An Roinn Oideachais agus Eolaíochta
Department of Education and Science
Subject Inspection of Science and Biology
St Stephen’s Green, Dublin 2
Roll number: 60820E
Date of inspection: 29 September 2006
Date of issue of report: 22 February 2007
This Subject Inspection report
This report has been written following a subject inspection in Loreto College. 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 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.
Whole school support and provision for the sciences in Loreto College is excellent and the Biology and Science departments of the school are found to be modern and vibrant working environments.
A range of Science subjects is available on the curriculum including: Junior Certificate Science as a core subject for all students; four Science modules in Transition Year (TY); and Biology, Physics and Chemistry as optional subjects for Leaving Certificate. Science teachers emphasise the importance of Science as a career choice and encourage students to think carefully about these subjects at senior cycle. Useful information about the subject is presented by the teachers to all students before they have to make choices for Leaving Certificate. There are good opportunities for students interested in studying the sciences at Leaving Certificate to sample them in the school’s TY programme. TY students are given the opportunity to complete four modules in the sciences; Physics, Chemistry, Biology, and a particularly beneficial module in Science process and problem-solving skills. Biology is the most popular Leaving Certificate Science subject in this school. In general, three Biology classes, one Physics class and one or two Chemistry classes are timetabled in each year of Leaving Certificate. The proportion of students taking Biology, Physics and Chemistry in this school is very high.
There is a maximum of twenty-four students in each class and students usually work in pairs or groups of three for practical laboratory work. Good practice is evident in the retention of the same teacher with class groups as they progress through junior and senior cycle. Teachers are allocated to senior classes according to their subject specialism and thereafter on a fair rotational basis. The time allocated to Biology and Science meets the recommendations of each syllabus and includes provision for double and single periods, as appropriate.
The school’s three laboratories are designated and resourced as individual Biology, Physics and Chemistry laboratories. Each laboratory is also fully resourced for teaching and learning in junior Science. For groups studying junior Science, access to a laboratory is excellent and the vast majority of all lessons in the sciences take place in a laboratory. However, it was found that three of the six senior Biology class groups do not have any timetabled access to the Biology laboratory while the other three groups are constantly timetabled for this laboratory. This should be re-examined for formal timetabling in future as half of the Biology students do not have immediate access to subject specific resources for intermittent use during their lessons. While it is possible to make local arrangements for movement between laboratories, it would be preferable to have access to the Biology laboratory formalised on the school timetable for all groups in the future.
Given the consistently high numbers of students choosing to study Biology for Leaving Certificate in this school, and the demand for access to a dedicated Biology laboratory, the school should give consideration to the provision of a fourth laboratory i.e. a designated second Biology laboratory in their long term plans for the development of the school buildings.
The laboratories and preparation areas are located adjacent to each other on the school’s science corridor. Two of the school’s three laboratories have recently been refurbished to the highest standards. They are neatly stocked with ample equipment, chemicals and materials for practical work. There is easy access to and clear identification of all items. Financial support for consumable materials is provided through an appropriate annual budget. Further support for the subject is provided through a post of responsibility as co-ordinator for Science and the teacher involved oversees the re-stocking of necessary materials, laboratory management and department planning activities. School management provided extra funding to the Science department for the purchase of materials for the introduction of the revised junior Science syllabus.
Modern ICT facilities, including computers and data projectors, over head projectors, and audio-visual resources such as slides, video and DVD are available in each laboratory within easy access for intermittent use during lessons. The science department plan, in the short term, to upgrade all such resources to electronic format for use with the data projector. In addition, a school library and learning resource centre with modern ICT facilities are available and easily accessible for student use and this is commended.
Continual Professional Development is strongly supported and actively pursued. The commitment and enthusiasm of the teachers involved in this regard is highly commended. All Science teachers have attended national inservice training in the revised syllabuses and some have pursued additional training in the use of datalogging equipment. All teachers are members of the Irish Science Teachers Association and attend the training and conference events provided. This is supported by management. Teachers are also actively encouraged and facilitated to pursue additional professional training events, both national and international. The involvement at this level of some teachers is exceptional and extends to; membership of the steering committee of the European Young Scientists Competition, organiser of the SciFest exhibition at Tallaght Institute of Technology, winner of the Intel Ireland Educator of Excellence Award, and recipient of the British Council of Science Travel Award. Such active involvement serves to add to the knowledge and skill-set of the Science department and the school as a whole and indeed to students of Science nationally, while also enhancing the provision for co-curricular activities in the sciences for students.
Students are afforded excellent opportunities to participate in co-curricular activities in the sciences and the level of participation by students was found to be outstanding. Students from first year to sixth year, but especially TY students, get involved in numerous prestigious events. These include; entries to the SciFest competition, the RDS Young Science Writers Competition, Seagate Young Innovators/Northern Ireland Young Scientist Competition, the ECO UNESCO & ENFO Young Environmentalist Awards, Salters Festival of Chemistry in Trinity College, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) Walk for Wildlife, and celebrations of Science Week. Guest speakers are often invited to the school to speak to groups. In particular, the school has enjoyed considerable success in the BT Young Scientist and Technology Exhibition. A very high number, approximately fifty students, are involved each year. The school community is kept informed of science related events and information by means of the Science Newsletter, the science noticeboard and awards are exhibited along the science corridor. The encouragement and support given by management and teachers toward their students in these activities is highly commended.
Provision for planning among the teachers as a subject department is extensive. As many as twelve meetings are held during each academic year. Minutes are kept of all meetings and items are followed through promptly with appropriate action taken prior to the next meeting of the department. Items such as, health and safety, course content, equipment, organisation of co-curricular activities, field trips, and junior Science coursework are discussed among the group. Of particular commendation is the provision of some time for the exchanging of resources. This was especially demonstrated this year in the support extended to a newly appointed teacher. There was a strong sense of collegiality amongst members of the Science and Biology department. The attention given to planning as a subject department is highly commended and has yielded obvious benefits in the quality of organisation, activities and learning experiences for the students.
An exemplary subject department plan for the Sciences has been developed by collaborative team work and assembled by the co-ordinator. This plan is viewed as an ongoing document and subject to change and development. The plan is comprehensive and includes provision for an extensive range of issues. Areas included, worthy of particular commendation are, the skills objectives, the range of effective teaching methodologies, a variety of resources and approaches to aid students with certain types of Special Educational Needs (SEN). The plan includes a scheme of work developed for each subject and year group. The schemes of work were well structured and there was strong evidence of good progression with each.
Within the current effective model of planning collaboratively, it is recommended that both Science and Biology teachers would plan further in the area of differentiation for the mixed ability setting. By extending further the amount of time devoted specifically to ‘the exchanging of resources and ideas’ they could, on a topic by topic basis, focus on pooled assets, teaching and learning methodologies and assessment methodologies for that topic and engage in professional dialogue around each of them. The department could then develop a central ‘bank’ of resources that differentiates for mixed ability levels within each topic in the form of handouts, assessments, worksheets, student activity-based work and visual stimuli. This would prove mutually beneficial for all teachers and allow more time for the adaptation of resources for weaker students, for students with Special Educational Needs (SEN) and for those whose first language is not English. The current format for storing shared resources in boxes could be expanded to a central filing cabinet and to networked electronic files.
Planning for the Science modules in Transition Year is also to be commended. The modules have been designed to present the sciences in an applied context and provide students with the opportunity to develop research techniques through the preparation of projects for national competitions. There is a balance in experience for the student in the Physics, Chemistry and Biology disciplines.
The organisation of the laboratories and preparation for student practical work is exemplary. The laboratories are bright and inviting with experimental work on-going throughout the school day. Trolleys are used to take materials for practical work to and from the preparation areas, to which teachers have separate access to prepare for lessons. Presses are clearly labelled with a diagram of contents. All health and safety features are present. Laboratory rules and procedures for fire escape are clearly indicated and slots are provided at the side of the room for the safe storage of students’ bags. Chemicals are neatly stored in a colour-coded fashion according to best practice in a lockable chemical store room. There is also a reporting system in place to record the requirements for replacing depleted items.
Planning for the enhancement of the range of resources available to support teaching and learning is also to be commended. The computers in each laboratory have been networked, allowing access to electronic teaching resources from each location. Interactive white boards have recently been installed in each laboratory and the deployment of these useful tools will begin as soon as training, which is scheduled to take place shortly, has been undertaken.
The Science department take a proactive approach to development. The recommendations made as an outcome of a previous Subject Inspection in Physics and Science which took place in 2005 had all been successfully addressed by the department and this is highly commended.
Best practice was demonstrated in the consistent and thorough preparation for the lessons observed. Items prepared in advance yielded positive outcomes in the smooth flow from one activity to the next. These included prepared handouts, worksheets, and a variety of visual teaching aids and biological specimens that were appropriate to the topic. Printed material was professionally produced with the aid of ICT and some interesting visual items had been sourced on the Internet for reference during class. Topic specific worksheets were designed according to the desired learning outcomes for the lesson. They invariably included a good combination of information and challenge for the student in some format; questions to be answered, observations to be made or conclusions to be drawn. Indeed the materials used complimented the other resources used during the lesson and this is highly commended. In addition, the learning environment within the laboratories is enhanced with subject-specific reference charts, photographs of recent activities and field trips, and numerous displays of student projects.
Lesson development was good and the pace of learning was appropriate both to the topic and the ability of the group. High expectations of work ethic and behaviour were set and the students remained continually focused during their lessons and were at all times punctual. It is commendable that the purpose of each lesson was clearly explained to the students at the start and they were clear of what was expected of them. Student-teacher relationships were very positive and in all classes a secure work-orientated atmosphere was evident. Strong enthusiasm for the subject matter was expressed and all lessons were interesting. The students have a good attitude towards Science and Biology as displayed by the interest and level of engagement observed during classes and in co-curricular challenges. All feedback given was encouraging and this led to the successful participation of students in their lessons.
Varied and effective methodologies are in use in teaching Science and Biology and this is highly commended. Much active learning and much interactive learning was observed. There were some excellent examples where every opportunity was taken to vary student tasks and to use the resources prepared to stimulate learning in a variety of ways. In other classes cartoon characters were innovatively used to facilitate student understanding of complex terminology. The text book was used only for reference and for homework purposes and was not used as the main mode of instruction in any lesson. In all lessons, there was a good balance between theory and practice, in that the information being given by the teacher was integrated with appropriate student activities. The science department aims “to develop a sense of enjoyment in the learning of Science through enquiry-based learning.” From the observations made during this inspection this aim is being achieved.
All groups are mixed-ability in nature. The mixed-ability system is working very well for Science and Biology as the students are well motivated and all students, whatever their abilities, are challenged to make progress. There is strong commitment from the Science and Biology teachers to maintaining this status quo and they work comfortably with students in this setting. Lessons were conducted in stages and good time was allowed for summarising and for students to consolidate their learning. Teachers constantly circulated the class and used the opportunity provided by group or individual student work to monitor progress. Through continual questioning any student misconceptions were effectively highlighted and these were dealt with immediately before proceeding to the next step in learning the topic.
The number of students with SEN in Science and Biology classes is small. Provision is made for additional resources for these students in the form of ‘key words’ handouts. Through collaborative planning, teachers have recently re-examined the strategies that best support learning in this context. It is recommended that this would continue to be explored on an annual basis and that topic specific resources would be developed further in this area.
Question and answer sessions were used throughout all lessons. Questions used varied in format, were challenging and were affirmative. The students participated willingly in their lessons and demonstrated excellent communication skills. They showed maturity in their abilities to develop upon each other’s answers. Students were confident and capable in accurately answering questions put to them and they demonstrated a sound understanding of the subject matter learned. There were some excellent examples where the students were challenged to think about their existing knowledge and experiences of a particular topic and this was then built on in the subsequent development of the concept. Reference to contemporary issues also served to motivate discussions and to enhance the relevance of the subject matter for the students. In these ways the students’ scientific literacy was developed.
Practical work, including ecology field work, forms a strong feature of teaching and learning in Science and Biology in this school. It is emphasised as such with all classes and the availability of accessible resources strongly support its implementation. Teachers keep good records of individual practical investigations completed by the students. Photographs of recent activities are presented in posters on the walls. Health and safety issues are appropriately highlighted and adhered to by all. A well designed pro-forma laboratory booklet is used with the junior Science classes. The students demonstrated excellent practical work skills and an ability to discuss their findings from investigations among themselves. Students worked independently while writing up individual laboratory reports as is best practice. Records of all previous investigations are comprehensively presented and are supported by clear graphs and conclusions. This work is monitored regularly. The students recalled with accuracy the process and outcome of any previously conducted investigation.
All students are given the option of taking higher or ordinary level in Science and Biology and are given advice on what is considered to be the best choice for them. Attainment levels in both subjects are very good and students in this school are well motivated. Examination records show that, consistently the vast majority of students take higher level in both Science and Biology in the Junior and Leaving Certificate examinations. It is commendable that such high expectations are set and met. However, it is reported that in a small number of circumstances, students and their parents can be reluctant to accept that the student would benefit from doing the ordinary level examination. Over the past number of years it is evident that, while the vast majority of students succeed very well at higher level in Science and Biology, a very small number of them are failing at this level and this is happening almost every year. Currently a system of continuous assessment is in use and this should provide students with a strong awareness of their individual capabilities in examinations. Therefore, this is an issue that should be addressed at a whole school level and strategies for appropriate student choice of either higher or ordinary level should be devised.
Assessment practices are good and are consistently applied reflecting the procedures laid out in the science department plan. Students are assigned learning homework after each lesson and written homework approximately once per fortnight. Students also receive a class test at the end of each topic. TY students complete project work during the course of their modules and some of these projects are accepted as entries to competitions such as the Young Scientist and Technology Exhibition. Teachers maintain records for each student’s attendance and achievement. High standards are expected and achieved in the quality and content of student written work. The practice of giving written assignments augments the formative assessment process as this work is collected and marked. Annotated feedback is given to students on their work thereby enabling them to develop and strengthen their own learning. This is highly effective.
First, second, third, fifth and sixth year students receive three reports each year; Christmas, Easter and summer. TY students receive reports twice yearly in November and May. A system of continuous assessment is applied for the grades given to students in the reports sent home at Christmas and Easter and this is commended. Ten percent of the marks given at this time are for performance in practical work and this is highly commended and has obviously encouraged high standards in student report writing. Formal whole school tests are held at the end of the academic year and a common paper is given to all classes within a particular year group. Each teacher has an input into the summer exam and the papers are produced using ICT in the same style as the relevant State Examinations paper and this is best practice.
The following are the main strengths and areas for development identified in the evaluation Science and Biology:
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 Science and Biology 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.