An Roinn Oideachais agus Eolaíochta
Department of Education and Science
Subject Inspection of Biology
Blakestown Community School
Blanchardstown, Dublin 15
Roll number: 91316Q
Date of inspection: 9 & 12 March 2007
Date of issue of report: 4 October 2007
Report on the Quality of Learning and Teaching in Biology
This report has been written following a subject inspection in Blakestown Community School. It presents the findings of an evaluation of the quality of teaching and learning in Biology 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 and the 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 evaluation of Leaving Certificate Biology at Blakestown Community School was carried out over the course of two days. It began with a visit to a double sixth-year biology class. This was followed by a pre-evaluation meeting with the principal. Following this, a double fifth-year and a double sixth-year biology lesson were observed. Subsequently, a meeting was held with the biology teachers at which the objectives and procedures of the evaluation were explained.
The location of Blakestown Community School has been recognised as an area of social and economic disadvantage by successive governments. The school was given disadvantaged status by the Department of Education and Science and as a result is in receipt of funding and other supports to assist students in attending and benefiting from their time spent in school. The school has also been included in the current DEIS programme. Due to local demographic changes, student numbers have fallen recently and the number of teachers in the school is currently in excess of quota. This has enabled the school to reduce class sizes, to the benefit of students.
Junior Certificate Science is a core subject for all junior cycle students. Classes are generally streamed but not rigidly so. Four class periods, mostly in the form of a double and two single periods, are allocated to all Junior Certificate science classes. This is within syllabus guidelines. There is a maximum class size in Science of twenty-four students.
Following the Junior Certificate examination, students choose between the Leaving Certificate Applied (LCA) programme and the Leaving Certificate Established (LCE). The school is currently offering Biology and Physics/Chemistry as optional subjects for students who choose the LCE. During third year and following consultation with the Guidance Counsellor, subject teachers and their parents, students are surveyed regarding their subject preferences. The results of the survey are used to create a “best-fit” model of options from which students make their final choice of subjects. Biology is the more popular of the two science subjects. When numbers are sufficiently large, separate higher and ordinary level biology classes are created. Maximum class size, once again, is twenty-four students. Most biology classes are timetabled for two double periods and one single period per week, or one double and three single periods in some cases, both of which are in line with syllabus requirements.
There are three teachers of Biology in the school. Opportunities have been availed of for continuing professional development during recent and current national in-service training programmes in Leaving Certificate Biology and Junior Certificate Science. Management is commended on the commitment given to facilitate attendance at in-service training. Extra- and co-curricular activities include visits to the BA Festival of Science, to the BT Young Scientist and Technology exhibition and to exhibitions during Science Week. Active contacts are also maintained with the science faculty of DCU. The work of the science teachers in this regard is praiseworthy. One teacher is also a member of the Irish Science Teachers Association (ISTA).
There are three laboratories and a demonstration room in the school. The laboratories are separately designated Physics, Chemistry and Biology and all accommodate Junior Certificate Science. They are in reasonable condition, well maintained, and are adequate for their purpose. The three laboratories share a common storage and preparation area. This area is well stocked, well maintained and well ordered, with chemicals being appropriately stored. Most science classes are held in a laboratory and the laboratories are used entirely for science subjects. Access to a laboratory for specific classes is timetabled in advance. A variety of posters and charts were observed on the laboratory walls, including student-generated work, creating an attractive and stimulating learning environment.
A laptop computer is available for the use of the biology teachers when required and the laboratories are broadband-enabled. In addition, there are three IT rooms in the school which may be booked for specific class periods.
A range of health and safety equipment was observed, including a first aid kit, fire extinguishers and fire blankets. A high priority was given to the active management of safety issues during student practical work as evidenced by the carrying out of a risk assessment in advance of the practical activity in one lesson observed. There is a health and safety statement in the school, drawn up a number of years ago. It is reviewed every three to four years and a review was recently completed. It is recommended that more frequent reviews of this statement be carried out. In addition, a current laboratory safety manual was also presented to the inspector. This manual is very thorough and includes a risk assessment of the three laboratories, safety rules for students and, notably, safety rules for staff also. This is excellent practice.
There is evidence of a strong sense of collegiality among the biology teachers. A very well organised formal science department is in place and there is a recognised position of co-ordinator, which is a post of responsibility. The duties of the co-ordinator include convening and chairing regular subject department meetings, organising laboratory timetables to ensure that all classes have maximum access to the laboratories, ordering equipment and chemicals, organising a Science open night for incoming first-year students, organising book lists, circulating relevant information from the Department of Education and Science among science teachers and organising long-term curricular planning. There is a set agenda for formal meetings and there are at least three of these each year. It is intended to have two formal meetings of the science department each term in future. The coordinator keeps minutes of all formal meetings and records follow up actions, where relevant. Informal contact between the biology teachers is frequent and issues of immediate concern are dealt with. The biology teachers are to be complimented for their excellent level of cooperation. There is no formal budget allocated to the sciences. However, funds are provided as required and teachers have expressed satisfaction with the level of support they receive.
Extensive subject planning is being carried out in Biology and a range of excellent and detailed planning documents for fifth year and sixth year Biology was presented. The biology syllabus, commendably, is the basis of the plans and reference to the mandatory practicals and methodologies is also included. Schemes of work, based on the planning documents, were also presented. These schemes describe the topics to be taught, on a weekly basis, and include references to homework and resources required. The topics being taught in the lessons observed were in line with the planning documents. It was also noted that a large volume of excellent classroom resources, such as student work sheets, handouts and assessment sheets, have been prepared by teachers and are available for use by all department members. This is very praiseworthy.
It was evident that the biology teachers had carried out specific and thorough preparation in advance of the inspection and folders with contextual information on and records of each class visited were presented to the inspector. Lesson plans were also included for the observed lessons. Teachers were familiar with the subject matter of their lessons and there was a theme running through each lesson. Materials necessary for class, along with the chemicals and apparatus required for student centred investigative work, had been prepared in advance. This preparation contributed to the quality of learning and is praiseworthy.
In all classes visited, there was a disciplined atmosphere. Commendably, rapport with students was very good and a high level of respect was evident. Teachers were enthusiastic, warm, patient and considerate of students. Their approach to their work was professional and business-like and a good learning environment was evident in all lessons observed. Good progress was made in all lessons. The level of two-way communication in classrooms was relevant to the task at hand. Students were well behaved, attentive, interested and anxious to participate in the learning process. The topics covered in the classes observed included DNA extraction, immobilised enzymes and the structure and functions of flowers and fruits.
A range of teaching methodologies was observed, including student practical work, board work, questioning, explanations, student work sheets and written work. Teachers were very knowledgeable regarding their subject matter and there was excellent use of scientific terminology throughout all the lessons observed. Lessons proceeded at a suitable pace. Students were challenged by lesson content and responded well. Good progress was made in all classes. Continuity from previous lessons was good and new information was well linked to previous learning. Lessons were well planned and had a clear focus. This is excellent practice.
Of particular note was the manner in which material was presented, in some instances, by means of pictures and diagrams in order to make it more accessible to students while, at the same time, not sacrificing content or meaning. This is excellent practice. Teacher inputs were short, clear and to the point and were followed by appropriate student activities. On one or two occasions there was scope for the use of, for example, an overhead projector to vary the presentation. There was an excellent balance between teacher-centred and student-centred activities in the lessons observed. The enthusiasm with which teachers presented material, combined with the follow up student activities, attracted and maintained the interest of students.
Practical work was efficiently managed in all classes. During the observed student practical work the students worked alone or in groups of up to three. It was obvious from their behaviour that the students were accustomed to carrying out practical work and the biology teachers are to be praised for their commitment to seeing that their students get the opportunity to do this practical work themselves. Students displayed a very good level of skills during the course of their work and demonstrated a mature approach. Best practice was observed where students were prepared for carrying out their practical work by the excellent use of a plenary session to review the theory and practice of their activity before bench work started, with a similar plenary session when the activity was complete, in order to review the work done and to emphasise what had been learned.
Teacher movement among the students, assisting, examining and encouraging, was evident in the lessons observed. Teachers were very affirming of student effort and were always encouraging and positive in correcting students with appropriate interventions. This is praiseworthy. Good practice concerning the minimal use of textbooks was apparent and reference to appropriate passages in textbooks was used to reinforce learning and to assist in homework preparation. Homework given was appropriate to the lesson content and was designed to assist students in learning and retaining the topic.
The excellent practice of making students aware of the objectives of a lesson at the beginning of a class period was observed in some lessons. The lesson objectives were clear and concise, and were achieved. This is motivating to students as well as giving a sense of purpose and direction to classroom work. It can encourage a degree of self-assessment by students within the class and help individual students to monitor their own progress. It is recommended that this excellent practice be extended to all lessons and that lesson objectives are reviewed at the end of each lesson to highlight the progress that has been made.
Students demonstrated a positive attitude towards Biology as evidenced by the level of engagement and interest observed during the lessons visited. Students displayed a good level of knowledge, understanding and skills during interaction with the inspector. Formative assessment of students is carried out on an ongoing basis by questioning in class, through correction of homework and through teacher movement and observation of students during class.
Students kept laboratory notebooks and workbooks up to date as evidence of practical work being carried out. This is a very important aspect of new and revised syllabi in the science area. While the quality of some of the notebooks was excellent, some others were of a lesser quality, and overall there was some variation. It is recommended that all teachers check and annotate laboratory notebooks on a regular basis. This is an excellent means of encouraging students and of pointing the way towards improvement. In addition, it is recommended that the copy used to record laboratory work be separate from those used for keeping class notes or homework.
First-, second- and fifth-year students are assessed by means of Christmas and summer examinations. Questions on mandatory practical work are included in these examinations and papers are designed to mimic the certificate examination papers. Up to ten percent of marks are also awarded to junior cycle students for their laboratory notebooks. The certificate examination classes do not sit Christmas examinations, but sit mock examinations in the spring instead. The teachers assess these scripts. Additional testing is at the discretion of individual teachers. Records of assessment are held in teachers’ own diaries and in report books in the school office.
Results of assessments and progress reports are communicated to parents by means of Christmas and summer reports for first-, second- and fifth-year students, and following mock examinations for third- and sixth-year students. Communication with parents is also achieved by means of parent-teacher meetings, held twice per year for each class. There are four such meetings in total each year, two for certificate examination classes and two for first-, second- and fifth-year classes. Tutor-parent meetings are also held for all students in the first term each year. In addition, the student journal that all students are required to keep is used to communicate with parents. Tutors inspect and sign this journal weekly and parents are requested to sign it each night. The school operates an open door policy to parents who are encouraged to contact the school if they have any concerns regarding their children’s performance.
There was evidence of excellent and very comprehensive record keeping by teachers, covering such areas as student attendance, assessments, seating plans, behaviour, parent-teacher meeting attendance and work completed. This is good practice. The recorded information can be used to build up student profiles and can form the basis of very useful evidence in communicating student progress to parents and in advising both students and parents on choice of subjects at senior level and on what level of examination paper to choose in certificate examinations.
The following are the main strengths 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 Biology and with the principal at the conclusion of the evaluation when the draft findings and recommendations of the evaluation were presented and discussed.