An Roinn Oideachais agus Scileanna
Department of Education and Skills
Subject Inspection of Science and Biology
Confey Community College
Riverforest, Leixlip,Co. Kildare
Roll number: 70691C
Date of inspection: 4 February 2010
Report on the Quality of Learning and Teaching in Science and Biology
This report has been written following a subject inspection in Confey Community 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 these 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 studentsí work, and had discussions with the teachers. The inspector reviewed school planning documentation and teachersí written preparation. Following the evaluation visit, the inspector provided oral feedback on the outcomes of the evaluation to the principal and subject teachers. The board of management was given an opportunity to comment in writing on the findings and recommendations of the report; a response was not received from the board.
Confey Community College is a co-educational post-primary school with a current enrolment of 601 students. The school provides the Junior Certificate programme for junior cycle students. Senior cycle students are offered an optional Transition Year (TY) programme before progressing to the Leaving Certificate programmes. Three Leaving Certificate programmes are offered to students, the Leaving Certificate, the Leaving Certificate Vocational Programme (LCVP) and the Leaving Certificate Applied (LCA) programme.
Science is a core subject for Junior Certificate students. It is school policy that, in keeping with best practice and in order to maximise outcomes for students, all junior cycle science classes are mixed ability. This approach is commendable. Science classes are allocated four periods per week, including a double period, which is in line with syllabus recommendations. Class periods are well distributed throughout the week.
TY classes are allocated three periods each week, including a double period. Students are provided with a course that includes modules in Biology, Chemistry and Physics. These modules, in keeping with the ethos of the TY programme, are designed to introduce students to a range of educational experiences outside the scope of the Leaving Certificate syllabuses.
Biology, Chemistry and Physics are offered as optional subjects to fifth-year students following the Leaving Certificate programme and the LCVP. Students are offered an open choice of subjects and classes are organised on a best-fit basis. Biology is a popular choice amongst students. Each Biology class is allocated two double periods and one single period per week, a time allocation which is in line with syllabus recommendations. These classes are mixed ability and class periods are distributed appropriately across the week.
LCA students complete all four modules in the Science elective and are allocated one double period each week for the duration of the programme.
There are currently four qualified teachers of science subjects in the school and they are all deployed in line with their qualifications. It was evident from the outset of the inspection that science teachers are keen to promote positive attitudes towards the sciences and to encourage students to achieve to the best of their abilities. Teachers retain the same class groups from first to third year and from fifth to sixth year. This is very good practice as it facilitates long-term planning and ensures continuity in both teaching and learning.
Management actively supports teacher attendance at relevant continuing professional development (CPD) courses and is commended for its commitment to in-service training. In addition, a number of whole-school professional development events have been organised in the recent past. Topics such as the use of information and communication technology (ICT) in the classroom and Assessment for Learning (AfL) have formed part of the CPD provision. One member of the science team is an associate of the Biology Support Service, has worked with the Discover Sensors initiative and is currently lecturing to student teachers on science methodologies. The school is fortunate to have such expertise available within the science department. An induction and mentoring process, involving more experienced teachers, is in place to support teachers new to the school and the science department. This is good practice.
The science department, with management support, actively encourages involvement by students in a substantial variety of co-curricular and extra-curricular activities. These activities include participation in competitions, for example the BT Young Scientist and Technology Exhibition, science quizzes, SciFest and Debating Science Issues (DSI). A range of participative activities is also facilitated by the science department. Examples include the organisation of visiting speakers to classes, visits to industry, ecology trips, participation in NUI Maynooth laboratory revision days and interactive workshops. Science Week is also actively promoted through a variety of in-school events. The science teachers are highly commended for their work in these areas and their contribution to making science a more stimulating, exciting and interesting subject for students.
There are four Science laboratories in the school. Two of these are linked by a common storage and preparation area. The other two are stand alone, each with its own storage and preparation area. The laboratories are well equipped and adequate for their purpose. The storage and preparation areas are well stocked and chemicals are stored using the recommended colour-coded system. This is good practice. All science classes are held in a laboratory and, in addition, science classes have access to the schoolís computer rooms when required.
The learning environment in all the laboratories has been enhanced by the display of charts and posters, including some student-generated displays. The extent to which the area outside the linked laboratories is used to display science related posters, charts and student project work is notable. These displays serve to highlight and promote the sciences within the school and create a positive science-based atmosphere in the vicinity of the laboratories.
Each of the laboratories is equipped with a data projector and all teachers have an individual laptop computer. Wireless broadband is available throughout the school. Televisions, DVD players and video recorders are all available as required by teachers. The support from management in the provision of these resources is to be commended.
Good attention to health and safety issues was observed during the inspection. Safety equipment available in the laboratories included first aid kits, gas isolation switches, fire extinguishers and fire blankets. Laboratory rules are also on display and reference is made to health and safety in science planning documentation, which is good practice. It is recommended that, in order to enhance health and safety provision, simplified safety notices be displayed in a more prominent manner in the laboratories. The school has a health and safety statement which was drawn up with appropriate consultation. It is recommended that this statement be reviewed annually, in keeping with best practice.
Subject department planning is very well established and is a collaborative activity involving all members of the science department. A high level of collegiality was in evidence amongst the members of the department. Formal planning meetings are held each term and the minutes of these meetings are copied to management. Frequent informal meetings are also held to manage ongoing issues.
Comprehensive science and biology folders have been compiled and are maintained by the members of the science department. These folders contain the very good subject department plans that have been prepared for Science at junior cycle, TY and LCA, and for senior cycle Biology. The plans are appropriately based on the syllabus content for each subject and contain detailed schemes of work for each year and level. The schemes are comprehensive and realistic. There is evidence that planning for the subjects is influenced by a detailed ongoing analysis of certificate examination outcomes. This is indicative of a good level of reflective practice and of the efforts of the science team to implement ongoing improvement, for which they are commended. Cross-curricular links with a number of other subjects are highlighted and efforts to improve handouts and PowerPoint presentations are ongoing. In order to enhance the planning already completed, it is recommended that the learning outcomes documented in the plans are closely linked with assessment objectives thus ensuring compatibility between what is taught and what is assessed.
Most of the schedules for course delivery, and a number of useful resources, have been made available to all teachers, students and parents on the recently developed eResources section of the schoolís website. The school is commended for undertaking this excellent initiative which is very informative for students and parents alike. Continuing this work and expanding the range and type of resources available is strongly encouraged. In addition, individual teachers have compiled large banks of electronic resources over time and it is suggested that these be made available to all science teachers. The benefits of this work were apparent in the quality of the classroom presentations observed by the inspector. The science teachers are highly commended for their efforts.
Individual teacher lesson planning is very good. The teachers were well prepared for class and, in all cases, due cognisance was given to the needs and abilities of the students in setting out and delivering the lessons. Such preparation was instrumental in ensuring that lessons were of a good quality. Materials prepared in advance of the lessons, including electronic and other resources, materials and the apparatus required for demonstration and student-centred investigative work, were integrated successfully into lesson delivery. Not all the lessons were in line with the schemes of work contained in the subject department plan for Science and it is recommended that, in order to ensure consistency and to facilitate common assessment of students, this situation be rectified over time.
The quality of teaching and learning was very good in the majority of classes visited. The good practice of sharing the lesson objectives with students at the beginning of lessons was characteristic of all lessons observed. In almost all cases, these objectives were revisited at the close of the lesson to review progress made and provide a basis for the assignment of homework. Lesson structure was generally very good and a pattern of exposing of new material, affording students an opportunity to put new learning into practice followed by a review or learning check, was apparent in many instances. Good continuity with prior learning was always apparent and opportunities were created to link content to studentsí experiences. Lessons were mostly well paced.
The topics addressed during the lessons observed included heat transfer, the breathing system, genetics, the heart and blood. A variety of appropriate and well-chosen methodologies and active teaching strategies were put into practice to encourage student participation and facilitate learning. Prominent among these were the use of ICT and questioning of students. ICT was effectively used in all lessons observed, mostly in the form of PowerPoint presentations, but also in the form of short video sequences, as an interactive tool to unveil key points of theory as the lesson progressed and to focus studentsí attention on key words and concepts. On a small number of occasions, the use of ICT led to students being passive for an extended period. It is recommended that lessons be structured, in these instances, to achieve a better balance between teacher-centred and active, student-centred phases. The use of subject-specific terminology was very good in all lessons.
Questioning was used effectively in most instances and students generally responded knowledgably and with confidence. The use of questions afforded teachers opportunities to apply a differentiated approach to teaching. Questions ranged from simple, lower-order, recall-type questions to more difficult higher-order questions which encouraged students to think at a deeper level. A mix of global and directed questioning techniques was used. It is important to ensure that all students are included in these interactions and an occasional tendency to limit the spread of questions should be guarded against.
Teachers had a high expectation of students and students generally worked hard. A positive and productive atmosphere was apparent in all lessons and teachers had a good rapport with students. Student involvement in lessons was positive and purposeful and there was evidence of a good level of engagement and of good quality learning. Student input was sought and valued during the course of lessons.
There was good evidence of differentiation in the manner in which teaching was carried out in most lessons. In addition to their use of questioning, teachers circulated around the laboratories monitoring studentsí work and providing individual attention when necessary. Differentiated worksheets were used in some classes and the positive and affirming approach adopted by teachers encouraged all students to achieve their potential. Students were challenged by teachers and they responded well.
Student practical work was observed in a number of lessons. Students demonstrated a good level of skill when carrying out their various tasks. It is recommended that time be set aside to facilitate a short whole-class session in advance of the practical work to ensure that students are fully briefed on what is expected of them when carrying out the activity. It is recommended that a similar session is always held following the activity in order to provide students with an opportunity to review their work and to discuss and rationalise their findings. It may be necessary, in some instances, to follow up with another lesson to emphasise and consolidate the learning that has occurred.
Reference to appropriate passages in textbooks was used to reinforce learning. Otherwise, textbook use was minimal and consistent with good practice. Students were assigned homework at the conclusion of all lessons and were encouraged to note work given in their journals. This homework was appropriate to the lesson content and was designed to assist each student in learning and understanding the topic in question.
Arrangements for assessing and monitoring student progress and achievement in Confey Community College are very good. Ongoing assessment by teachers of the level of student understanding is carried out through questioning, examination of homework and general observation of students, as observed in class by the inspector. Students demonstrated a positive attitude towards Science and Biology as evidenced by the level of engagement and interest observed during the lessons. The quality of student learning was good. They successfully carried out the different tasks assigned to them during the lessons and they displayed a good level of knowledge and understanding during the course of lessons and during interaction with the inspector.
Students were frequently affirmed for their efforts during the course of in-class interactions with teachers and they responded in a positive manner. However, it is equally important that they are affirmed and encouraged in relation to written work. Therefore, it is recommended that teachers apply the principles of Assessment for Learning to the monitoring of studentsí laboratory notebooks, workbooks and other written work on a regular basis and that they provide advice to students on how their work may be improved, where necessary.
A comprehensive system of formal assessment and reporting is used in Confey Community College. First-year, second-year and fifth-year students are formally assessed at Christmas and prior to the summer break and a progress report is issued to their homes on both occasions. Additional reports are provided for parents of third-year and sixth-year students following Halloween assessments and following mock examinations in the early spring. TY students are assessed on the basis of completed assignments and project work in addition to formal examinations at Christmas and prior to the summer break at which times progress reports are issued. Further assessments are carried out at the discretion of individual teachers.
The support provided to Junior Certificate science students to revise their course and to make up for missed work is very good. Opportunities are provided for them to revisit all mandatory practical activities and revision exercise sheets that enable students to revise the entire science programme are also made available.
Good practice by teachers in relation to monitoring and recording student attendance and attainment was evident. Sufficient information was recorded to facilitate teachers in building up a profile of each student.
The following are the main strengths identified in the evaluation:
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.
Published, June 2010