An Roinn Oideachais agus Eolaíochta
Department of Education and Science
Subject Inspection of Science and Biology
Ramsgrange Community School
New Ross, County Wexford
Roll number: 91431Q
Date of inspection: 25 October 2006
Date of issue of report: 21 June 2007
Report on the Quality of Learning and Teaching in Science and Biology
This report has been written following a subject inspection in Ramsgrange Community School, 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 this subject 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 science subjects feature in every curricular programme in the school and this is commended. Science is provided for Junior Certificate, Leaving Certificate and Transition Year (TY) and as an elective module for students of the Leaving Certificate Applied (LCA).
Science is a core subject for all students in first year allowing them to sample the subject for one year. Thereafter it is a subject of choice for second year; consequently not all students take Science for examination in the Junior Certificate. Currently seventy-four percent of second-year students and fifty-nine percent of the third-year students have chosen to study Science. Students are given guidance in choosing subjects for second year and are informed of the consequences of giving up junior Science. Presently, some students who have not completed Junior Certificate Science take up Biology in senior cycle and this presents particular challenges for both the teacher and the student involved. It is recommended, therefore, that both management and the Science department should endeavour to increase the uptake of junior Science among students.
The skills set of teachers and the availability of resources for practical work allow four science subjects, Biology, Agricultural Science, Chemistry and Physics, to be offered as subject choices for Leaving Certificate each year. However, due to limitations in numbers choosing the subjects it is not possible to run all four subjects every year and decisions have to be made regarding which subjects to timetable. In general, one Biology class and one Agricultural Science class are formed each year, although there are currently two Biology classes in fifth year. Numbers choosing Physics and Chemistry can be low and the trend has been that, at the most, only one of these can be timetabled each year. Currently, Chemistry is provided in fifth year but not in sixth year, and there is no Physics in either fifth year or sixth year. Numbers choosing Physics have been low for a number of years. One of the recommendations of a previous Subject Inspection Report in Science and Physics (January 2005) was that the school would devise strategies to increase the uptake of Physics and this is reiterated so that Physics is seen as a real option for Leaving Certificate.
Science is timetabled as part of the school’s optional TY programme for two double periods plus one single period per week. However, the programme planned does not reflect each of the sciences equally, as was recommended in the previous Subject Inspection Report. There is much scope in TY for students to sample each of the sciences at senior cycle and for the promotion of the subjects for Leaving Certificate. It is recommended that members of the science department would collectively examine what it is they wish students to achieve from studying Science in TY and they would then revise the programme accordingly.
There are not more than twenty-four students in any class group studying science subjects and this is to be commended. Class groups change teacher as they move from first to second year due to subject choice. However, good practice is evident in the retention of the same teacher with class groups as they progress from second to third year and from fifth to sixth year. Teachers are allocated to senior classes according to their subject specialism and on a fair rotational basis.
The time allocated to the subjects on the timetable includes provision for double and single periods, as appropriate. Overall, Science is timetabled for five periods per week and Biology for six. This is one period more than recommended by each syllabus and compensates for the fact that all of the periods in the school week are of thirty-five minute duration rather than the more usual forty minute duration. A member of the science department co-ordinates laboratory access ensuring that all groups are scheduled for at least one double period per week in a laboratory.
The science facility was built during the 1970s and includes the school’s two laboratories and a demonstration room which are located adjacent to each other. All three rooms are connected to a large central preparation area which has ample storage. The demonstration room is used for some Science lessons but not for student practical work. Trolleys are used to take materials for practical work between the laboratories and the preparation area. Chemicals are properly stored in a separate lockable chemical store room, according to health and safety guidelines, and this is to be commended. Laminated safety notices are clearly visible in the laboratories. Health and safety aspects are continually monitored by teachers and reported to management. However, some health and safety issues remain and the school’s safety statement is in need of review. The extraction system in the fume cupboards is not working and some of the plumbing is in need of repair. In addition, there remain some outdated resources which are no longer required by the syllabuses that need to be removed from the preparation area. These tasks should be prioritised by management and undertaken as soon as possible.
Senior management is actively pursuing the addition of a third laboratory and this is commended. In any future developments of the science facility, consideration should be given to maintaining the centrality of the preparation/resource area and to the provision of separate access for teachers for the preparation of materials for both classwork and practical work.
Modern audio-visual and ICT facilities, including computers with broadband internet access and data projectors are available in each laboratory for intermittent use during lessons. It is commended that investment has been made in this regard.
Continual Professional Development is strongly supported and actively pursued. All Science teachers have attended national inservice training in the revised syllabuses. Membership of the Irish Science Teachers Association is funded by management and such support is commended.
One member of the science department acts as co-ordinator for Science and it is commendable that this responsibility is undertaken on an annual rotating basis. The co-ordinator oversees department planning activities and the re-stocking of necessary materials. A strong desire to develop the department and an interest in new ideas was demonstrated by the co-ordinator.
The science teachers meet formally as a department on two occasions per year. Additional meetings are sometimes held with facilitation from management. Minutes are recorded for all meetings and where action is required on the decisions made by the group, this is allocated to named staff members. There is evidence from the minutes, however, that some of the same issues keep arising from meeting to meeting. The outcomes of some of the decisions made by the department that have been successfully implemented for junior Science include; a common textbook; a mechanism for student laboratory record-keeping; an agreed scheme of work for first, second and third years; and common assessments at Christmas and summer. Through informal consultations ongoing consideration is given to the timing of student prescribed practical work so that no two groups will be in need of the same resources on the same day.
Teachers plan for the implementation of the agreed scheme for junior Science with each class group and for Biology individually. Planning documents were available for most class groups visited during the inspection. Some of these individual planning documents were detailed and included provision for content, revision, assessment and practical work.
The plan for junior Science is content focused and comprises a list of topics and practical activities to be covered in each year of the course. It is recommended that through future department meetings, the Science plan would be developed to include teaching and learning methodologies, strategies for the teaching of students with special educational needs, assessment methodologies and a long term vision for the development of the sciences within the school. Support for the development of subject curricular plans is available at www.sdpi.ie. A similar approach should be taken to planning for senior Biology and TY Science.
A good range of resources has been developed individually by teachers to support teaching and learning in Science and Biology. These include a variety of assessment materials, instructions for practical work, topic-specific handouts, useful websites and visual stimuli. Many of these have been developed electronically using the schools’ ICT facilities and this is to be commended. However, there is much scope for the sharing of such resources. It is recommended that one department meeting per year be devoted specifically to a discussion around collective resources for given topics. Consideration should be give to the extent to which the resources differentiates for varying levels of ability and provide for students with SEN in any given class. The computers in the laboratories are networked and this provides a valuable option for storing and accessing shared resources.
DVD and video resources are available for certain topics in Science and Biology. There are numerous posters on the walls of the laboratories, many of which depict contemporary scientific issues from the Science and Biology syllabuses and can be used as visual aids with certain topics. While the majority of these charts are modern it is suggested that the older outdated posters be removed. A student project and some photographs of groups conducting practical activities are also displayed and this is commended.
The science department receives a twice yearly budget from management for re-stocking and this is also utilised for the purchase of audio-visual and ICT materials. During the 2003-04 academic year, the school received an enhanced grant from the Department of Education and Science for the purchase of materials for the full implementation of the prescribed investigations in the revised junior Science syllabus. This grant has still not been fully spent and significant funding is still to hand even though the revised syllabus is being fully implemented with each class group. The recommendation of the previous inspection report was that this grant be utilised in purchasing class-sets of necessary apparatus for each of the prescribed student investigations. This will involve organising ‘resource boxes’ for each of the thirty investigations in the Science syllabus and has been agreed by the science department as a development they wish to take. Stock-taking has recently taken place and it has been proposed to begin the organisation of the ‘resource boxes’. The preparation room is large enough to accommodate this system. Utilising the remainder of the science grant will significantly enhance the range of available resources for students during practical work in the sciences and allow each investigation to be conduced in small groupings or pairs and even by more than one class group at a time. It is therefore recommended that this work be completed as soon as possible.
All the lessons observed were clearly presented and appropriately paced. Good expectations in terms of participation were set and met in most lessons, particularly during questioning. This was facilitated by an atmosphere of enthusiasm and much positive affirmation inherent in the teacher-student interactions. Good use was made of verbal tone to focus students during their lessons.
Different teaching methodologies were observed and these ranged from the creative learner-oriented approach to a sometimes more instructional teacher-led method. There were some excellent examples where students were actively involved from the start of the lesson and were continually out of their seats undertaking short challenging tasks, practical work or observing teacher demonstrations. There was an excellent example where students were learning about a particular scientific phenomenon by direct experiences first, before going on to discussing the theory behind it, and this is commended. In most cases, good effort was made to vary the stimulus for learning in an appropriate and enthusiastic fashion throughout the duration of the lesson. In a minority of cases, however, the lessons were mainly traditional in nature involving mainly teacher contribution and there was a limited variety or activity for students. It is recommended that this balance be examined and that the range of teaching and learning methodologies employed would be considered carefully in the planning phase for all lessons.
The teaching and learning resources used during the lessons observed included overhead transparencies, ICT slides and student worksheets. Good use was made of the blackboard to record important key words for the topics. The textbook was used as a reference tool and for homework purposes and this is commended. However, there remains scope for the use of the available ICT facilities and the internet as a resource during lessons.
A staged approach was adopted in most lessons, allowing opportunities for reinforcement and consolidation of student learning. Most lessons began with revision of what the students had already learned. Questioning was used as a useful tool in all lessons. Where questioning was effectively applied it successfully engaged the students in their lessons. In a minority of cases, however, when asking questions, there was a need to challenge all students in the class as there was a tendency for some students to answer all of the time while other students remained passive for most of the lesson.
Student practical work was a feature of most double lessons observed and it is commendable that it was incorporated into some of the single lessons. The activities undertaken were appropriate and challenging for the students and each of these lessons was enjoyable. Teachers circulated during this time, checking progress and giving help to individual students of varying academic abilities. Students demonstrated good practical skills and the ability to work well in a group. They participated very well in the activities. There was an excellent example where the practical activity had been organised to allow for the maximum amount of student involvement in the planning of the investigation, in predicting the outcomes of the investigation, in taking accurate records and in reaching an appropriate conclusion. This approach reflected the underlying principles of the revised Science syllabus and is commended. However, there were also some examples where a more prescriptive approach was taken to practical work in junior Science. While the activities were well-conducted, investigations should for the most part be conducted in a manner that is not pre-determined in either procedure or outcome.
There is some variety in the quality of presentation of student laboratory records of prescribed investigations. While in most classes the laboratory records were very well written up, in a small number of cases results had not been recorded or conclusion had not been drawn. Overall, student laboratory notebooks are good but they would benefit from more frequent monitoring and feedback so that the quality of report writing improves. Consideration has been given to the allocation of marks for this work by the science department and this should be pursued.
Students are afforded opportunities to participate in co-curricular activities in the sciences and this is commended. Entries to the Esat BT Young Science and Technology Exhibition are encouraged. During national Science Week the laboratories are opened to all students and each of the senior science subjects is promoted. This is a valuable exercise. Links have been made with the local third level provider, Waterford Institute of Technology, including the Centre for the Advancement of Learning of Maths, Science and Technology (CALMAST) at the institute. This has included a class competition for first years and a field trip to conduct a bio-topic survey of a nearby river. A local rocky seashore is used for ecology field work in senior Biology.
Students were fairly well able to answer questions put to them by the inspector on particular topics that they had studied previously, although this varied according to individual ability. Much prompting was needed with some classes while in other classes they demonstrated good understanding of previous subject matter learned.
Formal tests are conducted twice during the academic year and these are scheduled at Christmas and summer for the non-examination classes and at November and February (mocks) for the examinations groups. Common assessments are administered to all class groups of junior Science at Christmas and summer and this is commended as it helps to maintain consistency of standards with all groups. Class tests are also given from time to time and this gives students feedback on their achievements and capabilities.
Homework was given in all classes and this related appropriately to the work completed in class. Student copies, workbooks and worksheets showed evidence of good work. Copies were corrected and some positive formative feedback is given to students on their written work. There is scope for the expansion of assessment strategies used, particularly in the area of provision of feedback to the students on how to improve their individual learning and in making them more responsible for their own learning. The Science and Biology department may wish to explore the area of ‘Assessment for Learning’. Information about this approach to assessment may be found on www.ncca.ie. It may be necessary to re-examine how assessment in Science and Biology fits into the school’s own assessment policy.
The proportion of students taking ordinary level in both Science and Biology is quite high. This is a source of concern for the science department also. The science department should assess this and determine whether more students should be encouraged to take higher level in these subjects. Given the previous recommendation regarding Assessment for Learning it is strongly advised that senior management explore strategies for the enhancement of the learning culture in the school.
Teachers keep records of individual student achievement and attendance and in most cases these were available during the inspection. Parents are informed of student progress through two written school reports per year and during an annual parent teacher meeting for the year group.
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 at the conclusion of the evaluation when the draft findings and recommendations of the evaluation were presented and discussed.