An Roinn Oideachais agus Eolaíochta
Department of Education and Science
Subject Inspection of Science and Biology
Mercy Heights Secondary School
Skibbereen, County Cork
Roll number: 62490T
Date of inspection: 29 March 2006
Date of issue of report: 22 June 2006
This Subject Inspection report
This report has been written following a subject inspection in Mercy Heights Secondary School. It presents the findings of an evaluation of the quality of teaching and learning in Junior Certificate Science and Leaving Certificate 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 also reviewed teachers’ written preparation and planning notes. Following the evaluation visit, the inspector provided oral feedback on the outcomes of the evaluation to the principal. The board of management of the school was given an opportunity to comment in writing on the findings and recommendations of the report, and the response of the board will be found in the appendix of this report.
Science is not core to Junior Certificate. However, all first-year students study Science with currently the majority of second-year and third-year students taking it as one of their optional Junior Certificate subjects. First-year students have one double lesson and one single lesson of Science weekly. This allocation increases to one double lesson and two single lessons in second year and two double lessons and one single lesson weekly in third year. Curriculum guidelines recommend four lessons weekly to include at least one double lesson. Though the time allocation in third year exceeds the recommendations in the guidelines, first year students are not receiving recommended contact time at present in Science. A review of this situation should be considered for the future.
A compulsory Transition Year (TY) programme follows Junior Certificate. Students choose their Leaving Certificate subjects in TY. The Biology programme for TY contains some Leaving Certificate topics and has a weekly allocation of one double lesson and two single lessons. In addition to Biology, Chemistry and Physics are included as optional science subjects to Leaving Certificate. The majority of students study Biology with fewer than half studying Chemistry and a small number studying Physics. Both year 1 and year 2 Leaving Certificate Chemistry classes have boys from the local second-level school. This local arrangement allows for all students wishing to study Chemistry to Leaving Certificate level to do so. The time allocation of five lessons, comprising one double and three single lessons weekly per Science subject is within curriculum guidelines. In addition, the current provision of double lessons in the majority of the sciences facilitates the organisation of practical work as required by each syllabus.
Additional temporary accommodation was viewed on the school grounds. This includes two temporary Science facilities with a shared preparation area as well as additional accommodation in the form of other specialist rooms and classrooms. The location of the laboratories allows for the sharing of resources. One of the laboratories could be considered a dry laboratory as it does not have gas or water, which makes the conducting of some practical work difficult. This laboratory has some computer facilities. However, some of the computers would need upgrading to be effective for teaching and learning purposes. The other laboratory is well maintained and effective for the delivery of Science subjects. Double lessons have priority for access to the laboratory with rotation between the teachers when required for laboratory access.
Observed resources included computers, data projector and overhead projector. These will support the teaching and learning process. The location of equipment in the laboratories and the organisation of some topic-specific project boxes by the Science team help in the organisation of practical work, which is good practice. Management allocates a yearly budget for the Sciences. This practice is operating satisfactorily in the school.
The Science facilities contained some colourful visual stimuli, mainly in the form of charts, diagrams and models. Some of this visual stimulus material was of student origin. Consideration could be given to the use of display boards on which for example, charts, diagrams, displays of student work and recent Science-related articles could be placed. With regular updating, this should help to maintain the interest and stimulation of the students. As an initiative to raise further the profile of the Sciences in the school, notice boards that display science-related material and student work could be located in the corridors near the Science facilities.
The school has a health and safety statement and has also allocated a post of responsibility in the area of health and safety. Management stated that a review of this statement occurred two years ago, which involved some input from the teachers. The organisation and storage of equipment and chemicals was evident in the facilities. Information on the storage of chemicals is available on the physical sciences website, http://www.psi-net.org/chemistry. Copies of the published guidelines on safety – Safety in School Science and Safety in the School Laboratory published by the Department of Education and Science in 1996 are available. Further copies if required can be downloaded from the website above.
The teachers have availed of opportunities for continual professional development in Science and previously in Biology and the Physical Sciences. Management endorses this. In addition, all teachers are encouraged to be members of their subject association.
School development planning is a developing process in the school. The Science team have developed a working planning document for Science and Biology. These plans developed through use of some of the weekly staff meeting time which management facilitates. In addition, scheduled formal meeting times are held in September and May each year. These meeting times deal with organisational issues and review respectively. A team approach to the coordination of the Sciences operates in the school. The team could consider having a formal subject convenor for the Sciences. This position could rotate among the team on a yearly basis. In addition, informal coordination and communication occurs among the teachers on an ongoing basis, which helps to establish and maintain collaboration. The Science team records the minutes of their meetings, which is good practice. Building on this, the setting of agendas in advance for future meeting could be considered.
To build on the existing planning, the Science team could also consider how to share ideas for good practice, teaching resources, ideas for practical investigations, alternative forms of assessment, homework and the integration of ICT. The Science team should continue to make good use of the revised syllabuses and other relevant documentation to facilitate Science programme planning at all levels. It is important to remember that any plan created will require regular review and modifications to meet the students’ needs. The planning document should also highlight any further resource implications presented by the revised syllabuses and include procedures to acquire and access these resources in the future. Discussion and reflection on the experiences gained through involvement with the revised syllabuses should also be a major influence of these plans.
Short-term planning was evident in the lessons observed. There was a familiarity with the subject matter, a coherent theme running through the lessons and prior preparation of the materials, chemicals and the apparatus required for student-centred investigative work. The variety of resources viewed, included the use of ICT for PowerPoint presentations, the use of textbooks, the use of the whiteboard and the use of various types of handout material aided student learning.
Opportunities to attend Science events at University College Cork and Cork Institute of Technology have been availed of in the past. The students also go on field trips and carry out projects. Such activities are admirable in fostering active participation, in developing an interest in the sciences and are commendable.
The lessons observed had a disciplined atmosphere with a clear and fair code of behaviour. A positive student-teacher rapport was also observed. Students were generally attentive, interested and anxious to participate well in the learning processes. In general, students had a good understanding of the task and displayed good teamwork skills in practical work. Lessons had an appropriate pace, which facilitated student learning. Digestion, ecology, preparation of oxygen, bonding and electricity were the topics of study in the lessons observed.
The teaching methodologies observed included student practical work, group work, questioning, explanation, whiteboard work, use of handouts and worksheets and PowerPoint presentations. Student practical work occurred in a number of lessons observed. Students worked mainly in pairs, which is good practice. Safety precautions observed included, when required, the wearing of personal safety glasses by students. Teacher guidance and instruction preceded all practical activities. It is suggested that it is best to avoid reference to actual results at this time and preferable to ask students for their opinions or hypotheses, which they can accept or reject, on completion of their practical investigation. It is important that students get an appropriate level of instruction to complete the task(s). The position of the furniture in the dry laboratory would also need review prior to the start of any activity in order to allow for teacher and student-movement around the laboratory when required. As the students set up and carried out their practical activities, guidance, feedback and questioning occurred as the teacher circulated around the room. Difficulties the students were having with their tasks were dealt with in a calm and supportive manner. In some classes, the teacher used this opportunity to investigate the extent of students’ own understanding of the subject matter under investigation, through observing and asking them questions on the work they were about to undertake or complete. This was a very good approach and really added to the success of the lesson as a learning experience for the students. In addition, during some of the practical activities students also completed worksheets. These were well designed and helped to focus the students on their task. Worksheets could also be adapted to include some differentiation to acknowledge the different abilities of the students. A successful approach observed was the use of a plenary recall session near the completion of a practical class. Students had the opportunity to share and discuss their results and conclusions, under teacher guidance. Adoption of this approach to summarise material delivered during a theory class could also be considered. Whole-class teaching occurred especially at the start of a lesson. In some classes, the objectives for the lesson were also stated. This helped to focus student learning. Setting learning outcomes for the students will further focus their learning and it could allow for self-assessment of the lesson by the student. When whole-class teaching occurred at the end of some of the observed lessons, it helped to draw together key points for the student under the guidance of the teacher and was very effective.
In the lessons observed, questioning to named students occurred. Many of the questions asked were at a factual level, testing knowledge only. The use when appropriate of more probing, higher order questions testing levels of student understanding is recommended. In addition, chorus answering to questioning should be discouraged as it can be very difficult to know how well individual students understand the material.
All students had a laboratory notebook or file in which they recorded all their investigative work. Monitoring of student notebooks is noted. It is recommended that some additional monitoring would be required at times to ensure that the students complete the corrections outlined. The use of textbooks during lessons was minimal. Textbook use, in the main, was for background reading and for homework. The Science team could discuss and consider as to whether students have their textbooks or other material open during the delivery of new material and during the questioning of material. Homework assigned was appropriate to the lesson material and designed to assist the student in learning and retaining the topic.
The white board, ICT, scientific models and a wide range of handout material was used during theory delivery. The use of these resources was very valuable and enhanced the learning environment for the student, especially when used effectively to build up a concept under study by the students. The observed use of visual material in the delivery of abstract concepts was very worthwhile for the students’ understanding. Students should be afforded adequate time when these methods are used to insure the positive learning benefit. The further integration of ICT where appropriate, to stimulate student interest and enhance student learning should also be considered.
The students had a positive attitude towards Science and Biology as displayed by the interest and level of engagement observed during lessons. Students were generally confident and capable of answering questions put to them during the course of the visit, though some were initially slow to contribute answers but improved when prompted. Observation of students’ work indicates that the skills developed are appropriate and of a good standard.
Formative assessment of the students occurs on an ongoing basis by questioning in class, and by means of homework. The Science-teaching team should consider adopting common practices regarding the monitoring and evaluation of homework. The use of questioning and other modes of formative assessment occur during and at the end of a lesson. Administration of written tests at the end of units is at the discretion of the teacher during lesson time. Students also have formal assessments in November and May. Common summer assessments have occurred at times for Science students. The Science team could formalise the number of tests they will administer to their classes in each year group. This could develop further to incorporate a method of continuous assessment. The inclusion of practical work in the scheme of continuous assessment is recommended, as it provides motivation for engagement by all students with the practical element of the course and ensures regular monitoring of student laboratory notebooks. This could be considered, especially for students of who are sitting the Certificate examinations in a given academic year, acting as a stimulus for learning and a means of reward for hard work.
State examination classes sit pre-examinations in the spring. These pre-examination scripts are mainly externally marked. The teachers mark some of the pre-Junior Certificate examinations. Teachers maintain records of all assessments, with the formal assessments also held in report books. School reports communicate these formal results and student progress to parents or guardians. The student journal is an additional means of communicating with parents or guardians as the need arises. Another mode of reporting student progress is the annual parent or guardian–teacher meeting that is held for each year group.
The following are the main strengths and areas for development identified in the evaluation:
· A professional approach is taken to the teaching of Junior Certificate Science and Leaving Certificate Biology in Mercy Heights Secondary School.
· Planning in the lessons observed ensured continuity and progression of work. There was also careful advanced preparation of the required resource material.
· The observed lessons had a positive and disciplined atmosphere. Students were motivated and eager to engage in learning processes.
· The Science team members have availed of opportunities for continual professional development in Science and Biology. Management has also endorsed this.
· Some ICT is available in the laboratories.
· Student practical work was observed with further evidence to be found in the student laboratory notebooks. Regular monitoring and annotation of this work will be very beneficial to student learning.
· The further development of the Science team through the establishment of a convenor for the Sciences could be considered. This post could be on a yearly basis and would rotate among all members of the team.
· Students have had opportunities to experience Science outside the laboratory through fieldtrips and attendance at various and varied Science events.
· The Science facilities are well maintained with the development of some good organisation of materials and chemicals.
As a means of building on these strengths and to address areas for development, the following key recommendations are made:
· The time allocation for first year Science students needs review so that students receive the recommended four class periods per week.
· The planning work completed to date by the Science team is commendable. Items for consideration could include a policy regarding practical work, the use and monitoring of practical laboratory notebooks, assessment, homework, future planning of courses and the number and type of assessments in each term for each year group. Further review, evaluation and adaptation of plans could occur annually.
· The school is urged to further the use of the ICT facilities through their integration into the teaching of the Sciences in the laboratories.
· As an initiative to raise further the profile of Sciences in the school, teachers should develop the displays of student work, recent science-related articles, the display of models and plant specimens in the laboratories and include materials on display boards on the corridors near Science laboratories.
A post-evaluation meeting was held with the principal at the conclusion of the evaluation when the draft findings and recommendations of the evaluation were presented and discussed.
Submitted by the Board of Management
Area 1: Observations on the content of the inspection report
The Board of Management of Mercy Heights Secondary School welcomes this very positive report on the teaching and learning of science and biology in the school.
The Board through the Principal will continue to encourage, support and improve the teaching and learning of science and biology in the school