An Roinn Oideachais agus Eolaíochta
Department of Education and Science
Subject Inspection of Science and Biology
Portmarnock Community School
Carrickhill Road, Portmarnock, County Dublin
Roll number: 91324P
Date of inspection: 20 February 2008
Report on the Quality of Learning and Teaching in Science and Biology
This report has been written following a subject inspection in Portmarnock Community School. 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 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 of this report.
All first-year students study Science in Portmarnock Community School. Science is allocated four periods per week in the junior cycle. This includes a double period which is timetabled for the laboratory. The school offers the following programmes in senior cycle: the established Leaving Certificate, the Leaving Certificate Vocational Programme (LCVP) and the Transition Year programme (TY). Science is an optional subject in TY where it is chosen by approximately two thirds of the year group. TY is allocated four class periods per week. Biology, Chemistry and Physics are available as Leaving Certificate subjects. Biology classes are allocated five periods per week which includes at least one double period for practical work. This double period is held in the laboratory. All class period allocations are in line with National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA) recommendations.
The school has five laboratories which are very well maintained. Three of the laboratories have been recently refurbished. The laboratories have a common preparation area and storage room for chemicals. Flammables and toxics are stored appropriately in this store. There are two further laboratories in a separate building. These facilities are older and are linked by a common preparation and storage area. It is commendable that chemicals in all storage rooms are organised in a colour-coded sequence depending on reactivity. Management is currently investigating how ventilation can be improved in one of the chemical stores. Toxics and flammables are stored appropriately in both stores and during the evaluation a further cabinet was delivered. The science department benefits from the services of a laboratory assistant. She is employed by the school to work five mornings per week.
The school’s health and safety statement has been reviewed in 2007 and it is commendable that members of the science team have had input into this review. It is good practice that health and safety procedures are displayed in each laboratory. The health and safety procedures are distributed to all students at the beginning of each school year in the form of a contract. Parents are asked to sign this document. Members of the science team then retain the contracts in the school. There is scope to add the contract to the student journal. Appropriate health and safety apparatus was found in each laboratory. These included fire blankets, fire extinguishers, first aid kit and isolation switches for gas and electricity. A safety notebook is available in each laboratory to record breakages and accidents. This is good practice. A list of telephone numbers for the emergency services is also prominently displayed in the preparation area.
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 benefited from guest lecturers from Trinity College, Dublin City University (DCU) and University College Dublin. Students have attended courses in practical work in DCU and have visited Beaumont Hospital, the Royal College of Surgeons, the Mater Hospital and Dublin Institute of Technology (DIT). Students are encouraged to enter the BT Young Science and Technology exhibition and the Young Environmental awards. The science team is commended for its commitment to facilitating these activities.
A number of teaching resources are stored in the preparation areas and these are available to all members of the science team. These include DVDs, CD-ROMS, Videos, textbooks, past examination papers with marking schemes for both certificate examinations and mocks. All five laboratories are broadband enabled. Each laboratory is equipped with laptop and data projector. The science team has used these facilities in the development of resources and they incorporate information and communication technology (ICT) into science lessons. Audiovisual equipment such as a television, DVD player and overhead projector (OHP) are also available to the science team.
There is a good sense of teamwork among the members of the science department. Responsibility for various duties within the department is shared across the team with different members undertaking the various tasks. The team plans to rotate co-ordination tasks on a yearly basis. This is good practice and is encouraged. Formal meetings are held regularly and minutes of the meetings are recorded. This is good practice. Copies of the minutes were made available during the evaluation. The position of chairperson is rotated for each meeting. The science team reported that regular informal meetings also take place.
Long-term plans for both Junior Certificate Science and Leaving Certificate Biology included a list of topics to be completed by each year group. Commendably, these lists have been drawn up collaboratively by the science and biology teams and include appropriate time frames for each topic. These lists of topics are the basis of the schemes of work. It is recommended that, when the science team is reviewing the schemes of work at the end of the year, the learning objectives should be included for each topic. The current schemes make reference to a list of potential teaching methodologies. The science team should review their use of methodologies as they teach each topic and make note of any changes as they progress through their courses. Changes should be noted in the schemes of work for each year group. It would then be possible for the team to meet as a group at the end of the year and update the methodologies section as appropriate. This information would be of particular benefit to new teachers to the department or to any member of the science team who has not taught a particular year group for some time. Further planning documentation provided included details of the science department’s homework policy, special educational needs policy and assessment and evaluation procedures.
During the evaluation, planning documentation for TY was observed. Science in TY is divided into three modules of ten weeks duration. TY plans included a list of topics within an appropriate time frame. At the time of the evaluation the science team was in the initial stages of planning for a review of the TY content. This is good practice. It is recommended that during the review of the TY plans, the team should develop the curriculum content under a range of themes for example ‘supersize me’ and ‘green fingers’.
Short-term planning for individual lessons observed was good. Materials such as worksheets and overhead projector (OHP) transparencies had been prepared in advance. Apparatus and equipment to be used were set out. This level of preparation contributed to the overall quality of teaching and learning in the lessons observed. Planning documentation outlined a number of methodologies suitable for the teaching of students with additional educational needs. During the lessons observed, differentiated worksheets were provided to students with additional educational needs. It was reported that all teachers are provided with relevant information with regard to students with special educational needs and that contact with the learning-support department in the school is ongoing. This is good practice.
All lessons began with a roll call. Homework was usually checked or corrected at the start of lessons. Methodologies utilised included teacher demonstration, questioning, use of models, investigative practical work, worksheets, board work, pair work, use of the data projector, overhead projector and data loggers. Best practice was observed where teachers used a variety of methodologies in the lesson. This good practice serves to keep students focused on and engaged with the topic. Teachers moved around the classroom providing guidance and assistance to students. Appropriately, extra attention was provided to any student experiencing difficulty. Students were encouraged to use science-specific terminology. Where new words were introduced, extra emphasis was placed on pronunciation. This is commended.
Good classroom management was observed in all lessons visited. A good rapport based on mutual respect was observed, both between the students and their teacher and between the students themselves. This was particularly palpable as the week of the evaluation coincided with friendship week in the school. Lessons were purposeful and proceeded at a pace which was suited to the abilities of the students. Where new knowledge was introduced to a lesson it was linked to previous lesson material or to events in students’ everyday lives; for example, solar panels were used to explain the concept of energy conversion in one lesson observed. Appropriate co-curricular links were also made; for example, volcanic activity was used in the explanation of heat transfer.
Where practical work was observed, students worked with due regard for health and safety precautions. Good routines were observed for setting up and clearing away apparatus. Best practice was observed where the lessons were well paced and time had been built into the lesson structure to allow for summary and recapitulation. This very effective method of reinforcing the lesson content was observed in a number of practical classes where some short experiments were carried out in the course of one lesson. Teachers introduced the activities initially. In some instances the teacher provided an initial demonstration of the activity. Students then worked in groups of two or three to carry out the experiment. This was followed by a whole-class discussion of the results before proceeding to the second practical. This structured approach is commended.
Good practice was observed where students were asked, in their groups, to discuss and decide on the outcome of the experiment. This introduced the idea of ‘fair testing’ and controls to an experiment. The quality of student discussions both in their small groups and in the whole-class setting indicated a good knowledge of this concept. This is also evidence of the high expectations of the teacher involved.
Observation of students’ work indicated that the skills developed are appropriate. Students were generally confident in answering questions and contributing to discussions. During some classes students were asked to sketch the apparatus used and, in their own words, write a quick note on the procedure used. This is good practice. Most students were competent in the organisation and presentation of written material.
Teachers regularly checked that learning was taking place. This was mainly carried out through questioning and observation. In one lesson which involved a number of diagrams the teacher placed emphasis on ‘talking your way’ through diagrams on the OHP. The teacher then provided a verbal synopsis of the process and students were asked to draw the associated diagram. Students worked independently without access to class notes or textbooks. The OHP was then switched on and students were encouraged to check their work. Common mistakes were discussed. This served to promote good revision techniques. Students displayed a mature attitude to their work and were competent in working independently. Questioning was used to good effect both in encouraging student discussions and in checking student learning and understanding.
The teachers’ diaries observed contained records of students’ attendances, homework completed and science test results. This level of record-keeping is commendable. Communication with parents is facilitated through the homework journal, parent-teacher meetings and end-of-term reports.
Common end-of-year tests are administered at the end of each year and at Christmas where possible. Some teachers have adopted the practice of allocating a percentage of the marks in class tests for coursework. The science team intend to extend this practice to common tests at the end of the year. This good practice is encouraged. The results of the certificate examinations are analysed by the science department and comparisons are made with the national averages. A range of assessment techniques is utilised in TY. These techniques include group projects, end-of-topic tests, assessment of practical work and continuous assessment.
Most notebooks observed showed evidence of checking and annotation by the teachers. Some also contained formative feedback. This is in keeping with good assessment for learning (AfL) practice. More information on AfL is available on the NCCA website (www.ncca.ie). There is also scope in the notebooks for students to follow-up on corrections carried out by the teacher. This would help to consolidate and reinforce learning.
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.
Published October 2008
Submitted by the Board of Management
Area 1: Observations on the content of the inspection report
The Board of Management congratulates the Science Department for receiving such an excellent report. It thanks all the members for their hard work and commitment to the teaching of Science. The positive report is a reflection of the role which both planning and evaluation play in the school. The staff are commended for working together in both of these areas. The Board and staff would like to thank the Inspector for her advice and comments.
Area 2: Follow-up actions planned or undertaken since the completion of the inspection activity to implement the findings and recommendations of the inspection
Meetings have been held to review the findings with a view to having them implemented as early as possible.