An Roinn Oideachais agus Eolaíochta
Department of Education and Science
Subject Inspection of Science and Biology
Our Lady of Mercy Secondary School
Mourne Road, Drimnagh, Dublin 12.
Roll number: 60991I
Date of inspection: 27 November 2006
Date of issue of report: 22 February 2007
Report on the Quality of Learning and Teaching in Science and Biology
This report has been written following a subject inspection in Our Lady of Mercy Secondary School, Drimnagh. It presents the findings of an evaluation of the quality of teaching and learning in Science and Biology and makes recommendations for the further development of the teaching of this subject in the school. The evaluation was conducted over one day 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 the subject teachers. The board of management was given an opportunity to comment in writing on the findings and recommendations of the report; a response was not received from the board.
The evaluation of Junior Certificate Science and Leaving Certificate Biology at Our Lady of Mercy Secondary School, Drimnagh, was carried out over one day. It began with a meeting with the science teachers at which the objectives and procedures of the evaluation were explained. Following this, a single first year and a double third year science class were observed, along with a double sixth year biology class.
Junior Certificate Science is an optional subject for students entering the school. In addition to an extensive core set of subjects, in-coming first-year students are asked to choose two from a list of four practical subjects: Art, Home Economics, Science and Technical Graphics. As part of the school’s induction process, they are given an information sheet with brief details of each subject for assistance. Students then continue with only one of the subjects for the reminder of junior cycle.
Following the Junior Certificate examination, students choose between Leaving Certificate (Established) and the Leaving Certificate Applied programme. For those who continue with the Leaving Certificate (Established) programme, Biology is the only science subject offered, on the same pre-set option line as Art, Home Economics and Technical Drawing. The parents of third-year students are given information to help them and their children with subject choice but are not assembled as a group for a parents’ information evening.
It is strongly recommended that the subject options available to incoming first-year students be revised in order allow students to choose from a much less restricted set of subject options. It is important that this change is then reflected in the subsequent choices offered to senior cycle students. It is also recommended that parents of third-year students be brought together for an information or open night, at which all the options open to their children, regarding both programme and subject choice, can be explained to them. This will also facilitate them in having any questions they may have answered and explained.
There is a maximum class size of twenty-four students in the junior cycle. Three class periods are allocated to first year Science each week, rising to four, in the form of two double periods, for the remainder of the junior cycle. The number of class periods is below syllabus guidelines for first-year students but is adequate for second- and third-year students. It is recommended that class contact arrangements for Science for all the junior cycle years be reviewed. Biology students are allocated five class periods per week in the form of one single and two doubles periods and class size tends not to be an issue. It is permitted for students to take up Biology in fifth year, not having studied Science to Junior Certificate.
There is one teacher of Science and Biology in the school at present. Opportunities have been availed of for continuing professional development during recent and current national in-service training programmes in Biology and Junior Certificate Science. Management is commended on the commitment given to facilitate attendance at in-service training. The school has encouraged active participation by students in Science Week, has attended the Trinity Medical Programme day on a number of occasions and has also attended the BA Festival of Science.
The school has one science laboratory. Is has recently been refurbished to a very high standard and is adequately equipped for its purpose. It has a storage and preparation area adjacent to it. It is used almost exclusively for science classes and all science classes take place here. Resources observed include an overhead projector, a data projector and two personal computers (in the process of being commissioned) with a broadband connection currently being set up. A good display of models and charts was observed, along with a little student-generated material. Greater use of such student-developed material is to be encouraged as it serves to stimulate and motivate students. The science teacher and management deserve credit for the high level of resources available in the laboratories and for the thoughtful manner in which the renovation was designed to make the best use of the space available.
A range of health and safety equipment was observed, including a first aid kit, fire extinguishers, a fire blankets, a fume cupboard and gas and electrical isolation switches. A high priority was given to the active management of safety issues during student practical work. The school has a health and safety statement that was drawn up a year ago under the auspices of the Sisters of Mercy. It is intended to review this every two years and also following any incidents, in order to gauge the effectiveness of the statement.
The school has been actively engaged in the process of school development planning and a school plan is currently under development. The required elements of a school plan are already in place, for example the code of discipline.
As there is only one teacher of science subjects in the school there has not been a need to set up a formal science department. The science teacher carries out all curriculum planning, stock control, equipment ordering and laboratory management duties. The science teacher deserves great credit for the amount of work done in this area. Funding for the sciences is provided as requested and management has been very supportive to date.
Planning documents, of both a long-term and a short-term nature, were presented to the inspector. These documents, which are commendably based on the appropriate syllabus documents, included broad term plans listing topics to be covered, along with appropriate practical work, in addition to records of work completed and details of students who have special needs. The work currently being done in the classroom is in line with the planning documents.
It is recommended that teaching and learning methodologies should also be included in term plans in order to ensure that teachers do not unwittingly restrict themselves to a preferred dominant style of teaching and to ensure that material is always taught in a manner appropriate to the material itself and to the students being taught. Detailed planning documents should be drawn up in preparation for a change in the junior cycle subject options, as recommended above. The sciences must be publicised and promoted within the school and an increase in the number of students taking Science and Biology should be anticipated and planned for in time.
In the lessons observed there was evidence of short term planning. The teacher was familiar with the subject matter of every lesson and there was a theme running through each lesson. Materials necessary for class, along with the chemicals and apparatus required for student centred investigative work, had been prepared in advance. This preparation contributed to the quality of learning and is to be commended.
In all classes visited, good discipline was apparent. Rapport with students was good and this is to be commended. The teacher was enthusiastic, warm, patient and considerate of students and a good learning environment was evident in all the classrooms visited. The teacher demonstrated a professional and business-like approach to work. The teacher demonstrated a very good awareness of the needs of individual students and was very affirming of student effort. The level of two-way communication in classrooms was relevant to the task at hand. Students were attentive, interested and anxious to participate in the learning process. The topics covered in the classes observed included plant hormones, the structure of the periodic table and the human skeleton.
A range of teaching methodologies was observed, including student practical work, the use of the board, questioning, explanations, handouts and student written work. Presentations were clear and concise. Care must be taken to ensure the retention of student engagement during demonstrations of a practical nature. Lessons were well planned, well structured, and had a clear focus. The pacing of lessons was good, students were kept busy and actively engaged at all times, and changes in methodologies were built into lesson plans as appropriate. Students were challenged by lesson content and responded well. Continuity from previous lessons was good and new information was well linked to previous learning. There was good direction and follow through in the lessons observed. This is excellent practice.
During the observed student practical work the students worked in groups of two. It was obvious from their behaviour that the students were accustomed to carrying out practical work and the science teacher are to be praised for their commitment to seeing that their students get the opportunity to do this practical work themselves. Students displayed a very good level of skills during the course of their work and were well prepared for carrying out their practical work by the excellent use of plenary sessions to review the theory and practice of each activity, before bench work started. It is recommended that similar plenary sessions be held when the practical activities have been completed, in order to review the work done and to emphasise what had been learned.
Teacher movement among the students, assisting, examining and encouraging, was evident in all lessons observed. The teacher was very affirming of student effort and always encouraging and positive in correcting students with appropriate interventions. This is praiseworthy. Good practice concerning the minimal use of textbooks was apparent during the lessons observed. Reference to appropriate passages in textbooks was used to reinforce learning and to assist in homework preparation. Homework given was appropriate to the lesson content and was designed to assist the student in learning and retaining the topic.
In order for students to make better progress and gain a better understanding of their course of study, it is suggested that students are made aware of the objectives of the lesson at the outset of each class period. Students may work better if they are more informed as to where a lesson is leading and where it fits into the larger picture. This can be motivating and informative as well as giving a sense of purpose and direction to classroom work. These lesson objectives should be clear, concise and achievable. They can encourage a degree of self-assessment by students within the class and help individuals to monitor their own progress.
Students demonstrated a positive attitude towards Science as evidenced by the level of engagement and interest observed during the lessons visited. Students displayed a good level of knowledge, understanding and skills during interaction with the inspector. Formative assessment of students is carried out on an ongoing basis by questioning in class, through correction of homework and through teacher movement and observation of students during class.
Students kept laboratory notebooks up to date as evidence of practical work being carried out. This is a very important aspect of new and revised syllabuses in the science area. The quality of the notebooks was excellent due, in no small measure, to the extent of attention paid by the science teacher to them, with particular attention being paid to entering the results of each activity and drawing appropriate conclusions. This is excellent practice. It is suggested that laboratory notebooks are annotated directly as part of this process, rather than by means of corrections on removable sticky notelets.
All classes are assessed by means of a Christmas examination. Formal assessments are held for non-examination classes in the summer. Questions on mandatory practical work are included in these examinations. In addition, the certificate examination classes sit mock examinations in the spring. These scripts are marked within the school. Additional testing is at the discretion of the science teacher. Records of assessment are held in teachers’ own diaries and in report books in the school office.
Results of assessments and progress reports are communicated to parents by means of Christmas and summer reports, and following mock examinations. Communication with parents is also achieved by means of parent-teacher meetings, held once per year for each class. There are five such meetings each year, held in accordance with Department of Education and Science guidelines. In addition, the student journal that all students are required to keep is used to communicate with parents. The school operates an open door policy and parents are encouraged to contact the school if they have any concerns regarding their children’s performance.
There was evidence of very good record keeping by the science teacher, covering such areas as student attendance, assessments and work completed. This is good practice. The recorded information can be used to build up student profiles and can form the basis of very useful evidence in communicating student progress to parents and in advising both students and parents on choice of subjects at senior level and on what level of examination paper to choose in certificate examinations.
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 teacher of Science and Biology and with the principal at the conclusion of the evaluation when the draft findings and recommendations of the evaluation were presented and discussed.