An Roinn Oideachais agus Eolaíochta
Department of Education and Science
Subject Inspection of Biology
Moate Community School
Chutch St., Moate, Co. Westmeath
Roll number: 91501L
Date of inspection: 15 December 2006
Date of issue of report: 26 April 2007
Report on the Quality of Learning and Teaching in Biology
This report has been written following a subject inspection in Moate Community School. It presents the findings of an evaluation of the quality of teaching and learning in 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.
The evaluation of Leaving Certificate Biology at Moate Community School, Moate, Co. Weatmeath, was carried out over one day. It began with a meeting with the biology teachers at which the objectives and procedures of the evaluation were explained. Following this, a single and a double fifth-year biology class were observed, along with two single sixth-year biology classes.
Junior Certificate Science is a core subject for first-year students. On entering second year, students must choose from a range of subjects, with Science being on three of the four option lines. A significant majority of students choose to continue to study Science to Junior Certificate level. Following the Junior Certificate examination, students choose between Transition Year (TY) and the Leaving Certificate programme. Students who opt for TY receive one double and one single class of Science each week and study modules in Biology, Chemistry and Physics, along with Forensic Science and the Science of cosmetics. A significant amount of time is given over to facilitating students to prepare entries for the BT Young Scientist and Technology Exhibition. Methodologies are activity-based, involving experiments, field trips and guest speakers. This is good practice.
The option of following the Leaving Certificate Vocational Programme (LCVP) is also available to those students with an appropriate subject combination and, indeed, some choose their subjects with this in mind. The school is currently offering Biology, Chemistry, Physics and Agricultural Science as optional subjects to Leaving Certificate level. The school aims for a maximum class size of 24 students though classes may be larger on occasion. Students are provided with the opportunity to choose their own subjects for senior cycle. These choices are then used to create a “best-fit” model, accommodating as many students as possible. Biology is the most popular of the science subjects and classes are allocated five class periods per week, in the form of one double and three single periods. This is within syllabus guidelines. All classes are of mixed ability.
Moate Community School also runs taster programmes in a number of subjects, including Science, for sixth class primary school students. Students are given the opportunity to sample Biology, Chemistry and Physics and to see what a school science laboratory is like, all before enrolling in the school.
There are three teachers of Biology in the school. Opportunities have been availed of for continuing professional development during recent and current national in-service training programmes in Leaving Certificate Biology and Junior Certificate Science. Management is commended on the commitment given to facilitate attendance at in-service training. The school encourages active participation by students in the BT Young Scientist and Technology Exhibition, Science Week, Science quizzes, the Royal Dublin Society Young Science Writers competition and the European Union Science Olympiad. The work of the science teachers in this regard is indeed praiseworthy.
There are four laboratories in the school. All are in very good condition, well equipped and adequate for their purpose. Each pair of laboratories shares a storage and preparation area. The storage areas are well stocked, well maintained and well ordered, with chemicals being appropriately stored. A full-time laboratory assistant is available to support the science teachers. Resources available in the biology laboratory include an overhead projector, an internet-enabled desktop computer, a data projector, a television and a DVD player. The provision of such resources by management is to be commended
The majority of science classes are held in a laboratory and the laboratories are used almost entirely for science subjects with priority always being given to science classes. Access to a laboratory for specific classes is timetabled in advance. A tiered demonstration room is also available. A variety of posters and charts were observed on the laboratory walls, including student-generated work, creating an attractive and stimulating learning environment.
A range of health and safety equipment was observed, including a first aid kit, fire extinguishers, a fire blanket and gas and electricity isolation switches. A high priority was given to the active management of safety issues during student practical work as evidenced by the wearing of protective clothing by students and the carrying out of a risk assessment in advance of the practical activity in one lesson observed. This is praiseworthy. It is recommended that the storage location for laboratory coats for student use be reconsidered and a more convenient place be found. The school has a health and safety statement that was drawn up approximately ten years ago with the assistance of an outside consultant. This statement is reviewed annually. There is also reference to health and safety issues and procedures in the biology department plan.
There is a school plan in place Moate Community School, including the school’s mission statement and a comprehensive range of school policies as required by legislation. Substantial engagement has taken place with the School Development Planning Initiative (SDPI). Assessment for learning (AFL) is currently being introduced into the school.
There is evidence of a strong sense of collegiality among the biology teachers. A formal science department is in place and there is a recognised co-ordinator. The duties of the co-ordinator include convening and chairing subject department meetings. Four such formal department meetings are held each year, along with numerous informal meetings. All science teachers contribute to the work of the co-ordinator and assist in the management of issues such as laboratory maintenance, stock control and ordering of equipment, under the supervision of the co-ordinator. Finance for the purchase of equipment and other materials is provided on request by management. Teachers expressed satisfaction with the level of support provided.
Extensive subject planning is being carried out currently in Biology and an excellent and very detailed planning document for fifth-year and sixth-year Biology was presented. The biology teachers are to be praised for their work in compiling this plan. The curricular section of the plan includes a scheme of work for fifth and sixth years which lists the topics to be taught, the associated mandatory practical work, and a proposed time for this to be done. Commendably, the Leaving Certificate biology syllabus is the basis of this work. The topics being taught in the lessons observed were mostly in line with the planning documents. Where possible, classes are co-ordinated and common assessments are used. Biology teachers are to be commended for this level of co-operation.
While effective teaching methodologies are listed as part of the long-term plan, it is recommended that teaching and learning methodologies should also be included in short-term plans in order to ensure that teachers do not unwittingly restrict themselves to a preferred dominant style of teaching and to ensure that material is always taught in a manner appropriate to the material itself and to the students being taught.
In the classes observed there was evidence of short-term planning. Teachers were familiar with the subject matter of their lessons and there was a theme running through each lesson. Materials necessary for class, along with the chemicals and apparatus required for student centred investigative work, had been prepared in advance. This preparation contributed to the quality of learning and is praiseworthy.
In all classes visited, there was a disciplined atmosphere. Rapport with students was very good and this is to be commended. Teachers were enthusiastic, warm, patient and considerate of students. Their approach to their work was professional and business-like and a good learning environment was evident in all lessons observed. Good progress was made in all lessons. The level of two-way communication in classrooms was relevant to the task at hand. Students were always attentive, interested and anxious to participate in the learning process. The topics covered in the classes observed included the eye, enzymes and enzyme denaturation, bones and joints.
A range of teaching methodologies was observed, including use of the overhead projector, questioning, student worksheets, models, student practical work and teacher explanations. Lessons were well structured and students were kept busy and actively engaged at all times. Lessons proceeded at a suitable pace and changes in methodologies were built into lesson plans as appropriate. Excellent practice with regard to the seamless integration of information technology (IT) into teaching was observed in one instance. Teachers were very knowledgeable about their subject matter and there was excellent use of scientific terminology throughout the lessons observed. Students were challenged by lesson content and responded well. Continuity from previous lessons was good and new information was very well linked to previous learning. There was good direction and follow through in the lessons observed. Lessons were well planned and had a clear focus. This is excellent practice.
Questioning of students was frequently used to check on levels of knowledge and understanding, which is to be commended. Best practice was seen where students were given time to formulate their answers and were encouraged to put up their hands before a respondent was chosen. Questions ranged from the factual, testing recall, to questions of a higher order that were more challenging and encouraged students to think at a deeper level. All teachers are encouraged to give thought to their use of questioning as a methodology in order to enhance the quality of learning opportunities for students. They should guard against the use of general questions, eliciting chorus answers. The level of student engagement was excellent and students were enthusiastic. The use of directed questions will also help to maintain this very positive aspect of the observed classroom interaction even during more theoretical classes.
During the observed student practical work the students worked in groups of three or four. It was obvious from their behaviour that the students were accustomed to carrying out practical work and the Biology teachers are to be praised for their commitment to seeing that their students get the opportunity to do this practical work themselves. Students displayed a very good level of skills during the course of their work and demonstrated a mature approach. They were well prepared for carrying out their practical work by the excellent use of plenary sessions to review the theory and practice of each activity, before bench work started. Similar plenary sessions were held when the practical activities were completed, in order to review the work done and to emphasise what had been learned. This is excellent practice.
Teacher movement among the students, assisting, examining and encouraging, was evident in all lessons observed. Teachers were very affirming of student effort and were always encouraging and positive in correcting students with appropriate interventions. This is praiseworthy. Homework given was appropriate to the lesson content and was designed to assist the student in learning and retaining the topic.
Good practice concerning the minimal use of textbooks was apparent during all lessons. Textbooks were mainly used for background reading by students and to assist in homework. Homework given was appropriate to the lesson content and was designed to assist the student in learning and retaining the topic. This is excellent practice.
In order for students to make better progress and gain a better understanding of their course of study, it is suggested that students are made aware of the objectives of the lesson at the outset of each class period. Students may work better if they are more informed as to where a lesson is leading and where it fits into the larger picture. This can be motivating and informative as well as giving a sense of purpose and direction to classroom work. These lesson objectives should be clear, concise and achievable. They can encourage a degree of self-assessment by students within the class and help individuals to monitor their own progress.
Students demonstrated a positive attitude towards Biology as evidenced by the level of engagement and interest observed during the lessons visited. Students displayed a good level of knowledge, understanding and skills during interaction with the inspector. Formative assessment of students is carried out on an ongoing basis by questioning in class, through correction of homework and through the excellent level of teacher movement and observation of students during class that was noted by the inspector.
Students kept laboratory notebooks up to date as evidence of practical work being carried out. This is a very important aspect of new and revised syllabi in the sciences. The quality of the notebooks was excellent due, in no small measure, to the extent of attention paid by teachers to them. Best practice was seen when positive comments, pointing the way towards improvement, were written in by teachers. This is excellent practice and is a powerful means of further encouraging students.
The use of formal assessment in Moate Community School is very thorough and well considered. All classes are assessed by means of Christmas tests and mid-term tests at Halloween and Easter. In addition, non-examination classes receive summer tests. In-house examinations are designed to mirror certificate examinations and, accordingly, questions on practical work are included. Up to ten percent of marks is awarded for practical notebooks in the mid-term examinations. Junior and Leaving Certificate classes are given mock examinations in February. In total, each class is formally assessed on four occasions. Teachers correct mock examinations. Additional testing is at the discretion of individual teachers. Records of assessment are held in teachers’ own diaries and on computer in the school office.
Results of assessments and progress reports are communicated to parents by means of reports sent home following the four formal assessment events. Communication with parents is also achieved by means of parent-teacher meetings, held twice per year for certificate examination classes and once for other classes. Meetings are held in accordance with Department of Education and Science guidelines. In addition, the student journal that all students are required to keep is used to communicate with parents. This is checked weekly by class tutors and parents are also required to sign it each week. Parents’ evenings are held to inform parents on issues such as subject choice and Transition Year. The school operates an open door policy and parents are encouraged to contact the school if they have any concerns regarding their children’s performance.
There was evidence of record keeping by teachers, covering such areas as student attendance, assessments, class seating arrangements and topics taught. This is good practice. The recorded information can be used to build up student profiles and can form the basis of very useful evidence in communicating student progress to parents and in advising both students and parents on choice of subjects at senior level and on what level of examination paper to choose in certificate examinations.
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 Biology and with the principal at the conclusion of the evaluation when the draft findings and recommendations of the evaluation were presented and discussed.