An Roinn Oideachais agus Eolaíochta
Department of Education and Science
Subject Inspection of Science and Biology
Sancta Maria College
Ballyroan, Dublin 16
Roll number: 60341P
Date of inspection: 27 April 2007
Date of issue of report: 6 December 2007
Report on the Quality of Learning and Teaching in Science and Biology
This report has been written following a subject inspection in Sancta Maria College, 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 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.
There is good practice in the organisational arrangements for both Science and Biology. A maximum of twenty-four students are placed in each class group studying the sciences. All class groups for the sciences are arranged on a mixed-ability basis throughout both junior and senior cycle, and class groups retain the same teacher as they progress through junior and senior cycle.
Science is not a core subject for Junior Certificate but is offered as an optional subject to all students on entry to first year. Approximately half of the students choose to take the subject. As part of a recent review of the junior cycle curriculum by the school, it was decided that students would have a free choice of two out of six optional subjects for Junior Certificate, including Science. The situation now arises in fifth year, whereby some students want to study a senior cycle science subject, particularly Biology, without having studied Science for Junior Certificate. It was reported that these students are usually motivated and apply themselves very well. However, this situation presents particular challenges for both the student and the teachers involved. The optional status of Science in this school should continue to be closely monitored by management. In addition, the Science department should constantly monitor the number of students opting for Science in junior cycle and the overall junior cycle curriculum should continue to be kept under review.
Science is offered as a core subject in the school’s Transition Year (TY) programme and ten week modules are provided in Biology, Physics and Chemistry. This gives students who have not studied Junior Certificate Science the opportunity to gain some useful scientific knowledge and skills while also allowing them to sample elements of each scientific discipline before making choices for Leaving Certificate.
Biology, Physics and Chemistry are provided on the senior cycle curriculum for Leaving Certificate and Leaving Certificate Vocational Programme (LCVP) students. In general, three class groups of Biology, one class group of Physics and one class group of Chemistry are formed every year. Students have a free choice of all subjects on the senior cycle curriculum each year and this is commended. Biology is the most popular Leaving Certificate subject of the sciences and the majority of students choose this subject. Numbers choosing Chemistry and Physics are much smaller and strategies to boost the uptake of these subjects should be considered. Measures that could be taken include placing increased emphasis on the promotion of these subjects to third-year students and the revision of the TY Science programme to include additional innovative topics in both Physics and Chemistry.
Currently the only programme without any science component is the Leaving Certificate Applied (LCA). Consideration could be given to the introduction of Science into the school’s LCA programme and to examining the suitability of the science elective module to the abilities, needs and interests of the student cohort. Information about the elective is available from the LCA support service or at www.lca.slss.ie .
The timetabling arrangements and time allocated for Science and Biology are very good. All biology class groups are scheduled to have five class periods per week including one double period. The move toward timetabling the four weekly class periods for Science as one double and two single periods, rather than two double periods, is beneficial to the teaching and learning of the subject, as teachers meet with their classes on three occasions per week. There is good laboratory access as all lessons with double periods take place in a laboratory. Teachers often rotate the use of laboratories in order to have topic specific resources to hand.
There are two laboratories in the school with a shared preparation area. These are both resourced for junior Science and TY Science and resourced separately as Biology and Chemistry laboratories. An adjacent room has been converted into a small physics room with specialist resources for teaching and learning in Physics, but this room does not have proper laboratory facilities. As part of the school building programme, it is planned to build three new laboratories for the school in the very near future and this will greatly enhance provision for teaching and learning in the sciences as facilities are somewhat limiting in the existing laboratories. For example, there are no emergency shut off systems or a proper ventilated chemical store. The existing laboratories, however, present as organised working environments with a fairly good stock of resources that are either on display or in clearly labelled presses. Key resources for practical work are kept in easily accessible boxes at the back of the biology laboratory.
Fire safety equipment is present in the laboratories and there is good signage of laboratory rules for students. The Health and Safety statement was last reviewed in 2006. Science teachers can make an input into matters of health and safety as is best practice. However, the previously identified limitations of the existing laboratories present particular health and safety risks and these should be brought to the attention of management.
Portable audio-visual equipment is available in the laboratories. Modern Information and Communication Technology (ICT) equipment, however, is not a feature of the laboratories. The Pasco datalogging system was purchased with the aid of a grant from the Department of Education and Science but this valuable equipment is currently not being used to support the integration of ICT into teaching and learning in the sciences. This equipment was purchased for use in the sciences and should be used as intended. It is strongly recommended that the science department would immediately assess the status of existing datalogging equipment and utilise it with some of the investigations and experiments. Support for the integration of datalogging into science practical activities can be availed of through modular courses provided by the Second Level Support Service www.slss.ie or by enrolling in the Discover Sensors project at www.discoversensors.ie. Furthermore, it is recommended in order to facilitate this process that teachers would consider taking part in ICT training.
Management does not allocate a specific budget to the science department. Financial support for the purchase of necessary materials must be applied for by individual teachers on request forms. A large order of laboratory resource materials is made at the start of the school year.
The attention given to Continuous Professional Development (CPD) is fairly good. Focus on CPD in the area of ICT would be of value to the subject and the school and is recommended. CPD has included in-service training in the revised science and biology syllabuses and participation in the Secondary Teacher Assistant Researchers (STARs) programme at University College Dublin. The STARs programme aims to disseminate new skills and knowledge to secondary school teachers, which can be passed on to school pupils to encourage an active interest in science and science projects. Involvement in such programmes should serve to enhance the knowledge and skill-set of the science department as a whole and the provision of co-curricular activities for students and is commended.
Formal subject planning has been incorporated into the School Development Planning process. Formal science department meetings are held on two occasions during the year and minutes are kept of these meetings. Discussions during the meetings focus on issues such as student laboratory records, laboratory maintenance, text books and coursework requirements. It is recommended that the science department would set an agenda for their meetings and that a rotating subject co-ordinator would be selected by the department annually. As well as formal meetings, informal consultations among the five science teachers take place on a daily basis, especially on the sharing of facilities and resources and generally as issues arise. There is an atmosphere of collegiality amongst the members of the science department.
Members of the science department agree a schedule of topics for each year group for Science and Biology. This allows for the implementation of common school based assessments at Christmas and summer and this is commended, as it ensures consistency of practice and comparable standards across all class groups.
Outside of the agreed set of topics for junior Science, subject plans have not been developed for Science or Biology. In planning for individual class groups in both Science and Biology there was found to be reliance on the contents page of the text book as a planning instrument. This is to be avoided and planning for teaching and learning should refer to the syllabus not the text book. It is strongly recommended that subject plans would be developed for both Science and Biology and that they would be reviewed annually. Such plans should explore both short-term and long-term goals for the development of the subjects, as well as descriptions of curriculum content and practical activities. The long-term plans should then be integrated into the School Plan. The subject plans should include a list of possible teaching and learning methodologies, a list of resources to be used and a list of assessment methods, as well as detailing provision for students with special educational needs (SEN). In addition, the plans should also indicate time to be provided for revision, as in a small number of cases, time to complete the course was a particular issue. Enhanced planning for Science, incorporating some contingency time, and adherence to the plans on a weekly basis should alleviate this issue.
There is also scope for the enhancement of collaborative planning practices in the area of developing topic-specific teaching and learning resources. Many teachers have developed their own resource packs for use when teaching various topics and these comprised overhead transparencies, hand-written revision questions and hand-written notes for students. Many of the notes were well-designed and succinct in nature with some good diagrams. Some video resources have been obtained for certain topics. Overall, however, it was found that there is a need to develop and diversify the range of topic-specific resources. It is recommenced, therefore, that the science department would devote some time at their formal meetings specifically to exchanging resources and ideas. Teachers could, on a topic by topic basis, focus on pooled assets and engage in professional dialogue around those teaching and learning tools and assessment methodologies that proved successful for a particular topic and, where necessary, acquire some new or more modern resources. The science department could then go on to develop a central bank of shared resources. Expansion into the acquisition and storage of ICT resources to support teaching and learning in the sciences should be prioritised as soon as such technology becomes available to the science department.
The Transition Year Science plan is to be commended for the inclusion of worthy aims, valuable and varied learning activities and the inclusion of a range of assessment strategies. Course content includes a list of topics to be covered. The detail of this could be expanded on so that it is clear what exactly students will be able to do having studied the particular topic.
In the vast majority of cases, there was clear evidence of considered and effective preparation for each lesson. There was thorough prior organisation of resources and sets of materials for student practical work which were laid out on each bench for student use. One example of such best practice was demonstrated when it was ensured that the limewater to be used during the lesson was clear in advance of the student practical. In a small number of cases, such attention to detail was neglected.
In general, good teaching methodologies were employed. In most cases, the lessons were well-structured and well-paced with valuable opportunities for students to engage in practical work and to learn by direct observation.
There were some excellent examples of warm student-teacher rapport and in these cases a climate of mutual respect was clearly evident. In other cases, classroom management was more formal in nature. In all cases the students engaged with politeness and they were found to be compliant. In some cases the students were positively affirmed during their lessons on the basis of their own individual abilities and strengths and the expansion of this approach is recommended for all class groups.
In some lessons, there was excellent use of the blackboard to consolidate learning and highlight key concepts. In these lessons a staged approach was adopted and student learning was consolidated before proceeding to the next concept. Learner autonomy was promoted when the students were encouraged to take down these notes as the lesson developed.
There were some good examples of considered attention to detail during instruction. However, in some cases students were expected to apply this level of detail in answering questions and this made the lesson quite challenging for some students. In these cases, there is a need to ensure that the less able students are also appropriately challenged according to their needs and abilities.
During practical work, the methodologies employed reflected the aims of the relevant syllabus and student skill development was effectively promoted. In most cases the students were asked to draw conclusions based on their observations as is best practice. However, in a small number of cases this was not applied and much learning was lost as a consequence.
In the vast majority of cases good attention was paid to health and safety procedures during student practical work. However, there was one example where health and safety concerns regarding the conduct of two particular investigations arose and had to be expressed by the inspector.
In many cases, skilful questioning techniques were used to support the learning process. There were some good examples of questions designed to draw out students on their existing knowledge of a topic. Students were observed to be actively listening throughout all lessons. However, it was found that during a small number of lessons some students were questioned more often than others. In these cases, there was an obvious need to determine the quality of understanding of the topic by all students individually. All students should be equally challenged to recall, recap and revise as often as possible.
All class groups are mixed ability in composition and the quality of learning was generally very good. There were many examples where the students demonstrated notable excellence in their ability to answer questions promptly, accurately and with confidence. There were some examples, however, where the students needed much prompting to arrive at the correct answer to the inspector’s questions. Attainment levels in both subjects were found to be very good. Examination records show that, consistently, most students take higher level in both Science and Biology in the Junior and Leaving Certificate examinations.
Student progress was assessed through the use of questioning in class, the assignment and correction of homework, frequent class tests and formal school examinations. There was evidence that students were tested frequently throughout the year by means of class tests or end of topic tests. This is commended and has obviously enhanced the learning process. Class tests were graded and a transparent marking scheme was applied for the benefit of the student. Students received effective annotated feedback from their teacher on those answers that need improvement and this is also highly commended.
Both learning and written homework were allocated to students. Written homework was mainly given as questions from the book but questions from past examination papers were also often allocated. Student homework copies demonstrated an appropriate amount of work completed by the student and in all cases the work was neatly and comprehensively presented. Homework was mostly corrected by the students themselves as part of a plenary session at the beginning of the next lesson and less often by the teacher. Feedback given to students on their written homework, therefore, was mainly verbal. It is recommended that more annotated feedback be applied to students’ written homework.
Practical activities were found to be written up to a very high standard. In many classes, the laboratory copies were evidently regularly monitored by the teacher with constructive written feedback given in some cases, and this is commended. It is recommended that the science department would consider the allocation of marks to students for the satisfactory completion of laboratory records as a component of the final grade for either the Christmas or summer reports.
The non-examination class groups sit formal school-based tests at Christmas and summer and the examination class groups sit ‘mock’ examinations in February. A parent-teacher meeting is held annually for each year group.
The following are the main strengths identified in the evaluation:
· Subject provision and whole school support for the science subjects by the management of the school is good; although Science is not a core subject for Junior Certificate it is for TY, three science subjects are available on the senior cycle curriculum, timetabling arrangements and time allocated to the subjects are very good, there is good laboratory access, class groups contain no more than twenty-four students and both planning meetings and CPD training events are facilitated.
· Formal subject department meetings are held on two occasions during the year and minutes are kept of these meetings.
· Members of the science department agree a schedule of topics for each year group and implement common assessments at Christmas and summer.
· The Transition Year Science plan includes worthy aims, valuable and varied learning activities and a range of assessment strategies.
· In the vast majority of cases, there was clear evidence of considered and effective preparation for the lesson.
· In most cases, lessons were well-structured and well-paced with opportunities for students to engage in practical work and to learn by direct observation.
· In many cases, students demonstrated notable excellence in their ability to answer questions promptly, accurately and with confidence.
· During practical work, the methodologies employed reflected the aims of the relevant syllabus and student skill development was effectively promoted. Laboratory reports were written up to a very high standard and, in general, were well monitored.
· Attainment levels in both Science and Biology were very good.
· Students were tested frequently throughout the year by means of class tests and end of topic tests. Tests were clearly marked and graded and effective annotated feedback was applied.
As a means of building on these strengths and to address areas for development, the following key recommendations are made:
· The status of Science in this school should continue to be closely monitored by management and the science department. Consideration should be given to the introduction of Science to the LCA programme.
· The science department should immediately assess the existing science datalogging equipment and utilise it with some of the investigations and experiments in the sciences.
· Science teachers should consider taking part in ICT training and should examine the benefits of integrating some ICT into teaching and learning in the sciences.
· Subject plans should be developed for both Science and Biology.
· Subject planning should incorporate revision time.
· The science department should consider the selection of a rotating co-ordinator annually to facilitate development and subject planning. The subject department should also set an agenda for the formal meetings including at least one item for development each time.
· A more diverse range of resources for teaching various topics should be developed and this should be approached through subject department planning.
· The TY Science plan should detail exactly what it is that students will be able to do having studied the topics listed.
· Consideration could be given to the allocation of marks to students for the satisfactory completion of laboratory records as a component of the assessment process.
· More annotated feedback should be given to students on their written homework
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.