An Roinn Oideachais agus EolaŪochta
Department of Education and Science
Subject Inspection of Science and Chemistry
North Monastery Secondary School
Roll number: 62530F
Date of issue of report: 4 October 2007
Report on the Quality of Learning and Teaching in Science and Chemistry
This report has been written following a subject inspection in North Monastery 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 studentsí work, and had discussions with the teachers. The inspector reviewed school planning documentation and teachersí 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 on the findings and recommendations of the report; a response was not received from the board.
North Monastery Secondary School is situated on a large campus, which also includes a feeder primary school and a GaelcholŠiste, and provides post primary education for boys in the northern side of Cork City. Science holds a strong position in the school. Junior Certificate Science is a core subject. Transition Year (TY) students have one double lesson per week in Science and two periods of Environmental Studies. Biology, Physics (currently in sixth year only) and Chemistry are offered as optional subjects for Leaving Certificate. It is recommended that management and staff continue to devise strategies to increase the uptake of Physics. The school is planning to offer the Leaving Certificate Applied programme as an option for students in September 2007. Consideration could be given to incorporating some element of science into the programme, either through Agriculture and Horticulture or the Science Elective Modules.
The TY programme is optional. The school's commitment to offering Science and Environmental Studies as compulsory modules in Transition Year is commended, not least because it is very much in keeping with the TY philosophy of broad-based educational experience and facilitates the enhancement of the studentsí scientific literacy skills. All science lessons take place in the laboratories. Commendably, the students in TY have a double lesson in Science each week. This facilitates the development of their practical skills, which are subsequently employed as students demonstrate experiments at the schoolís open afternoons.
It is also good to note that Leaving Certificate subject pre-selection does not occur before TY, allowing students an extra year of experience and maturity before making their choices. The option blocks for Leaving Certificate are devised based on student preference and best practice. TY and third-year students avail of the support and advice of the guidance counsellor and subject teachers before choosing their senior cycle options. Parents and students are informed by means of information evenings.
Some science classes are mixed ability, while others are streamed and classes usually retain the same teacher throughout junior cycle. Students are encouraged to study higher level Science and generally do not select their level until third year. Taking cognisance of the Assessment B investigations in the revised Junior Certificate Science syllabus, it is imperative that one teacher is not timetabled for three or four groups in a single year of junior cycle. Timetabling supports the delivery of the curricula, the time allocation is in line with the class-contact time recommended in the syllabuses, with one third-year group having an extra single lesson per week. In almost all instances there is a good spread of lessons across the week. This is commended.
There are four science laboratories at the school, each with separate storage and preparation areas. These facilities were viewed during the evaluation. The taps in the laboratories have been leaking for some time. The science department has informed management, but the issue has not been resolved to date. It is recommended that this matter be dealt with as a matter of urgency. The storage areas attached to the laboratories do not have a ventilation system, but the current large windows provide aeration. Generally the laboratories are being used for teaching science. However, in some instances mathematics lessons are also taken in the laboratories. This contravenes the advice given in Safety in School Science published by the Department of Education and Science in 1996 and subsequently amended in 2001, which states that classes in other practical subjects and non-practical subjects should not be conducted in the laboratories.
There is a good level of safety equipment, such as fire extinguishers, safety blankets and safety glasses, in the laboratories. It is good to note that gas isolation switches are present in all laboratories. Safety notices are in evidence in some of the laboratories. This good practice could be employed in all. During the evaluation process, it was recommended that an electrical isolation switch, similar to the gas switch, be installed in each laboratory. It is suggested that management could apply for funding for this work and the replacement of the taps from the Department of Education and Science, under the Summer Works Scheme.
In one laboratory, work has begun on the safe storage of chemicals. It is recommended that this good work be built on and that the chemicals in all storage areas are kept in accordance with storage classification guidelines. A flame-resistant press should be provided for the storage of flammable chemicals. The resources in the laboratories have been enhanced over the last number of years using the grants allocated by the Department of Education and Science. Mindful of the demands of practical work, it is recommended that equipment and materials be replenished on an annual basis. The school has a health and safety statement, which was reviewed in 2005. It is recommended that science teachers be consulted in any future review.
The laboratories contain two computers and data-logging equipment. Teachers enhance these facilities for teaching the sciences by also employing their personal laptop computers and are currently in the process of installing data projectors in the laboratories. This is commended. To facilitate good quality use of both information and communication technology (ICT) and overhead projectors, blinds need to be reinstalled in the laboratories.
Teachers have had the opportunity to attend in-career development in the sciences. Management and teachers are commended in this regard. The importance of the ongoing attendance of all teachers at all in-service training is stressed, particularly as the revised syllabuses emphasise new teaching methodologies, and in the case of Science a new approach is a prerequisite to its effective teaching. Teachersí commitment to professional development is evidenced by attendance at courses in their own time. An example of such courses is the electronics module, which was run in the Cork Institute of Technology.
A high level of provision is made for co-curricular and extra-curricular science activities, including fieldtrips, industrial visits, and quizzes. Links with the local third-level institutions have facilitated studentsí participation in educational programmes, such as the Saltersí laboratory summer camp and the Triz programme. Students also participated in the junior achievement programme. Those involved are to be praised for their commitment to facilitating these educational and stimulating activities.
A good level of on-going informal collaboration and co-operation facilitates subject department planning in the sciences. The science department folder provides evidence of successful planning. Plans for the teaching and learning of Science were provided. Of particular note in the science department plan were references to subject aims and objectives, planning for students with special needs, the role of the subject in a culturally diverse society and teaching methodologies. The development of a common programme of work for Science, which lists the content to be covered on a term-by-term basis over the three years, and which also incorporates timeframes for each topic, is good practice. This programme could be enhanced over time by identifying, for example, the resources and assessment procedures employed for specific topics. Teachers are highly praised for this level of departmental planning. It is recommended that this common programme of work be employed for all class groups commencing with the current first-year students. This would help provide a common direction for the subject.
The subject plan for all Leaving Certificate sciences should be included in the subject department folder. These plans could be developed in a manner similar to the junior cycle science plan over time. A programme of work was also provided for Science in TY. Generation of student interest and enthusiasm for the sciences, as well as enhancing student understanding of science in everyday life is facilitated through the study of content, which included the working of electrical dimmer switches.
It is recommended that management and staff continue to devise strategies to facilitate formal subject department planning by providing time for subject departments to meet. Currently one teacher organises the replenishment of chemicals. Due to a recent change in posts of responsibility in the school, the status of the partial-post for coordinator of science needs to be clarified. Following on from this, a system for ongoing co-ordination should be reactivated.
The increasing numbers of immigrants to Ireland in recent years has resulted in ever increasing numbers of students with English as a second language (ESL) enrolling in schools, with North Monastery Secondary School being no exception. Teachers recognise that the difficulties for some of these students due to lack of proficiency in English, particularly in the written language, represent particular barriers to full participation in education. To further develop learning and teaching approaches, which would make the curriculum more accessible to these students, the school could contact Integrate Ireland Language and Training www.iilt.ie, which provides support for teachers in this regard. The development of formal links between the science teachers and the learning-support department is recommended. For example, the science department could compile a list of key terms for use by the learning support department.
There was clear evidence of very effective short term planning for all of the lessons observed. They had clear aims and appropriate resources were used to support student learning. Preparation for lessons, including the preparation of PowerPoint presentations, equipment and chemicals was noted as being at a high standard. Handouts, including word searches, were prepared for a number of classes to facilitate class assignments. They were also used as a prop to support studentsí hands-on investigations and as a means of consolidating studentsí learning. This level of resource provision reflects the commitment of teachers to providing rich learning experiences for their students and is commended.
In each of the lessons visited, there was a good level of cooperation and mutual respect between students and teachers and the atmosphere was at all times pleasant and conducive to learning. There was a natural discipline, which was willingly accepted by students in the main. Active participation of students occurred in most lessons through a variety of activities, to which students responded well. Activities which promoted studentsí engagement included hands-on practical work, pair and group work, class discussion and worksheets. Students were secure and relaxed as they undertook work that was suitably interesting and challenging. The maintenance of such an atmosphere by the subject-teaching team is commended. Students were encouraged and affirmed throughout, regardless of their abilities.
All lessons observed had a very clear structure, were logically sequenced and were delivered at a pace appropriate to the students. The content was accurate, and was communicated in a way that was understood by the students. Science was made relevant to studentsí everyday experiences during the lessons and the real-life applications of the material being taught were emphasised. This is commended.
Good questioning strategies were deployed in all lessons observed. Where appropriate, students were probed and encouraged to develop their thoughts, thus contributing to the development of the lesson content. In other lessons, students were asked to recall previous material before the lesson progressed. The policy of directing questions to individual students is noted as good practice, and so it is recommended that this be continued and further developed where appropriate. The blackboard was used very effectively to record new scientific terminologies, or to document the main points of the lesson, both in the form of text and diagram.
Very good use of ICT was observed in one theory lesson, the interactive software on the skeleton contributing significantly to the development of studentsí knowledge and understanding. The salient points of the lesson and the visual images that were observed on the PowerPoint presentation enhanced studentsí learning in an effective manner. Studentsí learning was developed further and consolidated by successful employment of models of the backbone and the skeleton. As a means of recapitulation during the lesson, students discussed the positioning of labels containing the names of different parts of the skeleton, in groups of four or five. One member from each group then placed a label on the appropriate part of the skeleton. A word search was also successful in embedding lesson content. Constant encouragement led to a very active and stimulating class that was clearly enjoyed by all students. This innovative approach is commended and its further usage is encouraged.
During practical work all students were actively engaged, applied themselves and sustained concentration. There was good emphasis on safe working practices in all practical lessons. However, it is recommended that safety glasses should be worn by students in all instances where chemicals are utilised. Collaborative work was particularly good. The practical activities were very effectively organised and supported the development of studentsí understanding and skills. As students worked at their benches their teachers helped, affirmed or encouraged them, as appropriate to their needs, staying in close contact and dividing teaching time fairly between them, proportionate to their requirements. Worksheets were effective in promoting studentsí understanding as they worked through the experiments. Where students are involved in practical activities, it is recommended that their progress and learning be reviewed at the end of the lesson. The successful development of practical skills, as students progress through the school, was evident in the manner in which they completed relevant tasks. This is commended.
The students generally had a good attitude towards Science and Chemistry, as displayed by the interest and level of engagement observed during lessons. Students answered the questions put to them during the course of the visit in an accurate and confident manner.
Formal whole-school tests are held for all classes at Christmas, and for non-examination classes in the summer. Examination classes sit pre-examinations in the spring. Following each formal examination, a report is issued to parents. Continuous assessment has been introduced as a pilot scheme in February 2007. Parents and Students were informed that the ongoing assessment would account for 60% of the final summer examination, while the terminal examination will account for 40%. It was stated that the purpose of this modus operandi is to encourage consistent work throughout the year by students. In TY, assessment includes a percentage for enthusiasm and proficiency in applying oneself to experimental work, the construction of an electronic device and a terminal examination. This is commended as all aspects of studentsí work are thus rewarded.
The practice of setting common elements in Christmas and summer examination papers should be employed to complement the common programme of work in Science. Such practice helps to ensure consistency and cohesiveness within the department.
Formative assessment, for all classes, is carried out on an ongoing basis by questioning in class and by means of regularly-assigned homework and tests. Generally the homework is corrected by the students in class. However, there was some evidence of teacher monitoring of homework, which is commended. Consideration could be given to the desirable practice of teacher annotation, which reflects the principle of assessment for learning (AfL). This practice is intrinsically valuable in enhancing the studentsí role in their own learning. Information on AfL can be accessed at www.ncca.ie.
All students have a laboratory notebook/file in which they record all their investigative work. These practical books are generally of a good standard. It is recommended that the good practice of assessing studentsí practical work/laboratory notebooks, as a component of the end-of-term examinations, and which is employed in one instance, is undertaken with all junior cycle groups. Such practice is encouraged as it reflects the assessment objectives of the Junior Certificate syllabus, provides motivation for engagement by all students with the practical element of the course and ensures regular monitoring of student laboratory notebooks. An aggregate mark that includes the written and practical components of the Junior Science examination provides a more accurate indicator of the studentís ability in the subject. It is also in line with the schoolís continuous assessment policy.
Attendance rates and assessment results are systematically recorded in teachersí journals. This good practice helps to build a profile of studentsí engagement, progress and achievement in the subject over a period of time. The science department has conducted a comparative analysis of studentsí performance in their entrance examinations and in their Junior Certificate examinations over the last three years to ascertain studentsí progress in junior cycle. This is commended. Parent-teacher meetings are held annually for each year group. Contact with parents is also maintained via the twice-yearly reports, the student journal and the school newsletter. Commendably the school operates an open door policy in terms of communication with parents.
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.