An Roinn Oideachais agus Eolaíochta
Department of Education and Science
Subject Inspection of Science and Chemistry
St. Mary’s Secondary School
Convent of Mercy, Mallow, County Cork
Roll number: 62350D
Date of issue of report: 26 April 2007
the Quality of Learning and Teaching in Science and Chemistry
This report has been written following a subject inspection in St. Mary’s Secondary School. It presents the findings of an evaluation of the quality of teaching and learning in Science and Chemistry 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 and subject teachers. The board of management 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 of this report.
There is good support for the study of Science in St. Mary’s Secondary School, as all students study Science in first year, and almost all students continue with the subject for Junior Certificate. Taking cognisance of the large proportion of students taking Science for Junior Certificate, and the occasional uptake of Biology for Leaving Certificate by a small minority of students who have not studied Junior Certificate Science, consideration could be given to making Science a core subject. A broad range of science subjects is offered at senior cycle. Students may study Biology, Chemistry, and Physics. The uptake of Chemistry and Biology for Leaving Certificate is good. Currently there is no fifth-year physics class. While acknowledging that subject choice is student driven, examination of the factors that affect students’ subject choices at senior cycle is advised. The results of this examination might inform strategies that encourage greater uptake of Physics at senior cycle. The school offers the Transition Year (TY) programme during which students gain further exposure to the sciences. This is good practice as it informs students’ choices when selecting their senior-cycle subjects. The school’s commitment to developing the scientific literacy of students is evidenced by the provision of modules of Biology, Chemistry and Physics for three class groups in Transition Year, and Science and life skills for the fourth class group. The provision of Science in the Leaving Certificate Applied Programme (LCA) in the form of elective modules is commended, as it provides an opportunity to enhance the science-process skills of these students, while simultaneously catering for those students who may need the modules for entry into some beauty therapy courses.
A subject taster system is in operation in first year. This is praiseworthy as it assists students in making informed subject choices for Junior Certificate. Subject choice at the end of first year and for Leaving Certificate is student driven and this is good practice. There is good support for students in making their subject and programme choices. This support includes timetabled guidance in Transition Year, information nights for parents and for students, and information and advice from subject teachers. The time allocation for Leaving Certificate Chemistry is in line with the class contact time recommended in the syllabus. However, the time allocation for Junior Certificate Science is slightly below that recommended in the syllabus due to the allocation of three periods in first year and some thirty-five minute lessons. While wholly mindful of the timetabling challenges faced by perceived curricular overload, it is recommended that avenues for increasing the class contact time for Science be explored. Timetabling otherwise supports the delivery of the curricula, with almost all classes receiving an even spread of lessons over the week, thus facilitating the reinforcement and assimilation of new concepts. Management should strive to build on this good practice and endeavour to have timetable slots for all classes well scattered across the timetable. The inclusion of double lesson periods for all science and chemistry classes is wholly appropriate as it facilitates student performance of practical work, which is an intrinsic part of the science and chemistry syllabuses.
Science classes are of mixed-ability. The good practice of teachers retaining their class groups from second through to third year and again for Leaving Certificate is noted, as it promotes continuity of learning. All students are encouraged to take the higher-level examination paper for Junior Certificate. Final decisions regarding levels are generally not made until the pre-examinations. This is commended.
Students from a local special school are placed in a special class in the school. These are then integrated appropriately into the mainstream on a subject-by-subject basis. There is awareness among the science staff in relation to students with special educational needs. Informal links exist between the science department and the school’s learning-support team. To enhance this communication, provision for formal liaison between the science staff and the learning-support team is recommended. Such liaison should provide opportunities for the sharing and dissemination of methodologies and best practice to support teachers in their work with students with special educational needs. Support in this area may also be accessed from the Special Education Support Service, www.sess.ie.
The school is very well resourced for the teaching of the sciences, with three well-equipped laboratories and a demonstration room. Storage/preparation areas adjoin these rooms. Commendably, the allocation of an annual budget by management ensures that these resource levels are maintained. Following a recommendation from the science department, the board of management has set up a fund to provide for the long term replacement of equipment. This is noted as good practice. The work of the teachers in providing a visually stimulating learning environment in these rooms through the display of posters, biological, molecular and atomic models is commended. The motivational benefits that accrue from this visually stimulating environment should not be underestimated. There is a high level of safety equipment, such as fire extinguishers, safety blankets, sand buckets, safety glasses etc., in the laboratories and preparation areas. Safety rules are on display in all laboratories. Excellent work has been done to ensure the safe storage of chemicals and the equipment is very well organised. The school has a health and safety statement, which was devised in 2001, in consultation with the science department. Management has stated that the board of management is currently reviewing the statement. It is understood that the science team is in the process of devising a department-specific safety statement. This is commended.
Teachers’ professional development is supported by the school. Since the revision of the science syllabuses, all teachers have attended seminars and workshops provided by the relevant support services. In addition, management supports membership of the Irish Science Teachers’ Association (ISTA) and, in this way teachers keep in touch with issues and discussions in science education. The commitment of teachers themselves to continuing professional development is also illustrated by the planned half day of training in the use of data logging, and by teachers’ willingness to host Physics in-service in the school. Whole-staff development workshops have also taken place on child protection, among other topics.
The laboratories contain overhead projectors and teachers have use of TV/VCR units. There are three laptop computers, data logging equipment and one data projector available to the science staff. Internet access is enabled in the laboratories and demonstration room. The science staff reflects the desire to continue to develop the use of information and communication technology (ICT) in the teaching and learning of Science and Chemistry. To support this aspiration, it is understood that the purchase of another data projector is planned by the science department.
The curriculum is enriched by the provision of a wide range of learning opportunities outside the classroom. Teachers have organised ecology fieldtrips and have been involved in science week activities, including attendance at the annual Tyndall lecture, which is hosted by the Institute of Physics. The practice of Transition Year students organising a quiz for first-year students during science week is commended. Students have also participated in science Olympiads. The science teachers are commended on the commitment of time, energy, and enthusiasm which they bring to these activities.
St Mary’s Secondary School has a good resource in its science and chemistry personnel. These teachers are committed and adopt a collegial and collaborative approach to their work. A culture of subject planning involving both review and forward planning is evident. The formal departmental planning that exists is commendably supported and facilitated by management, through the provision of formal meetings a number of times throughout the school year. The teachers concerned also meet informally, as required.
A designated co-ordinator facilitates formal department planning via team meetings and liaises with management. A high standard of coordination within the formal subject department structure has enabled very effective planning for resources and the compilation of a comprehensive science department folder. This folder details the aims and objectives of teaching the sciences in Mallow, the department homework policy, the modes of assessment in operation, safety check lists and laboratory rules. The folder also contains a common programme of work for first-year Science. This good practice ensures standardisation of the learning and teaching of Science across the department and could be expanded to include the remaining years of junior cycle. In one instance, a detailed programme of work for Junior Certificate Science, including timeframes and suggested homework has been compiled. This very good practice could be adopted by all in the science department.
Detailed TY programmes of work in each of the three sciences identified topics for study, resources, practical work, and in certain cases, project work. It is good to note that in some instances teaching and learning strategies were outlined. Cognisance is taken of the varied abilities of students in TY. This is illustrated by the following statement regarding lessons in one programme; “whilst being a test and inspiration for the high-flyer, they are at the same time rewarding and not overpowering for the less academic student”. Students in TY are provided with the opportunity to study areas of science not heretofore encountered. Topics such as medical applications, waste management, biotechnology, logic and the chemistry of Coca Cola facilitate the exploration of links between science and society, and develop students’ interest in science. Generation of the students’ enthusiasm for the sciences is enhanced further through visiting speakers and fieldtrips. The use of practical activities not currently on the Leaving Certificate programmes is commended and could be explored further.
Planning at individual teacher level is very good with appropriate resources selected and used within lessons. Prepared handouts were used and in some instances detailed individual lesson plans were available, all of which supported the teaching and learning observed in the laboratories. Teachers have compiled extensive folders of resources including worksheets, examination questions and acetates to support the learning and teaching process. This is commended.
There was a very good quality of teaching and learning observed in lessons inspected. Lessons were purposeful and appropriate to syllabus and level. All lessons observed had clear aims and objectives, thus increasing student motivation and sense of accomplishment. Advance preparation in the form of equipment and chemicals ensured that individual lessons progressed smoothly, and the employment of handouts and crosswords provided for students’ active involvement in the learning process. Teacher instruction was very clear, competent and accurate, and learning proceeded in an organised and progressive manner.
A range of teaching methodologies was employed, which was effective in engaging students purposefully in their work. These included student practical work, teacher demonstration, questioning and discussion. The blackboard and overhead projector were used effectively to highlight significant points, and to help develop students’ understanding of difficult concepts in a clear and precise manner. Examples of good practice in the teaching of Science and Chemistry included the use of scientific language, the affirmation of student effort and success, the use of clear explanations, and the acknowledgement and encouragement of students’ contributions to the development of the lessons. It is suggested that pair work could be explored when students are active in tasks such as crosswords, thus promoting students’ interaction and enabling students to develop their communication skills in Science and Chemistry. The employment of loop cards as a means of consolidating students’ learning at the end of a lesson is excellent practice.
There was excellent rapport in all lessons observed. Students and teachers enjoyed mutually respectful, positive, working relationships. Students were enthusiastic and motivated in their work. Classroom management was relaxed and very effective. Students showed an interest in achieving in Science and Chemistry, were attentive to their work and demonstrated good levels of knowledge and understanding in the lessons observed. Evidence for this was provided by interaction between the inspector and students, observation of students’ responses and questions, and examination of samples of students’ work.
Good practice was evident where teachers, in delivering and developing lesson topics, built on students’ prior knowledge and experiences. There were commendable levels of attention to individual students in all lessons. Teachers used questioning as a means of involving students in the lessons. There was varied and acceptable practice with regard to the addressing of questions to individual students and/or whole class groups, but in some cases the directing of questions to named students would have been more appropriate, both as a means of checking understanding and of keeping students on task. Questioning was employed in a successful manner, to build up lesson content, and as a method of recapping at the end of the lessons in order to ascertain and consolidate the learning that has taken place. It was good to note that in some instances probing questions were appropriately structured, in order to support students in their answering.
The practical activities of students were successfully embedded into classroom dialogue in both theory and practical lessons. The use of an investigative approach to teaching science in a theory- based lesson increased students’ motivation and enthusiasm, and facilitated collaborative work among students, as they explored how they might demonstrate the effect of force on stretching. This is an underlying principle of the junior science syllabus, and is best practice in the teaching of the subject. In the practical lesson observed, students worked in pairs or groups of three. Students’ activities were very well organised and supported the development of students’ understanding and skills. The teacher circled the class and provided individual attention and support to the students where necessary. This is highly commended. During the practical work all students were actively engaged, worked safely, applied themselves and sustained concentration. Students were confident and capable in setting up and completing the tasks and their practical skills were well developed. The use of scientific investigation should be employed to a greater extent in practical lessons.
There were some very nice examples of linking the lesson content to the everyday life experiences of the students, thus making the subject tangible and relevant. In conclusion, the science team provides a stimulating learning environment where students have the opportunity to develop their scientific knowledge and understanding. Students’ enthusiastic attitudes enable them to take full advantage of the good teaching they receive.
Assessment features strongly in daily teaching and learning activities in St. Mary’s Secondary School, Mallow. Students are assessed regularly through a range of appropriate modes. Formative assessment is carried out by ongoing questioning in class, through regularly assigned homework, and a variety of class work activities. Summative assessments are regularly implemented through class-based tests and through formal school-based examinations that are held at Christmas and Summer for first-, second- and fifth-year students. Mock examinations are held for the examination classes during the second term. Other elements of good practice include the drawing up of common test papers for first year students. It is recommended that once the common programme of work has been extended to all year groups in junior cycle, some common elements should be incorporated into the formal examination papers, thus ensuring the standardisation of Science across each year group. The inclusion of project work and subsequent presentations of the research by the students, as a component of assessment in Transition Year, is highly commended.
All students have laboratory notebooks/workbooks in which they record their investigative work. These practical books are of a fine standard. It is recommended that the inclusion of practical work in the scheme of continuous assessment, which is employed in some instances, should be expanded, as it provides motivation for engagement by all students with the practical element of the course and ensures regular monitoring of student laboratory notebooks. Such practice reflects the assessment objectives of the Junior Certificate syllabus.
Written and learning homework, which provides a suitable level of challenge for students, is regularly assigned. In all classes, students keep good copybooks or folders and complete their homework to a fine standard. Students demonstrated an awareness of their responsibility for their own learning and were observed to be vigilant in recording both notes and the allocated homework. In most cases, students themselves correct their homework. There is some evidence of monitoring and annotation of students’ practical notebooks. It is recommended that occasionally, homework could also be annotated by teachers, thus providing an opportunity to affirm work well done and comment on areas for improvement. This would make students aware of the criteria for marking, thereby enhancing their role in their own learning.
There is a good level of communication with parents regarding students’ academic and personal progress. Reports are issued to parents on the outcomes of the school examinations. Contact is also maintained via the student journal, homework-alert notes and the annual parent-teacher meetings, which are held for each group. These are supplemented by newsletters and the school website. Records of student achievement and progress, as well as attendance, are both well documented by the teachers. Management conducts a subject-specific statistical analysis of state-examination results. The results of this analysis are then communicated to the teachers and the trustees.
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 Science and Chemistry and with the principal at the conclusion of the evaluation when the draft findings and recommendations of the evaluation were presented and discussed.
Submitted by the Board of Management
Inspection Report School Response Form
Area 1 Observations on the content of the inspection report
The Board of Management of St Mary’s Secondary School welcomes this very positive and comprehensive report on the quality of learning and teaching in Science and Chemistry in the school.
The Board through the Principal will continue to encourage and support the Science Department in the superb work being done by them.
Area 2 Follow-up actions planned or undertaken since the completion of the inspection activity to implement the findings and recommendations of the inspection.
In reply to two of the key recommendations :
Other recommendations are already being carried out or work on the feasibility of complying with them is underway.