An Roinn Oideachais agus Eolaíochta
Department of Education and Science
Subject Inspection of Home Economics
Mercy Heights Secondary School
Skibbereen, County Cork
Roll number: 62490T
Date of inspection: 22 October 2008
Report on the Quality of Learning and Teaching in SPHE
This report has been written following a subject inspection in Mercy Heights Secondary School, Skibbereen. It presents the findings of an evaluation of the quality of teaching and learning in Home Economics and makes recommendations for the further development of the teaching of this subject 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 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.
Home Economics is a very popular subject in Mercy Heights Secondary School. Uptake of the subject, both in junior and senior cycles, far exceeds national averages. The very healthy uptake levels at senior cycle can undeniably be attributed to students’ very favourable experience of the subject during junior cycle. The teachers deserve recognition and credit for such a positive finding. It is very commendable that boys from the neighbouring De La Salle school, are given the opportunity to study senior cycle Home Economics in Mercy Heights. In fact, in the current Transition Year (TY) and fifth-year home economics class groups, boys represent twenty-five percent of the numbers of students studying Home Economics for the Leaving Certificate. With the exception of first year, where all students study Home Economics, the subject is offered as an optional subject. The former is very highly praised for the exposure to Home Economics that it guarantees and for its value in terms of facilitating students to make informed subject choices.
Access to Home Economics in second and third year is somewhat compromised by the fact that students have to choose to study either Home Economics or Science. While currently this arrangement is not having an obviously negative impact on uptake levels in Home Economics, for other equally significant reasons it is strongly recommended that such an approach be reviewed. Such reappraisal is paramount, first and foremost in order to ensure equality of access for all students to both subjects and secondly, because of what the present arrangement incorrectly and negatively implies about Home Economics as a subject. Furthermore, it is recommended that the systems operating in junior cycle relative to subject choice, whereby students choose one subject from each of two, set blocks, be reviewed. It is strongly suggested that as part of this review, consideration is given to the adoption of the very favourable approach that is used in senior cycle, whereby students’ preferences determine the final formation of subject blocks. Home Economics students in Mercy Heights Secondary School are encouraged to aim for high academic standards, as evidenced by the large percentage of students opting for higher-level papers in the State examinations.
Timetabling of Home Economics is very favourable. The time allocated to the subject is consistent with syllabus requirements, with the provision of two double periods in first year and two double periods and one single period in third year deserving particular recognition. Timetabling is very accommodating of practical work, and students’ contact with the subject is nicely spread over the weekly timetable. Class size is also conducive to the safe and effective delivery of practical food-studies lessons. The deployment of staff for the teaching of Home Economics in the school is also consistent with best practice.
Home Economics is very well resourced. The school houses a fine home economics department which consists of two organised, well-maintained and appropriately equipped rooms, namely a home economics kitchen and a textiles room. The subject plan provides evidence of the acquisition of additional equipment on an annual basis. The subject department has devised a class contract which focuses on health and safety in the home economic kitchen. Both students and parents are requested to read and sign this contract. A very commendable feature of the contract is a series of ‘What If’ statements. These present a number of possible scenarios together with the appropriate student action. For example, ‘What if I forget my ingredients?’ and ‘What if the person I am working with is difficult to work with?’ This suggests a pastoral element to class organisation that is to be praised. The members of the home economics department have prepared a document which identifies hazards in the room together with precautions that either have been or need to be implemented, as well as procedures that are implemented on an ongoing basis when the room is operational. In essence this document is both a room audit and a heath and safety statement and it is suggested that they be separated. Audits, which identify presenting hazards should be completed on an annual basis, copied to management and filed in the subject plan. A health and safety statement should take the information provided in an audit and identify the level and type of risk attached to each identified hazard and the control measures, be they fixed or ongoing, that reduce the likelihood of a hazard occurring. Subject department documentation has identified that at certain times the floor in the home economics kitchen can be slippery, particularly on wet days. It is important therefore that, as relevant, students’ attention is drawn to this fact, and that appropriate signage is introduced on the days in question. If deemed necessary, the flooring may need to be replaced. Furthermore, it is recommended that management strongly considers the installation of a central cut-off switch for the electricity supply in the home economics kitchen.
On the subject department’s request, some class groups are, very commendably, provided with timetabled access to the school’s computer room. This level of provision by management is highly praised. In time, and budget permitting, the provision of a room-based data projector should be considered. The members of the subject department are asked to consider the contribution that this technology could make to delivery of practical food studies lessons, and therefore teaching and learning, in deciding where to situate this piece of technology.
The subject department engages in a very thorough monitoring and review of student outcomes in certificate examinations. The comprehensiveness of the approach that has been adopted is deserving of particular mention and recognition. Teachers are encouraged to focus on the cumulative percentage of students achieving a grade C or higher and compare that with national averages versus a sole focus on the percentage of students gaining, for example, A’s or B’s in comparison to national norms. Furthermore, another valuable exercise to include as part of this review process is the calculation of the percentage of students sitting higher level and ordinary level papers in the Junior and Leaving Certificate examinations. Management is very supportive of collaborative subject-department planning, as evidenced by the provision of formal time over the course of each school year to facilitate this work.
The professionalism, commitment and energy of the members of the home economics department in Mercy Heights Secondary School is very evident in the planning and preparation they engage in, both collaboratively as a subject department and individually as subject teachers. Department members work proactively in the best interest of Home Economics in the school. Evidence to support this very positive finding is located in the department’s planning documentation and more particularly in the records relating to teachers’ involvement in professional development activities, including the monitoring and correction of the various facets of the home economics State examinations.
In line with best practice, a subject co-ordinator is appointed on a rotational basis to oversee the planning work of the home economics department. That said it is very clear that a team approach, has been adopted in relation to this area of the department’s work. This is due, in the main, to the high levels of co-operation, collaboration and collegiality that exist amongst department members.
The home economics department has developed a very comprehensive home economics subject plan. It is commendable that, as part of this plan, the home economics department has identified, via a diagnostic window framework, what is working well and what is not working well in terms of Home Economics in the school. This has informed the department’s vision for the subject and therefore the areas for development. As an alternative approach to this very valuable exercise, a SCOT analysis, which allows for the identification of the subject’s strengths, the challenges for the subject, the opportunities for development and any possible threats to Home Economics is suggested for use. Furthermore, the members of the department are encouraged to prepare action plans for each identified area for development. These might identify, for example, relative to each area for development; specific aims, the actions required to achieve each aim, the time-scale for achievement of the identified aims, the personnel involved and the criteria against which the department’s work or progress in each identified area can be measured and evaluated.
Programmes of work have been agreed and drafted for each year group. Both the Junior Certificate and TY Programme plans are quite well developed. In addition to the topics to be covered on a term-by-term basis, they also identify the resources and methodologies that are utilised, as well as detail relating to key summative assessments, for example, Christmas and summer examinations. In time, these should be developed further to include details relating to homework, formative assessment and a comment or evaluation section for completion by teachers following each topic or lesson. In the review of these programmes of work the department is asked to consider the following; the apparent repetition in terms of content covered in, for example, the first and third year programmes of work, and the extent to which students are being given the opportunity to engage in practical food-studies work over the course of each year of the junior cycle. It is suggested that, to this end, the department members consider taking one small step backwards in terms of programme planning, in order to prepare and draft a very basic, outline programme of work for each of first, second and third year. This should seek to identify, very simply, the theory, practical food studies activities and textile work that are planned for each year group. In terms of this task, some of the key features of a good quality outline programme of work to consider are; that it is based on the syllabus as opposed to a text book; that it identifies, at a minimum, work to be completed on a term-by term basis; that it is coherent, ensuring a developmental approach to acquiring knowledge and skills; that it reflects the integrated approach recommended in the syllabus, including the integration of practical coursework and project work with the relevant theory; and that it is generated using the appropriate information communication technology (ICT). Furthermore, the design-brief approach is planned as a key feature of all practical coursework and project work from an early stage in junior cycle, of which, it has to be said, there was much evidence of in the home economics department in Mercy Heights Secondary School. This is highly praised. The department might also consider grounding the plans in a series of learning outcomes, which have been identified for each year of the junior cycle. The draft, rebalanced home economics syllabus, which is available on the website of the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment, may be of assistance in this regard. It can be accessed at www.ncca.ie. The detail provided in this paragraph should, as relevant, also influence the department’s approach to the further development of the programme plans for fifth-year and sixth-year home economic classes.
The TY programme of work, over and above the provision that has been made for the Safe Food programme and the international cookery module, draws heavily from both the Leaving Certificate home economics syllabus and the textbook that is in use in the school. The structure of the programme is also impacting on how the topics are being taught in the classroom. It is strongly recommended that the content of the TY programme be reviewed, together with the approach to teaching and learning in Home Economics in TY. With reference to the TY Guidelines for Schools, the home economics department needs to ensure that there is a clear distinction between the TY programme and the Leaving Certificate syllabus. Where Leaving Certificate material is chosen for study, it should be done so on the clear understanding that it is to be explored in an original and stimulating way that is significantly different from the way in which it would be treated in the two years to Leaving Certificate.
The key role played by the home economics department in the annual ‘Taste of West Cork’ competition, encapsulates the subject department’s positive attitude to the value of co-curricular and extracurricular planning relative to students’ experience of and learning in Home Economics. This vision, together with the energy and commitment it demands, is worthy of recognition and praise. The department’s significant involvement to this event, as well as in other activities planned and provided over the course of each school year, is applauded. The local community aspect to a number of the projects engaged in is also worthy of praise.
A good standard of teaching was observed over the course of the subject inspection and there was evidence of good-quality students’ learning.
The majority of lessons commenced with an examination of students’ learning from previous lessons. This, which is commended, was achieved in the main through oral questioning but also through the issuing and in-class correction of short, five-minute tests. All lessons were purposeful. Best practice was observed where the plan for each lesson was shared with students, together with the desired learning outcomes. This is encouraged in all lessons. In the main, lessons were consistent with the relevant planned programme of work. The drafting of an outline plan, as recommended in the previous section, should help to ensure this finding in all lessons, while at the same time providing room for moderate diversification in order to cater for the individual needs of different class groups. There was evidence of good quality short-term planning for lessons observed. A very impressive range of resources was utilised in the delivery of lesson content. This included lesson plans, food packages, food samples, handouts, marking schemes, posters, props designed to inspire students’ interest and curiosity at key junctures of lessons, revision exercises, pages from websites, the whiteboard, word searches and worksheets. Significant efforts were made by teachers to link new topics being explored with work previously covered and to plan information delivery in an integrated fashion. The latter, which is consistent with the approach espoused in the syllabuses, is very highly praised. In general, lessons were appropriately paced. In instances where this was not the case, pacing was affected only by the preparation of an over-ambitious lesson plan. This can be easily addressed at planning stages.
Teacher instruction was clear and accurate. The knowledge garnered through teachers’ experience as State examination examiners was very evident in their teaching, particularly in examination classes, with students being provided with excellent guidance in terms of exam technique, food-studies practical work and project and journal completion. Every effort was made to contextualise learning, thereby increasing the relevance of the subject or topic being explored for the students. To this end, the immediate locality, as well as the island of Ireland, was appropriately referenced on a regular basis. Directions provided for student activity were very comprehensive, ensuring full participation by students and therefore effective learning. Student activity was carefully monitored, with guidance, direction and support being provided to individual students and groups as required. This was evident both in theory and practical food-studies lessons. The teaching observed placed a strong emphasis on the key terminology and concepts relevant to topics being explored. In a lesson that focused on one of the food commodities, for example, particular emphasis was placed on important phrases such as classification, nutritive value and composition, which have a direct relevance to all food commodities that are studied in Home Economics. It is clear that teachers see this approach as pertinent to students’ general understanding and learning in Home Economics. This mindset, together with the associated approach to teaching, is to be commended. Students themselves demonstrated a good level of comprehension relative to subject-specific terminology and concepts. The use of mnemonics, designed to support students’ learning, was also evident. The introduction and utilisation of approaches such as mnemonics is very highly praised and therefore further encouraged.
Each lesson included a range of strategies. This is commended for the contribution it makes to the provision of an engaging lesson. Strategies utilised over the series of lessons observed included brainstorming, discussion, investigative learning, note-taking, pair and group work and worksheet completion. Some of the strategies utilised demanded the direct and hands-on involvement of students in their own learning. It is suggested that there is some scope for the greater use of these, more student-centred strategies. Teachers are asked to be more conscious of seeking to create a greater balance between teacher input and student input or activity in the planning of lessons and also, ultimately, in their delivery. It is suggested that the following two questions may help teachers to evaluate their performance in this regard. Firstly, what demands am I placing on my students in this lesson or in what ways am I involving students or facilitating their participation in classroom activity? Secondly, how will this lesson provide for each of the three main preferred learning styles, that is, auditory, visual and kinaesthetic. This consciousness and the associated action will also help to further vary lesson content and provide for an even more stimulating classroom environment for all students. Ultimately, it will also enhance students’ learning. Note-taking was a significant feature of a number of lessons. While note-taking as a strategy has some recognisable merits, it is now viewed as a relatively passive approach to study and learning. As a result, teachers are encouraged to explore the use of strategies that foster note-making skills in students, which is considered to be a more active approach to study. Techniques to explore include; sequential or linear note-making, pattern note-making or mind mapping, spider maps or spider grams, compare and contrast matrixes, highlighting, annotating and underlining, and summarising. The use of cleverly designed worksheets in class can provide a good basis for the development of this approach with students.
The use of questioning proved very effective in almost all lessons, particularly in terms of involving students in the lesson. Questioning was also used to examine previous learning, to check student understanding, as well as to challenge students to apply learned information to different scenarios and situations. The inclusion of the latter level and type of questioning is further encouraged as a means of developing students’ higher-order thinking skills. In some lessons, students demonstrated a reluctance or shyness in terms of answering questions. This may have something to do with the periodic tendency for teacher input or voice to predominate lesson content, as well as the inclination for teachers to tell rather than ask students, for example, what they learnt in a lesson or what they should now know. This resonates with the recommendation made in the previous paragraph about seeking to balance teacher and student input in lessons.
Practical, food-studies lessons were well organised. Students participated in a confident manner, demonstrating adherence to established systems and procedures. All credit is due to the teachers for both findings. Opportunities to introduce theory relevant to the task at hand could be utilised more fully in practical lessons. Classroom atmosphere was most positive. By and large, this can be attributed to the very positive teacher-student relations that were observed. Classrooms are enhanced by the display of students’ work, posters and photographic evidence of activities, for example, participation in competitions as well as local events, such as a flag-making project for the Special Olympics host town programme in 2003. This is commended on a number of levels.
A comprehensive range of assessment modes is utilised by the home economics teachers as a means of determining students’ progress and achievement in the subject. It is very commendable that the overall approach to assessment reflects the all encompassing approach that is espoused in the subject syllabuses. The issuing of an aggregate mark at key times during the school year is very highly commended. Such an approach, which takes account of students’ attainment and advancement relative to theory, practical, project or journal work, allows for the more accurate assessment of students’ actual achievement in relation to Home Economics. Internal examination papers reviewed reflect the layout and questioning style of past, state examination papers. This approach is encouraged for greater use at all levels and in all assessment situations, including in-class as well as house examinations. The practice of issuing common assessments to students of the same year group is well established in the home economics department. This too is very highly praised. State Examination marking schemes and criteria, together with the Chief Examiner’s Reports are thoroughly analysed for the valuable contribution that they can make to good practice relative to the assessment of students and to the preparation of students for assessment. Homework is assigned, monitored and corrected on a regular basis. There is some evidence of the annotation of students’ homework. This approach to the formative assessment of students’ work is further encouraged. Parents are well informed in relation to students’ progress and achievement through the organisation of parent-teacher meetings and the issuing of school reports.
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 Home Economics 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 2009