An Roinn Oideachais agus Eolaíochta
Department of Education and Science
Subject Inspection of Science and Biology
St Mary’s College
Naas, County Kildare
Roll number: 61730I
Date of inspection: 25 September 2007
Subject inspection report
Subject provision and whole school support
Planning and preparation
Teaching and learning
Summary of main findings and recommendations
Report on the Quality of Learning and Teaching in Science and Biology
This report has been written following a subject inspection in St Mary’s 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 two days 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 provided on the curriculum for all first-year students and following this it becomes an optional subject for the remainder of Junior Certificate. Uptake of subject is very high as most second-year students in the school choose to study Science and this is highly commended. Science is a core subject in the school’s Transition Year (TY) programme. The programme for Science involves inter-disciplinary links between each of the three senior cycle science subjects. This gives students a valuable opportunity to sample the subjects at senior cycle before making choices for Leaving Certificate.
Three senior science subjects: Biology, Physics and Chemistry are available as subjects for Leaving Certificate. Numbers choosing to study Biology are very high and it is the most popular Leaving Certificate science subject with three to four class groups formed each year. Numbers choosing Chemistry are high with two class groups formed each year. The uptake of Physics, however, is quite low. While Physics is timetabled every year, the class size is small and this has been the trend for a number of years. As recommended in a previous Subject Inspection Report in Science and Physics (December 2004), the science department should, as part of long-term planning for the development of the Sciences in the school, take measures to promote Physics so that the subject is seen as a real option for Leaving Certificate. This was discussed with the science department and ideas that emerged included enhanced promotion of the subject among the third year and TY class groups and the inclusion of some of the ‘big ideas and big question’ as referenced in the ROSE survey (The Relevance of Science Education in Ireland, available at www.ria.ie/publication/rose) in the TY Science programme.
When students have to make a choice between subjects for Leaving Certificate and Junior Certificate, the subjects are offered on the basis of a system of free choice and this is considered best practice. Every effort is made to meet the student preferences. Students can consult the school’s subject choice information booklet for choosing subjects for Leaving Certificate and they are also given advice by the school’s guidance service. It is possible for students to study up to three senior science subjects for Leaving Certificate.
Other than first-year Science, the time allocated to the science subjects on the school timetable meets syllabus recommendations. Biology is timetabled for five class periods per week including one double period, as appropriate. Second-year and third-year science classes are timetabled for four periods per week including one double period, as appropriate. However, the first-year class groups are only timetabled for three class periods per week for Science. Timetabling in first year is one period per week shorter than syllabus recommendations and this should be reviewed for future years as it impacts directly on the implementation of the revised science syllabus. The revised syllabus is activity-based in its design and emphasises a practical experience of Science for the student. Sufficient time is required for groups of students to engage fully in the process of planning and designing investigations and conducting experiments.
There are four laboratories in the school and these are fitted to a high standard. The laboratories are located in two separate locations in the school. Adjacent laboratories share a well-stocked storage and preparation area with ample resources for practical work in all of the science subjects in evidence in both areas. The laboratories and preparation areas present as very well-organised environments with clearly labelled presses allowing ease of access by students during practical work. The laboratories have been enhanced with modern science charts. They are fitted with good quality boards and overhead projectors, and audiovisual facilities are also available. Laboratory access is very good, as each class group is timetabled for weekly laboratory access for double lessons and for many of the single lessons also.
Laboratory organisation has been enhanced by the work of a small number of TY students who for a short amount of time each week help to set-up and clear away resources for student practical work. This work is done under teacher supervision and the students are rewarded with badges they can wear on their uniform and certificates at the end of the year. These students demonstrated an aptitude for science and an eagerness to contribute in a meaningful and responsible way to the working of their school and this is to be commended.
Datalogging equipment is available in one the laboratories but it is used mainly for Leaving Certificate Chemistry. It is recommended that the science department would explore ways in which this equipment could be used to support practical work in Science and Biology. Both the Biology and the science support services provide professional development training in the use of datalogging in definite ways in the subject: http://.biology.slss.ie and www.juniorscience.ie. The Discover Sensors project www.discoversensors.ie also provides assistance to schools in this area.
A computer is located in each laboratory and a portable laptop is also available and these are used intermittently in science lessons, usually to show certain resources on computer discs. The availability and use of such resources is commended. The computers are networked. This has the potential of allowing teachers to directly access electronic files from any location. It is recommended that this potential would be more fully exploited; a greater range of electronic resources, which support teaching and learning in the sciences, should be sourced and developed and placed in shared files on the network for access by all science teachers. An excellent range of such resources is available electronically on the websites of both the Biology and Junior Science Support Services. The science department has planned for the phased acquisition of data projectors and this will greatly enhance the use of electronic resources, especially for whole-class instruction. Eagerness to develop resources and expertise in this area was demonstrated during the inspection visit and this is highly commended.
There are eleven science teachers in the school and they are assigned to teach the senior cycle class groups according to their subject specailism. Continuing Professional Development (CPD) is well supported and all teachers have been facilitated in attending inservice in the revised science and biology syllabuses. It is recommended that teachers would consider availing of some computer training or networking with teachers in other schools who have successfully integrated both Information Communication Technology (ICT) and datalogging into their teaching practice, in order to make maximum use of the laboratories’ ICT facilities.
Good attention is paid to matters of health and safety. The school’s health and safety statement is reviewed annually and all staff members must be familiar with its contents. Laboratory rules are discussed with students and these feature in the student journals. The rules must be signed by both students and parents. This is good practice. Students demonstrated safe and proper laboratory conduct at all times.
A collaborative and supportive attitude is taken to the planning for sciences in the school and this is commended. Science teachers meet formally on three occasions each year and informally at numerous other times, for example during lunchtimes. The meetings provide the teachers with a valuable opportunity to share their expertise as well as to plan for overall development. Minutes are taken at each subject department meeting and decisions taken are clearly recorded. Two members of the science department undertake co-ordination roles for the subject, which includes overseeing the maintenance and development of the laboratory in the two separate locations. Another member of the science department undertakes the role of managing accounts and finance for the department. A group of teachers put together ‘resource boxes’ for each of the prescribed practical activities in Biology. Resource packs containing learning instruments, such as handouts and assessment materials to support teaching and learning are stored in the preparation area providing central access to shared resources for all teachers. In these ways, a certain division-of-labour has been established, so that certain teachers take responsibility for particular tasks, and this is working well for the science department in the school. All roles are undertaken with notable dedication. Planning for laboratory resource provision and overall department planning practices are to be commended.
Members of the science department also worked together to produce agreed subject plans for each science subject, including first, second and third year Science, TY Science and Leaving Certificate Biology. This is commended. The subject plans follow the format outlined by the School Development Planning Initiative. Subject plans are reviewed annually as is best practice. The aims and objectives of the relevant syllabus were reproduced in the subject plans and the assessment practices listed reflected the school’s homework and assessment policies. In these ways the subject plans successfully took cognisance of important relevant documentation. However, the curriculum content section of the junior Science plans, in particular, should be developed further. Currently they contain a list of topics to be implemented in each term. It would be better if this section referenced the exact syllabus learning outcome based on the skills and knowledge required of the students. In particular this section should reference the exact ‘active verb’ associated with each learning outcome. This review of planning for science lessons should take place as soon as possible to ensure greater clarity around the depth-of-treatment of certain topics and areas where investigation rather than experimentation are advocated by the syllabus. This could then be used as a framework on which preparation for individual lessons could be based. It is suggested that teachers share the intended learning outcome with the students at the start of each lesson. By sharing this explicitly with learners in this way they will immediately aware of what is expected of them in studying the particular course.
The plan for TY Science is to be commended as it aims to develop students’ skills of critical thinking and communication as well as giving them some insight into Biology, Physics and Chemistry. The topics listed incorporate many contemporary and interesting scientific areas including biotechnology, problem-solving, the science of survival, sports science and cosmetic science. A good and varied range of teaching and learning resources for use with TY science are kept in folders in the staff workroom for easy access by all teachers, who regularly share ideas and interesting ways of teaching the topics. Planning for TY Science is commended.
For a small number of class groups the subject is taught by two different teachers and this has arisen due to unavoidable timetabling issues. Evidence was provided in the planning, organisation and assessment practices for these particular groups that the curriculum had been successfully divided and that the teachers pay on-going attention to the sharing of class groups to ensure this system works.
Extra and co-curricular activities in the sciences are planned annually and these include the Bayer ISTA science quiz, participation in the Physics practical day in the National University of Ireland Maynooth, participation in science road shows and ecology field trips to a nearby woodland and to a rocky seashore. Such activities are highly commended.
A very good level of preparation was undertaken for each lesson observed. Visual presentations, resource materials, worksheets and materials for practical work were carefully considered so as to match the purpose of the lesson and to support student learning. All resources were ready from the start of each lesson and this led to the seamless flow from activity to activity during lessons.
Teaching and Learning
The students demonstrated maturity, confidence and a positive attitude to both the school and to studying science. Students remained focused throughout their lessons and clearly understood the expectation that they would participate in their lessons and give their full attention at all times. This is highly commended.
In every lesson observed, a very high level of attention to detail was evident, particularly during teacher instruction of new concepts and in the formative assessment practices. Good teaching methods were employed, integrating excellent questioning strategies with clear and concise instruction. This was combined with varied opportunities for students to practice their learning including role play, worksheets, web searches, question and answer sessions, experimental practical work, and regularly administered class tests. This is highly commended.
Very definite outcomes were expected from the students and they were continually questioned and kept on task. Questions were used in the best possible way to elicit information from students on their existing knowledge and everyday life experiences of a topic and to test them on their learning. Students were eager in answering questions and demonstrated a high level of knowledge and competence.
Lessons were very well structured and paced. Teachers were business-like and enthusiastic in their approach. Teachers used a variety of resources, which were suitable to the topic being covered, to support learning. The text book was used only for reference purposes . The overhead projector was used to very good effect in lessons to illustrate a topic or to outline key stages in a particular procedure. The computer was used in some lessons as a point of reference for students during laboratory work. However, the use of ICT could prove more effective, allowing for whole-class instruction, with the aid of a data projector.
Students enjoy a practical experience of Science and Biology as intended by each syllabus. Student practical skill attainment was observed to be very good. During practical work, the students worked purposefully in their groups, communicating effectively. They were clear of the intended outcome of the practical activity. Teachers circulated at all times paying excellent attention to the needs of all students.
One of the key successes toward learning Science and Biology in the school is the expectation that learning is to take place as a key part of the homework for each lesson. The school journal was used to maximum effect as all teachers ensured that they had clearly indicated the exact homework for each lesson on the board and that this had been noted by each student in their journal. In all lessons visited, the previous evenings learning homework formed the basis of plenary questioning session at the start of the lesson. In anticipation that each individual must be able to answer the questions directed at them the students rigorously undertake to learn the material instructed in each lesson for the next day. In this way the students have become autonomous in directing their own learning and this has obviously enhanced attainment. Evidence from State Examination results for this school show that a very high number of students take higher-level papers in both the Science and Biology examinations and that overall the students perform very well at both ordinary and higher level in each subject.
There was much evidence of best practice in both formative and summative assessment practices. Homework was assigned at the end of each lesson and in most cases both learning homework and written homework was given. Questions from past examination papers were often allocated to the third and sixth-year groups to help prepare them for the State Examinations. For all year groups, class tests were frequently administered. For the non-examination year groups the class tests were based on the topic just completed, whereas for the third and sixth-year groups a mixture of end-of-topic tests and revision tests are applied. Student work was very well monitored with an excellent level of written feedback given in copies and on tests. The combination of frequent assessments and daily formative assessment of homework is highly commended as it provides many opportunities for students to recall their learning and to receive constructive feedback on their individual progress. Students were found to be confident of their own individual progress with the subjects and could indicate the level and grade that they were working toward achieving.
Revision is managed very well and in all cases it was factored into the school year and this was evident both in the planning documents and through revision schedules which are given to students of both third and sixth year in September. The schedules given outlined topics to be revised, on a weekly basis, spanning the whole course over the complete year.
Student copies contained a very good amount of work completed so far this year. Notes, which were sometimes given as a handout and sometimes written out by the students themselves, were comprehensive and detailed. All student work was neatly presented and where tests have been given the corrections were carefully written out by the student. All students keep comprehensive and detailed laboratory records of their practical work. Laboratory records were regularly monitored by teachers and this is commended. A new laboratory record notebook, produced with the school logo, laboratory rules and regulations regarding Coursework A and Coursework B has been introduced for use with junior Science. These are very well laid out and will support the implementation of the revised syllabus.
Credit is given for the completion of laboratory work and the associated report to all Science students as part of the overall grade in the formal school reports. This is considered good practice as it reflects the allocation of marks in the State Examinations science examination. This system is also applied with some of the Biology class groups.
In addition to regular class tests, formal school-based examinations are held at Christmas and summer. In general, common Christmas and summer tests are administered to all class groups in the same year for both Science and Biology. This is good practice. Third and sixth-year students sit ‘mock’ examinations in February. Results from the formal school examinations help to provide a basis for school reports. Parents of first, second and fifth-year students receive school reports at Christmas and summer. Parents of third-year students receive reports at Christmas and after the mock examinations. Parents of sixth-year students receive a formal report following the mock examinations. In addition to these, progress monitoring reports are sent home to parents of fifth-year students once during the year and to parents of sixth-year students once per term. A parent-teacher meeting is held annually for each year group. In these ways, both parents and students are kept very well informed of student progress and this is highly commended.
Summary of Main Findings and Recommendations
The following are the main strengths identified in the evaluation of Science and Biology:
· Senior management firmly supports and provides very well for the science subjects which feature significantly on the school curriculum. Science and Biology are offered to all students in a system of free choice and the uptake of each is considered very high.
· Well-organised laboratories which are fitted to a high standard contain ample resources for practical work in each of the science subjects. Good teaching resources are also available, including computers, and these are used intermittently in science lessons.
· Good attention is paid to matters of health and safety.
· A collaborative and supportive attitude is taken to the planning for sciences in the school. Planning for laboratory resource provision and overall department planning practices are to be commended. All roles within the science department are undertaken with notable dedication.
· Thorough preparation of resource materials took place in advance of each lesson.
· Good teaching methods were employed integrating excellent questioning strategies, clear and concise instruction mixed with varied opportunities for students to practice their learning. Considerable attention to detail was evident in both instruction and formative assessment practices.
· Students enjoy a practical experience of Science and Biology and both their practical skill attainment and attitude to science was observed to be very good.
· There was much evidence of best practice in both formative and summative assessment practices. Homework, end-of-topic tests and revision work was regularly assigned.
· Student copies contained a considerable amount of work with neat presentation and were very well monitored with effective formative feedback given.
As a means of building on these strengths and to address areas for development, the following key recommendations are made:
· The science department should, as part of long-term planning for the development of the sciences in the school, take measures to promote Physics so that the subject is seen as a real option for Leaving Certificate by a greater number of students.
· Four class periods per week should be allocated on the school timetable for first-year Science in order to meet syllabus recommendations and to facilitate the treatment of required student laboratory work.
· The science department should explore ways in which the existing datalogging equipment could be used to support practical work in Science and Biology.
· Given the availability of a computer in each laboratory and plans to acquire data projectors, a greater range of electronic resources should be developed. These should, on an on-going basis, be placed in shared files on the network for access by all. All science teachers should consider taking part in ICT training and should examine the benefits of integrating some additional ICT into their teaching and learning practices.
· The first, second and third-year subject plans for Science should be reviewed so that reference is made in the curriculum content section of the plans to the exact learning outcome advocated in the revised science syllabus.
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 June 2008