsibility for their own learning. The TY course is extensive and gives students an excellent grounding in key skills.
    * There is a high quality of teaching and learning. This was evidenced through the high standards expected, the range of texts taught, the frequency of student assignments in a range of genre, the many opportunities for students to write and the excellent examination results.

Common examinations are set and a common marking scheme is agreed by English teachers. Students are assessed on a regular basis. The English department has a specific homework policy. All students’ work was corrected to a very high standard.”