An Roinn Oideachais agus Eolaíochta
Department of Education and Science
Social, Personal and Health Education (SPHE)
Saint Mary’s Diocesan School
Drogheda, County Louth
Roll number: 63841E
Date of inspection: 3 March 2006
Date of issue of report: 22 June 2006
This Subject Inspection report
This report has been written following a subject inspection in St Mary’s Diocesan School. It presents the findings of an evaluation of the quality of teaching and learning in Social, Personal and Health Education (SPHE) in junior cycle 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, deputy principal, SPHE coordinator and a number of 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.
St Mary’s Diocesan School is an all-boys school with a current student population of 722. SPHE is very well established in the school where it has been on the curriculum for over ten years. The subject benefits from a very supportive school environment and each junior cycle class group is timetabled for one period per week, as per CL M11/03. The school considers that the subject is an important component of the pastoral care system and, thus, the class tutor is the SPHE teacher; consequently there is a large team involved in the delivery of the subject. As part of the whole school approach to SPHE, close links are maintained with management, the year heads, the staff-member in the role of home liaison officer and the guidance counsellor. Parents and students, through their representative organisations, have had the opportunity to contribute to policies, such as, the relationships and sexuality education (RSE), anti-bullying and substance use policies.
It is very good practice that teachers are assigned to SPHE by consultation, and the excellent gender balance amongst the team of SPHE teachers is commended; the challenge for the school is to maintain this balance. Whilst many of the teachers are very experienced in the delivery of the subject, it is laudable that new members are encouraged and supported to join the team, thus building capacity. It is good practice also that, as far as possible, teachers remain with their class group from first year through to third year.
Coordination of the subject is part of an assistant principal’s post. Management is very supportive of collaborative planning and facilitates formal subject department meetings at the beginning of the school year; opportunities are also available throughout the year for teachers to convene in their year groups for ongoing planning and review. Whole staff in-service has also been provided on topics, for example, bullying and substance misuse. Management encourages continuing professional development (CPD) and teachers are facilitated to attend in-service, including the range of in-service offered by the SPHE Support Service. It is acknowledged that there are organisational difficulties in releasing all members of the large team to attend in-service training at any given time; the possibility of inviting the SPHE Support Service to work with specific year group staff, for example, might be considered.
There is a very strong commitment, and an organised approach, to planning the SPHE programme and this includes the provision of resource materials to support teaching and learning. Programmes of work, which in the main have been developed by the SPHE coordinator, comprise a series of six to eight-week core modules per year group, with flexibility for teachers to tailor the programmes as necessary. A number of very good individual planning documents observed during the evaluation provided evidence of the programmes being modified to suit individual class groups and this is commended.
It is good practice that the modules are planned so that some topics can be revisited and developed over the three-year cycle; in particular, RSE and drugs education are included in each year of the programme. At the end of each core module, teachers meet in their year groups, with the SPHE coordinator, to review the module just completed and to plan for the subsequent one. This commitment and collaborative approach is commended. It is laudable that parents’ suggestions in relation to content are taken on board, as evidenced by a request from the parents' council to incorporate topics such as homework and stress management into the first-year programme.
An examination of the programmes of work presented during the evaluation indicates that not all of the ten modules outlined in the junior cycle SPHE syllabus are included in the current programmes of work; notably absent are the modules on communication skills, emotional health and personal safety. Discussions during the evaluation indicated that the planned programmes are based on what are considered to be the perceived needs of the students at each level. While this is acknowledged, it is recommended that, as part of the very good existing practice of ongoing collaborative planning and review, the syllabus should also be used as a flexible framework for planning, and as a benchmark to check that the needs of each cohort of students are being met. Students and parents as well as management and other members of staff should also be invited to contribute to the ongoing review and evaluation of SPHE.
Each core module is presented as a spiral-bound resource pack that includes exemplar lessons and resource materials on topics for inclusion in the module; these are made available to the SPHE teachers. The pastoral care policy and practice in the school, as well as information pertinent to the teaching of SPHE, are also provided. The SPHE coordinator is commended for the enormous amount of work involved in preparing resource packs for all modules over the three-year cycle. In addition to the support materials provided in the resource packs, teachers also have access to a range of SPHE resources which are stored in the guidance and counselling office. An annual budget is available for SPHE to purchase resources and materials.
A perusal of each resource pack indicates the content of the school’s SPHE programme, but it is not collated in one coherent document. It is recommended that the content of the three-year programme outline should be defined in a short, single document. Outlining the topics to be covered under each module, on a term-by-term basis, for each year group would provide a complete overview of the SPHE programme and could assist with ongoing planning and review by ensuring balanced coverage of the syllabus and opportunities to develop and revisit topics, whilst avoiding repetition. The SPHE team might find the exemplar programme outlines and the templates in the SPHE Guidelines for Teachers useful in this process.
There was evidence of very good short-term planning and preparation for all lessons observed, and, in some cases, high-quality lesson plans were presented in which the aims, learning outcomes, resources and methodologies were clearly outlined. Lessons were well structured and sequenced and were pitched at an appropriate level for each group of students. Opportunities were also incorporated to link learning to everyday life. There were some very good examples of setting the scene, where teachers reminded students of the previous week’s work, and then, commendably, shared the intended learning outcomes of the lesson with the class. Making a link with previous lesson content is particularly important in SPHE where it is delivered in one single class period per week.
There were many examples of the application of good teaching principles throughout the lessons observed. In keeping with good practice for learning and teaching in SPHE, lessons provided students with opportunities to acquire knowledge and understanding, balanced with time to explore and reflect on attitudes, behaviours and feelings. This balance was most successfully attained when the teacher acted as facilitator and when the lesson was accompanied by a range of well planned and effectively used methodologies, which helped students engage with the content of the lessons. It is always important when planning a lesson to consider the rationale for choosing a particular methodology and to think about how the methodology can be used most effectively, to stimulate and engage all students in the class. Opportunities to draw students’ attention to school policies, for example, the anti-bullying policy, should also be used in lessons where appropriate.
The use of a short video clip, a case study and handout containing a number of thought-provoking questions, followed by well-managed group work were effectively used in a lesson on bullying. During a lesson on sexually transmitted infections (STIs), information leaflets, teacher input, questionnaire, pair work and class discussion resulted in a very good balance between the provision of accurate and essential information, students checking their own knowledge and exploring behaviours and attitudes. A case study on teenage pregnancy served as a stimulus for students to develop their group work skills, while exploring gender roles and reflecting on their own attitudes. In this case, students worked in groups of three to four, roles within the groups were clearly defined and the teacher circulated between groups, keeping students on task and joining in the discussion; feedback was then taken and the task was carefully processed; this is commended. It is always important when planning group work to consider how the feedback from groups is processed to maximise learning.
Some lessons provided very good examples of experiential learning in SPHE that involved students in the stages of experiencing, processing, generalising and application of the learning to their own lives. A lesson on friendship invited students to reflect on a time when you needed a friend and this was followed by pair-work that allowed them explore and discuss the important qualities of friendship, before rating themselves. They were then asked to reflect and be aware of themselves as friends over the coming week. A well-chosen song from a Disney movie on the theme of friendship provided a perfect ending to the lesson. The topic of developing a healthy lifestyle involved the teacher and the students modelling examples of poor posture, followed by checking students’ previous knowledge on the factors that affect health. Pair work, feedback and discussion, exploring what it means to be healthy and a video clip on healthy lifestyles followed. In a very commendable attempt to get students to apply the knowledge to their own lifestyles, they were encouraged to be aware of their posture in the coming week and, in addition, application forms to voluntarily take part in the eight-week Lifestyle Challenge were distributed and students displayed a very keen enthusiasm to participate.
Opportunities for students to develop skills and confidence in facilitation, reporting and group discussion were a central feature of many lessons. In a small number of cases it was noted that students who were more confident in speaking out in class sometimes dominated the discussion. It is suggested that the secure environment of SPHE class should be used to provide opportunities for students, who may be shy or apprehensive about speaking aloud in groups, to develop confidence in this area without fear of giving a wrong answer.
The level of active and experiential learning observed is commended and it is clear that many of the teachers involved in SPHE in St Mary’s Diocesan School have developed a great degree of skill and confidence in the successful use of a wide variety of methodologies. There is merit in sharing this experience and good practice and it is suggested that opportunities to share experiences in the effective use of methodologies be provided at some of the SPHE planning meetings.
In all classes visited, a pleasant and respectful atmosphere prevailed. It is clear that positive relationships exist and there is a very good rapport between students and their teachers. Student participation was warmly welcomed and encouraged and effective use was made of student affirmation. In some classes, an icebreaker was used before beginning the lesson, or, teachers spent a short time in conversation with the students; this was very effective in creating a relaxed atmosphere and in developing the pastoral relationship with students. The use of such strategies is commended and to be encouraged. Classroom management was excellent in all cases and the good practice of taking the roll call was noted. There were very good examples of reminding students of the ground rules, which had been agreed for the SPHE class, in order to establish a climate of trust and respect; this is commended.
In all classes visited, students engaged well with the learning activities. Interaction with students indicated that they had a good understanding and knowledge of the concepts related to the topics and they were comfortable and familiar with the methodologies used. They were enthusiastic about the subject and had a sense of the importance of SPHE for themselves.
It is noted that, in some classes, students have a folder for the subject, which serves as a method of filing and storage for the materials from the lessons; in some cases the folders are stored securely in the classroom and are distributed to students at the beginning of each lesson. This good practice of encouraging students to file their SPHE materials is commended as it ensures that students and parents have a visible record of work and achievement at the end of each year, and the material is easily accessible for students if they need to revisit a topic. In addition, it ensures that students’ work, which might be of a personal nature, is not left lying around the classroom for others to view. It is recommended that teachers generally should encourage their students to adopt a system for the collation and storage of materials so that students have a record of all the good work that is going on in the SPHE class.
Although individual teachers may provide students with opportunities for reflection in lessons, there is no assessment of students’ progress in SPHE. It is acknowledged that, to many, assessment appears contradictory to what SPHE is about. However, assessment in SPHE is not necessarily an end-of-year assessment of learning that measures how much or how well a topic has been learned, but rather an integral part of teaching and learning that involves students as much as teachers and where assessment is a tool for learning. It is recommended that the SPHE team in the school explore the area of assessment in SPHE and that planning for the assessment of students’ progress be incorporated with planning for teaching and learning. This would consolidate the very good work already taking place in teaching and learning. The suggestion in the previous paragraph regarding the filing of students’ work could also act as a basis for student self-assessment. Further information and advice on assessment in SPHE is available in the Guidelines for Teachers (pages 59-68) and from the SPHE Support Service. In addition teachers might also access the information on assessment for learning from the NCCA website (www.ncca.ie).
The following are the main strengths and areas for development 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 teachers of SPHE and with the principal, deputy principal and subject coordinator at the conclusion of the evaluation when the draft findings and recommendations of the evaluation were presented and discussed.