An Roinn Oideachais agus Eolaíochta
Department of Education and Science
Subject Inspection of Science and Biology
Carlow Vocational School
Kilkenny Road, Carlow
Roll number: 70420R
Date of inspection: 10 May 2007
Date of issue of report: 21 February 2008
Report on the Quality of Learning and Teaching in Science and Biology
This report has been written following a subject inspection in Carlow Vocational School. 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 the subjects 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 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 students in mainstream second-level education, including repeat students, comprise about one quarter of the total population of Carlow Vocational School. The remainder of the school population is made up of Post-Leaving Certificate (PLC) students. All of the four senior science subjects: Biology, Physics, Chemistry and Agricultural Science are currently available as subjects for Leaving Certificate and repeat Leaving Certificate students. Some of the PLC courses offered are science based and many of the teachers of the mainstream science subjects also teach modules in the PLC courses. This, coupled with the provision of repeat Leaving Certificate classes, enables the school to maintain teaching expertise in each specialist subject area of the sciences. There is strong commitment by staff and management to maintaining each senior science subject on the Leaving Certificate curriculum and these subjects are often timetabled even when chosen by a small number of students. Leaving Certificate science subjects are offered to students on the basis of a system of free choice. Students and their parents are given advice on choice of subject and programme by the school’s guidance counsellor, which is best practice.
Science is provided for most Junior Certificate and Junior Certificate School Programme (JCSP) class groups in first, second and third year. However, Science is not timetabled for those class groups that are made up of students who have been educationally assessed as having a general or a specific learning difficulty with low levels of literacy or numeracy skills. Consideration could be given to offering Science classes to these groups. Science could be timetabled for a small number of class periods per week and the students could follow the JCSP learning targets for Science, without necessarily taking the examination in the subject. The learning targets in JCSP Science relate strongly to everyday life and would provide for the development of important skills, knowledge and attitudes.
Science is provided as a core subject in the Transition Year (TY) programme. This gives students a valuable opportunity to sample the science subjects at senior cycle before making choices for Leaving Certificate.
Science is not currently an element of the Leaving Certificate Applied (LCA) programme. Given that only a small number of students go through the school without having studied any science subject at all, it is recommended that consideration would be given to including Science as an elective subject in the LCA programme.
The time allocated to the science subjects on the school timetable meets syllabus recommendations. Leaving Certificate science subjects are timetabled for five class periods per week which includes two double periods. Science classes are timetabled for four periods per week including one double period. Each class group is timetabled for weekly laboratory access, which is best practice.
There are two modern laboratories in the school and these contain ample resources for practical work in all of the science subjects. The laboratories and the adjoining preparation areas are very well organised. Both the laboratories and the adjacent corridor have been enhanced with modern science charts and posters. The laboratories are fitted with good quality boards and overhead projectors, and audiovisual facilities are also available.
Modern datalogging equipment is available in the laboratories although it is used mainly for Leaving Certificate Chemistry. It is recommended that the science department would explore ways in which this equipment could be used to support practical work in Science and Biology. Management has extended Broadband internet capacity to the laboratories but the existing information and communication technology (ICT) equipment is outdated. It is recommended that modern ICT equipment and resources, which would support teaching and learning in the sciences, would be sourced and developed over the next few years and made available to the laboratories. An excellent range of such resources is available electronically on the websites of both the Biology and Junior Science Support Services. Furthermore, it is recommended that teachers should consider availing of some computer training or networking with teachers in other schools who have successfully integrated both ICT and datalogging into their teaching practice, in order to make maximum use of such facilities. Eagerness to develop resources and expertise in these ways was demonstrated during the inspection visit and this is highly commended. All teachers have attended recent in-service training in each of the revised science syllabuses.
The school’s Health and Safety statement is reviewed annually and the science teachers can make an input into this review. This is commended. Emergency shut off facilities are present in the laboratories. The school’s science safety folder contains a review of safety legislation, lists of laboratory precautions, ` safe work practice sheets, details of the proper storage of chemicals and Department of Education and Science safety publications. Students and their parents must sign a safety agreement for practical work in the laboratories. This is good practice.
Good planning practices are in place and a collegial, supportive and progressive science department exists in the school. Science department planning meetings take place on three to four occasions per year and the school principal sometimes attends the meetings. One member of the science department acts as convenor on a rotating basis and this promotes overall development of the subject. Minutes are kept of all meetings, which is best practice. Items discussed at the meetings include laboratory organisation, enhancement of facilities and the promotion of the subjects.
A detailed science plan has been developed which includes aims, teaching and learning methodologies, lists of resources and general arrangements for the subjects. The school’s mission statement is included in the science plan, aiming to “encourage respect and responsibility….drawing on the positive potential of each individual”. This is commended. It is recommended that the good work in the science plan would be built on by including a section on specific action plans. These should set out and frame long-term goals and strategies for the development of science in the school over the next one to five years.
Teachers’ plans for individual class groups were thorough. The syllabus document was evident and central to all planning work and plans detailed teaching approaches, assessment strategies, resources and homework, and also provided time for regular revision of topics. Some of the plans for certain class groups included details of individual students’ academic grades and their progress. This was particularly evident for JCSP students. In some cases, individual self-evaluation of the weekly scheme of work and end-of-term evaluation was evident in the notes made in the planning documents. This is considered good practice. In all cases an excellent range of resources and assessment instruments had been sourced for each topic, and these often included references to educational websites. Preparation for individual lessons was also excellent.
The plan for TY Science is to be commended for the inclusion of many topics from outside the Leaving Certificate syllabus and the provision of varied learning opportunities. Opportunities are provided for exploring some ethical issues in science and this is commended. The TY science programme is evaluated by both teacher and student on an annual basis.
Lessons observed had a clear learning intention that was conveyed to students at the beginning of the lesson. Each lesson was clearly structured and the teachers ensured that both the pace and content were appropriate to the abilities of the class group.
Classroom management was effective and the students were attentive. Teachers were constantly encouraging their students to respond, ensuring their full participation in all lessons. A genuine interest in the progress and learning of the individual student was evident and an encouraging level of respect was apparent in all student-teacher interactions. A warm, business-like and affirmative style characterised each lesson and this clearly facilitated learning. This is highly commended.
In all lessons observed teachers displayed excellent competence in the subject area and this was reflected in their teaching. A variety of appropriate teaching methodologies was employed and lessons were diverse in nature. Strategies included good use of the blackboard to highlight important terms, excellent questioning and the use of prepared transparencies to aid revision. These practices are highly commended.
Teachers used a variety of resources, which were suitable to the topic being covered, to support learning. The use of plants and biological models proved particularly effective. Past examination papers and worksheets were used widely and appropriately with those classes preparing for examinations.
Skilful questioning strategies were employed throughout the lessons observed which led to all students being engaged in the learning process and to learning being maximised. Questions asked were suitably challenging and appropriate to the ability level of the particular group; this was the case whether the class was a repeat Leaving Certificate higher-level biology group moving at a fast pace or a group of students who were preparing for the ordinary-level examination in Science. Questions ranged from information retrieval type questions to higher-order questions that were linked to other areas of study, and were directed both at individuals and to the class group. Affirmation was given constructively and prompting was used skilfully to allow students to arrive at the correct answer themselves, or often collectively as a group.
Students demonstrated their learning in many ways throughout the visit; they responded to questions confidently and contributed regularly to class discussions. Responses varied according to individual ability, but overall a high standard of learning was demonstrated. Students are encouraged to participate in co-curricular activities including participation in national and local science-related competitions. For example, a successful student poster competition on global warming introduced some contemporary scientific issues and raised the profile of the subject around the school. Such activities are commended as they encourage independent learning.
Students are assessed in a variety of ways with appropriate frequency and in a manner that allows them to become more autonomous in their own learning. In addition to classroom questioning, there was evidence that tests and homework were frequently given. In general, very good work was seen in student copies where attention to detail was evident. The practice of teachers providing quality feedback on students’ written work was also evident in student copies. This greatly facilitated learning and is commended. The repeat Leaving Certificate students in particular, had completed numerous past questions which were handed up and carefully corrected in detail. In most cases, tests and questions from past examinations were corrected according to a transparent marking scheme. However, there was scope for the expansion of this practice among some groups.
The school has put many valuable initiatives in place to support the completion of homework. These include a homework club, individual mentoring, supervised study and the use of the student journal. In addition to these initiatives, the school profiles each student three times per year and frequent assessments are implemented, all of which are commended.
Laboratory records were comprehensively written up with good attention to detail and they were well monitored by the teachers. Student laboratory records are generally kept in the laboratory. The vast majority of Science students have completed a full set of Coursework A practicals and have written up the associated laboratory reports. However, there were a very small number of students for whom this was not the case. This has arisen because some students did not attend on the day of a particular practical or did not complete the associated written laboratory report. Teachers are well aware of this issue and have suggested some ways of dealing with this. It is recommended that the science department would prioritise this for discussion at their next subject department meeting.
The school’s assessment policy is integrated into the school’s guidance policy. All students have school-based assessments at Christmas and the non-examination class groups are assessed in the summer term. Sixth-year and third-year students sit ‘mock’ examinations in late February. Results from these assessments help to provide a basis for informed comment on student progress to parents in the school’s term reports. A parent-teacher meeting is held annually for each year group.
The following are the main strengths identified in the evaluation:
· The science subjects feature strongly in the curriculum and senior management has provided very well for them in the school.
· Good planning practices were evident. Self-evaluation and review practices are in place.
· A collegial, supportive and progressive science department exists in this school.
· A very good range of resources were available to support teaching and learning.
· Secure, affirmative and appropriately challenging learning environments were evident.
· A variety of appropriate teaching methodologies was employed and lessons were diverse in nature.
· Skilful questioning strategies were employed allowing the teachers to engage all students in the learning process and to maximise learning.
· Students were encouraged to participate in co-curricular activities.
· Students were assessed in a variety of ways with appropriate frequency and in a manner that allowed them to become more autonomous learners.
· In general, very good work was evident in student copies, tests and laboratory records, where attention to detail was evident.
As a means of building on these strengths and to address areas for development, the following key recommendations are made:
· Consideration should be given to the inclusion of Science as an elective subject in the LCA programme and to the provision of Science classes for all students in junior cycle.
· Given the commitment by staff to sourcing and utilising modern information and communication technology (ICT) resources in everyday teaching and learning, management should consider investing in ICT equipment for the laboratories.
· The science department should explore ways in which the existing datalogging equipment could be used to support practical work in Science and Biology.
· The science plan should be further developed by including specific action plans that would set out and frame long-term goals and strategies for the development of science in the school over the next one to five years.
Post-evaluation meetings were held with the teachers 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.