An Roinn Oideachais agus Eolaíochta
Department of Education and Science
Subject Inspection of Religious Education
in the Junior Cycle
Coolock, Dublin 5
Roll number: 60871V
Date of inspection: 14 October 2008
Report on the Quality of Learning and Teaching in Religious Education
This report has been written following a subject inspection in Mercy College, Coolock. It presents the findings of an evaluation of the quality of teaching and learning in Religious Education for junior cycle classes 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; a response was not received from the board.
Mercy College is a voluntary secondary school for girls under the trusteeship of CEIST. It offers a range of programmes to meet the needs of the 446 students currently enrolled. These include the Junior Certificate, the Junior Certificate School Programme (JCSP), Transition Year, the established Leaving Certificate and the Leaving Certificate Vocational Programme.
Religious Education is a core subject on the school’s curriculum. This evaluation is concerned only with the preparation of students for the Junior Certificate examination 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.
Students enrolling in first year are allocated to mixed-ability class groups and all are expected to participate in the school’s religious education programme. The majority of junior cycle students are being prepared for certificate examinations in Religious Education. The small numbers of students who are not taking this course comprise a distinct class group formed to support students with mild general learning disabilities. They are offered a course in religious education, in keeping with the school’s ethos, but there is no expectation that they would sit certificate examinations in the subject. All students are encouraged to achieve to their potential in the subject. The postponement until the beginning of third year of the decision about the level at which certificate examinations in Religious Education will be taken is a very good strategy as it allows students to develop their confidence in the subject before a focus on examinations is developed.
Resourcing for the subject in the school is very good. A spacious classroom has been allocated as a specialist religious education room and cupboards have been provided to facilitate storage of the range of teaching and learning materials available in the department. Other resources available to teachers and students in this room include a computer, data projector, printer and a range of relevant software. Audio-visual equipment is also available here. Very good use is made of this room by the religious education teaching team and the space is used flexibly to facilitate paraliturgies and experiential learning activities. Teachers may also book the information and communications technology room for whole-class work. It was evident that use is made of this resource when students are working on journal assignments.
A small team of teachers is responsible for delivering Religious Education in the school. All members of the religious education department have a specialist qualification in the subject. They have availed of the in-service support provided by the Religious Education Support Service and have benefited from whole-school training in co-operative learning, for example. It was noted during the evaluation that the teachers of Religious Education have identified further professional development priorities for the department, particularly in the area of differentiated teaching and learning. The ongoing identification of the department’s training needs and the maintenance of careful records of training completed is very good practice and indicative of the commitment of the religious education teachers to maintaining their expertise in the subject for the benefit of their students.
The three teachers of Religious Education share responsibility for the co-ordination of the work of the department. They meet formally once each term to plan their work and have recently begun to record minutes of each meeting. They use this time, and regular informal meetings, very effectively to share their expertise and subject knowledge. Currently, the team is developing a database record of all the resources available for the subject. This collaborative approach works to the benefit of students, as was evident in the lessons observed.
A subject department plan has been devised. This includes a whole-school policy on Religious Education, which emphasises its centrality to the school’s ethos and its contribution to the development of the plan for the school under the new trusteeship arrangements. Curriculum planning is commendably at the centre of the subject plan. Documentation indicated that a systematic presentation of the content of the programme, as the syllabus presents it, is planned. The work to be completed by the teacher in each year of the programme is clearly indicated, although the teachers reported that the plan allows for a significant degree of freedom in this regard. This means that individual teachers might alter the content of the agreed plan or the sequencing of units taught in order to respond to the emerging needs of their class groups. This flexibility is good, but it is recommended that, where a teacher has deviated from the agreed department plan, a record of the work completed should be included in the planning notes. In this way, it is clear what elements of the course have been satisfactorily covered by each class group. It is also recommended that a description of the assessment modes used to measure achievement of the learning outcomes for Religious Education should be included in the plan for each year.
Individual teachers’ planning for the lessons observed was very good. It included the integration of varied teaching and learning strategies and, in most cases, very suitable handouts and worksheets were specifically designed for individual classes.
Four lessons were observed during the evaluation. Each was very well planned and this ensured that all lessons proceeded smoothly and without interruption so that the learning objectives were achieved. In all lessons, teachers reminded students of the work covered previously and thus helped them to situate new learning in context. Often, completed homework exercises were used as the starting point for class work, thus establishing a very good level of continuity between lessons. Work done on a topic in a previous lesson was used, for example, at the beginning of class to remind students of what they already knew before they tackled the extension work on this topic which formed the basis of one of the lessons observed. This created a good learning atmosphere in which students felt confident about their ability to complete the tasks set for them in this lesson.
The range of teaching methodologies used in the lessons observed provided students with opportunities for active, participatory and experiential learning. For example, group work in one lesson allowed students to learn together and the plenary session provided opportunities to learn from each other. This particular lesson worked very well because it had been very carefully planned and managed. Clear explanations of the group task were given and the teacher asked questions to check students’ understanding of the nature of the work set before they were permitted to begin working independently. During the final phase of the lesson, when groups were reporting on their work to the class, students were encouraged to listen attentively to one another. There was very good use of questions which pushed students to develop their ideas and new insights were reinforced by the repetition by the teacher of appropriate examples.
The value of thorough lesson preparation was evident again in another lesson observed. Here, very good use was made of the students’ textbook during the initial phase of the lesson. In order to ground a difficult concept in their own experience, the teacher had developed a handout which was used for pair work on the topic. This allowed the teacher to provide discreet support to particular students during the lesson. In the class discussion which closed the lesson, it was evident that students had grasped the principle ideas being explored during the lesson. They were confident in making a contribution to the discussion and successfully completed the pair work task. The high quality of the handouts was a particular factor in this successful outcome to the lesson. The language used was accessible and, in this mixed-ability class group, provided an appropriate level of cognitive challenge. This was not the case for the handouts used in all the lessons observed, however. It is suggested that due care should be taken to ensure that handouts and other visual aids focus on the key idea of each lesson and do not include extraneous material which is likely to confuse students. Similarly, the use of headings and sub-headings prompts students to recognise the relative importance of points and the inclusion of relevant graphics or images is a good support to visual learners in the classroom. Attention to these elements can mean that the time spent by the teacher in preparing resources such as these is well invested.
Students are introduced to research skills in Religious Education 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 second 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.
In all of the lessons observed, teachers had established very warm relationships with their students, who were confident when asking for further explanation. Students participated well and their contributions were used to build the lessons as they progressed. It was evident that students are making good progress through their courses, in keeping with their abilities in the subject. During classroom discussions, students demonstrated a very good familiarity with the material being studied and their written work suggests that they have little difficulty tackling a range of homework tasks. The challenges of working in a mixed-ability setting were evident to some extent. It is suggested that more extensive use of differentiated teaching strategies would be helpful in meeting those challenges. For example, teachers might model how to tackle an assignment or make more general use of supporting visuals. It is noted that the teachers of Religious Education have already identified further training in this area as a department need. It was also evident during this evaluation that there is already some level of expertise in this area in the department. It is suggested that subject department meetings could provide a good forum for sharing that expertise among colleagues. The openness to suggestions in this regard of the teachers of Religious Education is indicative of their commitment to provide the best possible learning experiences for their students.
Generally, students’ copies and notebooks are well maintained and organised, indicating the high expectations of standards set by the teachers. It was evident that the full range of ability is represented in the school, with some students struggling to manage the writing tasks set by teachers. These students achieve better on short-answer and cloze-type assignments and are reluctant to tackle those exercises which require them to develop their ideas. The use of graphic organisers and of frames to encourage writing is recommended to address this. Better able students, however, are confident writers and their work indicates appropriate reflection on their own religious experience and the experiences of others, a key aim of the junior cycle syllabus. It is suggested that these students should be encouraged to use subject-specific vocabulary as appropriate.
Oral questioning is used in lessons to check understanding and to allow students express opinions. Teachers used this strategy well and, generally, questions were sufficiently differentiated to include all members of the class. In accordance with the school’s homework policy, homework is regularly set in religious education classes. It is carefully corrected and appropriate records of students’ results are maintained. The work done by students is of a good standard, given their aptitudes and abilities in the subject.
All students are assessed on a continuous basis through class tests. They sit these on completion of each unit. In addition, students sit formal Christmas and end-of-year tests to monitor their progress. A particular strength of the assessment strategy used by the religious education teachers is the setting of common examinations as appropriate. This provides very clear information on how each year group is progressing through the course and is a solid basis on which to make recommendations about the level at which a student should take certificate examinations in Religious Education.
Mercy College is committed to communicating high expectations of achievement to its students in all subject areas. To that end, responsibility for the development of motivational strategies and positive recognition has been assigned to a post-holder in the school. One example of the strategies in place is the recognition of students’ efforts and achievements through a postcard home. This, together with parent-teacher meetings which are held annually and academic reports which are sent home twice each year, ensures that parents are kept informed of their daughter’s progress.
The following are the main strengths identified in the evaluation:
· Support for Religious Education for junior cycle classes in the school is very good.
· The religious education teaching team meet regularly to share their expertise and subject knowledge.
· Very good planning documentation included the whole-school policy on Religious Education. A particular strength of the plan was the centrality of curriculum planning in the documentation provided. Planning
work has, commendably, identified the future continuing professional development (CPD) needs of the department.
· The lessons observed were very well planned and all lessons proceeded smoothly so that the learning objectives were achieved.
· The range of teaching methodologies used in the lessons observed provided students with opportunities for active, participatory and experiential learning.
· A warm, respectful, atmosphere had been established in all classrooms observed.
· Students were making good progress in the subject. They demonstrated familiarity with many aspects of the course.
As a means of building on these strengths and to address areas for development, the following key recommendations are made:
· Where appropriate, a record of the work completed with class groups should be maintained. A description of the assessment modes used should also be included in the plan for the subject.
· More extensive use should be made of differentiated teaching strategies to meet the needs of students. Subject department meetings could provide a good forum for sharing expertise in this area among
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.
Published April 2009