An Roinn Oideachais agus Eolaíochta
Department of Education and Science
Subject Inspection of Business Subjects
St. Columba’s College
Stranorlar, County Donegal
Roll number: 62861F
Date of inspection: 28 September 2006
Date of issue of report: 21 June 2007
Report on the Quality of Learning and Teaching in Business Subjects
This report has been written following a subject inspection in St. Columba’s College, Stranorlar. It presents the findings of an evaluation of the quality of teaching and learning in business subjects 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 subject teachers. The board of management of the school was given an opportunity to comment on the findings and recommendations of the report; the board chose to accept the report without response.
Business subjects have a very high profile in the curriculum offered in St. Columba’s College. Business Studies is taken by all students at junior cycle and all three business options, Accounting, Business and Economics are available at senior cycle. The school also provides the Leaving Certificate Vocational Programme (LCVP) and many students of this programme take one business subject as part of their vocational subject grouping (VSG). The school’s management is commended for its continued commitment to providing Business Studies as part of the core curriculum at junior cycle.
The time allocated to the subjects is very good and the time units are suitable for the teaching of the subjects. In the case of LCVP, two single periods are allocated in each of the two years of the cycle. Single periods are not suitable for the preparation of portfolio items and if possible a double period should be timetabled in at least one year of the programme. Timetabled access to Information and Communications Technology (ICT) facilities is a positive feature in the provision for the LCVP. ICT classes are also provided for a number of year groups across the school.
Most business teachers teach a range of subjects across both the junior and senior cycle. There is some specialisation at senior cycle which is consistent with the interests of the teachers. Teacher allocation at senior cycle, especially among the smaller subjects, is characterised by positive co-operation and sharing of expertise. The subject department meeting formally each term and there is ongoing co-operation between meetings. The close proximity of most business classrooms also facilitates ongoing communication.
In the first two years of the junior cycle, students are banded in classes with some setting in the third year. This allocation system is uncommon in the teaching of Business Studies. A school subcommittee is currently reviewing the way in which students learning is organised. In its discussions the subcommittee should consider the impact of this system of allocation on the teaching of the subjects and the attainment of learning outcomes for students across the ability range.
The subject department formally applies to the principal for additional resources in advance of the start of the school year. The teachers are classroom based and the potential of classrooms in creating positive physical learning environments is not always exploited. There are some good examples of how the rooms have been used to display student resources and attainments and where students’ awareness of the wider business environment is enhanced through news boards for example.
The school compares students’ results with the national norms for the subjects. Among business teachers this data is primarily used for individual reflection. Attainment levels are generally good and in recent years the proportions of ordinary and higher level candidates at junior cycle are consistent with the national norms. Teachers’ knowledge is current and the school facilitates professional development through staff days and participation in in-service training.
Subject plans have been drafted for both the junior cycle and senior cycle subjects. In each case one teacher co-ordinated the preparation of the plan and good progress has been made is setting out agreed schemes of work. As all the plans develop further detail regarding appropriate teaching methodologies and assessment modes for each of the subjects can be included as is currently the case in some plans.
General indicators should be determined in planning for the subjects at a whole school level. Among those that should be reviewed is the level of uptake of the subjects at senior cycle. The subject is compulsory at junior cycle and examination outcomes are good. Therefore the level of uptake to senior cycle should be relatively high. The factors affecting student choice of each of the three senior cycle options should also be considered. A current positive indicator is the broad range of ability levels within Accounting classes in particular.
Teachers made available outline lesson plans to the inspector during the inspection. These were very useful in the evaluation process. It was also clear that while individual approaches differed, most teachers had developed their own subject plans and resource folders. Though these differed in the level of detail it demonstrated the positive approach by teachers to planning. This approach is particularly useful, as was the case in this school, where teacher substitution is required.
The collective experience of the business team is a major benefit as the school considers alternative approaches as to how student learning is organised. If, as would be strongly advised, consideration is given to the introduction of mixed ability groupings within Business Studies for at least the first two years of junior cycle, the primary skill required of the teachers would be their capacity to differentiate between different ability groups within classes and to direct their teaching accordingly. This is a skill teachers already use in their teaching. In the teaching of Accounting and Economics, for example, this is successfully managed within mixed ability groups. Sharing this experience and expertise among the team will be useful, notwithstanding decisions reached at whole school level regarding how students are grouped.
Record keeping by both the teachers and students is generally very good and students are encouraged to file and retain additional material for use as revision aids. Handouts are prepared, both handwritten and electronic, in all subjects as aids to student revision. Where materials are prepared electronically, these are easier to update and retain. Web based resources had also been accessed and made available to students which is also indicative the level of preparedness for lessons. Very good practice also exists in relation to the preparation and retention of portfolio materials for the Link Modules of the LCVP.
Lessons observed were mostly well prepared. In some lessons objectives were clearly stated at the beginning and reviewed as the lesson concluded. In all classes homework was planned in advance and clearly linked to the lesson content and learning outcomes. Teachers often structured the lessons to include revision of past material and draw on students’ knowledge to introduce new lesson content.
Materials and question banks were prepared in advance for use in classes and these were used appropriately to support teaching and learning in the subjects. Of particular merit was the planned revision time built into teaching for some of the examination classes. This was well executed and allows for differentiation in teaching and learning in mixed ability settings.
References were made in some of the subject plans to the range of teaching methodologies suitable for the teaching of the subjects. During the inspection it was evident that in many cases there is an over-reliance on instructional teaching. An additional outcome of this instructional style is that students in many classes were passive and few questions came from the class groups. Where active teaching methodologies were used they were used effectively. In order to engage all students with the lesson content and address the range of learning styles among class groups, a broader range of teaching styles should be used within the teaching of the subjects.
Pacing of the classes varied, particularly at junior cycle. Though common learning objectives are set for Business Studies, differences in pedagogy and pacing with different class groups were evident. While syllabus objectives are achieved the teachers’ expectations of the classes does on occasion influence pacing, teaching style and the type of assessments used. In examining the balance of outcomes at junior cycle it is evident that bookkeeping is positively emphasised and this is to be commended.
Teachers’ use of business terminology was good and this was mirrored in the students’ contributions and questions. Practical and current examples were used in all classes are those used in Business and Economics demonstrated teachers awareness of the importance of improving students understanding of the wider business environment. This approach also helps in developing students applied business skills.
Presentation of material by teachers and students was generally good especially at senior cycle. Good practice by teachers in board presentation and resource materials was mirrored by students in those classes. Attention is also paid to general literacy and numeracy in the teaching of the subjects. Students’ learning and contributions in classes were generally positively reinforced.
Classrooms are generally laid out to facilitate paired and group work and there is scope to incorporate this as part of the teaching in all subjects as appropriate. In Accounting, where the emphasis is on the completion of practical activities, the classroom layout was used very effectively to support differentiation within teaching.
Across the school formal tests are held bi-annually and the results communicated to students and parents through written reports. Parent-teacher meetings provide an additional opportunity to teachers to discuss student’s academic and personal progress.
The information form completed as part of the inspection stated that the school’s assessment policy was based on the ‘Assessment for Learning’ model. During the inspection it was evident that assessment takes place both formally and informally with lessons. In the case of formal assessment, there was evidence of the use of regular in-class assessments by teachers. There is a lot of good practice in the design of assessment tests including the achievement of an appropriate balance between short and long questions. Assessments are corrected using marking schemes which mirrors practice in the state examinations. This helps improve students’ exam techniques.
In some classes there was a greater emphasis placed on the use of frequent in-class tests. It is important to balance these with other modes of assessment especially as they may not always allow for the development of higher order skills.
Homework is regularly assigned. There is evidence that a variety of methods are used to check work completed including self annotation, in-class checking and teachers reviewing copybooks to evaluate and record completion of work done. Excellent practice relating to assessment was observed in senior cycle Accounting. Students had completed a significant body of work and when reviewing worked examples were encouraged not to overwrite the solution but to highlight errors and show corrections. This helps improve students understanding. In Business at senior cycle it is commendable that the Applied Business Question (ABQ) is used as an assessment and revision tool in the second year of the cycle.
One of the main in-class techniques to assess student progress it the use of effective questioning techniques. While questioning was observed in all classes inspected, it was used more effectively is some classes than others. Occasionally there was an overemphasis on global rather than targeted questions. This encouraged chorus answering and was not effective in engaging all students with the lesson. In some classes targeted questions were used effectively to differentiate between ability levels and this is a very effective methodology in a mixed ability setting.
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 business subjects and with the principal at the conclusion of the evaluation when the draft findings and recommendations of the evaluation were presented and discussed.