An Roinn Oideachais agus Eolaíochta

Department of Education and Science


Subject Inspection of Science and Physics & Chemistry (combined course)



St Mary’s Secondary School

Ballina, County Mayo

Roll number: 64520M


Date of inspection: 9, 10 May 2006

Date of issue of report: 26 October 2006


This Subject Inspection report

Subject Provision and Whole School Support

Planning and Preparation

Teaching and Learning

Assessment and Achievement

Summary of Main Findings and Recommendations


Report on the Quality of Learning and Teaching in Science and Physics and Chemistry (combined course)



This Subject Inspection report


This report has been written following a subject inspection in St Mary’s Secondary School, Ballina, County Mayo. It presents the findings of an evaluation of the quality of teaching and learning in Science and Physics and Chemistry (combined course) and makes recommendations for the further development of the teaching of these subjects 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, and 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.



Subject Provision and Whole School Support


Science is an optional subject in junior cycle in the school. Following a one-year taster programme, which includes all subjects in the school’s junior cycle curriculum, first-year students at St Mary’s choose the subjects which they will take to Junior Certificate level. The percentage of students choosing Science has risen to the extent that most of the current first years have chosen Science as one of the subjects that they will take in second year. This is reported to be a consequence of the new Science syllabus with its emphasis on student activity and the investigative approach to Science. It may have been further enhanced by the enthusiasm communicated by the third-year students in the school as they carried out their practical investigations in Science as part of the Junior Certificate Examination. As a result of the increase in the numbers opting for Science the school will have an additional Science class in second year. It is hoped that this trend will continue in succeeding years. All classes are of mixed ability. The first-year taster programme is supported by a formal transfer programme which assists students in making the transfer from primary to second-level education. The school is commended for the comprehensive approach which it is taking in this area.


The school offers Biology, Chemistry, and Physics and Chemistry (combined course) at senior cycle level and has also offered Physics in the recent past and will again from September next. Students are given an open choice of subjects for Leaving Certificate and virtually all students succeed in obtaining their desired subjects. The percentage of students taking Biology is very high and the numbers for the other Leaving Certificate Science subjects are substantially less that this. The school’s Transition Year (TY) programme includes a Science module which is allocated one double-class period each week. The curriculum for this module includes components of Physics, Chemistry and Biology, and there is an emphasis on investigative activities and small group work. According to TY students the school’s TY programme is of considerable assistance to them when making their choice of Leaving Certificate subjects in fourth year. In this regard and in the light of the relatively smaller numbers of students taking the physical sciences at senior-cycle level it is suggested that the Physics and Chemistry-related content in the TY Science module be covered earlier in the school year so that students may gain a better idea of the nature and applications of Physics and Chemistry before making subject choices. It may be necessary to increase the time allotted to the module to accommodate this change. This might result in an increase in the number of students taking the physical sciences at Leaving Certificate level. It is also suggested that Transition Year should provide an opportunity for teachers and students to become familiar with the use of ICT in teaching and learning.


With the exception of the first-year Science classes, which each have one double class per week only, each Science class has the appropriate time allocation and also a double class each week. The school has a demonstration room and three Science laboratories, with adjacent storage and preparation areas, and these are designated for Biology, Chemistry, and Physics. The laboratories and demonstration room are very well maintained and in very good condition except that in the case of the Physics and the Chemistry laboratories there is an ongoing problem of a structural nature due to dampness penetrating through the ceiling of these rooms in places. The school has been active in seeking to have these problems addressed, but without success so far. This is an understandable source of concern to the school especially in the light of the priority which it accords to high quality care and maintenance of its facilities. Teachers reported that adequate equipment for Science was available and that there are procedures for acquiring equipment as necessary with a dedicated budget for Science. Appropriate safety equipment is also available. There is plenty of visual stimulation for students with displays of relevant material on the laboratory walls. It is suggested that the storage of chemicals be improved through the use of a steel press.


All the Science facilities, with the exception of the Biology laboratory, which will be demolished when the school receives its new building, are equipped for broadband. Science classes have access to data projectors and laptops. The Science staff carries out a stock take each year in line with best practice. The school is about to review its safety statement and each of the Science teachers has a copy of the current safety statement. Safe work practices were evident in all practical classes inspected.


There are five teachers of Science in the school, one of whom is also a Home Economics teacher. An induction programme for new teachers is led by the school principal. As well as attending nationally-organised continuing professional development (CPD) teachers of Science have also had school-based CPD. Among the co-curricular activities in which students participate is the locally-organised Junior Certificate Science quiz.



Planning and Preparation


The school has been active in school development planning with the assistance of the School Development Planning Initiative (SDPI) and as part of this each subject department in the school was accommodated in meeting to commence planning on a subject department basis. The Science staff has played its role in this initiative and has commenced work on a Science plan. This planning work is building on a tradition of the Science staff meeting each year to plan such items as laboratory allocation, textbooks for junior cycle, and equipment requirements. The position of co-ordinator of Science rotates each year and this means that all Science teachers have an involvement. The work currently being carried out in the area of planning is reflective of the co-operation and mutual support which exists in the Science department.


At this stage in the development of subject department planning in the school the Science staff should build on the high quality planning already being done on an individual basis and which was observed in the course of the inspection. The upcoming provision of a new laboratory in the school could form a background for such planning which, as well as building on the current approach to stock-taking each year, should also include planning for texts, experimental work, joint assessments, course planning and methodologies, and the integration of ICT. As the planning process develops the teaching and learning requirements of students with special educational needs in Science should also be addressed.


Appropriate planning and preparation had been carried out for all lessons. Where exemplary practice was in evidence lesson planning included a statement of the aims of the lesson and descriptions of teacher and student activity throughout the lesson. Comprehensive teacher planning files were viewed during the inspection and all teachers showed a high level of subject expertise. Teachers are commended on the thoroughness and high quality of their planning for lessons. 



Teaching and Learning


The lessons observed covered the following topics: food tests, oxidation and reduction, titrations, pressure and boiling point, and action of an enzyme. A variety of methodologies was observed including demonstrations by teachers and student practical work, teacher presentation and questioning, and in one case use of ICT. The use made of ICT in the class inspected was appropriate to the topic being covered.


All classes were well managed and rapport between students and teacher varied from very good to excellent. Classes were almost all conducted at a pace which was appropriate to the students and to the material being covered. Questioning in almost all cases was directed towards individual students and students were generally given sufficient time to answer. In all classes observed students were fully engaged and participated fully. In a minority of the classes inspected it was observed that there was an imbalance between the contributions being required of students as opposed to the contribution of the teacher to the class.


The practical work observed was well planned and organised. Where practical classes were well conducted the student practical work was preceded by teacher demonstration and appropriate safety precautions were taken. In these classes students were clearly aware of the purpose of the experimental work which they were carrying out and the class finished up with a discussion of the results of the practical work. The student practical work observed was characterised by a high level of teacher-student interaction with the teacher moving about continually and checking on students’ progress and understanding. Students collaborated well in carrying out the experimental work.



Assessment and Achievement


Assessment of student achievement in Science and in Physics and Chemistry (combined) at a formal school level takes place twice yearly including the mock examinations for third years and for sixth years. Each teacher has regular class tests and they monitor students’ performance of practical work and provide feedback to students. This is in accordance with best practice in this area. All teachers keep thorough records including the outcomes of student assessment.  


Students have notebooks for the Science subjects which they use in some cases to take notes in class and most also have a separate means of recording practical work being carried out and another notebook for homework assigned. While students’ notebooks were generally well ordered, it would be useful if as part of subject department planning, teachers were to develop procedures so as to clarify explicitly for students the purpose of each type of notebook and the benefit to the student of keeping that notebook in good order. As part of this process it is recommended that student notebooks of whatever type, including homework notebooks or copies, be taken up regularly and feedback given to students. This process should commence in first year.


Homework is set by all teachers on a regular basis. Types of homework assigned include write-ups of practical work, examination papers, and end-of-chapter questions. Homework copies are not generally taken up. The monitoring of student homework and the provision of feedback to students on their homework is strongly correlated with enhancing student achievement. Hence it is recommended that teachers should monitor homework and should provide feedback to students on an ongoing basis.


As follow-on to the regular feedback to students through their performance of experimental work, homework and in-class assessments the teachers of Science in the school should investigate the feasibility of giving credit in all of these areas in the formal school examinations.



Summary of Main Findings and Recommendations


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 Science, and Physics and Chemistry (combined course) and with the principal and deputy principal at the conclusion of the evaluation when the draft findings and recommendations of the evaluation were presented and discussed.