An Roinn Oideachais agus Eolaíochta
Department of Education and Science
Subject Inspection of Mathematics
St. Louis Secondary School
Dundalk, County Louth
Roll number: 63910U
Date of inspection: 18 May 2006
Date of issue of report: 26 October 2006
Report on the Quality of Learning and Teaching in Mathematics
This report has been written following a subject inspection in St. Louis Secondary School, Dundalk. It presents the findings of an evaluation of the quality of teaching and learning in Mathematics 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 principal and 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 subject teachers. 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 to this report.
The time allocated to Mathematics at St. Louis Secondary School, with five periods per week at junior cycle and between three and seven periods per week at senior cycle (including Transition Year and Leaving Certificate Applied), meets the requirements for the subject in all programmes. However, the organisation of this time sees classes for two year groups occurring on only four of the five days of the week. While acknowledging the many demands on the school timetable, daily exposure to Mathematics would afford students better opportunity to maintain more immediate contact with, and absorb, new concepts within the hierarchical structure of the subject. Therefore, it is recommended that all possible efforts be made to schedule Mathematics lessons for each of the five days of the week. In addition, the positioning of lessons could be improved, so that each class group would have a balance of morning and afternoon periods throughout the week.
The commitment of teacher resources to Mathematics is highly commended, with additional class groupings established in four year groups in the school, allowing the formation of small or level-appropriate classes for students; in the case of one year group, an additional two class groupings have been established for Mathematics. Average class sizes range from nineteen to twenty-three, with Leaving Certificate Applied having thirteen students, providing the opportunity for significant levels of attention for individual students.
The allocation of teachers to individual Mathematics classes is the responsibility of senior management. Currently three members of the Mathematics team undertake Leaving Certificate higher level, but apart from that, it is practice and policy for levels to be rotated among the members of the team. Teachers generally remain with the same classes from second to third year and from fifth to sixth year, thus maintaining appropriately high levels of continuity.
It is school policy for first-year students to be taught in mixed-ability classes. There is, consequently, no requirement for first-year Mathematics classes to be timetabled together. It is to be commended, however, that Mathematics classes from second year onwards are concurrently timetabled across each year group, allowing students every opportunity to take the subject at the level most appropriate for them. It is to be commended also, that teachers, through regular monitoring, including the strategic use of common tests, maximise the potential offered by this timetabling arrangement. In line with good practice, and as stated in the Mathematics department’s mission statement, students are encouraged to study the subject at the highest level possible for as long as possible.
The Mathematics department in St. Louis Secondary School is quite large, with twelve teachers, not all Mathematics specialists, involved in the teaching of the subject. In that context, a challenge arises for the department in achieving effective cohesion in planning and delivering the Mathematics programme. It is recommended, therefore that the school work towards developing a core team of Mathematics teachers, who will each be allocated significant contact time with the subject and who will be qualified to the appropriate level.
Students identified as having particular difficulty with Mathematics can avail of a programme of withdrawal from class for individual or small-group tuition, or can be facilitated in studying the subject at foundation level in one of the specially formed classes from second to sixth year. Students of higher ability who opt to take the subject at higher level in senior cycle are supported through the allocation of additional lesson periods during their Leaving Certificate programme.
The Mathematics department has a commendably wide range of resources to support the teaching and learning of the subject. These include mathematical games, three-dimensional geometric figures, ‘real-life’ puzzles, set loops and elements, and computer hardware and software. A storage room has recently been assigned to Mathematics and teachers have ready access to all support materials. In addition, targeted resources are available in the learning support room.
Teachers are kept informed of, and facilitated in accessing in-service courses; seminars provided by the Junior Certificate Mathematics Support Service (JCMSS) have been attended by relevant teachers and the Regional Development Officer for the Support Service has visited the school. In addition, the school funds membership of the Irish Mathematics Teachers’ Association and encourages participation in its activities.
The work of the Mathematics department is ably co-ordinated by a senior teacher who takes an overview of activities within the department. Given that this work is carried out in a voluntary capacity, it may be appropriate for another member of the team to share the responsibility and workload. This could, in time, facilitate the rotation of the position of co-ordinator.
Time is made available for teachers to plan and, to date, this time has been used to good effect to develop a policy document and agree year programmes. Informal discussions also take place between Mathematics teachers teaching in the same year groups.
The Mathematics team have made considerable progress in planning. The commitment and effort involved in producing the Mathematics policy document is acknowledged and the product is a solid basis for future departmental collaboration. The document includes aims and objectives for mathematics education, a description of supports available in Mathematics, record keeping and reporting, and agreed programmes of work, commendably linked to sections of the appropriate syllabus, for all year groups and levels. With regard to the programmes of work, it is suggested that they be reviewed so as to focus on key skills within topics, and methodologies and resources that can appropriately assist students in acquiring these key skills. Other suggested amendments to documentation, as discussed with the Mathematics team, include the acknowledging of current practice as well as the stating of department aspirations.
The Transition Year plan for Mathematics includes mathematical games, quizzes and projects along with elements from the Leaving Certificate course. It is not clear, however, how students will experience Leaving Certificate coursework in a way that is different to past and future Certificate studies. To this end, useful support is available at www.slss.ie, where resources and newsletters that outline teaching and learning strategies, interdisciplinary links and curriculum ideas relevant to Transition Year Mathematics class, can be accessed. In addition, the suggested template for module writing, available in the brochure Writing a Transition Year Plan, should provide assistance.
A number of teachers made individual planning notes and resources available for inspection during the visit; these included more detailed programmes of work, revision handouts, study tips and a variety of examination materials.
The content of lessons observed was in line with syllabus requirements, appropriate to level of study, and teachers were well prepared for their teaching. Teachers’ presentation of work was clear and lessons were well structured. Students were attentive to their work and showed a keen interest in achieving in Mathematics. Many teachers had high expectations for students, who responded with high levels of engagement with the topic and quality responses to questions posed. A very positive working relationship between students and teachers was evident in all classes visited and classroom management was highly appropriate and effective.
With one notable exception, teaching observed was traditional in style; typically teachers presented work at the board and followed this with the setting of work for individual student practice. It is acknowledged, however, that in discussion with teachers, it was reported that there have been other occasions on which alternative teaching methodologies have been used in class. Teachers are, nonetheless, encouraged to further expand on the traditional teaching style, keeping in mind students’ different preferred learning styles and the benefits to be gained from more actively involving students in their learning. Sample lessons can be accessed from many sources including the JCMSS, the publication Junior Certificate Mathematics Guidelines for Teachers and the Scoilnet website. Certain courses available through the Second Level Support Service, while not specifically for Mathematics teachers, also provide the opportunity for the exploration of a range of teaching methodologies.
There were many examples of good practice in Mathematics teaching in St. Louis Secondary School. These included the use of a practical and active exercise as an aid to promoting student understanding, which was highly motivating for students and is commended. In addition, there was the linking of current with previous work and the use of appropriate mathematics terminology by both students and teachers.
Much interaction between teachers and students took the form of brief answers to questions focused on finding the next steps to a solution. There were some very good examples, however, where teachers built on students’ answers, probing and extending students’ understanding and encouraging them to explain and justify their thinking and methods. This good practice helps students to consolidate their learning and maintain engagement with the topic at hand and it is important, therefore, that a range of questioning strategies be employed in all lessons. In line with good practice, student effort was, in all cases, affirmed by teachers.
Student progress is formally and regularly assessed in class tests and term examinations and teachers maintain records of results obtained by students. Parents/guardians are kept informed of their child’s progress in a range of appropriate ways, including, for the general school body, twice yearly written reports. This year, as an innovation, monthly progress reports have been issued to parents of third and sixth-year students. The school is commended on its willingness to amend its reporting systems in this way and on the enhancement of its communications with parents.
Achievements in work covered in class and in study can be seen in student copybooks; an examination of a sample of Mathematics copybooks at St. Louis Secondary School revealed work that was appropriate, relevant and generally well presented. There were some examples of excellent student work and these students are to be commended. However, there was not always clear evidence that teachers were monitoring students’ copybooks. It is recommended that teachers take the time to annotate and/or comment in students’ copybooks as a motivational strategy and in accordance with the principles of an ‘assessment for learning’ approach.
An analysis of students’ performance in the State examinations over the last four years indicates that uptake rates at higher and ordinary levels are good. It is recommended that discussion and review of uptake rates, as well as results, form a regular and natural part of the planning activities of the Mathematics department.
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 recommendations are made:
Post-evaluation meetings were held with the principal and with the teachers of Mathematics at the conclusion of the evaluation at which 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
We have a core team of qualified and experienced Mathematics teachers which we consider to be excellent.
We are satisfied with the cohesion in planning and the delivery of the Mathematics programme and our regular evaluations of same.
The size of the Department allows for:
Methodology: - the traditional style of teaching is the methodology most widely used with other methods used as appropriate in the delivery of the course.