An Roinn Oideachais agus Eolaíochta

Department of Education and Science

 

Subject Inspection of Science and Biology

REPORT

 

Enniscorthy Vocational College

Enniscorthy, County Wexford

Roll number: 71630K

 

Date of inspection: 25 March 2009

 

 

 

 

Subject inspection report

Subject provision and whole school support

Planning and preparation

Teaching and learning

Assessment

Summary of main findings and recommendations

 

 

 

 

Report on the Quality of Learning and Teaching in Science and Biology

 

 

Subject inspection report

 

This report has been written following a subject inspection in Enniscorthy Vocational 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 includes an evaluation of the teaching and learning in the biology modules provided to PLC students. The evaluation was conducted over two days 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.

 

 

Subject Provision and Whole School Support

 

Science is a core subject for all junior cycle students in Enniscorthy Vocational College, including students following the Junior Certificate School Programme (JCSP). This is very highly commended as it supports equality of access to the subject for all students of all abilities and also supports the school’s capacity to provide two senior science subjects in senior cycle. Biology and Physics are provided for Leaving Certificate. There are two class group for Biology and one class group for Physics in both fifth and sixth year. A general course in Science is provided on the curriculum in the school’s optional transition year (TY) programme. Science is not currently featured in the school’s Leaving Certificate Applied (LCA) programme. Although the curriculum in the school is currently under review, senior management is strongly committed to maintaining the status of junior Science as a core subject and this is to be encouraged.

 

Five periods per week are allocated to Biology in Leaving Certificate as two double plus one single periods and this is appropriate. Two periods per week are allocated to Science in TY. This is good provision. Timetabling provision for junior Science, however, varies; some class groups have four periods per week, meeting syllabus recommendations, but most class groups only have three periods per week and this is inadequate. Four lessons per week, in each year of junior cycle, are necessary to allow for sufficient time to cover the full course and for students to carry out practical investigations. It is recommended that the school allocate sufficient time to the teaching of Science in accordance with syllabus guidelines and that these changes be implemented in the next academic year.

 

It is currently feasible for all JCSP students to take the ordinary-level examination in Science although it is proving challenging for a small number of students to meet all the requirements including coursework. The provision of one extra weekly class period should alleviate some of these difficulties. Teachers are highly praised for their efforts in supporting JCSP students to take Junior Certificate Science and are encouraged to continue in their good efforts to make Science accessible and achievable for all students.

 

Students are placed into streamed class groups for junior cycle. This system results in unequal access to higher level for Science; the top two streams use a textbook that covers higher level, while the other groups and the JCSP groups study an ordinary-level science text book. The overall uptake of the higher-level Science examination by students in the school in the state examinations, while increasing, is quite low. It is recommended that access to and uptake of higher level in the subject be tabled as key issues for science department meetings. Every effort should be made to ensure that as many students as possible within each year group are encouraged to study the subject at higher level. Extra timetabling allowance for Science, as already recommended, may also help improve the uptake of higher level in the subject. Furthermore, the school is encouraged to explore educational research on how formative assessment practices and the setting of high expectations can have an impact on attainment.

 

Groupings in senior cycle are arranged on a mixed-ability basis and all groups for Biology have access to higher level. Teachers tend to teach a common course in lessons and differentiate into levels at times, for various sub-topics and for formal school assessments. This is fitting. For most students, decisions regarding the level they will take the subject at in the state examinations are not made until after the ‘mock’ Leaving Certificate examination. The uptake of higher-level Biology in the state examinations over the past number of years has fluctuated.

 

Enniscorthy Vocational College also provides a wide range of accredited post-Leaving Certificate (PLC) courses. Some of these courses contain a Biology component. There is a module in Biology that forms part of a level 5 course in Pre-Third Level Science and a module in Anatomy and Physiology that forms part of a level 5 course in both Nursing Studies and Leisure Studies. Lessons in both these modules were evaluated during the inspection. The FETAC qualifications gained by learners allow them opportunities to progress to further study or to gain immediate employment in their relevant fields. Successful completion of requirements of the Science course provides students with the opportunity to gain direct access into second year in certain degree courses at Waterford Institute of Technology. Tuition is provided in the modules for five to seven periods per week for learners. The biology teachers teach these particular biology modules and they use the laboratories and classrooms which are appropriately resourced for the delivery of the modules.

 

There are two science laboratories and one demonstration room in the school. The laboratories are adjoining and share a small preparation room and chemical store. While the laboratories are used only by science teachers, the demonstration room is used for teaching PLC students and this is due to constraints on space in the building. In all but one instance, teachers are timetabled for laboratory access with their class groups at least once per week. Weekly laboratory access should continue to be prioritised when compiling the timetable. It would be desirable to have a more equitable distribution of single lessons in the laboratories also; however, the use of a laboratory as a base for the majority of lessons by one science teacher militates against this. In addition, because there is no doorway from the corridor to the preparation room, it can be difficult for science teachers to access and work in this preparation area.  Plans are well developed for a school extension with two further laboratories and this will alleviate problems of access to laboratories. In the interim, laboratory access should be openly discussed and agreed by the subject department.  

 

The laboratory and preparation area contain plentiful resources for practical work including equipment and chemicals. A very good level of organisation was noted. Sets of equipment have been assembled into resource boxes for some practicals, and science teachers are considering the extension of this system as space permits. It is recommended that all presses be labelled according to their contents to support substitute teachers and newly appointed teachers. The laboratories are fitted with proper safety equipment. Budgetary requirements for the science department are communicated directly to senior management and all re-stocking needs are met.

 

The laboratories are also fitted with modern teaching facilities including information and communication technology (ICT) equipment, overhead projectors and notice boards. ICT equipment in the laboratories includes two PCs, a tablet PC, two data projectors and data logging equipment. Teachers also use personal laptops and ICT as a teaching aid during lessons in their own base classrooms. Broadband is available throughout the building. The school’s computer rooms are also available should teachers wish to avail of them. Audio-visual resources are also available and a range of DVDs are present. The learning environment in the laboratories and in many of the base classrooms used by science teachers has been enhanced with modern charts, displays of student work and interesting nature displays. This is highly commended. The school grounds and courtyards and the areas outside the laboratory windows are often used as focal points for habitat studies in ecology.

 

A health and safety policy statement has been drawn up for the school and includes the laboratory areas. The statement was drawn up in consultation with staff, parents and the board of management.

 

Continuing professional development (CPD) is supported by senior management and teachers have been facilitated in attending in-service in the introduction of the revised syllabuses in Science, Biology and Physics and in data logging. The uptake of these in-service opportunities has been good but more teachers are encouraged to attend the in-service provided for teachers of JCSP Science. Teachers also demonstrated awareness of recent Department of Education and Science publications including Looking at Junior Cycle Science and the post-primary guidelines on Inclusion of Students with Special Educational Needs.

 

 

Planning and Preparation

 

Structures to facilitate collaborative planning are in place. 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 when circumstances permit. Minutes are kept of these meetings along with decisions made and actions to be taken for the next meeting. Separate planning meetings take place between the biology teachers also. These practices are commended. A good level of collaborative planning takes place and subject department meetings focus on matters such as restocking equipment, co-curricular activities and ICT facilities as well as items such as setting yearly curriculum plans and some common assessments.

 

There is at present no co-ordinator for Science, and it is recommended that this be considered so that each member of the science department has the opportunity to co-ordinate the department on an annual or biennial basis. The role of the co-ordinator should be agreed and could include organising and facilitating collaborative practices, the promotion of good practices and liaising with senior management on key issues and on the development of the subject plan.

 

A fairly 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 on-going. Some teachers expressed the desire to convert their existing sets of overhead transparencies to electronic format and to explore the benefits of using ICT as a tool in lessons. This is commended and the science department meetings could play a useful role in this area. Furthermore, it would be useful if all teaching resources for the sciences could be pooled and if possible converted to electronic format and placed in shared files on the school’s computer network. Teachers are also encouraged to continue with the current focus on the development and sharing of existing teaching resources in line with the expanding array available on the World Wide Web, from the support services and from each other.

 

It is recommended that the area of teaching and learning resources be placed on the agenda for forthcoming subject department meetings and that collectively all science teachers develop an inventory of resources for each topic and learning outcome on the syllabus. As already mentioned, teachers should also decide a means of best making these resources accessible to all in the department.

 

The subject plans for Science and Biology contain agreed lists of curricular topics to be covered in each year and a small amount of information on assessments and laboratory arrangements. It is commendable that the plan for Science is based on the syllabus learning outcomes. However, there is much scope for the development of both plans. They should be combined into one science plan for the school that also sets out and integrates comprehensive details on effective teaching and learning methodologies, assessment techniques, laboratory management, revision schedules, resource inventories for topics, strategies to support the uptake of higher level and strategies to support students with special educational needs (SEN) and students with English as an additional language (EAL).

 

The newly published Leaving Certificate Biology Laboratory Manual, compiled by biology teacher design teams and available from the Biology Support Service (BSS), contains guidelines on best practice in laboratory organisation that teachers may find useful and the science department may be able to incorporate elements of it into their science plan.

 

Very good subject plans for the PLC biology modules are available and they are based on the FETAC module descriptor for the associated course. Commendably, the plan for the Biology module that is part of the course in Pre-Third Level Science integrates learning outcomes, topic details and practical work methodologies for the module.

 

Planning for JCSP Science is very good as lessons designed were observed to relate strongly to everyday life experiences and to facilitate active learning through practical activities. There were some particularly good examples of how planning for lessons incorporated themes in a true cross-curricular way. A commendable range of varied learning aids had been designed and collated for a range of topics including games, crosswords, word searches, worksheets and ICT presentations.

 

The current TY programme for the sciences needs to be developed to include a greater number of topics from outside the Leaving Certificate syllabuses and a greater amount of interdisciplinary science. It is suggested that a range of modules for Science could be developed or sourced in areas such as forensic science, sports science, pharmacology, environmental science, cosmetic science, bioinformatics and horticulture. Planning for TY should be in accordance with the Transition Year Programmes Guidelines for schools.

 

Co-curricular activities in the sciences are organised for students and records of these activities are displayed on the school’s website. Activities include joint seashore ecology field trips for students in Leaving Certificate and PLC, JCSP science-initiative woodland ecology trips which have a commendable cross-curricular design, JCSP Barn Owl project, guest speakers and visits to museums, exhibitions and the zoo. In particular, the range of JCSP science initiatives that have been organised and undertaken is noteworthy, as is the way that local experts have been invited to speak with the students and get involved with the school in aspects of these initiatives. All activities are highly commended.

 

Preparation for individual lessons was thorough. Worksheets and presentations were carefully designed to match the purpose of the lesson and the abilities of the students. There were many instances when the overhead transparency or PowerPoint presentation used matched the student worksheet or handout. Materials for practical work were ready from the start of each lesson and this led to a seamless flow from activity to activity.

 

 

Teaching and Learning

 

A good standard of teaching and learning was observed. Many examples of proficient and enthusiastic teaching and much very good rapport between teachers and students were evident. In many instances, teachers used affirmation appropriately to encourage participation and it was evident that teaches had a strong awareness of the educational potential of each student. Questioning was skilful and varied and used in combination with the aforementioned affirmation. Students, accordingly, were very responsive and the quieter students also participated appropriately. A calm, secure, productive atmosphere was evident in lessons.

 

Lessons were well structured. Teachers differentiated their strategies according to the needs of the group and of individual students and this is good practice. Good differentiation was particularly evident in the way teachers set the pace of the lesson and in the teaching of new terminology. All lessons met the requirements of the relevant syllabus for the topic and were directed at achieving the appropriate learning outcomes for the students. There were many good examples of teachers encouraging the active engagement of their students through the use of practical work, practical problems to be worked out, questioning, and group discussions that were based on visual presentations. Good use was made of ICT presentations in some lessons and development of this technique is recommended given the facilities available. Students took notes in stages in many lessons. However, on a few occasions greater diversification of methodology could have been employed, and in these instances teachers are encouraged to use greater variety in their teaching as some theory-based lessons tended to take the same format with teacher-led questioning predominating.

 

New terminology was made accessible and manageable, particularly for the less able student, through the good use of the board and visual presentations. Strong focus was placed on the development of students’ scientific literacy. In all instances, the topic was made relevant to everyday life experiences so that students could connect with the subject matter. For example, during one lesson on anatomy, health issues were explored with a little appropriate divergence on the topic. In addition, strong attention to detail was evident when appropriate; for example, in highlighting the differences in the topic for ordinary-level and higher-level learners or in highlighting areas where exact phrases had to be learned. This level of detail was also evident in the students’ verbal responses and in their written work. This practice is commended.

 

All students were observed to be learning according to their individual abilities and they were challenged by their teachers to improve their skills and knowledge. 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 and good standards of presentation were seen in the written work inspected, including laboratory notebooks and homework.

 

A practical experience of science is embraced in all programmes; the full set of student practical laboratory work is implemented by all teachers. Students’ practical skills were well developed; there were many examples where students demonstrated a clear understanding of a fair test, variables and the scientific method and showed due regard for safety procedures. The vast majority of students worked co-operatively in their groups during practical work; there was one instance of poor student conduct but the classroom management techniques employed were effective and the intended learning outcome of the lesson was achieved by all students. This is commended. During one lesson, students were preparing for Coursework B and the appropriate investigative approach was taken to the task with students encouraged to plan, design and to make their own decisions regarding the set up of apparatus with an appropriate level of facilitation by the teacher. This is commended. Teachers are encouraged to facilitate the use of the investigative approach to practicals, wherever appropriate, and not be led by the method printed in the textbook. This is especially important for those learning outcomes in the junior science syllabus that specify the exact active verb ‘investigate’. Extra timetabling allowance for Science will provide greater time for teachers to facilitate greater levels of students’ involvement in the planning and design phases of investigations.

 

Good approaches to the writing of laboratory reports were observed and the quality of these was very high in most instances with examples of comprehensive and well-presented laboratory notebooks. Best practice was seen where student laboratory records were both individual and complete with results and conclusions recorded. For a small number of students the completion of the full set of Coursework A practicals is proving challenging and ways of dealing with this should be discussed by the whole department. Commendably, a pro-forma template for laboratory reports is being considered and this development is encouraged. There were instances of excellent practice where teachers encouraged students to write up laboratory records in their own words in order to develop their report writing skills and this approach is recommended for all.

  

Assessment

 

Homework was allocated in most lessons visited and in all instances students recorded it accurately in their journals. There were some good examples of the regular collection and correction of homework by teachers and work was returned to students with useful and affirmative comments added to improve learning. This practice is commended but it was not consistent across the whole science department. Class tests are given with adequate to good frequency in most instances, but in a few instances only the school’s formal Christmas and summer tests are administered and this is inadequate. Common assessments are used, where appropriate; for example, at Christmas and summer in fifth-year Biology, and this practice is commended. Overall, the findings in relation to assessment include much evidence of good practice but in some instances there is a need to expand the range and frequency of assessment techniques. To this end, the subject department should agree a policy on assessment and include it in the science plan.

 

Furthermore, there is scope for development by all teachers of Assessment for Learning (AfL) practices. In-service in this area should be arranged as AfL has been shown to have a significant impact on student learning. Therefore, it is recommended that the science department focus on the development of AfL practices for all science subjects and include provision for this also in the proposed policy on assessment.

 

Students are given good opportunities to practise examination technique. The examination class groups visited had completed a good number of questions from past papers or from teacher-designed revision sheets. In addition, the ‘mock’ examination papers had been corrected according to a clear marking scheme. There were examples, particularly during PLC lessons and sixth-year biology lessons, where focus was placed on attainment and students were encouraged to pay attention to the marks available for questions during correction of their work. It is commendable that some teachers give extra lessons after school to the higher-level biology students to help them with their studies. It is also commendable that PLC students spoken with had a clear pathway into third level planned for themselves and they were committed to achieving this.

 

Teachers continuously assess the learners in the PLC biology modules according to the criteria and regulations laid down by FETAC. Very good assessment techniques are used throughout the course as assessment is continuous and varied. Assessment in PLC includes assessment of learners’ assignments and research projects, collection of work, assessments of the learners’ mastery of practical skills and assessment of learners’ log books. Learners also sit theory-based assessments during the modules. Some of the assessments are conducted by the teacher as an internal assessor and some by an external assessor. Learners can gain a pass, merit or distinction based on the outcome of a combination of all assessments.

 

Some students are supported through provision for reasonable accommodation in certificate examinations (RACE). Some students are given spelling and grammar waivers, and in some instances ‘readers’, in both house and state examinations. The school’s examination secretary makes arrangements for such provisions for the student body.

 

Parents receive formal school reports on their child’s progress twice each year. A parent-teacher meeting is held annually for each year group.

 

 

Summary of Main Findings and Recommendations

 

The following are the main strengths identified in the evaluation of Science and Biology:

 

 

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 is necessary for the full implementation of the syllabus.

·         Every effort should be made to ensure that as many students as possible within each year group have access to and are encouraged to study the subjects at higher level.

·         Consideration should be given to the appointment of a co-ordinator for the science department.

·         Teachers are encouraged to pool their resources for all topics and to develop an inventory of resources, and, if possible, to consolidate these resources into a central

      storage area or ideally on the school’s computer network.

·         A comprehensive and wide-ranging science plan should be developed through collaborative planning. Curricular plans should integrate teaching and learning methodologies,

      resources for topics with the learning outcomes.

·         The current TY programme for the sciences needs to be revised.

·         The science department should focus on the development of AfL practices and the development of the range of assessment techniques for all science subjects. A policy on

       assessment should be agreed among science teachers and included in the science plan.

·         At times, a greater emphasis should be placed on the ‘investigative approach’ to practicals, and, at times, greater diversification of methodology should be employed.

 

 

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 February 2010