An Roinn Oideachais agus Eolaíochta
Department of Education and Science
Subject Inspection of Science
Saint Jarlath’s Vocational School
Mountbellew, County Galway
Roll number: 71290M
Date of inspection: 22 May 2007
Date of issue of report: 6 December 2007
Report on the Quality of Learning and Teaching in Science
This report has been written following a subject inspection in St Jarlath’s Vocational School. It presents the findings of an evaluation of the quality of teaching and learning in Science and makes recommendations for the further development of the teaching of this subject in the school. The evaluation was conducted over one day 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. 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.
St Jarlath’s Vocational School is a co-educational, vocational school located in the town of Mountbellew, Co. Galway. The school provides a curriculum using the teacher allocation that it receives through County Galway Vocational Education Committee (VEC) based on the number of students enrolled. Within this allocation the school makes provision for the study of science subjects and strives to offer students a curriculum that is relevant to their needs and based on their preferences. The number of students in the school means that each student is personally known and this helps to create a positive atmosphere within the school.
The science subjects in this school are Junior Certificate (JC) Science and Leaving Certificate (LC) Agricultural Science. Good support for the study of science subjects is shown by the fact that all students study Science at junior cycle and nearly all students study Agricultural Science at senior cycle. At the beginning of the current academic year, the school created provision for students to study the single subject LC Physics and Chemistry. While this did not result in the formation of a viable class group, it is commendable that the school is endeavouring to enhance the range of science subjects available to students at senior cycle.
The time allocation for Science consists of three lesson periods weekly in first year and four lesson periods weekly in second year and in third year. The total time allocation recommended by the syllabus is 240 to 270 hours over the three years of junior cycle. This is normally equivalent to four lesson periods of forty minutes duration weekly for each year of junior cycle. In this context, it is recommended that the school review the time allocation for Science to ensure that it meets with the recommendations of the syllabus. In first year and in second year all lessons are single periods while in third year there is one double period and two single periods. The allocation of a weekly double period is recommended by the syllabus as it facilitates student completion of practical work in an investigative manner. Examination of students’ experimental copybooks showed that they have completed a satisfactory amount of practical work. For students to successfully complete experimental work in a single lesson period requires a high level of advance planning and preparation by the science staff. In this context, the commitment of the science staff to enabling students’ participation in experimental work is acknowledged and is to be commended.
The school has one laboratory with an adjoining chemical store. These facilities were viewed. The science staff has done work in organising the chemical store. Chemicals are colour coded and stored in accordance with Department of Education and Science guidelines. An inventory of chemicals has been created and the science staff is working to develop this into a stock list by including the amount of each chemical stored. This is good practice and is to be encouraged. The laboratory has the atmosphere of a scientific learning space and this is created by the display of some students’ work, scientific charts and posters, equipment, glassware, scientific books, models, and ongoing experiments. Displaying students’ work that is relevant to the topics under study is particularly good practice as it can act as a valuable learning resource. For example, word banks can help students to develop their scientific literacy and bilingual resource material can support international students for whom English is not their first language. All science lessons take place in the laboratory and this facilitates the science staff in interweaving student performance of experimental work with the theory being taught. This practice means that students’ learning is developed through a variety of methodologies and this is supportive of students’ individual learning styles.
While there is no formal budget for Science the science staff reports satisfaction with the amount of equipment and materials available for the teaching and learning of Science.
The school has a health and safety statement and this is appropriate. The science staff was involved in the last review of the statement and this is good practice. The school periodically reviews its health and safety statement. Annual review of the statement coupled with review as needs arise is good practice and is to be encouraged.
The school reported that a significant number of students have special educational needs. These students are supported by provision of resource and learning-support teaching. In addition, some students are assigned a special needs assistant who supports them in their learning. There is frequent, informal liaison among the school’s learning-support staff and subject teachers. This ensures that teachers know which students have special educational needs and this liaison can support teachers in developing and implementing teaching strategies that help students with their learning. The science staff is committed to supporting students with special educational needs and to ensuring that their needs are met through a range of teaching and learning methodologies. In building on this commitment, it is recommended that the science staff develop the use of individual education plans (IEPs) for students with special educational needs. Support for the science staff in developing these plans may be accessed through the Special Education Support Service (SESS), www.sess.ie and additional advice is contained in the Guidelines on the Individual Education Plan Process, www.ncse.ie/publications/final_report.pdf, which was produced by the National Council for Special Education (NCSE).
A range information and communication technologies (ICT) resources is available to the science staff and these ICT resources are used frequently to support the teaching of Science. The use of ICT enables teachers to engage students in a varied and visually stimulating manner. This caters for a range of learning styles among students and is to be commended.
The school shows good support for teachers’ continuing professional development by facilitating the science staff in attending all relevant in-service education courses. The school supports teachers’ involvement in their professional associations and there is financial support for teachers who wish to undertake relevant further study. In addition, teachers are supported in their continuing professional development activities through flexible timetabling arrangements subject to the needs of the school being met. These good supports for the teachers’ continuing professional development are to be commended.
The science department has done good work in drawing up a comprehensive and informative science plan. The plan has been developed using a planning template provided by the School Development Planning Initiative (SDPI), www.sdpi.ie, and this is good practice. Examination of the plan showed that beneficial work has been done in developing cross-curricular links with Mathematics, Geography, Home Economics, ICT, and technology subjects. Such links support teachers in their teaching, anchor students’ learning in familiar concepts, and help students to gain greater insight into the concepts being taught. It was noted that the plan contains an outline of the content to be taught during each year of junior cycle. It is advised that this content sequence be shared with students as it can act as a guide for any student who may miss time in school due to illness. Additionally, it will help students to plan their study and can enable them to research forthcoming topics. Minutes of cross-faculty subject meetings were viewed and these demonstrate that subject teachers work together in a supportive and collaborative manner.
All lessons that were evaluated were appropriate to the syllabus. There was a high level of lesson preparation. This was evident from the resources that had been prepared in advance, the equipment and materials that had been prepared and that were readily to hand, and the high level of subject matter expertise demonstrated by the science staff. In particular, good work had been done in planning for and interweaving the use of student performance of experimental work with theory development during single lesson periods.
Effective use was made of a wide range of teaching methodologies. Directed questioning was used to engage students in considering the topics being studied, to manage their responses, and to enable the class teacher to gain useful feedback on students’ knowledge and understanding. Good practice was observed where the topics being taught were linked to students’ prior learning and to their everyday experiences. This helped students to develop their understanding by building on familiar concepts. Overhead projection slides were used to highlight key learning points and to display clearly drawn scientific diagrams. Teacher-led exposition and explanation were clear and effective in assisting students to develop their knowledge and understanding of lesson topics. In some lessons, the class teacher performed experimental work as a demonstration. The use of demonstrations was supported by appropriate questions that sought to encourage students’ observation skills and thinking skills to explain the phenomena under study. Recap and reinforcement of students’ learning were used extensively during all lessons and every lesson concluded by reinforcing the key learning points. These good practices are to be commended. Where students performed experimental work, safety was emphasised and all experimental work was conducted safely. Students showed good skills in working together in their groups and there was good co-operation among students. As noted previously in this report, the science staff has done good work in enabling students to perform experimental work during single lesson periods. The science staff generally uses an inductive methodology to develop students’ learning during practical work by building on their observations, results and conclusions. In this context, the science staff strives to develop students’ investigative skills and where experimental work is mainly procedural in nature students’ learning is developed in an investigative manner in subsequent lessons. Good practices were observed in all lessons where students were involved in setting up for and tidying up after their experimental work. These practices help students to develop their skills in planning for their work and encourage them to accept responsibility for their work.
A positive learning environment was a feature of all lessons that were evaluated. There was good rapport among students and their class teacher. Good practice was observed where the teacher circulated among students as they worked, guiding and advising them. This shows a beneficial approach to meeting students’ individual learning needs. The positive learning environment resulted in high levels of student participation in lesson activities. Students’ participation and their responses to questions posed were acknowledged and affirmed and this is good practice.
Students were engaged in all lesson activities in all of the lessons that were observed. Observation of students’ responses to questions posed during lessons, the questions posed by students and interaction between the inspector and students revealed that they had generally good levels of knowledge and understanding in the topics under study. Discussion with students showed that they have generally positive attitudes to Science and good levels of interest in it.
Appropriate arrangements are in place to assess students’ progress regularly and to report to parents periodically. The school strives to keep parents informed of students’ progress. It reports that contact with parents occurs formally through the student journal, parent-teacher meetings, and information evenings. In addition, contact is maintained informally through frequent phone calls and meetings with parents.
Samples of students’ copybooks were viewed. It was clear that students have completed a satisfactory amount of experimental work and that performance of experimental work is a regular feature of students’ learning. This good practice is to be commended. Students’ homework copybooks showed that homework is assigned frequently and completed by students. Best practice was observed where students corrected their homework regularly by including the correct answers where they have made errors. It is recommended that all students be encouraged to adopt this practice. Their class teacher monitors students’ work and evidence of this monitoring was seen in records that were offered for inspection and in students’ copybooks. The types of monitoring most frequently used include tick-based correction, initialling by the class teacher and the use of affirming comments. Monitoring students’ work regularly is good practice as it provides opportunities to show students where they can improve their learning and can be used to acknowledge and reward students for their work which helps to foster their motivation. Some helpful advice on the use of formative assessment may be obtained from the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA), www.ncca.ie/uploadedfiles/Publications/Aflleaflet2.pdf.
It was reported that the science staff has developed the practice of rewarding students for the practical skills gained through the performance of experimental work and of including credit for these skills in end-of-term examinations. This good practice is to be commended as it reinforces the value attaching to the developing of good laboratory and investigative skills.
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 with the principal at the conclusion of the evaluation when the draft findings and recommendations of the evaluation were presented and discussed.