An Roinn Oideachais agus Eolaíochta
Department of Education and Science
Subject Inspection of Science and Biology
St Mac Dara’s Community College
Templeogue, Dublin 6W
Roll number: 70260V
Date of inspection: 9 April 2008
This report has been written following a subject inspection in St Mac Dara’s Community 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 deputy principal and subject teachers.
The science subjects feature significantly on the school curriculum. Science is a core subject in junior cycle with the expressed objective of promoting equality of access and opportunity in the subject area. Science is carried through in the school’s optional Transition Year (TY) programme and three senior science subjects – Biology, Physics and Chemistry – are available as subjects for Leaving Certificate. The uptake of both Biology and Physics is very high and the uptake of Chemistry is high and increasing. The popularity of the senior sciences in the school is a testament to junior cycle students’ positive experience of Science. Within all programmes, all class groups are arranged on a mixed-ability basis.
When students have to make a choice between subjects for Leaving Certificate, the subjects are offered on the basis of a system of free choice. It is possible for students to study up to three senior science subjects for Leaving Certificate. All third years are given a presentation on each subject by the teachers involved, a subject choice booklet is available and students are also given advice by the school’s guidance service. Physics and Chemistry teachers conduct a special fun ‘open day’ to promote the subjects. This has proved particularly successful and involves active participation by students in running activities. Students are encouraged to take a science subject at senior cycle regardless of whether at higher or ordinary level, and this is commended. Overall, the measures taken to promote the science subjects at senior cycle are highly commended.
Science is timetabled for one double and one single lesson per week in first year and for two double lessons plus one single lesson in second and third year. Biology is timetabled for two double lessons plus one single lesson per week in fifth year and one double plus three single lessons per week in sixth year. All lessons on the school timetable are only thirty-five minutes in duration. Overall, therefore, the time provision for the subjects over the course of the entire programme is only adequate. The school is moving to forty-minute lessons and this is very much welcomed by staff. Such a change is commended as thirty-five minute lessons can be short for practical work and reduce the overall time for the implementation of the syllabus.
There are four laboratories in the school and most lessons in the sciences are timetabled in one of these. Three of the laboratories share a preparation area and a well-ordered chemical store. A colour-coded system for chemical storage is established. A new fourth laboratory is a recent addition to the school and does not have a preparation room but is fitted with good storage and modern services. The development of this fourth laboratory has greatly alleviated the previous problem of access to laboratories for students. Ample resources for practical work in all of the science subjects were in evidence. The school received an enhanced grant for the implementation of the revised science syllabus and this has had significant effect on available resources. Senior management supplies funds for the regular restocking of necessary resources. Each laboratory is spacious and very well organised allowing ease of access to resources for practical work. Kit boxes and class sets of equipment have been assembled for certain investigations. The gas supply to the laboratories has recently been upgraded and each laboratory has proper safety equipment including isolation switches for the gas and electricity. The laboratories have been enhanced with modern science charts, photographs and displays of student project work. This is commended as the learning environment is both stimulating and scientific.
The laboratories are fitted with modern teaching equipment including good quality boards, a teacher’s computer, internet connection, screen and audiovisual facilities. There is a data projector in three of the laboratories and the department intends to purchase another for the fourth. This represents good provision for information and communication technology (ICT) for the sciences. It is recommended that the science department work towards converting their teaching and learning resources to electronic format and set up a shared electronic file for topics in the sciences. Networking each science computer will allow teachers to access those electronic files from any laboratory and display them for the class as a teaching and learning tool.
There are six science teachers in the school and they are assigned to teach the senior cycle class groups according to their specialist subject. Continuing professional development (CPD) is well supported and all teachers have attended in-service in the revised syllabuses. Some teachers participated in elective courses in the local Education Centre, including a course in data-logging. All teachers received recent training in Assessment for Learning (AfL) organised through school development planning (SDP) and are applying these strategies on a school-wide basis.
Collaborative subject department planning practices are long established in the school. Science teachers meet formally as a science department on four to five occasions per year and this represents very good provision. One teacher, acting as co-ordinator for the department, draws up an agenda and chairs the meetings. The co-ordinator also oversees the restocking of laboratory resources and represents the department within the school. All recommendations made in a previous inspection report in the sciences have been acted on and this is highly commended.
Comprehensive subject plans have been developed for Science, Biology and TY Science. The subject plans, together with minutes of past meetings, reveal that considerable collective thought has gone into planning and development for the subjects in the school. This includes agreed aims and objectives, agreed practices for assessments, an agreed yearly course for each subject, agreed texts, procedures for ordering resources and health and safety details. Of particular note is the way in which whole-school planning issues have been incorporated into department practices; examples of this include methods to support students with special educational needs (SEN), the application of AfL practices, procedures for lateness to class and incorporation of the school’s homework policy. Evidence for these was found in the practices observed during lessons visited; for example, AfL strategies were observed and this is commended. The development of AfL is proving to be highly successful in its implementation in the mixed-ability setting in the school and this strategy should continue to be developed and further consolidated.
Good planning in the schedules for each year group has ensured that the third-year group have completed the science course and are just embarking on a period of revision for the state examinations. A further example of good planning in practice was evident in that both fifth-year biology groups visited were following the same topic at the same time, indicating concurrent progress with the plan.
Many teachers had developed individual packs of resources for their subject. In addition, teachers have developed shared teaching and learning resources for many topics and these are kept centrally in folders. The quality of the worksheets and assessment instruments within the resource folders and in use in lessons indicated careful preparation of material to match the abilities of a range of students in a mixed-ability setting. This is commended. While the quality of these is good, the range could be broadened for each topic, particularly to include DVD and more ICT resources. It is recommended, therefore, that the subject department focus on development of a broader range of topic-specific resources by pooling existing resources, sourcing additional ones, discussing best practice and sharing expertise on a topic by topic basis. Development of the ICT network will support this process as will much of the material gained from the science and biology support services. This should be done through subject department meetings.
A highly commendable and modern TY programme for Science has been developed. It is composed of two modules and students switch module half way through the year. The programme is interesting and innovative in its content and exposes students to a variety of experiences through student-centred activities and tasks. The programme provides valuable skill attainment in the sciences and also gives students a useful insight into Biology, Physics and Chemistry. Students explore topical issues including forensic science, electronics, energy conservation and waste management. Outdoor activities such as orienteering are also built into the plan. The horticulture and farm studies module incorporates visits to nearby Airfield and the development of the school grounds. Learning outcomes have been developed for each topic and module and this is excellent practice. The plan is supported by extensive resources and lists of websites and contact details for external supports for teachers implementing the programme. Planning for TY Science is highly commended.
In general, a very good level of preparation was undertaken for each lesson observed. Materials for practical work, handouts and presentations were ready in advance and matched the purpose of the lesson, supporting student learning and contributing to the good structure of each lesson. Some teachers use daily record sheets to track progress with the topic and the homework allocated to each group. Such good practice will inform planning for next year while also providing a clear picture of progress should a substitute teacher be required.
The vast majority of students demonstrated a strong work ethic. There was evidence that students had undertaken to study the material covered in the previous lesson in preparation for review questions at the start of the next lesson. They settled immediately in lessons and were attentive throughout, showing an interest in each subject. High standards of behaviour and participation were set and these high standards and a calm pleasant working atmosphere prevailed throughout the course of the evaluation. Most students had a good working rapport with their teachers and mutual respect was evident. In the very small number of cases where students were disruptive, very good classroom management techniques were employed.
Excellent and continual questioning was applied in all lessons visited making for communicative lessons, keeping students focused on the topic at all times. Questions asked of students matched their ability and were also challenging. Teachers encouraged students to recall and apply their learning and to be accurate in their responses. Students were praised very well on their contributions and application to their work. In one lesson, however, there was a dominance of participation from one student and as a consequence other students lost opportunities to participate. This should be avoided in future.
In most cases, teachers put considerable effort into their lessons so as to best facilitate learning and to give variety to the learning experience, whereas this was an area for development in other instances. Some very good worksheets and resources were used in many cases, including the use of power point presentations on the topic. However the variety and use of these resources should be extended, particularly in double lessons which do not have an integrated practical activity or where, as sometimes observed, the teacher was instructing for long periods on theory. In these cases, there was dominance of two methods: teacher instruction and questioning with an over reliance on the text book as a basis for both. While the methods were well applied there was a need to bring greater variety to the learning experience for the student and for more judicious use of the text book, especially given the mixed-ability nature of the group. In other cases, the level of planning undertaken for the lesson incorporated a range of learning activities for students, keeping them stimulated about the topic throughout, and such lessons are highly commended in this regard. There were some excellent examples of the application of a staged approach to facilitate learning of a topic, whereby students experienced achievement at each stage: for example, completing a short practical task or worksheet, or arriving at a collective conclusion. This approach is also highly commended.
Student contributions were sought and valued. Best practice was seen when student contributions were recorded on the board. There was very good use of the board throughout, to build the key points of the topic and for visual presentations on topics. The board was especially well used in constructing the solution to a formula and working through a genetic cross with the students. It provided students with a reference for examining and amending their own work and supported the very good attention to detail promoted throughout.
A high standard of learning was evident with students achieving according to their individual abilities. There was evidence of self-directed learning at times when students jotted down notes and key points independently during lessons. Students’ copies and folders revealed a very good amount of work completed with neat presentation throughout. Students placed great value on the benefit of their notes to their learning and revision. There was evidence that students with SEN and gifted students were very well supported in science and biology lessons. As groups are mixed ability, teachers keep the whole class moving at a common level for as long as possible, usually differentiating into higher and ordinary level after the mock examinations. Students following ordinary level in the subject were given worksheets to work independently while the teacher progressed with higher-level material and this was effective. Gifted students were set additional challenging questions or tasks. Teachers circulated while students were working independently to ensure the needs of students of different abilities were attended to.
Many lessons observed involved some element of practical work for the student which they performed in groups. Students demonstrated very good group work and practical skills, including the ability to use apparatus. Students were familiar with the scientific method and demonstrated safe practices throughout. Practical work was at all times put in the context of the topic being learned and students had a clear understanding of the purpose of the investigation. Very good attention was paid to the investigative approach in junior cycle Science and TY Science, with students arriving at the outcome of the practical for themselves, drawing their own conclusions with teacher support. This is highly commended as it matches the underlying principles of both curricula. Students were motivated by this approach and very enjoyable lessons ensued. Immediately following the practical activity the students settled down to complete their laboratory records or to complete the worksheet on the practical. The standard of laboratory records was generally very high with some minor exceptions. In most cases, student laboratory records are kept in the laboratory and there was evidence of a good level of monitoring of standards in these records by teachers.
Highly commendable and varied assessment practices are employed. Homework is regularly assigned and clearly recorded by students in their journals. Questions from past examination papers are allocated to the third-year and sixth-year groups to help prepare them for the state examinations. For all year groups studying Science and Biology, class tests are frequently administered and this is good practice. Students expect to receive a test at the end of every topic or set of topics and this is commended as they have frequent opportunities to perform in test conditions and to get feedback on their individual progress. Teachers correct all class tests according to a transparent marking scheme and apply the state examinations marking scheme to questions from past papers. This enables students to see exactly where they need to improve their answers or revisit topics. The marks were supported with written formative comments for the students and this is excellent practice. Student work was very well monitored with an excellent level of written feedback given on tests. The combination of frequent class tests and daily formative assessment practices is highly commended as it provides many opportunities for students to recall their learning and to receive constructive feedback on their individual progress. Many of the AfL practices listed in the planning documents were in evidence, demonstrating a commendable commitment to the initiative.
In addition to regular class tests, formal school-based examinations are held at Christmas and summer. The school’s summer examinations are held in early May. This may need to be reviewed as it could be shortening the school year for some. Efforts are made to administer a common summer test for all first-year class groups and it is intended to extend this practice to the Christmas test also. This is encouraged and should be extended and considered for fifth-year Biology groups also. Third-year and sixth-year students sit mock examinations in February and these are corrected externally. Results from the formal school examinations are sent home to parents in formal school reports. A parent-teacher meeting is held annually for each year group.
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:
· The science department should work towards converting their teaching and learning resources to electronic format and set up a shared electronic file for topics in the sciences.
· The subject department should focus on developing a wider range of collective resources for each topic in both Science and Biology and place this task on the agenda for meetings.
· In some cases, there is a need to bring greater variety to the learning experience for the student in lessons and for more judicious use of the text book.
· The application of common tests for the school-based examinations should be further extended for first, second and third years in Science, and considered for biology groups in fifth year.
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 October 2008