An Roinn Oideachais agus Eolaíochta
Department of Education and Science
Subject Inspection of Science and Chemistry
Ashton Comprehensive School
Blackrock Road, Cork
Roll number: 81008W
Date of issue of report: 15 December 2006
Report on the Quality of Learning and Teaching in Science and Chemistry
This report has been written following a subject inspection in Ashton Comprehensive 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 to this report.
Ashton School, as a comprehensive school, was founded in September 1972 when Rochelle School and Cork Grammar School merged on the Grammar School site on the Blackrock Road. The Rochelle School premises were modified to act as a boarding hostel for students attending Ashton. This was subsequently closed in the 1990s.
The sciences are in a strong position in the school. A taster system, which facilitates students in making an informed subject choice, is in operation in first year. For approximately twelve weeks, students study all optional subjects, including Science, prior to the selection of subjects for Junior Certificate. Management is commended on the provision of Science for all first year students for this period of time. However, in view of the high uptake of Science at Junior Certificate level, management might consider making Science a core subject. It is good to note the generally high participation rates in all the Leaving Certificate science subjects.
The school's commitment to offering Biology, Chemistry and Physics as compulsory modules in Transition Year (TY) is commended, not least because it is very much in keeping with the TY philosophy of broad-based educational experience. These modules also provide an opportunity to further develop the scientific literacy and science process skills of the students. 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.
All classes are of mixed ability. Students are actively encouraged to do the higher-level paper for Junior Certificate. Final decisions in this regard are generally not made until the pre-examinations. It is commended that students generally retain the same teacher throughout junior cycle and again for Leaving Certificate, as it supports continuity of student learning. When choosing their subjects for Leaving Certificate, students are provided with good support. First-year students are also provided with advice regarding subject choice and TY classes have timetabled Guidance. Third-year students meet with the guidance counsellor and subject teachers. Parents are written to in advance of students making their choices. Currently the option blocks are devised by the school without any student input. Best practice operates when students are initially offered an open choice. These choices can subsequently be used to create a “best-fit” model. It is desirable that the school considers this as a possible modus operandi for future subject choice.
Ashton Comprehensive School has a very good resource in its science personnel. The teachers are committed and adopt a collegial and collaborative approach to their work. The time allocation for the sciences is in line with the class-contact time recommended in the syllabuses. However, on two occasions, classes have their two double lessons on consecutive days of the week. It is suggested that it would be better to seek to reduce what is effectively a five-day gap between science lessons and to spread them more evenly, in the future.
Management is commended on the on the provision of a laboratory technician, who collaborates well with the science teachers and who facilitates the effective organisation of the resources and laboratories. It was noted during the course of the inspection that the role of the technician also included assistance during student practical activities. This active involvement is commended.
All students have weekly access to the laboratories, with priority being given to double lessons. Extra access can be obtained by agreement between teachers. This is also commended. While acknowledging the pressure for space, strategies need to be devised in order that science subjects alone are taught in the laboratories. This is in line with the guidelines outlined in Safety in School Science published by the Department of Education and Science. A system is in place to identify students with special educational needs (SEN). There is good communication between the learning-support department and the science teachers. It is significant that benches have been adapted in the two laboratories in the main school for use by students with physical disabilities. It is good to note that an induction system has been put in place for new teachers and Higher Diploma in Education students.
There are three science laboratories in the school. Two of these are situated in the main building, while the chemistry laboratory is situated in the upper floor of the old school. These facilities were viewed during the evaluation. It is recommended that a fume cupboard be installed in the preparation area in the main school, in order that the teachers and the laboratory technician may work in a safe environment. Good work has been done in storing equipment and materials in the preparation area adjoining the two laboratories in the main school and in the chemistry laboratory and store. However, it is recommended that in line with best practice, flame resistant presses be purchased for each store. Oxidisers should also be segregated from flammable chemicals. A number of issues with regard to facilities in the chemistry laboratory and store were identified during the visit. Chemicals need to be stored at a safer lower level in the store. There is no electrical isolation switch present in the laboratory, the practical benches are not suitable for large groups of students and contain no electrical sockets. Extension leads have been used to address this last issue to facilitate the mandatory practical activities in both Science and Chemistry. This, however, is not good safety practice. Students and teachers have to pass by the chemical store as they leave the laboratory by its only exit. Concern was also expressed that the roof in the classroom adjoining both the chemical store and the laboratory is leaking. As some chemicals either react explosively with water or on reacting with water, form toxic fumes, this is clearly an important health and safety issue. While acknowledging that the school has a building project application in place, it is recommended that measures be taken in the interim to address these safety issues. It is suggested that management apply for a grant under the ‘Summer Works Scheme’.
There is a high level of safety equipment such as fire extinguishers, safety blankets, safety glasses etc., in the laboratories. Copies of the published guidelines on safety – 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. Safety rules are on display in each laboratory. This is commended. The school has a health and safety statement and it is understood that a health and safety audit is planned in the near future. It is recommended that science teachers be consulted during the process. Management is commended on the financial support that is made available on a needs basis for the provision of necessary materials and resources.
The laboratories contain overhead projectors, two computers and one data projector to support the teaching and learning of the sciences. Teachers also have access to TV/VCR/DVD units. ICT suites are also available and data-logging equipment has been purchased. The provision of such facilities is noteworthy. Management is encouraged to increase these facilities over time.
Management is commended on the commitment given to facilitate continuing professional development. All teachers have had the opportunity to attend in-career development in the sciences. The commitment of teachers themselves is also illustrated by one teacher’s willingness to share his expertise by holding workshops for teachers under the auspices of the local branch of the Irish Science Teachers’ Association. Others were actively involved in the development of teaching materials for the Integrated Science Curriculum Innovation Project (ISCIP). Whole-staff development workshops have also taken place. It is understood that funding for further study is made available upon application. This is laudable.
A high level of provision is made for co-curricular and extra-curricular science activities including fieldtrips, industrial visits, participation in quizzes, in the Science Olympiads and the Young Scientist competition. Those involved are to be praised for their commitment to facilitating these educational and stimulating activities.
Ashton Comprehensive School has a range of whole-school policies in place and is currently at the stage of curricular planning. Management facilitates subject department planning by providing time for subject departments to meet formally twice a year. Consideration should be given to the keeping of minutes of these formal meetings. On-going informal collaboration and co-operation enhances this formal communication. Well-stocked laboratories provide evidence of successful planning for resources. The compilation of ‘electricity kits’ by one member of the science department for use by all colleagues is a superb example of departmental teamwork. Those involved are commended on their level of collegiality and collaboration.
The formal departmental planning that exists is commendably supported and facilitated by the existence of a science co-ordinator and the adoption of a team approach to the work. Comprehensive plans for the organisation, teaching and learning of Science and Chemistry were provided. Of particular note in the science department plan were references to a mission statement, subject aims and objectives, planning for students with special needs, health and safety, the role of the subject in a culturally diverse society and teaching methodologies. The good practice of incorporating timeframes and practical work into the these plans could be enhanced further over time by identifying, for example, the resources and assessment procedures employed for specific topics. It is understood that the plan for the revised syllabus in Junior Certificate Science is reviewed annually. Teachers are highly praised for this level of departmental planning.
Plans were also provided for each of the sciences in TY. These plans contained lists of topics for study, practical work and teaching strategies. Generation of student interest and enthusiasm for the sciences, as well enhancing student understanding of science in everyday life and of scientific method were cited as goals in relation to these subjects. It is significant that, in some instances, detailed programmes of work were also furnished.
Several teachers had compiled folders or filing cabinets of resources. These contained worksheets, acetates, examination questions, and in one instance CDs of resources to support the learning and teaching process. This is very good practice.
There was clear evidence of very effective short term planning for all of the lessons observed. All lessons had clear aims and appropriate resources were used to support student learning. In some cases, individual lesson plans were provided and these had clearly stated learning outcomes, provided a context for the lesson by linking it to previous lessons and referred to resources to be used. This structured approach to lesson planning is very good practice as it provides for a systematic and logical approach to the delivery of the science syllabuses. Preparation for lessons, including the preparation of acetates, equipment and chemicals was noted as being at a high standard. Handouts were prepared for a number of classes to facilitate class assignments. They were also used as a prop to support students’ hands-on investigations. This level of resource provision reflects the commitment of teachers to providing rich learning experiences for their students and is commended.
A very high standard of teaching and learning was evident in the lessons observed. At the outset of lessons, it was particularly noticeable how easily the students settled down to work. All through the inspection, the very positive student-teacher rapport which obtained in the laboratories was most noteworthy. In all cases too, teachers gave very clear guidance on what the aims of the lesson were, on the topics to be covered, etc. This good practice is applauded as it provides a sense of purpose for students and when the lesson has been successfully concluded provides a sense of achievement. The pace of lessons was suited to students’ needs, and sufficient time was given to students to understand new concepts and apply these to their own knowledge base. This is commended.
There was evidence of good continuity with previous lessons with the initial minutes of most lessons being given over to a review of what had been covered and learnt in a previous lesson. There were also some very nice examples of linking the lesson content to the everyday life experiences of the students, thus making the subject tangible and relevant.
A variety of topics such as thermochemistry, electricity, force and use of the microscope were dealt with during the lessons. In all lessons observed, a suitable variety and blend of methodologies was used to assist teaching and learning. These ranged from whole-class input to individual support as required. The content was clearly communicated and lessons contained a good mix of theory and practical activities. Good use was made of the whiteboard and overhead projector to record students’ responses, to highlight key scientific terms, to provide visual images and to outline the main learning points of lessons. In some instances, worksheets were used effectively in guiding and reinforcing students’ work.
Active learning formed the kernel of each lesson observed. The idea of getting students to pass weights to each other illustrated the flow of electrons in a circuit in a manner that promoted students’ understanding of the concept very effectively. In both theory and practical lessons, the teacher and in one instance the laboratory technician, circled the room providing support, advice and encouragement to the students as they worked.
Question-and-answer sessions were used effectively to engage the students, to ascertain their previous knowledge prior to the introduction of a new topic and to assess and consolidate student learning and comprehension. A very healthy mix of individually-directed and general questions was employed, with teachers moving easily from hand-picked respondents to seeking volunteers or chorused answers, particularly for reinforcement purposes. Student outcomes in terms of knowledge and skills are good and in many instances very good. Students were able to communicate effectively during the inspection, demonstrating a clear understanding of the concepts learned during their lessons.
Practical lessons with hands-on student activities were very effectively organised and supported the development of students’ understanding and skills. Attention was given to appropriate safety precautions. Students worked in pairs or groups of three. The use of an investigative approach to teaching Science increased student 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. Students were observed to share their views and solutions readily and contribute confidently and supportively throughout group practical work. This is highly commended. The successful development of practical skills, evident in the manner in which students completed relevant tasks, is to be applauded. The students worked well and assisted the teacher in setting up and tidying away the materials and equipment. The employment of plenary sessions, sometimes within a lesson on completion of a specific activity, was very effective in consolidating student learning.
In all classes visited, students engaged readily with the classroom activities and they were purposeful in their work. They were encouraged to work independently and collaboratively. Each teacher’s comfort with the relevant subject created a challenging learning environment to which students responded favourably. Effective use was made of student affirmation. Students were encouraged to work hard and achieve their best. The teachers are to be praised for their success in instilling in students a remarkable interest in and enthusiasm for the sciences. The laboratories visited were enhanced by the display of a variety of educational posters, plants and anatomy models.
Whole-school assessment policies follow regular lines, with a mix of class tests and formal examinations for all year groups and the addition of pre-examinations for students due to sit state examinations each year. Parent teacher meetings and written reports for each year group reinforce this structure. In addition, the parents of fifth- and sixth-year students receive monthly reports of student progress. Communication is also facilitated via the student journal and the school website. It is good to note that the school operates an open-door policy for parents.
The practice of setting common Christmas and summer examination papers in Science is excellent, as it helps to establish a common direction for the subject, whilst ensuring consistency and cohesiveness within the department. It is noteworthy that an assessment of student practical skills is employed in TY Physics. Consideration could be given to expanding this very good practice where appropriate.
Attendance rates, homework and assessment results are systematically recorded in teachers’ journals. This good practice helps to build a profile of students’ engagement, progress and achievement in the subject over a period of time. Students are assigned homework in order to consolidate the learning that has taken place during a specific lesson. In one instance student self-assessment was employed to review student learning. Teachers are encouraged to expand the use of this very good modus operandi. Subject-specific statistical analysis of state examination results and a comparison with the national norms is carried out in the school and imparted to relevant subject departments.
All students have laboratory notebooks/workbooks in which they record their investigative work. These practical books are of a high standard. There is some evidence of monitoring which is laudable. It is recommended that this be employed to a greater extent, in conjunction with annotating students’ work with comments on areas where they need to improve, thus incorporating the technique of Assessment for Learning (AfL). It is recommended that the good practice of assessing students’ practical work/laboratory notebooks as a component of the end-of-term examinations be introduced. Such practice is encouraged as it reflects the assessment objectives of the Junior Certificate syllabus
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
At a recent meeting of the Board of Management, the Inspection Report of Science and Chemistry was considered. The Board was particularly please to receive such a positive report which showed that the Science Department in the school is well organised and progressive.
Area 2 Follow-up actions planned or undertaken since the completion of the inspection activity to implement the findings and recommendations of the inspection.
The Board will make every effort to implement the findings and recommendations of the inspection. They are mindful of their responsibilities and the Secretary of the Board is writing to the Building Unit of the Department of Education and Science to make them aware of the findings, particularly under the headings of Health and Safety.