An Roinn Oideachais agus Eolaíochta
Department of Education and Science
Subject Inspection of Science and Biology
St Kieran’s College
College Road, Kilkenny
Roll number: 61560J
Date of inspection: 25 February 2009
This report has been written following a subject inspection in St Kieran’s College, conducted as part of a whole-school evaluation. 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 the 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 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 and subject teachers.
The timetable provision made for Science and Biology meets syllabus guidelines with a double period allocated to all groups. Science is timetabled for four class periods per week and Biology is timetabled for five class periods per week. Science is a core subject on the curriculum for all junior cycle students, contributing valuable support to the subject in both junior and senior cycle. Science is timetabled for one double lesson and one single lesson per week in Transition Year (TY). Here, a modular approach is taken to the programme through a half-year combined biology and agricultural science module and a half-year combined chemistry and physics module. This is good provision, allowing students to sample each science subject in TY before making choices for Leaving Certificate. Students are provided with an open choice of all subjects for Leaving Certificate and option blocks are formed annually based on a ‘best fit’ of student preferences. This is good practice. All four senior cycle science subjects are provided. In general, the college is able to provide three class groups of Biology, one class group for Agricultural Science and either one or two class groups for both Chemistry and Physics, within each year of senior cycle. Consistent trends found in the uptake of these subjects indicate the strong position held by the sciences on the curriculum in St Kieran’s College.
Most, but not all, of the double lessons in the sciences are conducted within one of the three available laboratories, and teachers must exchange rooms at times to facilitate practical work. The laboratories are used only by the science department. Laboratory access for all double lessons should continue to remain a priority when assembling the college timetable.
St Kieran’s College shares part of an adjacent building with the Kilkenny City Vocational School. The laboratories are located in this building. Each laboratory is in constant use by the college. The laboratories are sizeable with a good amount of modern resources for the subjects, including laboratory equipment for practical work. A high level of organisation of resources was noted within. The laboratories are fitted with good quality boards and proper safety equipment. Good safety signage is present. New flooring has recently been fitted. Some information and communications technology (ICT) equipment features, including laptop computers and projectors. A data projector is fixed in one of the laboratories and internet access is available throughout. Data-logging equipment is present. The learning environment within the laboratories is greatly enhanced with modern charts pertaining to the subjects and many displays of student projects. The enhancement of the learning environment in these ways is commended.
Some significant health and safety issues need attention. There is an overdue necessity to replace both the electrical and plumbing fittings within each laboratory. In addition, it was reported that the fume cupboards are not working. The shortcomings in these three key infrastructural items represent potential safety concerns. The same three issues were noted in a previous subject inspection report in 2004 and it is of concern that progress on these matters has not been achieved. It is reported that there has been ongoing communication between St Kieran’s College and Kilkenny City Vocational School to resolve the issue surrounding responsibility for action. The trustees of both schools are strongly urged to resolve the issues with a view to progress being made on an imminent application for refurbishment.
A safety statement has been drawn up for the college, including the laboratory area, and it was reported that this has been brought to the attention all staff. Given the safety concerns mentioned it may be advisable to revisit the safety statement with the whole staff.
Continuing professional development (CPD) is supported and teachers have been facilitated in attending in-service in the revised syllabuses. Whole-staff CPD has included training in ICT, assessment for learning (AfL), mixed-ability teaching and positive behaviour. These are valuable courses and the support from senior management for CPD is commended.
Budgetary requirements for the science department are communicated directly to senior management and a science teacher co-ordinates the purchase of necessary chemicals and equipment as part of a post of responsibility.
Structures to facilitate collaborative planning are in place. Subject-department planning is organised for the whole school once per term and the science department meets on these occasions as well as at other times during the school year. Planning is regular and focused. Agendas are set for the timetabled meetings. The principal sometimes attends meetings to address the department and issues dealt with have regularly included student attainment in the state examinations and the condition of the laboratories. Subject-department meetings focus on routine matters such as equipment, laboratory access and the subject plan, as well as items such as the sharing of successful methods and new resources for topics. This is commended. A separate meeting of the biology teachers also takes place. Subject planning is strongly supported by a subject co-ordinator and it is commendable that it has been decided to rotate this role. A two-year rotation is suggested, to allow each co-ordinator to become familiar with and then develop the role.
Collaborative subject plans for Science in junior cycle, TY Science and Biology in senior cycle have been drawn up. Plans are based on a template of the college’s design and set out details under headings that include curriculum content, resources, homework procedures and a commendable section on improvement strategies for the year. Individual teachers draw up more detailed complementary schemes of work. In further developing the department plans for Science and Biology, it is recommended that the layout of the plan be adjusted so that links can be established between teaching and learning methodologies, assessment procedures and the syllabus learning outcomes (Science) or syllabus topics (Biology). In addition, there is a need for a section in the plans on how to support students with additional education needs and reference should be made to the Department of Education and Science post-primary guidelines on Inclusion of Students with Special Educational Needs as well as the college’s learning-support department.
It was evident that the science department is self-evaluative and is constantly reviewing its practices to ensure the best for its students. In particular, for the past number of years, the college has set the aim of increasing the uptake of higher level as a key strategy within each of the subject plans. It is policy of the college to teach the higher-level syllabus and to encourage each student to take higher level in the subjects for as long as possible. There was evidence of this in all lessons visited and this is highly commended. Very good pace and progress is being achieved with the programme of work for each class group with proper time allocated for practical work, revision and assessments.
Preparation for individual lessons was thorough and well thought out. All lessons featured a structured beginning, middle and end. Worksheets and visual presentations were carefully considered to match the purpose of the lesson. Homework was planned in advance and questions from the text book and past papers were carefully selected to maximise learning at home on the topic. Materials for practical work were ready from the start of each lesson and this led to a seamless flow from activity to activity.
Many co-curricular activities in the sciences take place. Competitions are promoted on the science notice board and students are encouraged to enter according to their talents. Competitions include ‘Imaginate 2009’, ‘SciFest’ and the ‘Young Scientist and Technology Exhibition’. The school grounds are used to support learning in related topics, particularly ecology.
The quality of teaching and learning observed was mostly of a very high standard with an exceptionally high standard of learning evident among many students in all year groups, including those in the lower bands. Most lessons were structured with a view to covering a significant amount of work. The pace of the lesson was often brisk, therefore, but appropriate to the cohort of students in the group, with students demonstrating excellent focus during lessons. Students settled quickly at the start of each lesson and were always respectful, mature and willing to engage on all levels with an evident deep-rooted work ethic.
In all lessons, a variety of resources was used to support learning and the textbook was used only for reference and homework purposes. Learning was always contextualised for the student. Topics were presented in very interesting and stimulating ways. ICT was used in an integrated way in many lessons. Topics were often explained with the aid of well-chosen visuals and biological models as well as diagrams drawn on the board. Particularly good ICT graphics and animations were effectively used to support learning. PowerPoint slides were also used to summarise the key points of the focused topics.
The board was used effectively to map out key points, to reference homework and to record points made in class discussions. It was the pattern in all instances that students assiduously took down these notes from the board throughout the lessons without prompting, building excellent sets of notes on each topic in their hardback copies, within which the standard of presentation was always high.
An appropriate variety of teaching styles and methods was observed in most lessons with excellence noted in some instances. Teaching methods included direct instruction and question-and-answer sessions in the more traditional approaches, and facilitative methods that included practical work, problem-solving approaches and class discussions. Practical laboratory work is facilitated by all teachers on a weekly basis, which the students clearly expected and enjoyed.
The level of teachers’ questioning was appropriately demanding and was balanced by encouragement to students to actively engage in the lessons. Their level of engagement was exemplary in a number of instances and there was generally a good balance between teacher talk and student talk. Short questions were used to check understanding and recall, and questions were often used to prompt students to make links with prior learning and other topics in the course. Higher-order questions were also posed, and students felt confident in asking questions themselves. In some instances, however, there was a need for the teacher to ensure that all students were targeted, ideally when posing questions to ‘named’ students more frequently.
Practical work was highly organised, and students were supported in their work as the teachers circulated. Teachers focused on key aspects of the practical activity, selecting and emphasising particular elements prior to the students performing the activity. Teachers were careful not to reveal the outcome of the experiments and to encourage the students to make observations and draw their own conclusions. Students worked in groups of three or more and their practical skills were well developed. Due regard was given to safety procedures. It is recommended that the teachers employ greater use of an ‘investigative approach’ to practical work, where appropriate, but particularly for junior Science, and plan for adequate time for greater levels of students’ involvement in the planning and design phases of investigations. It is further recommended that teachers encourage students to employ greater autonomy in writing up laboratory records in order to develop their report-writing skills.
Classroom management was consistently good. Lessons were characterised by a commendable sense of high expectations with regard to both student behaviour and learning. Student outcomes in the state examinations for Science and Biology reflect these expectations with trends showing that a high proportion of students consistently take higher level in the subjects. Students presented as responsible learners with a strong interest in the subject and in learning.
Students’ progress was generally very well monitored during lessons through effective teacher circulation and individual interactions, although there was scope for the development of these important techniques in a few instances. Mostly, students were affirmed in their work regularly and appropriately, both through verbal remarks by the teacher and through corrections of the work in their copybooks.
Homework is generally allocated daily and students are required to study the material covered in the lesson with substantial written work allocated at times. Students complete their homework to a very high standard and some students make out additional notes on the day’s topic. There was evidence that students’ copybooks and laboratory notebooks were well monitored by teachers. All written work based on the exam format, such as written tests and questions from past papers, was corrected according to an evident marking scheme. This is very good practice. This method supports the strong focus placed on the examinations by teachers and students. Students were very much aware of their individual capabilities based on past performance in their written work.
Class tests are generally frequently administered, usually at the end of each topic and records of the outcome of these tests are kept by the teacher in conjunction with records of student attendance. It is commendable that marks awarded to students for the completion of projects contribute to the grade allocated in the formal school reports. Consideration could be given to extending the use of common assessments, where appropriate, and the planned introduction of mixed-ability groupings in first year from next September will facilitate this.
Parents receive reports on their child’s progress four times a year at Halloween, Christmas, Easter and summer and following mock examinations. A parent-teacher meeting is held annually for each year group.
A culture of reflection and self-evaluation permeates college life. The principal conducts an analysis of students’ grades in the state examinations for Junior Certificate and Leaving Certificate annually and formally discusses the outcome with individual teachers and the relevant subject department. This is done with the purpose of ensuring that the college’s high expectations are clearly communicated and that teachers are encouraged to reflect individually and collaboratively on their classroom practices.
The following are the main strengths identified in the evaluation of Science and Biology:
As a means of building on these strengths and to address areas for development, the following key recommendations are made:
· The college is urged to continue efforts to resolve the issues around the refurbishment of laboratory electrics, plumbing and fume cupboards in the building that is shared with
another school and to maintain vigilance in matters of safety within these laboratories.
· The subject plans should be developed by linking the teaching and learning methodologies with the assessment procedures and the syllabus learning outcomes.
· At times, a greater emphasis should be placed on an ‘investigative approach’ to practical work, when appropriate, but particularly for junior Science, as advocated by the syllabus.
· In a few instances, there is a need to bring greater variety to the learning experience and to challenge ‘named’ students more during questioning.
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 January 2010