An Roinn Oideachais agus Eolaíochta
Department of Education and Science
Subject Inspection of Religious Education
in the Junior Cycle
Carndonagh Community School
Carndonagh, County Donegal
Roll number: 91406R
Date of inspection: 09 May 2007
Date of issue of report: 24 October 2007
Report on the Quality of Learning and Teaching in Religious Education
This report has been written following a subject inspection in Carndonagh Community School. It presents the findings of an evaluation of the quality of teaching and learning in Religious Education for junior cycle classes only 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 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.
Carndonagh Community School is a co-educational, multi denominational school situated on the Inishowen Peninsula. It offers the broadest possible range of programmes to the 900 boys and girls currently enrolled, in keeping with its commitment to provide the very best educational opportunities for all students. While a programme of religious education is offered to students in all year groups, this evaluation is concerned only with the preparation of students for Junior Certificate examinations in the subject, following study of the Religious Education syllabus prepared by the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA). This syllabus for Junior Cycle was introduced by the NCCA in 2000 and the first Junior Certificate examination in the subject was held in June 2003. The course seeks to promote an understanding and appreciation of why people believe, as well as tolerance and respect for the beliefs and values of all. The course is inclusive of students from all faith backgrounds and from none.
Class groups are formed in two bands in junior cycle. The larger of these bands comprises mixed ability ‘home’ groups. The minority of students who are studying the Junior Certificate School Programme (JCSP) are placed in one of two class groups in the second band. Religious Education is a core subject for all junior cycle students and is allocated two classes per week in each of the three years. This time allocation is less than optimum provision and it is recommended that consideration should be given to increasing it. While teachers report that they can cover the Religious Education syllabus in the time available, the potential for students to achieve well is impacted upon if there is not enough time allocated for the subject to allow students to explore in depth the concepts taught.
There is a large teaching team for Religious Education. In all, twelve teachers, not all of whom have a specialist qualification in the subject, work with junior cycle class groups. These are specialist teachers in other curriculum areas and most only take one class group for Religious Education. In order to ensure that the high quality of teaching and learning in the subject which was evident during this inspection visit is not compromised, it is suggested that the deployment of non-subject specialists to teach Religious Education should be governed by the same good practice principles which exist in other subject areas. Teachers should have an expressed interest in teaching the subject, they should be actively involved in planning for the delivery of the subject and should participate in subject department meetings. Care should be taken to reduce turnover among the teaching team, so that the same teachers are deployed from year to year, providing continuity of experience over several years. In this way, these teachers can consolidate and extend their subject knowledge and experience.
Resourcing for the subject in the school is very good. Resources available to teachers and students include the McKenna Library and three computer rooms. These can be reserved by the teachers for the use of individual class groups. It was evident that excellent use is made of both these resources to support students’ research for journal work. The Religious Education department also has the use of a laptop computer and projector and the conference room in the school has the facilities for DVD, PowerPoint and Internet presentations. Where classes are taught in specialist teachers’ rooms, stimulating and supportive visual displays have been created on the walls and these both celebrate students’ own work and illustrate key concepts being learned.
School management is committed to encouraging and facilitating the continuing professional development of the Religious Education teaching team. Teachers have benefited from school visits from the Religious Education Support Service and attendance at cluster meetings, where they have had the opportunity to share resources and ideas with teachers of Religious Education in other schools.
While school management has designated staff planning days for subject department meetings and programme planning, full attendance at meetings of the Religious Education department is not often achieved. This may be because those teachers who do not identify themselves as primarily Religious Education teachers will, understandably, go to department meetings for their specialist subjects. This is regrettable as it means that the opportunities for collaborative work are limited and that the benefits that derive from sharing of ideas and resources are lessened. Department meetings have the potential to develop the knowledge of teachers about the purposes, aims and most appropriate pedagogies for the subject. They are also a forum for sharing information and resources received at external in-service courses and are an important support to non-specialist teachers. It is suggested that management works with the Religious Education teaching team to identify how these benefits can be accessed more effectively by all teachers of Religious Education.
Religious Education department activities are ably co-ordinated by a special duties post-holder and a comprehensive plan for the organisation of teaching and learning has been developed. A significant strength of the plan is its excellent cross referencing to syllabus documents so that the learning outcomes for each unit taught are carefully identified. To build on the very good planning engaged in thus far, it is recommended that a description of the assessment modes used to measure achievement of those outcomes should be included in the plan for the subject. The plan should also cross reference the JCSP Religious Education learning statements, which describe the course followed by students on that programme.
The completion of journal work is a requirement of the syllabus and the Religious Education plan in Carndonagh Community School outlines an incremental approach to helping students develop the necessary skills. By including mini-projects in first and second years, the teachers ensure that students learn how to research and investigate, how to analyse and evaluate and how to write up their project titles at an early stage in the programme. The effectiveness of this strategy was evident in the quality of the work observed in students’ folders and copies and the RE teachers are commended for this approach.
In discussions with teachers it was obvious that they are aware of students with special educational needs (SEN) in their classrooms and the Religious Education department has organised sets of texts suitable for the use of SEN students.
There was clear evidence of effective planning and preparation by individual teachers for all of the lessons observed. All necessary resources and support materials were available as lessons commenced. This was evident in one lesson, for example, which modelled how students might approach a project on the work of the St Vincent de Paul organisation. Here, the teacher had prepared task sheets for group work. Each task was clearly defined and achievable in the time allocated. In another lesson, on Islam, a ‘map’ of what had been learned previously had been drawn on the whiteboard prior to the commencement of the lesson. This was used well by the teacher to organise quick revision and to ready the students for new learning.
Excellent use was made of the hardware available to support teaching of the subject. A short video selection of images and music was presented using a laptop and data projector in one lesson. This helped to develop a theme being explored in the class. The overhead projector was used in a second lesson to show the spread of a religion and the whiteboard was used in another lesson to illustrate how a mind map can be used to organise ideas. Teachers are commended for their consciousness of the potential of illustrative images to speak loudly to students who are very visually aware.
Teachers provided opportunities for students to work co-operatively in pairs and groups in all of the lessons observed. Group work succeeded in one lesson as the group tasks were well defined and differentiated to ensure inclusion of all students. In another lesson, a walking debate on a number of ethical dilemmas ensured the active involvement of all students. The effectiveness of these strategies in engaging students was evident, and lessons were lively and interactive. However, it was less clear that, in all instances, students had achieved an improvement in their critical thinking skills or had extended the conceptual framework out of which they were thinking and acting. Teachers were perhaps overly supportive of students in that they provided explanations and commentaries on learning activities too readily. It is suggested that students should be required to do a little more work themselves in class. For example, they should be encouraged to develop themes or to discover the links between lesson activities and the concepts being explored themselves. In this way, students can begin to understand how core principles, beliefs and values impact on culture and relationships.
In all of the lessons observed, there were few instances of inattention. A very good and respectful working atmosphere had been established through the setting of appropriately challenging tasks. The movement of teachers around their classrooms ensured that students’ difficulties were quickly addressed so that lessons proceeded without interruption.
It was clear from student copies that homework was regularly set and there was evidence of progression in the quality of the work completed over time. Questions set for homework generally required short answers and there were insufficient opportunities given to students to develop their thinking over an extended piece of writing. It is recommended that this should be rectified, especially in second and third years, so that students acquire more practice in addressing picture questions, comprehension and essay type questions.
The development of a homework policy is currently under discussion in the school. In the meantime, the subject department plan for Religious Education expects teachers to assign a task after every lesson, though it need not always be a written one. In one class, for example, students are encouraged to learn some material by rote and this serves to reinforce their understanding of new concepts and ideas. It was clear that teachers provide students with very positive feedback on their work. Comments in copies tell students how they are progressing and direct their attention to areas for improvement. Teachers keep good records of students’ progress.
All students are assessed on a continuous basis through class tests. They sit these on completion of each unit. In addition, in-class tests in Religious Education are held at the end of the first term and students in each year group sit common house exams in March. The mini projects are used as a summer assessment for first and second years. Reports to parents issue after the Christmas and March examinations. Parents have the opportunity to meet teachers to discuss students’ progress at annual parent-teacher meetings.
The following are the main strengths identified in the evaluation:
· Resourcing for Religious Education in the school is very good.
· School management is committed to encouraging and facilitating the continuing professional development of the Religious Education teaching team. Time is made available for subject department meetings and programme planning.
· Religious Education department activities are ably co-ordinated by a special duties post holder and a comprehensive plan for the organisation of teaching and learning has been developed.
· Teachers of Religious Education are aware of students with special educational needs (SEN) in their classrooms.
· There was clear evidence of effective planning and preparation by individual teachers for all of the lessons observed.
· Teachers provided opportunities for students to work co-operatively in pairs and groups in all of the lessons observed. The effectiveness of these strategies in engaging students was evident, and lessons were lively and interactive.
· Homework was regularly set and there was evidence of progression in the quality of the work completed over time. Teachers’ comments in copies tell students how they are progressing and direct their attention to areas for improvement.
· Parents are kept informed of their child’s progress through reports home and at parent-teacher meetings.
As a means of building on these strengths and to address areas for development, the following key recommendations are made:
· Consideration should be given to increasing the timetabled allocation to the subject.
· A description of the assessment modes used to measure achievement of the learning outcomes for each unit taught should be included in the Religious Education department plan.
· Teachers should set more extended writing tasks especially in second and third years.
Post-evaluation meetings were held with the teachers of Religious Education 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
Area 1: Observations on the content of the inspection report
The Board of Management would like to acknowledge the courtesy and professionalism displayed by the Inspector during the R.E. Subject Inspection. The Board welcomes the positive nature of the Report and will address the recommendations therein. The Principal will discuss the recommendations with the R.E. Department.
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 R.E. Dept. will have designated ‘stand alone’ meetings timetabled to ensure all staff can attend (-now in practice) for planning and preparation.