An Roinn Oideachais agus Eolaíochta
Department of Education and Science
Subject Inspection of Science and Biology
Adamstown Vocational College
Adamstown, County Wexford
Roll number: 71600B
Date of inspection: 31 March 2009
This report has been written following a subject inspection in Coláiste Abbain. 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 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.
Coláiste Abbain is a relatively small vocational school with an intake of approximately thirty to forty students annually. Current class sizes are small with twelve to twenty students in each class group. There are two class groups in first, second and third year. One class group in first year and one class group in second year are following the Junior Certificate School Programme (JCSP). The class groups in third year are differentiated into a mixed-ability class group for boys and a mixed-ability class group for girls.
All Junior Certificate class groups are studying Science with the exception of the second-year JCSP group. Senior management expressed a desire to provide Science as a core subject for all students in junior cycle in the future and this is commended.
Biology is currently the only senior science subject on the Leaving Certificate curriculum. Physics and Agricultural Science were provided in the past and both remain an option for the curriculum if student numbers increase in the future. Biology is offered to incoming fifth-year students each year and normally numbers are sufficient to ensure one group takes the subject. However, if numbers are not sufficient or if the needs and abilities of the students are judged to be better met by another subject option, Biology may not be timetabled. In this way, the school is flexible and adaptive to the needs of its students. Currently, Biology is being studied by half of the school’s sixth years but it is not provided in fifth year.
Five periods per week are allocated to Biology in Leaving Certificate as two double periods plus one single period, and this is appropriate. Timetabling provision for junior Science, however, is inadequate; class groups in first, second and third year have three periods per week instead of the four periods recommended by the syllabus. Furthermore, it is of concern that class groups in first and second year are not allocated a double period for Science. The double lesson is necessary to allow sufficient time for students to plan, design and carry out practical investigations. It is recommended that the school allocate time to the teaching of Science in accordance with syllabus guidelines and that these changes be implemented in the next academic year.
All Junior Certificate groups study Science at higher level and are encouraged to take the examination at this level. This is highly commended. A final decision regarding the level to be taken in the state examination is made in consultation with the student and parents and this is usually after the ‘mock’ examinations in third year. Many students in the first-year JCSP group have low reading ages and they follow the ordinary-level curriculum and use an appropriate ordinary-level text book. This is the only class group following the ordinary-level curriculum. The overall uptake of higher-level Science by students in the school in the state examinations for the past number of years, therefore, has been quite high.
Currently, students of Biology are taught the ordinary-level syllabus in fifth year and the higher-level syllabus is covered in sixth year. Students are encouraged to attempt higher level. While this system ensures topics are covered at least twice and provides good opportunities for revision it should be kept under review as ordinary-level candidates could experience sessions where they are less actively involved than the higher-level students in lessons over the course of sixth year. The uptake of higher-level Biology in the state examinations over the past number of years has fluctuated but is generally quite good.
There is one science laboratory with a large preparation room in the school and it is used only by the science department. Teachers are timetabled for laboratory access with their class groups for the vast majority of lessons. The laboratory and preparation area contain a very good number of resources for practical work including equipment and chemicals. Many resource boxes have been assembled for particular topics to enable swift access for student practical work. A very high level of organisation was noted within the laboratory and the preparation room and the work of science teachers in this regard is commended. The laboratory presses are clearly labelled for students. The sciences are very well provided for in the school; budgetary requirements for the science department are communicated directly to senior management and re-stocking and funding needs are met.
The laboratory is fitted with modern teaching facilities including information and communication technology (ICT) equipment, an overhead projector and a TV with DVD player. ICT equipment includes a PC and data projector. Teachers in the school also use personal laptops that were purchased by the school’s board of management as a preparation and teaching tool for lessons. Broadband is available throughout the building. The computer room is also available should teachers wish to avail of it. A very wide range of very accessible teaching and learning resources has been built up, including ICT presentations, overhead transparencies, worksheets and DVDs on many topics. The laboratory is bright and inviting and the learning environment has been enhanced with modern charts, displays of student work and photographs of student investigations and school trips. This is highly commended. The school grounds have been enhanced to encourage wildlife and these are often used as focal points for certain topics and for ecological studies.
A health and safety policy statement has been drawn up for the school and this was reviewed in the past year. The statement was drawn up in consultation with staff and the board of management, and includes the laboratory area. There is a fire exit plan as part of the school fire plan. The laboratory is fitted with proper safety equipment, including fire equipment and emergency shut-off switches. Laboratory rules and signage are clearly displayed. All incoming students are brought through each rule to ensure they have a clear understanding of safety issues. Students wear laboratory coats and safety glasses for practical work.
There are two science teachers in the school. The school has undergone many staffing changes in the past few years with redeployment and, at times, teachers shared with other VEC schools. Continuing professional development (CPD) is supported by senior management and, as well as whole-staff in-service days, teachers have been facilitated in attending in-service in the introduction of the revised syllabuses in Science and Biology, and in the JCSP. They are also supported in attending the Irish Science Teachers’ Association annual conference. Teachers in the school were found to be progressive and constantly sourcing ideas in all areas particularly in relation to resources, planning and ICT. For example, the school does not have any data logging equipment, due to ineligibility at the time of the grant allocation, but the teachers have made links with the national Discover Sensors project to support development in this area.
Structures to facilitate collaborative planning are in place in the school. Subject department planning is organised once per year and the science department meets at this time as well as at other times during the school year when circumstances permit. Much informal consultation takes place also at break times. One teacher has undertaken the role of subject co-ordinator on a rotational basis and facilitates collaboration on matters relating to the laboratory, the subject plans and the teaching of the subjects.
Comprehensive and accessible subject plans have been prepared for Science and Biology. The plans outline provision in a wide range of areas including a mission statement, objectives for the subject, timetabling, provision for higher level, safety, the range and variety of resources, teaching methodologies, homework, assessment, cross-curricular planning, provision for students with special educational needs (SEN), well-thought-out curriculum plans for each year group, and plans for development of the sciences in the school. Curriculum plans contain integrated practical work and revision. Commendably, the plan for Science places focus on the ‘investigative approach’ to practicals in Science and provision is also made for additional student investigations. Parts of the curriculum plan for Science are based on the syllabus learning outcomes and this is recommended for all sections. In further developing the curriculum plan for Biology, the topics listed could be integrated with teaching and learning methodologies and a resource list. Good progress had been made with the plans in the class groups visited although the time remaining to complete the full higher-level course in Biology may prove limited.
A good range of possible teaching methodologies is listed in the subject plans including both traditional approaches as well as the more facilitative means of discussions, audiovisual and ICT presentations, student investigations, virtual investigations and field work. The inclusion of student group work, other than practical work, is suggested.
A good range of resources for teaching and learning in the subjects is available among teachers and the teachers are proactive in sourcing these, as many newly published resources and many electronic resources were observed. Worthy of particular commendation is that teachers have compiled a range of differentiated resources that match the abilities, needs and interests of the students in their class groups. Development of resources is exemplary.
The plans supports evidence that the maximum use is made of the school’s ICT facilities to support teaching and learning in the subjects. There is a commendable element of forward planning in the ICT section of the science plan as it includes descriptions of how ICT is to be used in lessons. The reference within the plan to the need to avoid an overuse of any one method reveals the team’s practical and reflective approach to planning.
The plans for students with SEN within the subject plans state that some students are given extra help in class and that the very able students are given extra work. In addition, information is exchanged with the learning support teacher so that a whole-school approach is taken to meeting students’ needs. Students with SEN are given extra lessons in literacy, and sometimes scientific literacy is developed in these lessons. In some lessons visited, key word posters had been prepared for the topic and these were prominently displayed for students. This is good practice.
Planning for JCSP Science is very good as lessons designed were observed to relate strongly to every day life experiences. A range of varied learning aids has been designed for topics.
Co-curricular activities in the sciences are organised for students and include visits to Wexford Slobs, the zoo, a nearby water treatment plant and wind farm, an ecology field trip to Glendalough and talks from guest speakers. All activities are commended.
Lesson planning is differentiated according to the needs and abilities of the particular class group. This flexibility of approach was noted when two successive first-year lessons on the same topic were visited, one group studying ordinary level and the other studying higher level. This is commended. Preparation for individual lessons was exemplary. Complementary worksheets and ICT presentations were carefully designed to match the purpose of the lesson and the abilities of the students. Materials for practical work were well chosen and ready for use and this led to a seamless sequence of activities. There were many excellent examples of this, including when a particularly wide range of electronics equipment that was necessary for the student investigation was prepared in advance in box sets and a set of circuit diagrams as well as a set of slides with photographs of the circuits had been prepared to supplement the lesson. Such thorough lesson preparation helped students to get the maximum out of the learning experience and made for a very successful lesson.
Teaching and learning practices observed were of a very good standard with many examples of excellent practice.
Among the teaching and learning methods observed were direct teaching, practical work, short group activities, demonstrations, discussions, worksheets and a range of questioning strategies. Good quality ICT presentations were used throughout all lessons and these provided a valuable reference point and visuals for the topic. Handouts also were utilised in all lessons and were effective. Text books were used as a resource for lessons and for homework and there was never an over-reliance on them. Students participated as fully as they were asked to in lessons and they were co-operative, respectful and responsive. Classroom management was consistently good, students’ contributions were sought and affirmed and a secure learning environment was generated in all lessons.
There were many examples of enjoyable lessons, particularly where learning was active and students were doing practical investigations. Commendably, independent learning and discovery learning were also facilitated during many practical activities. For example, during a lesson on electronics, the teacher went through the characteristics and symbols for electronic components and then set students the task of assembling their own circuits according to the diagram presented. Students tried alternative arrangements and substituted parts until they achieved success. There was much learning in the activity and levels of interest were notably high. In particular, the dialogue of the lesson, both among students and between students and teacher, was impressive. This was an excellent example of student-centred learning.
Learning was always contextualised for the student. For example, when investigating the effect of amylase on starch, students were first given the task to redo the previously learned tests for the presence of both starch and sugar so that they would have a clearer recognition of the outcome of the key investigation. Quick testing methods using micro amounts were promoted in practical work; for example, students used Clinstix to test for the presence of sugar in a drop of solution on a laminated card, and this is representative of modern testing methods.
Lessons were predominantly well structured, particularly when teachers differentiated their strategies according to the needs of the group and provided for a variety of experiences for the learner. In one instance, during teacher-led revision, an unvarying question and answer format was followed for a long period. It would be preferable to consider a short quiz, an opportunity for peer assessment or other assessment method so as to liven the tempo. Commendably, however, good emphasis was placed on student participation in the lesson. Good practice in differentiation was evident in many instances, especially when teachers established an appropriate pace for the lesson and in the teaching of new terminology. For example, JCSP lessons met the requirements of the syllabus for the topic but did not overload students with superfluous terms. Key words were effectively taught in all lessons and appropriate vocalisation by students of the newly learned terms was always encouraged through teacher questioning.
Strong focus was placed on the development of students’ scientific literacy. In addition, strong attention to detail was evident, when appropriate, and this level of detail was also sought in the students’ verbal responses and in their written work. Often, higher-order questions and thought-provoking questions were posed to challenge students to think more deeply about the topic. In particular, students’ opinions were sought on many occasions, especially during discussions on an activity, and this was always appropriate to the topic and to the development of the students.
Students’ practical skills were very well developed, particularly their process skills and skills of observation; students were encouraged to make accurate observations during practical work and they promptly noted the results of investigations in their laboratory records. Good approaches to the writing of laboratory reports were observed and the quality of these was very high in most instances. Teachers have reflected on this element of student Coursework A for junior Science over the past number of years and adapted the methodology and template used according to the skills and abilities of the class group. This is good practice.
Good practice was noted at the end of many lessons when the students were reminded of what was covered in the lesson and the teacher checked with the students if they had achieved what they set out to do.
Teachers took cognisance of students’ levels of involvement in lessons and monitored their work by circulating to check progress and to offer help when necessary. Examples of good work and generally good standards of presentation were seen in the written work inspected, including students’ laboratory notebooks and their homework. A significant amount of written work was evident in the copies of the sixth-year students and they placed high value on these notes for personal revision. A small amount of written work was found in the copies of the JCSP students as the workbook is mainly used with this group. The workbook that accompanies the science text book was used appropriately for all classes as students are given complementary work on topics for homework and class work. Written work is usually given to junior students weekly and to senior students daily and students must record all allocated homework in their journals. The work set was appropriate to the ability of the class group. Third and sixth year students are allocated questions from past examination papers in increasing frequency as the end of year approaches. Student written work is collected periodically and is checked and signed by the teacher. Good Assessment for Learning (AfL) practices were observed as some developmental feedback was given to students in the form of affirming written comment and suggestions for improvement.
Day-to-day class work, attendance and test results are recorded by teachers and the results of tests are kept in the school’s administrative system providing a good record of attainment and progress. Teachers conduct an annual analysis of students’ performance in the state examinations and the outcome of this is placed in the subject plan. JCSP students are profiled for Science and a folder is kept on each student with statements and achievement awards. Some teachers also keep daily records of the lesson topic and the homework given to each group. A review of teacher records revealed that for a small number of students absenteeism is high. It is important that this continue to be closely monitored by the school and that the school’s attendance strategies be rigorously administered.
Class tests are given with good frequency and these are corrected by the teacher according to a transparent marking scheme that reflects the certificate examinations marking schemes. Formal school tests are administered at Halloween, Christmas, Easter and summer. Biology students also receive class tests at the end of each topic. Science students are awarded up to ten percent of their marks for the successful completion of practical work and the laboratory report, and this is commended as it reflects the allocation of marks in the Junior Certificate. A wide range of assessment tests has been developed by teachers and these are kept centrally in folders. Tests used have been well designed as they match the format and standard of the certificate examinations. In addition, tests on topics are differentiated according to the abilities and level of the class groups and this is good practice. Parents receive formal school reports on their child’s progress four times each year. A parent-teacher meeting is held annually for each year group.
The following are the main strengths identified in the evaluation of Science and Biology:
· There is very good whole-school support for the sciences.
· Timetabling provision for Biology is good.
· Students are encouraged to take higher level in the subjects and the uptake of higher level in the state examinations has been quite good.
· The laboratory contains a very good number of resources for practical work and modern teaching aids, and is well organised.
· Teachers in the school were found to be progressive and constantly sourcing new ideas.
· There is very good preparation and use of differentiated resources in teaching, including ICT resources for topics.
· Subject planning and the preparation of materials for lessons were exemplary.
· Teaching and learning practices observed were of a very good standard with many examples of excellent practice.
· The learning environment was very secure with constructive interpersonal dynamic between student and teacher.
· Profitable emphasis was placed on student engagement in lessons.
· Many excellent examples of student-centred learning and discovery learning were observed.
· Good assessment practices are in place and effective uses of Assessment for Learning practices were observed.
As a means of building on these strengths and to address areas for development, the following key recommendations are made:
· Four periods per week should be allocated on the timetable for Science in first, second and third year. This should include one double period. This is necessary for the full
implementation of the syllabus.
· It is recommended that all sections of the curriculum plan for Science be based on the syllabus learning outcomes and that the topics listed in the curriculum plan for Biology be
integrated with teaching and learning methodologies and a resource list.
· At times, during revision lessons, a greater diversification of methodology could be employed so that unanticipated challenges or activities are introduced.
· The absenteeism of some students should continue to be closely monitored by the school and the school’s attendance strategies should be rigorously administered.
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
Submitted by the Board of Management
Area 1 Observations on the content of the inspection report
A thorough and professional subject inspection
Area 2 Follow-up actions planned or undertaken since the completion of the inspection activity to implement the findings and recommendations of the inspection
Absenteeism is high in particular instances. The management of Coláiste Abbain have put in place strategies to improve this, which include:
· Attendance Monitoring Officer funded by School Completion Programme.
· “In-squad” Sub Committee meets monthly to monitor absenteeism.