An Roinn Oideachais agus Eolaíochta

 

Department of Education and Science

 

Subject Inspection of Science Biology and Physics

REPORT

 

Gorey Community School

Gorey, County Wexford

Roll number: 91492N

 

Date of inspection: 22 March 2007

Date of issue of report: 6 December 2007

 

 

Subject inspection report

Subject provision and whole school support

Planning and preparation

Teaching and learning

Assessment

Summary of main findings and recommendations

 

 

 

Report on the Quality of Learning and Teaching in Science, Biology and Physics

 

Subject inspection report

 

This report has been written following a subject inspection in Gorey Community School. It presents the findings of an evaluation of the quality of teaching and learning in Science, Biology and Physics and makes recommendations for the further development of the teaching of these subjects in the school. The evaluation was conducted over four days during which the inspectors visited classrooms and observed teaching and learning. The inspectors interacted with students and teachers, examined students’ work, and had discussions with the teachers. The inspectors reviewed school planning documentation and teachers’ written preparation. Following the evaluation visit, the inspectors provided oral feedback on the outcomes of the evaluation to the principal and a number of subject teachers.

 

Subject provision and whole school support

 

Science subjects feature in every curricular programme offered in Gorey Community School and this is highly commended. Four science subjects, Biology, Physics, Chemistry and Agricultural Science are available as subjects for Leaving Certificate. There are thirteen class groups in each year of junior cycle, including two special needs class groups. Science is not a core subject for all students of Junior Certificate, but all first-year students study Science and the numbers choosing the subject in second year are very high at ninety-five percent. Science, however, is a core subject for the special educational needs and Junior Certificate School Programme (JCSP) class groups and such support for Science at this level is to be highly commended. Science is provided as an optional subject during Transition Year (TY) programme for which approximately one third of students choose the subject. Science is an elective subject for students taking the Leaving Certificate Applied (LCA) and they are currently studying the Health module and the Food module. The Agriculture/Horticulture option has been provided as a vocational specialism for the LCA in previous years and remains a viable option for the future.

 

Students have a free choice of all subjects for Leaving Certificate and this is commended. In general, five class groups of Biology, two class groups of Physics, two class groups of Agricultural Science and one class group of Chemistry are timetabled for Leaving Certificate every year. Biology is the most popular Leaving Certificate subject of the sciences with good uptake. Numbers choosing Agricultural Science is also quite good. Due to the popularity of both Biology and Agricultural Science the numbers choosing Physics and Chemistry are smaller, and there is especially poor uptake by girls for these subjects. It is recommended that the science department devise strategies in their science plan to increase the uptake of both Physics and Chemistry in the school, particularly amongst girls. Measures that could be taken involve placing increased emphasis on the promotion of these subjects to third-year students, the promotion of Physics and Chemistry as viable options for Leaving Certificate at the parents’ information evening on senior cycle choices and the revision of the TY Science programme to include additional innovative topics in both Physics and Chemistry. 

 

Class size in the sciences is moderated so that a maximum of twenty-four students are placed in any class group for both junior and senior cycle and this is commended. In general most class groups contain just under twenty-four students with smaller numbers in the special needs groups and the LCA group. Because Science is placed in option blocks for second and third year, students usually change teacher from first to second year. Otherwise class groups retain the same teacher as they progress through a particular course and this is best practice.

 

Except for the two special needs class groups in each year of junior cycle, class groups are arranged on a mixed-ability basis, in both junior and senior cycle. An element of banding is applied in Leaving Certificate Biology, where four of the five class groups are blocked in pairs on the school timetable. This allows the formation of two higher-level groups and two more ordinary-level groups with one stand-alone mixed-ability group. Students from the blocked groups are placed in these bands as an outcome of an assessment held during November of fifth year. However, by sixth year both higher and ordinary-level students still emerge in each group and both levels of the syllabus are taught to each group. The mixed ability system of organising class groups combined with some element of banding was found to be working very well in this school with teachers adjusting to the range of abilities in each group.

 

With the notable exception of first year, the time allocated to the subjects on the school timetable meets syllabus requirements. All biology and physics class groups are scheduled to have five class periods per week including one double period. Second and third-year science classes are scheduled four periods per week including one double period. First-year class groups, however, are only timetabled for three single class periods per week for Science. Timetabling in first year, therefore, is one period per week shorter than syllabus recommendations. In addition, the absence of a double lesson period during this year impacts directly on the implementation of the Science syllabus as the course is activity-based in its design and emphasises practical experience of Science for the student. This presents particular challenges for teachers who are implementing the curriculum, and in particular prescribed practical activities, within a shorter time frame and without a double lesson period. It is recommended, therefore, that this be revised by management so that four class periods per week to include one double period is provided in first year.

 

There are fifteen teachers of the sciences in this school and deployment of these teachers is very good. The majority of teachers teach a combination of junior Science and one or more senior cycle class group, from TY, LCA or Leaving Certificate according to their subject specialism. All teachers have attended recent inservice training in the revised syllabuses. Some teachers are currently undertaking an on-line safety course provided by the Junior Science Support Service and this is highly commended.

 

There are six laboratories in the school, all of which are resourced for teaching and learning in junior Science and one or more senior cycle science subject. In addition, two demonstration rooms have been converted into science classrooms but these are unsuitable for conducting most of the prescribed student practical activities. There is substantial strain on laboratory facilities in this school as they are used by fifteen teachers and a considerable number of class groups. Not all class groups are allocated access on the school’s formal timetable to a laboratory for one double lesson period per week and this is most unsatisfactory as each science syllabus prescribes the completion of practical work by students. Members of the science department co-ordinate to draw up a laboratory access timetable among themselves and this is commended. Priority is given to access for double lessons and to senior cycle subjects. However, the issue cannot be fully resolved as often more than six class groups are timetabled for science classes at the same time. Often class groups have to make individual arrangements such as alternating laboratory access every second week. School management and the science department have long identified the need for additional laboratories in the school. It is recommended that management would continue to actively pursue the allocation of additional laboratories to ensure better provision of facilities for teaching and learning in the sciences. Management have secured finance and approval from the Department of Education and Science for the refurbishment of the laboratories over the summer break and this will go some way to improving services for teaching and learning in the sciences.

 

The six laboratories are situated in four dispersed locations throughout the large school building; there are two pairs of laboratories with shared preparation areas and two other laboratories in distinct locations, each with individual preparation areas. This disjointed layout of the laboratories means that a full set of resources for Science has to be present in four areas and this puts considerable strain on the science department’s budget. This is further exasperated by the fact that the same Leaving Certificate science subject is often taught in disjointed laboratories placing further strain on the acquisition of resources for practical work. It is therefore suggested that in an effort to resolve this, that the laboratories would be re-designated for Leaving Certificate subjects so that resources can be more efficiently shared.

 

Due to space constraints in the whole school laboratories sometimes have to be used for teaching other subjects and by other teachers. This is an unsatisfactory risk to specialist resources and also has implications for access by teachers to undertake preparation work. This situation should be phased out and discontinued as new classrooms become available in the school.

 

Six of the fifteen science teachers are timetabled almost continually in a laboratory each. This system has distinct advantages in terms of that teacher being effectively responsible for the management of both equipment and facilities in that laboratory, but it is very disadvantageous to the other nine science teachers who are continually moving between laboratories to teach their lessons. Teachers, however, are accepting of the system. The teachers who move between laboratories make every effort to familiarise themselves with the location of the resources for practical work in each laboratory and are to be commended for their flexibility.  As a means of alleviating the situation, it is suggested that the resource box system, used in some laboratories, would be extended upon and that better signage would be developed for the storage presses.

 

Management provides an annual budget to the science department for restocking and the purchase of laboratory materials. A common order book is in use for all science subjects. The system in place for the sourcing and management of laboratory equipment appears to be working very well and ample resources for the completion of student practical work are readily available in each laboratory. The preparation rooms and chemical stores are all very well-organised and this is commended. In some areas a valuable resource box system is in use for certain practicals allowing quick and easy access to materials.  The school received a grant from the Department of Education and Science for the purchase of materials for the implementation of the revised science syllabus. This has been fully utilised. Overall, it is found that procedures for the ordering of materials could be made more cohesive and this is also recognised by the science department.

 

All laboratories are fitted with a modern white board and overhead projectors. Audiovisual facilities are also readily available and sometimes permanently fitted. The addition of blinds is necessary however. A central stock of science videos, DVDs and books is available in the teachers’ work room. It is recommended that all audio-visual resources would be catalogued and listed in the planning documents for each class group next to the relevant topic.

 

There is at least one desktop computer in each laboratory, all of which are networked. Other information and communication technology (ICT) equipment available to support teaching and learning in the sciences include, one fixed and one portable data projector, datalogging equipment and one interactive white board. The board of management supports a valuable scheme whereby teachers can purchase laptop computers at a reduced rate. Many science teachers have availed of this scheme and there was some evidence during the inspection of the commendable use of ICT presentations. Many teachers indicated an awareness of ICT applications available on the websites of the support services. However, there is much scope for the development in this area and in particular the full utilisation of the network facility. ICT use is often limited by the necessity for a data projector. Overall, it is recommended that both the ICT facilities and the ICT resources would be enhanced on an ongoing basis. Where teachers have sourced or developed ICT applications for a particular topic, these should be catalogued, placed in a shared file on the network and listed in the planning documents as available resources for each topic. Furthermore, training for members of the science department is recommended in the utilisation of ICT for lesson preparation and the integration of ICT into some teaching and learning activities.

 

Good attention is paid to matters of health and safety. Much time and work has been invested in this area by teachers of late and this was evident. Proper safety equipment, safety signage and emergency shut-off facilities are present in each laboratory. Each preparation area contains a separate locked chemical store and chemicals are stored in colour-coded sections. The Health and Safety statement was reviewed this year and science teachers can make an input into safety reviews. However, some issues remain, particularly in relation to ventilation in the chemical stores and these should be rectified through the Summer Works Scheme.

Planning and preparation

 

School development planning (SDP) has developed to curricular areas including Science. The focus for this year is to place particular emphasis on teaching and learning in all subject areas. Formal Science department meetings take place four to five times per year and are held during staff meetings. It is reported that minutes are recorded and are relayed to senior management. In addition informal meetings take place at lunchtime when necessary. The commitment of Science teachers to co-operative planning is commended.

 

One member of the science department acts as co-ordinator for a term of approximately tree years. Science co-ordination duties include dissemination of information to the science department, organising and chairing meetings, collating information and liaising with the principal. These duties are carried out very effectively and with obvious commitment.

 

There is a very good and well-thought-out subject plan for Science in place. The mission statement for Science aims at “making the learning of Science interesting and relevant with ‘hands on’ experience, fostering an independent and safe learning environment.” This is highly commended. The comprehensive science plan focuses on many areas including continuous professional development (CPD), record keeping, resources, cross-curricular planning, health and safety, special needs, cultural diversity and assessment. It is very commendable that the plan focuses on department self-evaluation and draws up many action plans for the way forward for Science in the school. There is scope for further development of this plan to include procedures for sharing best practice following courses attended, to monitor uptake and gender balance of senior science subjects and to set out a realistic timeframe to fulfil the action plans proposed.

 

An agreed programme of work for all first-year class groups has been drawn up by the science department and this is commended. Progress with the programme is monitored by the co-ordinator and is re-evaluated by the science department annually. It is recommended that this common planning work would be advanced to second year and third year.

 

Written plans have also been developed for each senior cycle science subject. In many cases, the agreed subject plan had been developed to detail both topics and practicals to be covered on a term by term basis, leaving sufficient time for revision. It is recommended that the practice of formulating term plans should be applied for every class group. In addition, there is a need for re-evaluation of the plans to include information on assessment, resources and methodologies. Senior cycle subject teachers need to meet as a group to plan the way forward and to re-evaluate their planning.

 

A TY science plan is included in the senior science planning document and those teaching TY have individual module plans in place. It is recommended that a re-evaluation of TY planning be carried out by the whole science department. Consideration should be given to rotation of subject specialist teachers within the programme and planning for the use of innovative methodologies. In an effort to increase uptake of the physical sciences in senior cycle consideration should be given to providing a compulsory Science module for all TY students. The work of the teachers in developing junior cycle, TY and senior cycle plans is commended.

 

There was generally very good planning in advance of lessons observed with lesson content well-thought-out. Resources and equipment were generally set up in advance and this lead to the smooth flow of the lesson and to successful learning outcomes.

 

Teaching and learning

 

Teaching and learning were generally of a high quality with a good atmosphere of learning prevailing. A very good rapport existed in the majority of lessons. There was good participation by students in the vast majority of lessons and students showed a keen interest in the lesson content. Individuals were generally well supported and their work was constantly affirmed. All classes are arranged on a mixed-ability basis and this range of abilities was evident in each class visited. Teachers demonstrated good awareness of their students’ individual capabilities

 

In general, a pleasant and secure atmosphere was successfully generated in lessons visited, providing an environment suitable for learning. There were some excellent examples of warm, business-like and enthusiastic approach to lessons which students clearly appreciated and they were seen to respond well in this setting.

 

Lessons were in general well prepared and planned and had a clear structure. In some cases lesson plans were clearly documented and students were made aware of the lesson objectives at the outset. In some cases it is recommended that improved preparation and planning takes place so that focused teaching and learning can take place from the beginning of the lesson.

 

Effective methodologies were used in most lessons observed. These included effective use of the whiteboard to focus students’ attention on key words and concepts and teachers circulating the classroom giving help and support to individuals and groups. Good use of ICT was observed in many lessons. There was an example where a CD with animation was used as an aid to teaching specific latent heat of fusion. In a further example the interactive whiteboard was used to collate and graph data supplied by students having completed a mechanics experiment on measuring the acceleration due to gravity. However, it is recommended that teachers across the Science department explore further uses of ICT to enhance their teaching. In some lessons, use of more varied methodologies including the overhead projector (OHP) and worksheets would have enhanced the learning experience. Pre-prepared OHP slides would have freed up the teacher to circulate and worksheets would have focused and consolidated learning.

 

Students were observed to be very orderly in moving around the school and in getting to class on time. Students were generally attentive and very well behaved during their lessons but there were a small number of notable exceptions. Classroom management was generally very good and students worked diligently and with motivation in the vast majority of lessons. However, in some cases, group work rather than traditional whole class teaching would have worked better. In addition, it was found in a small number of circumstances that groups need to be more carefully selected so that an atmosphere of learning can prevail without disruption.

 

Effective use was made of questioning in many lessons.  Recall questions were used effectively at the beginning of lessons and gave a sense of continuity with previously learned material. Students were well challenged during many lessons. There was some particular examples of very effective discussions generated during lessons; including a discussion on possible errors during a physics lesson and a discussion on convection currents during a science lesson. Many teachers used questions to stimulate interest and motivation in the class material. General class questions were used to good effect. However, in some cases, in an effort to improve participation by all students more directed questions at named students would have been more effective.  It is recommended that this approach be used at appropriate times.

 

Many lessons were based on investigative practical activities. In practical lessons, the methodologies employed reflected the aims of the relevant syllabus and student skill development was effectively promoted. The students displayed very good laboratory skills and worked well in their groups discussing the method and the outcomes of the investigation. Students carefully set up apparatus under clear teacher instructions and health and safety procedures were emphasised. Good safety procedures were in place in most lessons, however the use of safety glasses and laboratory coats or aprons is recommended for some investigations. Students generally worked in small groups and all participated in the activities. However, where this was not the case it is recommended that groups of no more than three work together so that all can get ‘hands on’ experience as expressed in the Science department mission statement. In some lessons selected experiments were revised, for example during a Physics lesson, students investigated the specific heat capacity of water and the specific latent heat of vaporisation. The theory was discussed in advance and students concentrated on problem solving at the conclusion of this well-structured lesson. A rota of simple experiments was used effectively during a lesson observed on the theme of energy conversions. Students worked with enthusiasm and clearly enjoyed the investigative practical experience.

 

It is very commendable that science students with special needs are taught by science teachers with experience of learning support. There was an example where students were filling out their pro-forma booklets for Junior Certificate Coursework B. Clear explanatory sheets were distributed and the worksheets from the investigation of the previous day aided students in completing their work. Learning was purposeful and students were challenged to reach their potential. This is commended.

 

There was evidence of good learning in this school. Students were capable in accurately answering questions put to them during the inspection and they demonstrated a sound understanding of previously learned topics. Responses from students were knowledgeable and concepts, which some students may have found difficult, were explained clearly. Some students had to be prompted when questioned and there was clearly a wide range of abilities present in each class group but overall the mixed ability system was found to be working very well with the whole class group moving forward effectively with the topic being learned.

 

The uptake of higher-level Science, Biology and Physics is very good. Student outcomes in terms of knowledge and skills are very good as evidenced by answers to questions posed in the course of this evaluation. Students were generally confident at answering questions on their work during the lessons observed. 

Assessment

 

It is very commendable that the Science department has developed its own homework policy. Homework was generally completed to a good standard and was assigned during many lessons observed. Students recorded their assigned work in their journals. It was noteworthy that journals were generally signed by parents and used effectively by students.

 

Examinations are held for first, second and fifth-year students at Christmas and summer. It is commendable that common examinations are given to first-year classes at Christmas and summer.  Certificate examination classes sit externally corrected ‘mock’ examinations in February. In addition there is ongoing assessment in the form of class tests and continuous assessment is a feature of TY. Questioning was used effectively in many lessons as a good and effective means of immediate assessment.

 

Examination results and school reports are available to all teachers on-line through the school’s e-portal.

 

Reports are sent to parents after the Christmas and summer examinations and following the ‘mock’ examinations. Parents may be requested to sign tests. There is a parent teacher meeting for each year group. In addition, on other occasions parents are contacted if required to discuss a student’s progress. The school operates good awards systems to acknowledge academic success. This is commended.

 

The school analyses Certificate examination statistics, compares them to national norms and supplies them to the Science department. As a consequence, the Science department looks at possibilities for improvement. This is commended.

 

Two Science learning support classes are formed in first year and are selected on the basis of information from primary schools and parents, psychological reports and entrance assessments. One of these groups follows the Junior Certificate School Programme (JCSP). Both groups sit Science at ordinary level in the Junior Certificate examination. It is reported that special needs assistants are sometimes assigned to these classes and team teaching takes place on occasions. This is commendable practice and shows very good support for students.

 

Good records of practical assignments were kept by most students. A practical manual made up of templates from the Junior Science Support Service (JSSS) material is currently being used in first-year and is working well. However, the mandatory investigations and experiments were recorded to a variable standard. Some teachers had provided annotated feedback and this good practice should be extended across the Science department. Regardless of this effort some students had incomplete diagrams, results and records of work. It is further recommended, in an effort to improve quality of work, that there is follow-up on corrections completed by students and that a portion of the marks allocated in school examinations be given to practical records and activities completed.

 

Teachers keep excellent records of student attendance for each lesson. Attendance for the majority of student is very good. However, there is a cohort of students in some class groups for whom attendance is patchy to poor.

 

Summary of main findings and recommendations

 

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 a number of the teachers of Science, Biology and Physics, together with the principal, at the conclusion of the evaluation when the draft findings and recommendations of the evaluation were presented and discussed.