An Roinn Oideachais agus Scileanna
Department of Education and Skills
Subject Inspection of Religious Education
St Mary’s Secondary School
Glasnevin, Dublin 11
Roll number: 60770P
Date of inspection: 20 November 2009
Report on the Quality of Learning and Teaching in Religious Education
This report has been written following a subject inspection in St Mary’s Secondary School. It presents the findings of an evaluation of the quality of teaching and learning in Religious Education (RE) 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 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 Mary’s Secondary School is a voluntary secondary school under the trusteeship of the Le Chéile Trust. It offers the Junior Certificate, the Transition Year (TY) and the established Leaving Certificate programmes to the 680 female students currently enrolled. The ethos of the Holy Faith community is evident in a number of ways, particularly in the school’s mission statement and its influence on policy development in the school and in the appointment of a school chaplain. Liturgies and prayer celebrations mark key moments in the school year. Students are encouraged to become involved in a number of activities, including ‘Faith friends’, Amnesty International, visits to a local day-care unit and participation in charitable fund-raising. The activities provide practical opportunities to promote and develop the affective outcomes of the religious education syllabus.
A programme of religious education is offered to students in all year groups. Students in junior cycle are prepared for Junior Certificate examinations in the subject, following study of the RE syllabus prepared by the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA). 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.
RE is allocated three classes per week in each of the three years. This is very good provision. Mixed-ability class groups are formed and students are encouraged to take the higher-level course. As a result, participation in examinations at this level is very good and students achieve well. Commendably, all the teachers who deliver the course have a specialist qualification in the subject.
Resourcing for the subject in the school is very good. Resources available to teachers and students include a room where para-liturgies and experiential learning activities can be facilitated, the Mary Carroll Library, an interactive whiteboard room and the school computer room. These rooms can be reserved by the RE teachers for the use of individual class groups. It was evident that excellent use is made of these resources for teaching and to support students’ research for journal work. The RE teachers have also developed a very impressive range of resource materials. These handouts and worksheets have been collated in folders so that they are readily available for use in delivering the course. This is very good work.
School management has facilitated attendance by the teachers at cluster meetings organised by the Religious Education Support Service and this commitment to the continuing professional development of the RE teaching team is commended. In addition, whole-school seminars on themes relating to the characteristic spirit of the school were provided during the transfer of trusteeship from the Holy Faith Sisters to the Le Chéile trust.
Subject department planning is very-well established in St Mary’s Secondary School. Management has supported this through the allocation of time during staff days for collaborative work and the provision of lunch when the demands of the extensive programme of para-liturgical and other co-curricular events organised by the religious education team necessitate additional meetings. Both this support and the work done by the teachers to help students develop an understanding of the links between belief and practice are highly commended.
A co-ordinator of the RE department has been appointed by the principal, in consultation with all RE teachers. This member acts as a convenor of department meetings and a team approach is taken to the management of the department’s activities, with each teacher assuming responsibility in particular areas. This ensures that they all have an opportunity to contribute their leadership skills to the department.
A comprehensive plan for the organisation of teaching and learning has been developed. It is prefaced by the school’s mission statement which states that: ‘The educational programme of the school is directed to the growth of the whole person’. Of particular note is the fact that the RE teachers have clarified their role in achieving this aim and have identified the development of ‘a healthy respect for the beliefs of others and openness to dialogue’ as a key aim of the RE policy in the school.
Planning folders provided during the inspection clearly documented the programme to be taught in each year of junior cycle, indicating the learning outcomes for each section of the course. There was clear and careful cross-referencing to syllabus documents so that the programme offered reflects all aspects of syllabus and programme requirements. To build on the very good planning engaged in thus far, it is recommended that a description of the assessment modes to be used to measure achievement of those outcomes should be included in the plan for the subject. As noted in the previous section of this report, a comprehensive body of teaching resources has also been developed and this is stored with the department plan in a dedicated resource space.
Individual teachers’ planning for the lessons observed was very good. It included the integration of varied teaching and learning strategies and very suitable handouts and worksheets were prepared and used with individual classes.
Four lessons in RE were observed. There was clear evidence of thorough planning and preparation by individual teachers for all of these lessons. This level of preparedness ensured that all lessons proceeded smoothly and without interruption so that the learning objectives identified in the lesson plans provided to the inspector were achieved. Prior to the commencement of the planned lessons, all teachers engaged students in good revision of work completed previously, thus situating the new work in the context of what was already known. This helped establish a very good working atmosphere in all classrooms and students quickly settled down to work.
Excellent use was made of the hardware available to support teaching of the subject. It was evident that the RE teachers are conscious of the potential of illustrative images to speak loudly to students who are very visually aware. A laptop with a data projector was used in one lesson to illustrate church furniture and layout and in another to help students to recall key concepts relating to Islam. In both these cases, it was evident that the level of students’ attentiveness to the lesson and their grasp of the material being studied were enhanced by the teaching strategies used. In this second lesson, the teacher had also prepared a set of pictures and word cards for use in the lesson. Students were asked to match the pictures with the words, drawing on their knowledge of Islam. They were allowed to use their textbooks and to work in pairs. This was a very successful lesson, not least because of the very affirming style of the teacher who reassured students regularly that they were doing good work.
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. Teachers used questioning to manage the forward movement of lessons and in all cases the questions asked were specific, relevant and clear. Generally, this worked well and a good balance was achieved between questions directed to named individuals and those addressed to the whole class. Overall, the responses required were principally lower-order and there is scope for further differentiation in the level of challenge posed by questions to ensure that students are provided with opportunities to develop their ideas. This was done in some instances, where the questions asked students to evaluate or to interpret the ideas being discussed.
Students are introduced to research skills in RE from first year and the subject plan requires them to have completed a first draft of their journal work for the certificate examinations at the end of the first term in third year. This very helpful practice allows students the opportunity to develop second and final drafts of the journal with the guidance and support of their teachers during third year.
Students’ contributions in class demonstrated that they were knowledgeable about the subject and were familiar with and comfortable using appropriate religious vocabulary. Good teaching of this vocabulary was evident in one lesson observed where new words and concepts were pre-taught before they were encountered. Careful repetition of key words by the teacher reinforced students’ learning and the very good relationships established in the lesson meant that students were very comfortable asking for clarification when necessary.
It was evident that students are making good progress through their courses, in keeping with their abilities in the subject. Students’ copies and notebooks are well maintained and organised, indicating the high expectations of standards set by the teachers. An examination of the work done in these copies indicated good evidence of progression in the quality of the work completed by students.
It was clear from student copies that homework was regularly set and that students have little difficulty tackling a range of homework tasks. Questions set for homework generally required short answers. There is scope to set more exercises, particularly in third year, which allow students to develop their thinking over an extended piece of writing. It is recommended that this should be rectified so that students acquire more practice in developing themes being explored in the class, for example.
There is a whole-school homework policy in place and this has been supplemented by a policy for the RE department. This suggests that RE teachers will assign three written tasks per week. A particular strength of this planning is that guidance is provided to teachers on the level of challenge which should be posed by homework tasks for each year group. The recommendation above is made in that context. 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.
Students’ progress through the RE course is assessed formally at the end of the first and last terms in first year and second year. The practice of setting common papers for these house examinations is very good. It allows teachers to provide clear guidance to students regarding the level at which they should take examinations in the subject and is a factor in the very good uptake of the subject at higher level in the school. Students in third year are set questions modelled on those used in the certificate examinations, providing good practice in tackling such questions. Reports to parents issue after the Christmas and summer 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:
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 RE and with the principal at the conclusion of the evaluation when the draft findings and recommendations of the evaluation were presented and discussed.
Published May 2010