An Roinn Oideachais agus EolaŪochta
Department of Education and Science
Subject Inspection of Science and Chemistry
Our Lady of Mercy Secondary School
Ozanam Street, Waterford
Roll number: 64971W
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 Our Lady of Mercy 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 was given an opportunity to comment in writing on the findings and recommendations of the report; a response was not received from the board.
Our Lady of Mercy Secondary School is a voluntary secondary school for girls which was established in 1968 in Waterford City. Science is offered as an optional subject in junior cycle and Biology, Chemistry, and Physics offered as options for Leaving Certificate. Taking cognisance of the very high uptake of Science in junior cycle and the aspiration that society in Ireland should be scientifically literate, consideration should be given to the provision of Science as a core subject at this level. The school's commitment to offering Science in Transition Year (TY) is commended, not least because it provides the opportunity to further develop studentsí knowledge and understanding of scientific topics, in conjunction with the further enhancement of their practical skills. It is also significant that Leaving Certificate subject pre-selection does not occur in Transition Year, allowing students an extra year of experience and maturity before making their choices. The uptake in the Leaving Certificate physical sciences is generally good; the cohort studying Biology is very high. The inclusion of science elective modules in the Leaving Certificate Applied Programme is commended, particularly in view of its acceptance as an entry requirement for some beauty therapy courses.
The time allocation for the sciences is in line with the class-contact time recommended in the syllabuses. In general, these lessons are spread fairly across the days of the week, although in one or two instances, the lessons in Junior Certificate Science are on consecutive days, which is not ideal. This matter is raised simply in the hope that it may be taken into consideration in future timetabling. Subject choice at both junior and senior cycle is student driven. This is good practice. There is good support for students in making their subject and programme choices. This support includes timetabled guidance in third year and Transition Year, information nights for parents and for students, and information and advice from subject teachers. Incoming first-year students are facilitated via the induction night for parents.
Our Lady of Mercy 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. All science classes in junior cycle are of mixed ability. It is commendable that all students are encouraged to study higher-level Science at Junior Certificate and final decisions regarding chosen levels are generally not made until completion of the pre-examinations. The teaching of Chemistry for Leaving Certificate is rotated between two teachers. This is commended as it broadens the professional expertise available in the school. It is significant that students generally retain the same teacher throughout junior cycle and again for Leaving Certificate, as this supports continuity of learning.
The school is well resourced for the teaching of the sciences with three well-equipped laboratories, although one of these is only suitable for smaller class groups and, as it does not have a fume cupboard, is appropriate for certain practical activities only. It is good to note that science teachers are supported financially by management for the updating, repair or enhancement of existing resources and facilities on a needs basis. The laboratories contain overhead projectors and teachers have use of TV/VCR units. The ICT facilities in the science department are quite impressive, with each laboratory housing a PC. Data logging equipment and a data projector are also available in the department. This is supplemented by access to the ICT suite in the school.
A good level of teamwork has facilitated the resourcing of the laboratories, and chemicals and equipment are very well organised. Chemicals are stored in accordance with Department of Education and Science recommendations and best safety practice. Class sets of equipment have been assembled for the mandatory practical activities in both Biology and Junior Certificate Science. It is good to note that a library of resources has been compiled to support the teaching and learning of the sciences. A notice board in the preparation room facilitates ongoing communication between the members of the science department.
The school has a health and safety statement, which was reviewed in 2006 in collaboration with the science teachers. The laboratories are well equipped with appropriate safety equipment such as fire extinguishers, fire blankets, etc. Safety rules are also on display in the laboratories. Copies of the published guidelines on safety Ė Safety in School Science and Safety in the School Laboratory, published by the Department of Education and Science in 1996 and subsequently amended in 2001, are available to all staff. This is commended. The concern of teachers pertaining to safety is illustrated further by the presence of a safety screen, an accident record book and material safety data sheets in the preparation and storage area. It is understood that the fume cupboard in the Chemistry laboratory was to be connected to the ventilation system during the week following the inspection. It is recommended that the fume cupboard in the Biology laboratory would be similarly connected. There are no isolation switches for the gas/electricity supplies in the laboratories. This matter needs to be addressed as a matter of urgency. It is suggested that management apply for a grant under the ĎSummer Works Schemeí for completion of this work.
A system is in place in the school to identify students with special educational needs. Commendably, science teachers discuss the needs and progress of these students with the learning-support department.
There is good support for teachersí continuing professional development, with all science teachers afforded opportunities to attend relevant in-service education courses. The commitment of teachers themselves is also illustrated by teachersí involvement in action research projects under the auspices of the National Biology Support Service. Whole-staff development workshops have also taken place on topics such as mixed-ability teaching.
The science team shows good commitment to co-curricular and extracurricular activities. Teachers have organised ecology fieldtrips and have been involved in science week activities. Students have also participated in science quizzes and the school is actively involved in the Green Schools Programme. The teachers involved are to be congratulated for their commitment, without which the students would not benefit from such stimulating experiences.
The school has a formal science department with a designated co-ordinator who liaises with management and facilitates formal department planning via the once-a-term team meetings. Ongoing informal planning sessions are held at lunch times to discuss issues as they arise. This is excellent. Reports of the latest scheduled meetings in all the sciences show that considerable work has been done on subject development. Issues such as assessment policy, fieldtrips and course work B investigations have dominated planning and discussion in recent times. Planning for resources is systematically organised, with well-stocked laboratories providing evidence of this.
The comprehensive science department folder includes an outline of the departmentís mission statement, the organisation of schemes of work and common targets for each year group in junior cycle, assessment procedures and health and safety. It is good to note that a common outline programme of work has also been devised for Leaving Certificate Chemistry. Consideration could be given to expanding these schemes of work over time to include timeframes, resources and teaching and assessment strategies, which were illustrated in some individual teacher plans. The TY curriculum incorporates elements of the three Leaving Certificate disciplines and focuses mainly on practical activities. Each TY student is required to research, compile and present a report on a scientific topic of their choice. Possible topics are outlined in the TY programme of work. This is excellent as it facilitates the development of skills such as report writing and research, along with enhancing studentsí scientific knowledge outside the remit of the Junior Certificate and Leaving Certificate syllabuses.
Planning and preparation by teachers at an individual level was most satisfactory. All were teaching material directly relevant to the syllabuses and appropriate to the ages and levels of the students concerned. Preparation for lessons, including the organisation of equipment and chemicals was noted as being of a high standard. A fine commitment to generating handouts for student use was seen in some lessons. They were used as a prop to support studentsí hands-on experimental activities and as a means of reinforcing learning.
Many teachers have compiled folders of resources including worksheets, examination questions, PowerPoint and other ICT resources, some containing visual stimuli, to support the learning and teaching process. This is commended. The high level of collaboration and co-operation is evidenced further by the teachersí willingness to share resources, which they continue to source through the internet and the media, and which they found useful in teaching various topics.
There was a good quality of teaching and learning observed in lessons inspected. Lessons were clearly structured with the pace and content of each lesson being appropriate. Students were active and involved and the well-organised structure to lessons facilitated this. This also allowed work to progress smoothly from one stage to the next. The excellent rapport which existed between teachers and students was a help to classroom atmosphere and was conducive to learning. Students were encouraged in a supportive manner by teachers, and where correction was required it was handled sensitively. Students responded well to teaching and learning which was based on shared learning goals. Studentsí contributions were encouraged and effective use was made of affirmation of studentsí efforts.
In almost all lessons, initial lesson development was based on previously covered material, through correction of written homework or a question-and-answer session. All teachers made a very good effort to integrate some practical, oral and written components. The variety of methodologies employed included student practical work, teacher demonstration, questioning and problem solving. Learning of new content was anchored on the previous knowledge of students. Good use was made of the blackboard to highlight key terms and to clarify new or difficult concepts. In some instances, impressive efforts were made to increase the relevance of the topics for students. For example, students considered the use of a defibrillator in a lesson when they were studying electricity. Everyday examples were also successfully employed to explain scientific concepts. A jack-in-the-box was very effective in illustrating the conversion of potential energy to kinetic energy. When students are undertaking problem-solving exercises of increasing degrees of difficulty, removal of the scaffolding gradually would benefit the studentsí progression to a greater extent. In this way, students would be challenged and at the same time, their learning would be successfully consolidated.
Questioning was used widely, and in many instances very effectively, in the lessons visited in the course of the inspection. It was well integrated into the flow of lessons as a means of progressing the aims of the lesson while drawing the optimum number of students into participation. Questioning was also employed in a successful manner as a method of recapping at the end of the lessons in order to ascertain and consolidate the learning that had taken place.
Practical lessons with hands-on student activities were very well organised and supported the development of studentsí understanding and skills. Students worked in pairs or groups of three. They were confident and capable in setting up and completing the tasks and their practical skills were well developed. Due regard was given to safety procedures. As students performed practical activities the teachers constantly circled the room giving appropriate attention and support to individual needs. Students were observed to share their views and solutions readily and contribute confidently and supportively throughout group practical work. This is highly commended. Where plenary sessions were utilised, they were very effective in consolidating studentsí learning. It is recommended that this good practice be employed during all practical sessions.
The use of an investigative approach to teaching science increased studentsí motivation and enthusiasm, and facilitated collaborative work among students. It also provided opportunities for students to reflect on, and evaluate, their own work and progress. This is an underlying principle of the Junior Science syllabus, and is best practice in the teaching of the subject.
Students were encouraged to work hard and achieve their best. Teachersí questions and questions asked by the inspector were, for the most part, answered fully and indicated a good level of knowledge and understanding on the part of the students. The students displayed interest in Science and Chemistry, and in most cases proved themselves to be motivated learners and achieved good standards of learning. This is commended.†
In conclusion, the quality of teaching observed during this inspection was very good and certainly conducive to a good level of learning by students.
A range of assessment modes is used to assess studentsí learning and progress. These include questioning in class, written homework, class tests and formal examinations. Evidence of these tests and studentsí progress can be seen in teachersí journals, along with attendance and class work records. The inclusion of project work as a component of assessment in Transition Year is commended.
The school operates a policy of continuous assessment for first-year students throughout the year. Formal Christmas examinations are held for second-year and fifth-year students, and in the summer for all non-state examination classes. The state examination classes have pre-examinations. Teachers should proactively consider employing common assessments to complement the common programmes of work that are in place. Such practice helps to establish a common direction for the subject, whilst ensuring consistency and cohesiveness within the department,
All students have laboratory notebooks/workbooks in which they record their investigative work. These practical books are of a fine standard. The inclusion of practical work in the scheme of continuous assessment is recommended, as it provides motivation for engagement by all students with the practical element of the course and ensures regular monitoring of studentsí laboratory notebooks. Such practice reflects the assessment objectives of the Junior Certificate syllabus.
Appropriate homework tasks were assigned in all lessons, and in some instances teachersí comments were formative. Teachers are encouraged to build on this good practice and explore other strategies relating to formative assessment through a focus on Assessment for Learning (AfL). These strategies encourage the sharing of the learning intention and assessment criteria with the class from the outset and encourage comment-only feedback on assessments.
Feedback on studentsí progress is provided to parents through parent-teacher meetings and written reports. It is good to note that the school operates an open-door policy for parents. Subject departments conduct subject-specific statistical analysis of state examination results. These are then communicated to 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.