An Roinn Oideachais agus Eolaíochta
Department of Education and Science
Subject Inspection of Science and Biology
Buncrana, County Donegal
Roll number: 62770C
Date of inspection: 21 March 2007
Date of issue of report: 12 March 2008
Report on the Quality of Learning and Teaching in Science and Biology
This report has been written following a subject inspection in Scoil Mhuire, Buncrana conducted as part of a whole school evaluation. 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 these 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.
Science is an optional subject at Junior Certificate level. Science classes are of mixed ability in first year and teachers generally retain the same class from second to third year. Science is promoted through the provision of experiments and demonstration activities on Open Day and the science team has produced a leaflet outlining the importance of Science for prospective first year students. The science team is to be commended for its commitment to promoting the subject.
The science teachers have benefited from opportunities for continuing professional development during national in-service training in the revised biology and science syllabuses. Management is to be commended for its commitment to facilitating this in-service and for its ongoing consideration in both identifying and supporting staff training needs.
The time allocated to Junior Certificate Science and to Leaving Certificate Biology is appropriate. However, it is recommended that management investigates the possibility of providing double periods for all second and third year science classes in order to facilitate the investigative practical element of the revised Junior Certificate science syllabus. The school has two science laboratories and one demonstration room. The science department also benefits from the services of a laboratory technician. Science apparatus is stored in labelled cupboards around the laboratories and it is laudable that lists of contents are displayed on the cupboard doors. This level of organisation is commendable. The laboratories are well maintained and contain a good supply of materials and equipment. It is commendable that a further two rooms are dedicated science classrooms. All contain an impressive display of charts, key words and student-generated posters. Access to the laboratories is through informal negotiation at present. It is recommended that the science team explores the benefits of making laboratory access a more systematic arrangement. This will help both in planning for the science team and for the laboratory technician. Each laboratory has a separate preparation and storage area. It is suggested that management reviews access to this locked storage area. At the time of this evaluation, it was reported that appropriate cupboards for the storage of flammable materials had been ordered. It is commendable that chemicals are stored using a colour-coded system and materials for mandatory practicals have been organised into separate containers. This level of organisation is praiseworthy and is facilitated by the dedication and commitment of the laboratory technician.
A range of health and safety equipment was observed, including first aid kits, fire extinguishers, fire blankets, fume cupboards. The gas isolation switch is currently in the preparation room. In the interest of health and safety, it is recommended that this switch be relocated to a more accessible position within the laboratory. A list of laboratory safety precautions was displayed prominently in each of the laboratories and in the students’ notebooks. These are signed by students and their teacher at the beginning of the school year. There is potential to add this contract to the school journal in future. The science department’s health and safety policy and safety statement have been reviewed and it was reported that these are due for ratification by the board of management in the near future.
The science team shows good commitment to co-curricular activities in the form of visits to W5 in Belfast, the science laboratories in North West Institute in Derry and Queen’s University Belfast, the physics roadshow and fieldtrips to the local seashore and Foyle fisheries. Students have participated in ISTA Science quizzes and national science competitions. Science is also promoted through a ‘Science Matters’ notice board displayed on the ground floor of the school, the content of which is changed every seven to ten days. Student achievement is also celebrated at the school prize-giving ceremony. Four sponsored science cups are awarded for achievement in the areas of Junior Science, Senior Biology, Chemistry and Physics. These activities are to be commended and the teachers involved are to be congratulated for their commitment, without which the students would not benefit from such stimulating experiences.
Long term plans were available for both Junior Certificate Science and for Leaving Certificate Biology. These plans were comprehensive, syllabus-based and made reference to the learning objectives, the grouping of students, class organisation, planning for students with special educational needs, cross-curricular planning, experimental work, methodologies and resources. In addition, a common list of topics for each year group, in an appropriate time frame is included and all teachers have access to these plans. It is recommended that a list of topics planned for each year group be distributed to students at the start of the school year to give students a good overview of the course and to encourage them to plan for their own revision.
It is commendable that the science department plans also included a five-year action plan which addresses areas such as the development of the school moodle site and the building up of more technological resources and teaching resources to be available to all members of the science team. This level of forward planning is praiseworthy.
In the classes observed there was evidence of good short-term planning. Appropriate materials and resources necessary for each lesson had been prepared in advance. This level of preparation contributed to the quality of teaching and learning and this is to be commended. Planning for information and communications technology (ICT) involved lists of websites and pre-prepared PowerPoint presentations. Broadband internet access is available in the classrooms and the science team could explore its potential for development of new teaching approaches and ideas.
The science department is co-ordinated by a subject convenor. Communication among the science team is effective and takes the form of formal departmental meetings held approximately three times per year, for the purpose of outlining programmes, stock control and making other subject-specific arrangements such as textbooks and access to the laboratory. Informal meetings and communication also takes place between members of the science team on a regular basis.
The evaluation took place over one day and one second year science class, one third year science class, two fourth year biology classes and two fifth year biology classes were observed.
Science was made relevant and linked to students’ everyday experiences during the lessons observed. Students were aware that what they had learned was not just an abstract concept but had real life applications. This emphasis on making Science relevant to students’ lives is praiseworthy.
Lessons were clear and well structured. Good use was made of a range of teaching methodologies such as paired work, group work, board work, OHP transparencies, questioning, ICT, Investigative practical work and whole class discussions. Where a series of varied methodologies was employed in the lesson, students were most engaged and kept on task and this approach was commendable.
Discipline was good and an atmosphere of mutual respect prevailed in each classroom visited. Correct answers were affirmed while incorrect ones were dealt with sensitively. Good use of questioning was observed, either to individual named students or to the whole class group. Lessons generally proceeded at a suitable pace and were pitched at a level appropriate to the needs of the students.
Teacher movement among the students, assisting, examining and encouraging was evident. This is a good method of sustaining student interest and application to work as well as a means of monitoring student performance and achievement. Where practical work was observed, students worked enthusiastically and with due regard for health and safety issues. Adequate time was allowed for plenary sessions at the beginning and end of the practical class in order to prepare students for their work and afterwards to review the lesson as a whole.
Interaction with students indicated that they generally had a good understanding of the topics being studied. Students were encouraged to seek clarification wherever necessary. Most students were willing to engage in discussions and generally were knowledgeable about the lesson content.
A range of assessment techniques is in evidence in Scoil Mhuire. Class tests are held regularly for all students, usually when sections of the syllabus have been completed. Records of student attainment in class tests are recorded in the teacher diary. This record is a good means of monitoring student progress and provides a reliable source of information for feedback to parents. It is also useful in assisting students in making subject and level choices for senior cycle and for the certificate examinations.
Formal common examinations are held for all students at Christmas and summer. Pre-Junior Certificate and pre-Leaving Certificate examinations are held in the second term. In addition the practice of allocating marks in class assessments for the write-up of practical activities is a commendable way of encouraging and motivating students to maintain high standards in their practical work. It is also good practice that a list of mandatory practicals is distributed to students at the start of the year in order to facilitate their recording of practical work.
Some good use of questioning as a form of assessment was observed. Questions ranged from the factual, testing recall, to questions of a higher order that were more challenging and encouraged students to think at a deeper level. Questions were frequently directed to individual students, which is a good method of challenging and motivating students. Such questioning can be used to help reinforce learning and can also assist the teacher with formative evaluation of student progress and achievement. The level of student engagement was generally good.
An up-to-date record of mandatory Junior Certificate practical write-ups was evidenced in the student laboratory notebooks, indicating that appropriate attention is being paid to this important aspect of the revised Junior Certificate Science syllabus. Most notebooks observed were of a good standard and the majority showed evidence of checking and annotation which is a good way of encouraging pupils and giving direction.
Writing and learning homework is assigned where appropriate and students are encouraged to note this in their diaries at the end of class. Homework was checked regularly and some books showed evidence of annotation and assessment for learning practices. It is recommended that members of the science team explore assessment for learning practices such as comment-marking and other methods of formative feedback; information on this can be found on the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA) website www.ncca.ie. It is further suggested that the science team discusses the development of a follow-up system in order to check that corrections made by the teacher have been acted upon.
The following are the main strengths identified in the evaluation:
As a means of building on these strengths the following key recommendations are made:
Post-evaluation meetings were held with the teachers of Science and with the principal at the conclusion of the evaluation when the draft findings and recommendations of the evaluation were presented and discussed.