An Roinn Oideachais agus EolaŪochta
Department of Education and Science
Subject Inspection of Home Economics
Blackwater Community School
Lismore, County Waterford.
Roll number: 91509E
Date of inspection: 26 and 27 November 2007
Report on the Quality of Learning and Teaching in Home Economics
This report has been written following a subject inspection in Blackwater Community College It presents the findings of an evaluation of the quality of teaching and learning in Home Economics and makes recommendations for the further development of the teaching of this subject in the school. The evaluation was conducted over two days during which the inspector visited classrooms and observed teaching and learning. The inspector interacted with students and teachers, examined studentsí work, and had discussions with the teachers. The inspector reviewed school planning documentation and teachersí written preparation. Following the evaluation visit, the inspector provided oral feedback on the outcomes of the evaluation to the principal and subject teachers.
Home Economics, as demonstrated by very healthy uptake levels, both in junior and senior cycle, is a popular subject in Blackwater Community School. An observation of the gender make-up of class groups, with the exception of the current first-year and sixth-year class groups, also indicate that a healthy percentage of the male student cohort have chosen to study Home Economics. One emerging trend in uptake, as highlighted by the members of the Home Economics department, is the subjectís more recent failure to attract students of all abilities. As a means of addressing this pattern a number of actions are provided. First and foremost, it is recommended that the home economics department, in conjunction with management and other relevant staff members, examine how the subject is being marketed or promoted in the school. A balanced approach should inform in this regard. Secondly, the home economics teachers should examine the content of the first-year taster programme, as well as the content of the taster programme that is usually offered in Transition Year (TY). This is recommended with a view to ensuring that topics explored seek to ensure that students are introduced to a cross section of the concepts, knowledge, skills and attitudes promoted by the relevant junior and senior cycle syllabus. Finally, the department is encouraged to investigate ways in which the home economics notice board, which due to its location on the corridor that adjoins the home economics facilities can be accessed by all students, might be used to further promote the subject in the school. Information relating to course content, examination performance, both nationally and in the school, as well as career prospects, are but a few suggestions of items that might be displayed on this notice board.
The vision behind the taster programme offered to first-year students, which operates from September to mid-term, is applauded. However, consideration needs to be given to the following question, which was raised with senior management over the course of the two-day inspection. Is the taster programme really achieving that which it is intended to achieve? The small volume of work, as well as the limited subject matter covered, as evident in some first-year home economics copybooks, together with the fact that, as highlighted to the inspector, some students are not getting the chance to access the full planned content, are but two reasons why this question was posed. As all concerned seek to answer this question it is recommended that some consideration be given to an examination of the taster systems that are in use in other schools and to an evaluation of the pros and cons of each, including those of the system already operating in the school.
As alluded to in the first paragraph, an evaluation of gender uptake levels in the two first-year home economics classes, particularly when compared to similar levels in second and third year, indicate that fewer boys have opted to study the subject. There is no doubt but that this pattern can be attributed in part to the fact that in the subject blocks offered to first-year students in late October, Home Economics is in the same block as Technical Graphics. Such an approach reinforces gender stereotyping in relation to both subjects and therefore should be reviewed. Furthermore, the approach adopted to subject choice in the October of first year, whereby first-year students choose four subjects from four set blocks, is found to militate against the very open and student-centred subject choice system that operates in the school, both prior to entry to second year and again before entry to fifth year. As a result, it is strongly recommended that this approach be reviewed. As indicated in the previous line, prior to entry to second year, students are required to choose again. The fact that students, having opted not to study Home Economics from October to May of first year, can at this point opt back into Home Economics is a cause for concern. The junior cycle home economics syllabus is designed to be delivered over three years and at the end of first year, students studying Home Economics will have acquired a number of the key concepts and skills, as well as much knowledge relating to Home Economics. As a result, it can be concluded that the students opting in at this point will be at a serious disadvantage. As a result, it is strongly recommended that this practice be discontinued.
Home Economics is not offered as a subject on this yearís TY programme. When one considers the findings and recommendations outlined previously this is most unfortunate. Management did however provide an assurance that this is a once-off occurence that will be resolved when timetabling for next year and thereafter. This assurance was welcomed by the inspector.
The timetabling of Home Economics in Blackwater Community School is, in terms of time allocation, reasonably consistent with syllabus guidelines. In addition each class groupís contact with the subject is well spread over the weekly timetable. Both are noted as positive. The timetabling of double classes on a Monday afternoon, when classes are shorter than usual and where very often practical work is undertaken, means that in order to have sufficient time to complete planned work, both students and teachers need to give up fifteen minutes of their lunch break. In the interest of equality, and for the other reasons outlined on the day of the inspection, it is recommended that every effort be made, when timetabling in the future, to seek to avoid this situation. For similar reasons the timetabling of double periods in Home Economics over mid-morning break times, which appears twice on current timetables, should also be avoided. From second year through to third year and from fifth year through to sixth year, every effort is made to ensure that teachers retain the class group originally assigned to them. In the deployment of teachers to first-year class groups, every effort should be made to ensure that, as is the case with all other year groups, both teachers are provided with the opportunity to get involved in the teaching of first-year students. Class sizes are most conducive to the safe and efficient delivery of the practical aspects of both syllabuses.
Home Economics is well resourced in the school and the facilities, while relatively new, are also well maintained. In addition to the specialist rooms and equipment that are required, provision has also been made for room-based access to information community technology (ICT). This takes the form of one personal computer. In light of the independent research and study required of both junior and senior cycle home economics students, as well as of the potential contribution that such technology can make to teaching and learning, it is recommended that the networking to broadband of this technology be prioritised. In addition to the resource library that is being established in the home economics kitchen the teachers highlighted that the school library also houses a section that is dedicated to the subject. Both initiatives are applauded and their continuing development is strongly advocated. A health and safety statement specific to the home economics kitchen in the school has also been devised. In the review of this statement, provision should be made for the inclusion of the dress design room. The knowledge and experience of both department members should inform in this regard, as it should with all reviews undertaken.
Managementís support for the concept and practice of subject department planning is clear by the provision it makes for members of subject departments to meet formally on a very regular basis. The Monday afternoon meeting slot ensures that, for example, the members of the home economics department meet formally every three weeks. This level of provision is applauded. The practice of working from an agenda for these formal meetings as well as the minuting of the outcomes is well established in the home economics department. Teacher files demonstrate that this practice dates back to August 2005.
A subject co-ordinator, appointed on a rotational basis, takes overall responsibility for managing and organising the planning work of the home economics department. Despite this, it is clear that the department has adopted a team approach to this task. Good inter-departmental relations, as well as an openness to collaboration, make this a very workable model. Both members of the department are very committed to this aspect of their work, as evidenced by the fact that in addition to the regular formal meetings arranged, the teachers also meet informally every Friday morning during a non-timetabled class period. This additional commitment is highly praised.
The department has undertaken a number of reflective exercises over the course of the last few years. To date, these have focused on the subjectís perceived strengths and weaknesses. Teachers are encouraged to expand this to include a focus on the opportunities for development in Home Economics in the school, as well as an identification of the possible threats to the subject. This should in turn be used to inform future planning in the subject and ultimately will provide a focus for long-term planning. Likewise, a review of minutes should also be used to inform in this regard.
It is good to note that programmes of work have been agreed and developed for each year group. It was very clear that, in line with best practice, these programmes are reviewed on an annual basis. These programmes are time-based, detail the topics to be covered on a month-to-month basis, provide some detail relating to practical food studies and textile work, indicate in a very general sense methodologies that may be used in the delivery of lesson content and illustrate a small degree of planning for the integration of practical and theory work, especially in the fifth-year programmes. Other documentation reviewed indicated a recording of homework provided, as well as of assessments issued. A marrying of all of this information, together with an extension of information where applicable, with a view to compiling a comprehensive programme of work for each year group is recommended. This should be carried out on a phased basis taking, for example, one junior and one senior class group per annum. It is suggested that a tabular approach might be adopted to the organisation of this information. Best practice would be where this table makes provision for information relating to the topic, methodologies and resources that would assist in terms of teaching and learning in each identified topic, suitable homework and assessments modes. In line with both home economics syllabuses, programmes of work should also seek to provide more extensively for the integration of subject matter. This recommendation relates both to theory and practical lessons and will be elaborated on in the following section of this report. Simultaneously, the department is advised to review the volume of work that is planned for each year group, as some programmes appear to be light in content while others are a little too ambitious.
In relation to the junior cycle programmes of work, planning must also ensure that provision is made for the completion of a simple item of clothing, in addition to a household item that is already planned and provided for. Furthermore, consideration ought to be given to an earlier introduction of the design brief approach to practical, food-studies lessons.
Planning for the provision of a number of co-curricular activities was apparent, as was the home economics departmentís involvement in a number of cross-curricular projects. This focus is commended and further advocated. When planning for lessons, teachers are encouraged to seek to provide for a natural cross-curricular linking of subject matter being explored in home economics with other subjects that the students may be studying. These should go beyond a mere reference to the fact that students have or will be studying the topic in, for example, Science or Business, but should seek to reinforce previous learning or provide a solid foundation for future learning.
In general, lessons observed were found to be consistent with that which was set down in the planned programmes of work. Where this was not the case consideration should be given to the recommendation made in the previous section, which relates to a review of the volume of work that is planned for each year group. Short-term planning for each of the lessons delivered on the day was apparent in all lessons, with the quality of planning for the theory lesson visited being noted as excellent. In this instance the lesson was extremely well structured and an impressive number of resources had been gathered, and/or prepared for use in the delivery of lesson content.
Lessons were purposeful, demonstrating clear aims and objectives. On occasions these were openly shared with students, thereby providing students with a benchmark to evaluate their own learning. This is considered very good practice and is therefore encouraged in all lessons. Furthermore, a return to these stated aims and objectives as lessons draw to a close is also recommended. Such an approach would assist lesson summary, whilst providing evidence for the teachers, as well as for the students, of the actual learning that has taken place. In practical lessons, teachers are strongly advised to seek to expand the lessonís aims or focus, above and beyond the preparation and cooking of a dish or food product. To this end, opportunities for learning, through a carefully planned integration of theory and practical work, could be more fully availed of in all practical lessons.
Overall lessons were well paced and, thereby, cognisant of studentsí levels and abilities. A review of work previously covered set the scene for most lessons. This proved very effective in terms of examining studentsí knowledge and understanding of work previously covered, as well as in terms of providing continuity between lessons and a greater relevance for the work to be explored. This approach could be developed a little more in practical lessons. Teacher instruction was, at all times, very clear and accurate. In the theory lesson visited this quality contributed to the very effective teaching of some of the more difficult concepts. In one lesson, a key word approach, where words were plotted on to a flow diagram, helped to familiarise students with difficult terms, whilst ensuring that students understood the relevance and relation of one word or concept to the next. This approach is highly praised. The consistent repetition of key information as lessons progressed assisted the consolidation of learning for the students.
In the theory lesson visited, whereby students were preparing for one of the senior cycle food studies assignments, the approach taken modelled best practice. It was clear from the outset that prior to the exploration of the assignment, which was initiated in this lesson, students had studied the relevant, associated theory and so were very well equipped to deal with each area of enquiry or investigation. Students were fully involved in the analysis of the task and in the exploration of the possible solutions. This was achieved through the use of a number of strategies including brainstorming, questioning and pair work. Possible solutions were not just issued to students but came from the students themselves. This was made possible by the facilitative approach adopted by the teacher. For example, in one part of the lesson a handout, which drew information from a wide number of publications, was provided for research. Students, working in pairs, sought to extract the relevant information. The whiteboard was utilised to great effect to record studentsí feedback. A very natural but focused discussion often ensued over the course of the lesson between students and teacher. This student-centred approach to the assignment reflects best practice as it supports independent study and research by students, an approach that is espoused in the Leaving Certificate home economics syllabus. Studentsí attention was constantly drawn to the recording criteria, with which they appeared very familiar, as well as to work completed in a previous assignment. This really helped to keep students focused on the requirements of the assignment as well as the overall approach required. Students demonstrated a very natural note-taking of points that were being compiled on the whiteboard. This took place without any direction from the teacher and therefore is indicative of studentsí familiarity and ease with the approach adopted by the teacher in this class. Teaching also provided for an integration of other relevant areas of the syllabus.
A combination of whole-class instruction, on-spot demonstrations and one-to-one instruction was provided in practical lessons. On a minor point, whole-class instruction should only be issued when studentsí full attention has been sought. Students demonstrated a clear knowledge of proper and safe procedure and practice in the kitchen. They were also competent and confident in their approach to practical food studies. The whiteboard was prepared in advance of practical lessons, providing a list of ingredients and equipment. As appropriate, and particularly with junior cycle classes, it is recommended that key points relating to the method are also provided on the whiteboard. This encourages independence amongst students. At senior cycle the whiteboard could be used more effectively to explore, both at the beginning and throughout the lesson, the key factors that should be considered in the preparation and cooking of the various dishes being prepared. These factors should relate to safety and hygiene as well as preparation and cooking processes that are relevant to the dishes being prepared. The material noted on the board could then be used to generate a class discussion at the end of the practical activity and would assist students in the completion of the required written work, including the evaluation of both the end product and studentsí own work. In some instances, upon completion of the practical task, short discussions were held in relation to how dishes could be served. In other instances, the actual presentation of the dish at the end of the lesson provided a visual support for the verbal discussion. The latter approach is recommended in all instances. As alluded to previously, it is essential that greater links are made between studentís practical work and related theory. Key concepts and theory studied in previous lessons should be discussed and highlighted. As appropriate and time permitting, new work could also be introduced. This would facilitate studentsí successful completion of an assigned task, whilst enhancing overall learning in the subject. In junior cycle food studies practical lessons, and particularly in third year, a greater exam focus is recommended. The earlier introduction of the design brief approach, as recommended in the planning and preparation section, would greatly assist in this regard. Written preparation and evaluation exercises, that reflect that which is required of students in the actual examination should be planned and provided for from the very outset of studentsí engagement with practical work.
A variety of questioning strategies was evident in lessons. A combination of both global and directed questioning was used. On occasions, questioning was used very effectively to ensure inclusion of all students. In some instances a combination of higher-order and lower-order questions were used. Teacher prompts helped some students to answer the more challenging, higher-order questions. Both approaches are encouraged in all lessons. On occasions, questioning was highly focused on the checking of studentsí understanding of new work being explored. This approach is highly commended. In some instances there was evidence of an acceptance of chorus answering from students. This is a practice that should be discouraged. In the majority of lessons studentsí responses demonstrated a high level of understanding of the topics being studied. Evidence of learning was also observed in the studentsí copybooks, workbooks and folders.
Students remained on task and were focused and attentive in all lessons. Significant efforts were made to relate content to studentsí personal experiences and lives and this stimulated student engagement. The rapport between teachers and students was very positive. Interactions were relaxed and friendly whilst being highly respectful. Students were at ease contributing to class content, either through the asking or answering of questions as well as the provision of comment.
A comprehensive range of assessment modes is employed by the home economics department with a view to determining studentsí progress and achievement in the subject. This includes the very commendable practice of assessing studentsí practical and project work. The inclusion of studentsí achievement in these two areas, as a percentage of the overall mark awarded to students at key times over the course of the school year, is also highly praised. Studentsí copybooks and folders are illustrative of the continuous assessment approach that is agreed in the schoolís assessment policy.
Most copybooks also demonstrate a very thorough and comprehensive approach to the regular assigning and monitoring of homework. Some fine examples of comment marking, in addition to the grading of studentsí work, could be seen in some copybooks. Both approaches are commended. Where applicable, this comprehensive approach is further encouraged. Periodically, for example, where a particular answering technique needs highlighting to students, some consideration might be given to using a comment-only approach, which is espoused as part of the general approach to teaching and learning known as assessment for learning or AfL. Details in relation to this approach can be accessed on the website of the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment at www.ncca.ie. It was mentioned over the course of the feedback meeting that teachers are under pressure from students and parents to provide a grade. In the interim, while both groups adjust to the value of such an exercise and as a means of addressing this preference, work could also be graded but the grade withheld until the students have read and understood the comments provided. In this way, both assessment for learning and assessment of learning are facilitated.
Clearly systems have been established in relation to the recording of studentsí attendance, participation, progress and achievement, as well as for the reporting of outcomes to parents. Reports are issued no less than four times a year. This additional reporting on a formal level is commended. Reports issued in October and at Easter are based on the continuous assessment of students, while those issued after Christmas and following the summer examinations follow on from formal, in-house examinations.
A review of teacher records indicated a significant pattern of student absenteeism. Discussions with teachers highlighted the impact that this trend is having on studentsí performance in Home Economics. Naturally, it must also be impacting on studentsí performance in other subject areas. As a result, this is an area that should be examined by management and staff with a view to reverting the identified pattern.
Some groundwork has been completed in relation to the development of subject-specific assessment and homework policies. These should be further developed in time to provide for detail that relates to specific class groups. The approach to the planning of programmes of work, as detailed in the planning and preparation section of this report, should inform in this regard.
In relation to the junior cycle optional study areas, it is very commendable that students are allowed to choose from the childcare and design and craft options. All projects viewed were very well presented, with the level of design, creativity and originality evident in some of the completed craft pieces worthy of special mention. In guiding students in terms of researching for and compiling their childcare projects, it is important that a strong emphasis is placed on the need for such projects to focus on child development.
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 Home Economics and with the principal and deputy principal at the conclusion of the evaluation, when the draft findings and recommendations of the evaluation were presented and discussed.
Published June 2008