An Roinn Oideachais agus Eolaíochta
Department of Education and Science
Subject Inspection of Science and Biology
St Columba’s Comprehensive School
Glenties, County Donegal
Roll number: 81010J
Date of inspection: 18 September 2007
Date of issue of report: 21 February 2008
Report on the Quality of Learning and Teaching in Science and Biology
This report has been written following a subject inspection in St Columba’s Comprehensive School, Glenties, Co. Donegal. It presents the findings of an evaluation of the quality of teaching and learning in Science and Biology 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 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.
St Columba’s Comprehensive School is undergoing extensive renovations at present where all classrooms are being refurbished. The school is also being extended to include a gymnasium and a further six classrooms, one of which will be a demonstration room. At the time of this evaluation the science laboratories had no access to gas which limited the practical activities which could be carried out. Appropriate health and safety measures were in place in each of the laboratories. Management expects that the renovations will be completed by the end of November 2007. It would then be a timely juncture to review the health and safety policy in the school.
Science is a core subject at Junior Certificate level in St Columba’s Comprehensive and is allocated four periods per week. This includes one double period which is timetabled for a laboratory. This allocation is in line with National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA) recommendations. Teachers retain the same science class from one year to the next and this level of continuity is commendable. The school offers a range of programmes including the Leaving Certificate, the Leaving Certificate Applied (LCA), the Leaving Certificate Vocational Programme (LCVP) and the Transition Year programme (TY). Biology, Agricultural Science, Chemistry and Physics are available as Leaving Certificate subjects. Biology classes are allocated five periods per week which include one double period for practical work.
Members of the science team have benefited from the in-service training provided by the support services set up for the implementation of the revised Leaving Certificate biology and Junior Certificate science syllabuses. Management is commended for facilitating this in-service.
The science department actively promotes the sciences within the school and encourages participation in a range of co-curricular and extra-curricular activities. Students have attended summer courses in the Centre for Talented Youth Ireland (CTYI) and at Salter’s Chemistry Camp in Coleraine during Science Week. Teachers have organised trips to W5 in Belfast and Letterkenny Institute of Technology. Guest speakers have also been invited in to the school to provide lectures on Careers, Environment, Whales and Instrumentation in Chemistry. The science team co-ordinates a science club and related material is displayed on the science notice board. The science team is commended for its commitment to facilitating these activities. The school has also enjoyed successes in the BT Young Scientist and Technology Exhibition. For example, in January 2007, a student achieved first place in the Junior Individual section of the Chemical, Physical and Mathematical Sciences category with a project titled ‘An analysis of weather patterns in maritime and continental regions’. This project also received a special award from Met Eireann. The school was also successful in the Northern Ireland Young Scientist competition where students won the University of Ulster award for ICT and a BA Silver Crest award.
The science department operates as a team and is co-ordinated effectively by a subject convenor. Formal meetings are held regularly and minutes of the meetings were made available during the evaluation. The science team reported that regular informal meetings also take place. It is recommended that the next few planning meetings be used to discuss and plan for the organisation of the refurbished laboratories. This could include the setting up of boxed kits for the mandatory Junior Certificate experiments and the allocation of a set of basic apparatus to the cupboards under the laboratory benches. It is further recommended that the science department plans for the storage of chemicals, apparatus, mandatory practical notebooks, school-bags and laboratory coats. The planning for and setting up of common practices amongst all science team members will greatly ease the transition to the new laboratory.
Long-term plans were available for both Junior Certificate Science and Leaving Certificate Biology. Commendably, the plans were comprehensive, syllabus-based and included appropriate time frames and learning objectives. The plans included emphasis on classroom organisation such as place seating, roll calls, planning for small group work as well as procedures for the allocation and checking of homework. This level of organisation helps provide a good lesson structure within which learning can take place. The science department plans also made reference to cross-curricular planning which included consultation with the social, personal and health education (SPHE) and religious education departments regarding the teaching of reproduction, with the technology department regarding electronics and the metalwork department on the area of metals and transfer of heat. Cross-curricular links were also noted in the mathematics, home economics and geography departments. Planning for practical work was incorporated into the long-term planning documents. It is good practice that Junior Certificate students are issued with a list of mandatory practicals to be completed before the end of each school year. It is suggested that the list of topics to be completed by each year group be distributed to students at the start of the year to give them an overview of the course and to assist them in their planning.
During the evaluation, planning documentation for an innovative and well thought out TY biology module was observed. Delivery of the module is supported by the inclusion of guest speakers, science trips and project work. Some of the topics covered include: inheritance and genetics, microbiology research on ‘What is MRSA?’ and an investigation of water purity where samples are taken from a section of river above and below two local towns.
Short-term planning for individual lessons observed was very good. A wide variety of materials and apparatus to be used during the classes had been prepared in advance and this level of planning contributed to the overall quality of teaching and learning in the lessons observed.
Second and third year science classes were observed in the junior cycle as well as fifth and sixth year biology classes in senior cycle. Lessons observed included topics such as scientific method, light, the atom, diversity of living organisms and acids and bases. During the inspection, samples of students’ practical notebooks, homework and class work exercise books were examined.
All lessons observed were purposeful and well structured. The teachers linked new knowledge to previous lessons taught. Explanations were clear and supplemented by the use of everyday examples. This was particularly evident in a lesson where reference was made to the action on bacteria in the composting process. The incorporation of everyday examples is good practice as it makes science relevant for the students and helps to focus their attention on the task at hand.
Members of the science team reported that they are fairly confident and competent in the use of information and communication technology (ICT) and have built up a substantial number of science-related ICT resources including Powerpoint presentations, CD-ROMs and DVDs. These resources are centrally stored and available to all members of the science team. As a result of the refurbishments, it is planned that there will be five computers in each of the new laboratories. Management plans to provide each laboratory with internet access and a data projector. The new school extension will also contain a second computer laboratory. It is recommended that the science team plans for the use of the new ICT resources in order to expand the teaching and learning methodologies in science in the school.
In all classrooms visited, discipline was good and a positive atmosphere existed which was conducive to learning. A range of methodologies was used and these included development of mind maps, brainstorming, paired activity, questioning, investigative experimental work as well as active teaching methodologies such as group work, teacher demonstrations and board work. This varied use of methodologies served to keep students focused on and engaged in the topic. Where teacher demonstrations were observed, students were invited to form a group around the front bench and many students were given tasks to carry out. Students readily discussed their observations on the processes and procedures as well as the results observed. Correct answers were affirmed while incorrect ones were dealt with in a sensitive manner. Good use was made of a range of resources such as worksheets, overhead projector (OHP) transparencies, whiteboard, PowerPoint presentations, 3D models and examples of living and non-living organisms. It is commendable that many of the teaching methodologies observed were carried out in the classrooms as well as in the laboratories
All lessons were well paced and time had been built into the lesson structure to allow for summary and recapitulation. This was a very effective method of reinforcing the lesson content. Where experimental work was carried out, results were discussed as a class group at the conclusion of the practical activity and the key points were noted on the board. This structured approach is commended.
Teachers’ diaries contained comprehensive records which included details of student attendances, homework completed, test results, seating plans, accident reports and discipline report forms. This level of record keeping is commendable. Communication with parents is facilitated through the homework journal, parent-teacher meetings and end-of-term reports. In addition, a letter is sent out to parents of third year students to outline students’ responsibility in completing the coursework B section of the revised Junior Certificate science syllabus.
Common end-of-year tests are administered where appropriate which is good practice and commendably these contain an allocation for completion of coursework. It was reported that the science teachers rotate the task of setting the end-of-year paper and this is good practice.
Notebooks observed were generally of a good standard and reflected the mix of abilities present in the classes visited. All showed evidence of checking and annotation.
It is good practice that management carries out an analysis of the schools’ results in the certificate examinations and makes comparisons with the national averages. Details of this analysis are made available to the teaching staff and to the board of management.
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.