An Roinn Oideachais agus Eolaíochta
Department of Education and Science
Subject Inspection of Science and Biology
De La Salle College
St Mantan’s Road, Wicklow
Roll number: 61850S
Date of inspection: 2 March 2009
This report has been written following a subject inspection in De La Salle College, Wicklow. 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 the subjects 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, 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 teachers. The board of management of the school was given an opportunity to comment on the findings and recommendations of the report; a response was not received from the board.
The science subjects hold a secure position on the curriculum in De La Salle College. Science is a core subject for all junior cycle students, with equal access to higher level in the subject through the arrangement of mixed-ability groupings. This contributes valuable support to the subject in both junior and senior cycle. Three senior cycle science subjects are provided in the college. There is one class group of Biology, Chemistry and Physics, within each year of senior cycle, including transition year (TY). The highest numbers of students choose Biology. The uptake of Chemistry is moderate. The uptake of Physics, although low in sixth year, is greater in fifth year. Classes generally retain the same science teacher through junior cycle and through senior cycle.
Parents of third-year students are invited to an information evening during April regarding subject choices. Subjects are arranged into pre-set option bands but if there is sufficient demand for a different arrangement of subjects the bands can be altered. Biology, Physics and Chemistry are offered on different lines of the option bands enabling students to study all sciences if they wish. The TY programme is compulsory in the college. Biology, Physics and Chemistry are currently timetabled in TY for three, two and two periods per week, respectively. However, students are asked to choose their Leaving Certificate subjects in advance of partaking in TY. This is undesirable and is contrary to the Department TY guidelines and Circular M1/00. Subject choices should be made for the first time at the end of TY. It is recommended that, instead of offering the three sciences as distinct individual subjects in TY, a single programme in ‘Science’ be designed. The programme should allow all students to get a flavour of each subject at senior cycle and provide for an interdisciplinary or thematic approach to be taken to the subjects.
Five periods per week are allocated to Biology in Leaving Certificate and this is appropriate, although they are mostly allocated as five single periods. Timetabling provision for junior Science is inadequate; class groups in first, second and third year only have three single periods per week instead of the four periods recommended by the syllabus. It is recommended that the college allocate time to the teaching of Science in accordance with syllabus guidelines. This same recommendation was made in a previous subject inspection report in 2006 and it is regrettable that progress has not been made on this. Furthermore, it is of concern that many class groups are not allocated a double period for Science and no double lessons are provided for Biology. The double lesson is necessary to allow for sufficient time for students to plan, design and carry out practical investigations. The timetabling of double lessons across break times should be avoided.
There is one science laboratory in the school and it is used only by the science department. Teachers are timetabled for laboratory access with their class groups at least once per week. Preparation for practical work is greatly assisted by the work of a laboratory technician employed privately by the college. Budgetary requirements for the science department are communicated directly to senior management and all re-stocking needs are met.
The laboratory and preparation area contain adequate resources including equipment and chemicals. A high level of organisation was noted. The laboratory is fitted with proper safety equipment and modern teaching facilities including a good quality board and blinds. The laboratory has two teacher-assigned laptops and portable data projectors are available within the school. Internet access is available throughout the building. Audio-visual resources are also available and a range of DVDs and charts are present. Teachers are encouraged to continue to focus on the development and modernisation of existing teaching resources in line with the expanding array of presentations, animations and varied assessments available from the range of support services and on the World Wide Web.
Both data-logging equipment and a set of portable laptops are available in the college and it is intended to incorporate electronic data collection methods into some of the student practical activities in the near future. This is to be encouraged. External facilitation in setting this up has been sought and it is suggested that teachers also register with the Discover Sensors project for training in this area at www.discoversensors.ie.
Co-curricular activities in the sciences are facilitated. Quizzes, inter-class activities and visits to the ‘Young Scientist and Technology Exhibition’ are organised. The school grounds are used to support learning in related topics, including ecology, and an adjoining ‘Mass path’ has been cleared and planted by the school. First year students, in particular, are encouraged to observe plant and animal life in the local area.
A safety statement has been drawn up for the college, including the laboratory area, and it was most recently reviewed in 2007. The statement was drawn up in consultation with science staff.
Continuing professional development (CPD) is supported and teachers have been facilitated in attending in-service in the introduction of the revised syllabuses.
Good progress has been made on most of the recommendations made in a previous science inspection report and both management and teachers are commended for this.
Structures to facilitate collaborative planning are in place in the college. Subject department planning is organised once per term and the science department meets on these occasions as well as at other times during the school year, for example when TY groups are on work experience. Planning is overseen by the college’s school development planning (SDP) co-ordinator and facilitated by a rotating subject co-ordinator for the science department. The subject co-ordinator sets agendas, chairs meetings, ensures minutes are recorded and discusses matters arising with the principal and the SDP co-ordinator. These arrangements are commended.
Subject department meetings deal with matters such as equipment, resources and laboratory access and also facilitate the planning of common programmes of work and common assessments. Inter-class activities are also organised and this sometimes involves team teaching. It was evident that the science department is self-evaluative and is constantly reviewing its practices to ensure the best for its students. In these ways, significant collaborative planning takes place and the science teachers are mutually supportive. This is commended.
Some collaborative subject planning meetings have taken place with the science teachers in nearby Abbey Community College in preparation for the forthcoming amalgamation of the two schools in the town. The main focus of these meetings is to develop a joint science plan, so that when the student groups are merged they will have been following the same curricular programme. This also is commended.
A good quality collaborative subject plan for Science is in place and this is revised annually. The plan sets out comprehensive details under a range of suitable headings and includes details of effective teaching methodologies, resources, laboratory management, access to higher level and support for students with special educational needs (SEN). Separate plans for senior Biology and the TY science subjects are extensions to this. The plan for Science sets out learning outcomes to be achieved in each year and the plan for Biology sets out a curriculum plan for both fifth and sixth year. Both are in line with syllabus documents. In further developing the plan for Science, integrated links could be established in the curriculum section between teaching and learning methodologies and the syllabus learning outcomes. This would ensure that the methodology employed matches the learning activity required of the student.
In order to develop the TY programme for the sciences in line with the recommendation made in the previous section of the report, it is suggested that a range of modules for Science could be developed. Three such modules; forensic science, sports science and pharmacology are currently provided and others could include environmental science, cosmetic science, bioinformatics and horticulture. Whatever format the revised TY science plan takes, teachers should ensure that there is a clear distinction between the TY programme and the corresponding Leaving Certificate syllabus. When Leaving Certificate material is included, it should be planned for and taught in an innovative way in line with the Department’s TY guidelines.
Planning for students with SEN is supported by the college’s SEN co-ordinator who informs staff during the first staff meeting of the year about students’ needs and how to work with those needs. The co-ordinator also meets with teachers during the year to support them in their ongoing work.
Preparation for individual lessons was thorough. Worksheets and presentations were carefully considered to match the purpose of the lesson. Materials for practical work were ready from the start of each lesson and this led to a seamless flow from activity to activity.
The quality of teaching and learning observed was of a high standard. There were many examples of enjoyable lessons, particularly where learning was active and communicative by means of practical work, investigation and questioning. For example, when studying the effect of exercise on pulse rate, students carried out the investigation while undertaking different levels of physical activity on the basketball court; and students investigating hardness in water analysed many samples including those of water supplies from students’ own households. Levels of interest in these activities were notably high.
Learning was always contextualised for the student. For example, when studying solubility, students were encouraged to think about the concept in terms of practical daily examples and they applied themselves very well to the task presented. Students demonstrated excellent attentiveness during lessons. There was clearly an expectation that students participate productively and it was evident that they were trying their best in all lessons visited. Classroom management was consistently good. Students presented as responsible learners with an interest in the subject and in learning. Student independence was promoted, particularly in note taking. In senior cycle lessons it was evident that respect for student maturity was evident and this was appreciated by the students.
A fairly wide spread of ability was evident in most lessons and differentiation of approach was noted in the questioning techniques used. Short questions were used to check understanding and recall, and questions were often used to prompt students to make links with prior learning and other topics in the course. Higher-order questions were also posed, and students felt confident in asking questions themselves. Best practice was seen where all students were targeted. Classroom discussions were enabled in many lessons.
Lessons were well structured and well paced. Evidence of course coverage was very satisfactory; the sixth year class group had completed the curriculum for the year with focused revision being undertaken until the end of the year and the third year group visited were working on the final component of the curriculum – coursework B. The examination class groups had just completed ‘mock’ examinations in the subjects.
A practical experience of science is promoted; practical laboratory work is implemented by all teachers on a weekly basis, and this is commendable. Students worked co-operatively in their groups during practical work and their skills were well developed. They demonstrated a clear understanding of a fair test and due regard was given to safety procedures. Students were supported in their practical work as the teacher circulated. Teachers were careful not to reveal the outcome of the experiments and to encourage the students to make observations and draw their own conclusions. This is commended. Provision of student practical work in single lessons is greatly enhanced by the services of the laboratory technician. The provision of double lessons would greatly enhance good practices observed in student practical work.
In further developing the good practical approach to learning in Science and Biology, it is recommended that the teachers employ greater use of an investigative approach to practicals, particularly in junior Science, and that they allocate time for a greater level of student involvement in the planning and design phases of investigations. Students should be encouraged to suggest and explore suitable methods for the investigations on the course and not simply to follow the textbook method.
Good approaches to the writing of laboratory reports were observed. Some teachers encouraged students to use hardback copies and others have sourced appropriate laboratory record books. In some instances the records are corrected and in some instances they are monitored. Best practice was seen where student laboratory records were individual and complete, with results and conclusions recorded. However, this was not always the case and absenteeism may be a factor for some students. It is recommended that teachers encourage students to employ greater autonomy in writing up laboratory records in order to develop their report writing skills.
A good standard of learning was evident in the responses given by students to questions posed by their teacher and by the inspector, with excellence noted in some instances. Examples of good work were seen in the written work inspected, including class tests and homework. Student written work was very well presented, particularly in senior Biology.
The college encourages all students to work towards higher level in the subjects, as appropriate. This is commended and should continue. Students make their choice between higher and ordinary level with their parents and class teachers, usually after the ‘mock’ examinations, and this is also discussed at parent-teacher meetings. An analysis of the students’ results in the state examinations reveals a fairly good uptake at higher level in both Science and Biology. The principal examines these results for Junior Certificate and Leaving Certificate annually and compares them to national norms. In addition, some teachers on the staff hold posts of responsibility for monitoring student attainment. In order to build on the existing culture of self-evaluation, it is recommended that the principal meet with the science department to formally discuss student attainment with the purpose of ensuring that high expectations are clearly communicated and that teachers are encouraged to reflect both individually and collaboratively on classroom practices.
Student progress was generally very well monitored during lessons through effective teacher circulation and individual interactions, although there was scope for the development of these important techniques in a few instances. For the most part, students were affirmed in their work regularly and appropriately, both through verbal remarks by the teacher and through correction of the work in their copies.
Most groups have frequent class tests, usually at the end of each topic. Teachers keep records of outcomes and also of student attendance. Homework is set regularly. In the lessons observed, homework was corrected by teachers at the beginning of the lesson through a plenary session. In some instances, however, this is the predominant method of correcting homework and it is recommended that alternative methods be used at times. In addition, in some instances, more detailed feedback should be given to students on their written work. It is recommended therefore, that all students’ copies be collected and corrected periodically and that the principles of formative assessment be applied in giving written feedback. It would be useful if an assessment policy could be agreed by members of the science department to ensure a greater consistency of approach to assessment practices. It is the intention of senior management to arrange training for all teachers in the area of Assessment for Learning (AfL) and this is to be encouraged as such methods have been shown to make a significant contribution to student learning.
Good practice was seen where marks were awarded to students for the completion of mandatory practicals (coursework A) in junior Science as part the grade allocated in the formal school reports. This is in line with the marks awarded in the Junior Certificate and is commended. Extension of this practice is to be encouraged. Common assessments are used where appropriate, and this practice is also commended.
Very good procedures for reporting to parents are in place. Parents receive reports four times a year. The reports sent at Christmas and summer are formal with records of student grades achieved in each subject including a mark for student effort, homework and short commentary by each teacher. Progress reports are sent home at Halloween and Easter with a written assessment from each teacher and commentary on homework, behaviour and number of absences. In addition, reports are issued following the results of the mock examinations. A parent-teacher meeting is held annually for each year group.
The college’s student diary and planner provides very useful sections to assist students including tips for study and the expectations of teachers regarding homework. This is commended.
The following are the main strengths identified in the evaluation of Science and Biology:
· Science is a core subject in junior cycle and three science subjects, Biology, Physics, and Chemistry are provided in senior cycle.
· The laboratory is well organised and contains good resources for practical work and modern teaching aids.
· The science department is self-evaluative and significant collaborative planning takes place.
· Preparation for individual lessons was thorough.
· Effective teaching methods were employed.
· The atmosphere in lessons was focused and students were attentive and participated well.
· A practical experience of science is promoted.
· A good standard of learning was evident.
· Students presented as responsible learners with an interest in the subjects and in learning.
· Very good procedures for reporting to parents are in place.
· Good progress has been made on most of the recommendations made in a previous science inspection report.
As a means of building on these strengths and to address areas for development, the following key recommendations are made:
· To develop the interdisciplinary aspect of the TY programme for the science subjects, a single subject ‘Science’ with component modules is recommended.
· The college should ensure that there is a clear distinction between the TY programme and the corresponding Leaving Certificate syllabus.
· Subject choices should be made for the first time at the end of transition year.
· Four periods per week should be allocated on the timetable for Science in first, second and third year. This should include one double period to allow sufficient
time for students to plan, design and conduct each investigation in the syllabus.
· Teachers are encouraged to continue to develop the range of ICT resources that can be used with topics and also to continue with plans to develop student learning
opportunities that incorporate the use of the college’s data logging equipment.
· In developing the plan for Science, integrated links should be established within the plan between teaching and learning methodologies and the syllabus learning outcomes.
· A greater emphasis should be placed on an investigative approach to practicals, when appropriate, but particularly for junior Science, as advocated by the syllabus.
· In some instances, there is a need to bring greater variety to the assessment methodologies employed. Greater consistency of practice in this area is recommended.
Post-evaluation meetings were held with the teachers of Science and Biology and with the principal, at the conclusion of the evaluation when the draft findings and recommendations of the evaluation were presented and discussed.
Published November 2009