An Roinn Oideachais agus Eolaíochta
Department of Education and Science
Subject Inspection of Religious Education
St Mary’s Diocesan School
Roll number: 63841E
Date of inspection: 07 May 2009
Report on the Quality of Learning and Teaching in Religious Education
Subject inspection report
has been written following a subject inspection in St Mary’s
Subject provision and whole school support
Class groups are formed in two bands in junior cycle. Students in the first band are prepared for certificate examinations at higher level across the range of subjects, including RE. The second band comprises mixed-ability class groups which are set for English, Irish, Mathematics and Science. RE is taught to students in their mixed-ability ‘home room’ groups in this band. A significant minority of students in these class groups take the higher level course. In the school generally however, participation in certificate examinations in Religious Education at the higher level is below the national average. It is suggested that consideration should be given by the school to how best to promote study of the subject at higher level. Three lesson periods per week are allocated to the subject in each of the three years of junior cycle. This is in keeping with NCCA recommendations and lessons are distributed well across the timetable.
There is good support for the subject in the school. The core team comprises four teachers each of whom has a specialist qualification in the subject. Other teachers who are deployed to teach the subject from time to time are supported by regular meetings of the religious education department. Resources available include audio-visual equipment and recently, data projectors were installed in two of the classrooms used for RE. A number of resources, including sets of textbooks, DVDs and videos, have been acquired for the religious education department and these have been catalogued in the subject department plan. The school also subscribes to An Tobar, the resource library of the Marino Institute. Any other resources are provided to teachers on request, as funds are available.
School management is committed to encouraging and facilitating the continuing professional development of the RE teaching team. Teachers have benefited from school visits from the Religious Education Support Service and attendance of meetings organised by the local diocesan advisor for religious education.
Planning and preparation
While no formal meeting time has been allocated for subject department meetings, the religious education teachers meet regularly, in their own time, to plan and review their work. They nominate a member of the department to act as subject co-ordinator each year. The commitment to and interest in the subject which this indicates is acknowledged here. Meetings are conducted according to agreed agenda. Minutes of the discussions held are maintained in the subject folder and they provide a very good record of the work of the department, dating back to 2004. Given the value of these meetings, particularly in relation to the quality of the subject plan which has resulted, it is suggested that the school should explore how formal time for subject planning can be provided, perhaps coinciding with school planning events.
A very good curriculum plan for the organisation of teaching and learning in RE has been developed, using the template provided by the School Development Planning Initiative (SDPI). The programme for RE in junior cycle is appropriately rooted in the NCCA syllabus documents and in the school’s mission statement. The syllabus outcomes for each section of the course have been expressed as learning outcomes, identifying behaviour, skills and attitudes as well as the knowledge and information to be acquired by students. This approach is a significant strength of the religious education plan in this school. The plan also takes account of the particular needs of students with special educational needs. The textbooks used have been chosen specifically with their needs in mind. The religious education teachers also implement the ‘green card’ merit system which is in place in the school to improve students’ motivation and to reward their efforts.
No schemes of work for each year of the programme were available at the time of the evaluation. In their absence, it is not clear how the resources available to the department and the methodologies listed in the planning documentation are used to support implementation of the curriculum plan. In that context, it is recommended that schemes should be drawn up and included in the subject folder. These schemes should provide information on teaching and learning methods as well as possible resources, homework tasks and opportunities for assessment, linked with the learning outcomes identified in the curriculum plan.
Classroom observation suggested that similar elements of the course are covered in all class groups within each year group. Common schemes of work are recommended for each year in order to ensure consistency of learning experience for students, to support those teachers who are not subject specialists and to direct the work of substitute teachers.
Religious education department activities include a number of teacher-led retreats and the celebration of key moments during the school year. The religious education teachers are supported in this work by the school chaplain.
Teaching and learning
There was clear evidence of effective planning and preparation by individual teachers for all of the lessons observed. The purpose of each lesson was clearly established in all of the classrooms visited. Very good practice was evident in those lessons where the learning objective was shared with students at the beginning of the lesson and re-visited at its conclusion to sum up what had been learned. This was particularly effective in a lesson on ‘pilgrimage’ with a mixed-ability class group. The learning outcomes for the lesson had been written on the whiteboard prior to the commencement of the lesson. As students worked through a handout used to develop the lesson, there was a clear link between the tasks set and the learning outcomes identified. The teacher encouraged students to think through their responses to the questions asked on the handout and provided time for this in the lesson plan. As the lesson closed, the opportunity was taken to check that all students had achieved the learning intended before the work of the next lesson was briefly introduced.
A strength of the teaching observed in the four classrooms visited was the emphasis placed by each teacher on the students’ own experiences. These were used in a variety of ways, for example, to provide examples of an experience or to prompt thinking on a related topic. In a lesson on the resurrection accounts, students shared with each other their own experiences of change. This led to a deeper discussion of the reactions of the resurrection witnesses. In another lesson, students brought pictures and their own stories of visits to places of pilgrimage into the classroom. In each case, this focus on students’ lived experience extended the conceptual framework out of which they were thinking in the classroom.
It was evident that the religious education teaching team employs a range of strategies to stimulate students’ interest and participation in class. Opportunities for students to work co-operatively in pairs were provided in two lessons. In both cases, the tasks set were clearly defined and achievable in the time allocated. In another lesson, students worked on developing newspaper accounts of a scripture event, supported by displays of similar accounts in the classroom. Here, the teacher circulated to offer help and encouragement. A PowerPoint presentation captured the attention of another class and the slides were used to model how the students should organise their own notes. In this lesson, role-play allowed students to interview one another on the topic. This exercise was particularly useful as an indicator of students’ understanding and helped the teacher identify areas for re-visiting in the next lesson.
The effectiveness of these strategies in engaging students was evident and they were enthusiastic contributors to classroom discussion. In some instances, however, the number of activities planned meant that the pace of the lesson was a little too hurried. Care should be taken to ensure a balance between stimulation and reflection so that there is always adequate time for the class group to work through the questions which students themselves pose. At times, teachers tended to be overly supportive in that they provided explanations and commentaries on learning activities too readily. It is recommended that students should be required to do a little more work themselves in class. Greater differentiation of tasks, particularly in the mixed-ability class groups, would allow more encouragement of better-able students to develop their ideas and support their arguments. A similar approach should be taken with their homework activities, so that they are sufficiently challenged.
An examination of students’ religious education copies and notebooks indicated good evidence of progression in the quality of the work completed by them. In many copybooks, however, the homework set was determined by the textbook rather than functioning as an extension of the work being done in class. As a result, short-answer work dominated in those copies, interspersed with dictated and transcribed notes. These exercises provide limited opportunities for students to give their personal views, supported by reasons and examples and to compare or to make a connection between ideas. To address this, it is recommended that the religious education teachers should set a range of writing tasks, for completion both in class and as homework, which require students to go beyond recalling what was learned in class. Extension exercises such as debating, evaluating, comparing and contrasting, and analysing should be considered. Encouragement should be given to students to make appropriate use of the religious and philosophical vocabulary appropriate to the subject at their level.
A very good working atmosphere was established in all classrooms visited and students engaged easily with the learning tasks set for them. Teachers’ knowledge of their students ensured that they were able to anticipate and deal with any potential difficulties in understanding the lesson material before they became a problem for students. Students and teachers were mutually respectful and lessons proceeded without interruption.
Information on the assessment of students’ learning in RE was gathered from the department planning documentation and examination of students’ copies. The curriculum plan indicates an understanding of homework as a reinforcement of work done in class. To that end, homework is regularly set. Oral work in class and regular class tests on completion of a unit of work are also identified in the plan as assessment modes. Observation of lessons indicated that, as planned, good use is made by teachers of in-class questioning and discussion to check students’ recall and understanding of the topics being studied. Records of class tests were not presented during the evaluation. However, it was clear from student copies that the work done by them is generally of a good standard. The religious education teachers have communicated expectations about how work should be presented and the majority of notebooks were well organised.
Students’ written work is acknowledged, in the majority of copies examined, by ‘tick’ marking accompanied by a general comment, such as ‘good’ or ‘well done’. It is recommended that more detailed, developmental, feedback which both identifies areas for development and affirms the work done should be provided from time to time to balance this. The teachers of RE should consider sharing the criteria for success with students when assigning extension exercises as recommended in the previous section of this report. Similarly, the recently published Chief Examiner’s Report, available on www.examinations.ie provides good feedback which should be shared with examination classes. In the context of planning for the subject, it is suggested that planning should be informed by regular review of trends in students’ participation in the subject at higher level, with a view to improving uptake. Achievement at both higher and ordinary levels is good in relation to national norms.
Summative assessment tests in RE are held at Christmas for each year in junior cycle. Formal tests are also held for first-year and second-year students at the end of the summer term. Common papers are set for these tests, where appropriate. This good practice allows the teachers to monitor students’ progress across each year group. Third-year students sit a ‘mock’ examination during the spring term. In addition to parent-teacher meetings which are held annually, parents are kept informed of students’ progress through a variety of means. These include the ‘green card’ merit system, the students’ journals, and academic progress reports which issue twice during the year.
Summary of main findings and recommendations
The following are the main strengths identified in the evaluation:
· Resourcing for Religious Education in the school is very good.
· The religious education teaching team meets regularly to share their expertise and subject knowledge. Good records of their discussions are maintained.
· A very good curriculum plan for Religious Education has been developed. A particular strength of the plan is the identification of clear learning outcomes for each section of the course.
· Teachers of Religious Education are aware of students with special educational needs (SEN) and the curriculum plan takes account of their particular needs.
· There was clear evidence of effective planning and preparation by individual teachers for all of the lessons observed.
· The religious education teaching team employs a range of strategies to stimulate students’ interest and participation in class. A strength of the teaching observed in the four classrooms visited was the emphasis placed by each teacher on the students’ own experiences.
· Homework was regularly set and there was evidence of progression in the quality of the work completed over time.
· Parents are kept informed of their son’s progress through a variety of means, including the school’s ‘green card’ merit system and academic progress reports.
As a means of building on these strengths and to address areas for development, the following key recommendations are made:
· Schemes of work should be drawn up for each year of the course. These should be included in the subject folder.
· Greater differentiation of the way the course is both taught and assessed is recommended so that better-able students can achieve appropriately.
· More detailed, developmental, feedback on written work should be provided to students.
A post-evaluation meeting was held with the principal at the conclusion of the evaluation when the draft findings and recommendations of the evaluation were presented and discussed.
Published November 2009