An Roinn Oideachais agus Eolaíochta
Department of Education and Science
Subject Inspection of Science and Chemistry
Ennis Community College
Ennis, County Clare
Roll number: 70830N
Date of inspection: 26 November 2009
Report on the Quality of Learning and Teaching in Science and Chemistry
This report has been written following a subject inspection in Ennis Community College. It presents the findings of an evaluation of the quality of teaching and learning in Science and in Chemistry and makes recommendations for the further development of the teaching of these 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, deputy principal and the subject teachers. The board of management of the school was given an opportunity to comment on the findings and recommendations of the report; the board chose to accept the report without response.
Ennis Community College is a co-educational post-primary school operating under the auspices of County Clare Vocational Education Committee. The school has an aonad Gaelach called Gaelcholáiste an Chláir where teaching and learning occurs through the Irish language. Students from a diversity of backgrounds attend Ennis Community College and the student cohort includes a significant number of students who have additional learning needs. At the time of the evaluation the school was operating under difficult conditions due to Gaelcholáiste an Chláir having flooded (resulting in the need to find accommodation for the Gaelcholáiste students) and the heating system failing in part of the main building. Despite these difficult conditions the school was operating as normal and the atmosphere among the science staff was positive and upbeat. The teachers who were encountered during the inspection revealed themselves to be dedicated, committed and wholly professional in their approach to their work. It was evident from interaction with them that they cared deeply for their students and that they strive to help their students to achieve their full potential.
There is good support for the study of Science in this school as it is a core subject at junior cycle. The school has recently moved to a system of mixed-ability classes at junior cycle and the teachers report that they have seen improvements in students’ achievement because of the new system. The uptake of Chemistry is generally good and this shows that students have positive attitudes to studying it.
There are appropriate timetabling arrangements in place for Science and for Chemistry. At senior cycle, the subject option blocks are constructed based on the students’ preferences and this is good practice.
The laboratories are generally well resourced. While the laboratories are of older construction they are fully functional and suitable for the teaching of Science and of Chemistry. The physical environment in the laboratories benefits from displays of students’ work. Such displays, by being regularly changed, help to provide a stimulating learning environment, act as learning resources for students and help students to develop a sense of ownership and responsibility for the laboratory. The preparation room is in good order and is well organised.
The range of information and communication technology (ICT) resources available to the science staff is good. These resources include a laptop and data projector in each laboratory as well as access to an interactive whiteboard and to the school’s computer rooms. In addition, an in-service course has been provided to support the staff in using interactive whiteboards.
The school is developing a mentoring system to support teachers in their work. A number of members of the science staff have attended in-service courses on mentoring and there are plans to develop the areas of peer mentoring and peer observation. This far-sighted and supportive approach to assisting staff members in their work is to be encouraged.
The science teachers are to be commended for their support for students’ participation in a wide range of science-related extracurricular activities. These activities help to foster students’ interest in and appreciation of a wide range of areas in science. The activities in which the school is involved include the Young Scientist and Technology Exhibition, Science Week, Young Environmentalist Competition, Young Social Innovator, trips to industrial plants, science quizzes, trips to museums and hosting visiting speakers. In addition to the extracurricular activities, evidence was presented during the evaluation that the science teachers are involved in a range of cross-curricular planning involving subjects such as Home Economics, Art, Social Personal and Health Education (SPHE), and Mathematics. This good work is to be highly commended.
There is very good support for the teachers’ continuing professional development. The professional development in which the teachers have engaged is directly relevant to their subject area and to maximising their students’ learning. It is significant and commendable that a recurring feature of the in-service courses that the teachers have undertaken has been a focus on differentiation and how to provide an appropriate education for all students. This focus lies at the heart of the professional approach of the teachers whose lessons were evaluated.
There is a very high quality of provision for students with special educational needs and for students for whom English is an additional language (EAL). The planning documentation that was viewed during the inspection provided ample evidence of this provision and of the good work done by the science teachers in supporting students with special education needs and EAL students. Of particular note were the resources provided in the plan and the details of each student and their individual learning needs.
There are appropriate structures in place to support subject planning in this school. These structures include frequent formal meetings of the teachers and the keeping of minutes of these meetings. It is good practice that the role of subject co-ordinator is rotated among the teachers annually as this allows each teacher to experience responsibility for the co-ordination of the department. An interview with the science teachers and an analysis of the minutes of science meetings showed that the teachers work well together in a mutually supportive, collaborative and collegial manner.
The planning documentation consisting of a subject plan for Science and a subject plan for Chemistry was of the highest quality. It was comprehensive, considerable thought and care had been taken in compiling the plans and the plans beneficially informed teaching and learning. The plans are evaluated and reviewed annually and this is to be commended as good practice.
Planning for each lesson that was observed was of the highest standard. All requisite materials had been prepared in advance and a range of resources had been prepared by each teacher and were wholly appropriate to the lesson being taught. The teachers showed a very high level of subject matter expertise and they dealt expertly with all questions that arose during the lessons.
There was very good classroom management during each lesson that was observed. The learning activities were competently directed by the teacher. The lessons were paced to match students’ abilities. In all lessons the teacher moved among the students and provided individual help to them. This focus on striving to maximise each student’s learning is to be commended.
A variety of teaching methodologies was well used in all lessons. It was significant that active learning methods played a part in each lesson. The range of methodologies included the use of drama, student polls, pair work, group work, the use of ICT, questioning, written exercises, experimental work and teacher-led exposition and explanation.
Every lesson placed an emphasis on ensuring that the students were familiar with the scientific terminology being used. The teachers described the range of strategies that they use with class groups and they include keyword sheets, use of pictures, use of dictionaries, lists of words that have been translated into a wide variety of different languages, and seating and pairing arrangements to support students with EAL needs.
Questioning was used well in all lessons. Best practice was noted where a question was posed, time was allowed for the students to consider their answers and then named students were asked to respond to the question. In addition, lessons included a variety of higher-order and lower-order questions and this is to be encouraged as good practice.
In instances where mathematical calculations were part of the topic the teacher showed clearly on the board how the figures for each step were generated. The students were encouraged to supply their figures and so the calculations were immediately relevant to the work that they had undertaken.
Where experimental work was undertaken, safety was appropriately emphasised and appropriate safety and protective equipment was used. The students worked well in their groups and they showed good levels of competence in undertaking the practical work.
Where a topic was taught to a class of students from the Gaelcholáiste, Irish was the sole medium of instruction and communication throughout the entire lesson. This approach to using Irish as the sole medium of communication and not having recourse to English for explanations is good practice. The students generally showed very good competence in communicating through Irish.
It was clear that among some class groups there was a particularly wide range of learning needs. The teachers worked diligently to ensure that each student learned as much as possible during each lesson. In particular, the teachers frequently repeated and reinforced the subject matter that they had taught. Best practice was noted where the lessons finished with a plenary session or recap on the key learning points.
There was a very good atmosphere and a positive learning environment prevailed in all of the lessons that were visited. The students were addressed by name and they were respectful of their teachers. There were high standards of behaviour in all the lessons that were observed.
Observation by the inspector showed that the students were attentive and engaged in their learning throughout the lessons. Interaction between the inspector and the students showed that they, relative to the variety of abilities in each class group, had satisfactory knowledge and understanding of the topics under study.
There are appropriate assessment arrangements in place for Science and for Chemistry in this school. The students’ progress is assessed regularly and reports are sent home periodically. The science teachers allocate a proportion of marks in the end-of-term reports for the performance and write-up of practical work. The teachers are also at the initial stages of developing differentiated assessments and this good practice is to be encouraged.
There are satisfactory systems in place to ensure communication between the school and parents. An example of good practice that was noted during the inspection was where postcards are sent home frequently to parents to inform them of their child’s successes in class.
The science staff analyses students’ results in the State examinations and the results of this analysis are used to inform subject planning. This is good practice. An issue concerning the numbers of students taking the higher level when compared with the numbers taking the ordinary level in Science became evident to the science teachers following their analysis of the State examination statistics. An example of the success that the science teachers have enjoyed is that they have succeeded in increasing the number of students taking the higher level in Science and this is to be commended.
A sample of students’ homework copybooks, experimental copybooks, homework journals, and notes copybooks were viewed. These showed that homework is assigned regularly and is monitored by the teachers. Good practice was noted where the teachers provided comments on students’ work on how they might improve their work. The amount of experimental work that students had completed was satisfactory in all instances and in some instances a very extensive amount of experimental work had been undertaken by the students, relative to their year group and the point in the year at which the inspection occurred.
The planning documentation that was viewed showed that the science teachers are reflective about their practices and proactive in striving to improve the quality of teaching and learning. To this end, they have identified a number of areas on which they will focus for the current academic year. Fundamental to these areas is their agreement to prioritise the development of more diverse modes and types of assessment and to increase the opportunities for qualitative feedback and skills assessment. This inspector concurs with the teachers’ view that this should be the main area of focus for subject planning for the current academic year.
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 Chemistry and with the principal and deputy principal at the conclusion of the evaluation when the draft findings and recommendations of the evaluation were presented and discussed.
Published, March 2010