An Roinn Oideachais agus Eolaíochta
Department of Education and Science
Subject Inspection of Science and Biology
Gormanston, County Meath
Roll number: 64420I
Date of inspection: 30 April 2009
Report on the Quality of Learning and Teaching in Science and Biology
This report has been written following a subject inspection in Franciscan College, Gormanston, 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 these 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 acting deputy principal and the subject teachers.
The Franciscan College has three laboratories with one broadly designated to each of the three subjects: Biology, Chemistry and Physics. Junior Certificate Science is also taught in the laboratories. It is good practice that the laboratories are only used for the teaching of science subjects.
Science is a core subject at Junior Certificate level in the college. At senior cycle the school offers the Established Leaving Certificate and the Transition Year programme (TY). Biology, Chemistry and Physics are available as Leaving Certificate subjects. Timetable allocations for Science and Biology are in line with National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA) recommendations. Junior Certificate Science is allocated four periods per week. Biology classes are allocated five periods per week and this includes one double period for practical work. There are currently two class groups in Transition Year and Science is provided in four modules: Biology, Chemistry, Physics and Applied Mathematics. At the time of the evaluation, the TY team were discussing the removal of the applied mathematics module from the TY science programme of work. Teachers generally retain the same science class from one year to the next and this level of continuity is commendable.
Two of the science laboratories in the school have adjacent preparation rooms. The chemicals are organised on shelves according to the scheme suggested by the chemistry support service. This level of organisation is commendable. However, the storage arrangement is unsuitable for toxics and flammables; these must be housed in appropriate lockable cupboards. It is recommended that appropriate storage be arranged for toxic and flammable chemicals. In addition, there is scope to separate the large preparation area into a chemical store and a preparation area. This would provide secure storage for chemicals and an area where apparatus and non-hazardous materials can be housed. The laboratories are clean, bright and in good condition given their age. All laboratories are equipped with emergency shut-off points in the adjacent preparation rooms. It is recommended, as a priority, that emergency shut-off points for gas be relocated to a more accessible point within the laboratories. The biology laboratory has a storage bench running between the two student work benches. This results in reduced visibility across the room for both teacher and students. Students working at one bench cannot see the teacher and the remainder of the class at the second bench. This has the potential to impact negatively on the quality of teaching and learning. It is recommended that, as resources become available, this arrangement should be modified.
A health and safety statement has been developed in line with Safety, Health and Welfare at Work Acts of 1989. There is scope to review the health and safety statement using the Safety, Health and Welfare at Work Acts of 2005 as a guide and this is recommended. A range of health and safety equipment was observed, including a first aid kit, fire extinguishers and fire blankets. It is recommended that these be re-located to a more accessible area within the laboratory. A list of telephone numbers for the emergency services could also be prominently displayed. Two of the three laboratories contain benches which can act as workstations during practical work as they have gas and electricity outlets. As resources become available, the third laboratory should be established as an equally purposeful room so that the mandatory practicals associated with the revised Junior Certificate science syllabus can be carried out there.
Many members of the science team have benefited from the in-service training provided by the support services set up for the implementation of the revised Leaving Certificate biology and Junior Certificate science syllabuses. Management is commended for facilitating this in-service. There is scope for the science team to develop a system where information from courses attended can be disseminated among all members of the science team.
The science team places emphasis on co-curricular and extracurricular activities as a method of supplementing the classroom environment. It is commendable that students have attended the W5 science museum in Belfast and the BT Young Science and Technology exhibition. It is also notable that during Science Week 2008, TY students prepared and presented a science-related topic to first-year students.
The science co-ordinator holds a post of responsibility and the duties associated to this post relate to the role. The co-ordinator is responsible for liaison with senior management and for the organisation and chairing of subject department meetings. The ordering of stock is carried out by another member of the science team. Formal meetings are held at the start and the end of the school year. It is suggested that minutes be recorded for these and a copy forwarded to senior management. The science team reported that regular informal meetings also take place. A good level of collaboration was evidenced among members of the science team. It is recommended that future planning meetings be used to discuss and produce a three-year developmental plan for the reorganisation of the science laboratories and preparation rooms. This could include the setting up of boxed kits for the mandatory Junior Certificate experiments and the allocation of a set of basic apparatus to the cupboards under the laboratory benches. This should also include plans for the storage of chemicals, apparatus, mandatory practical notebooks and laboratory coats.
Long-term plans were available for both Junior Certificate Science and Leaving Certificate Biology. These included lists of topics to be completed in an appropriate time frame. It is recommended that the science team progresses these plans by including learning objectives as per the revised syllabi and link them to appropriate methodologies and methods of assessment. The planning folder could also include information such as cross-curricular planning, planning for small group work as well as procedures for the allocation and checking of homework. It is suggested that the list of topics to be completed in each year group be distributed to students at the start of the year to give them an overview of the course and to assist them in their planning and revision. In addition, Junior Certificate students should be issued with a list of mandatory practicals to be completed before the end of each school year. A similar list of practicals should be made available to the Leaving Certificate biology students.
Draft planning documentation was made available for the TY programme. Two members of the science team are currently involved in the provision of TY science and at the time of the evaluation were in the process of restructuring and reviewing the science modules in the programme. In order to support these modifications and to promote continuity, management are encouraged to retain the current science teachers on the TY programme. Teachers should be mindful that subject planning within TY should avoid an over-reliance on the content and approaches required by Leaving Certificate syllabuses. Where delivery of a module is supported by the inclusion of guest speakers, science trips and project work, this should be included in the TY planning folder. It is recommended that the document Writing the Transition Year Programme, the publication of the Transition Year Support Service (TYSS) which advises on writing plans for individual subjects or modules in the programme, be utilised in this review.
Short-term planning for some individual lessons observed was very good. Where materials and apparatus to be used during the classes had been prepared in advance, it contributed to the overall quality of teaching and learning in the lessons observed. In a minority of lessons, there was scope to enhance the teaching and learning through the incorporation of a greater variety of resources. This strategy should be explored in the context of progressing the subject planning as recommended earlier.
Good practice was observed where the aims of the lesson were outlined to the students at the outset. This occurred in most classes visited. In a number of instances, the lesson content was linked to a previous lesson. Lesson structure was generally supportive of students’ learning and took cognisance of students’ previous knowledge and levels. There was, however, scope for greater attention to these areas in particular classes. All students should be very clear of what is expected of them at the outset of the lesson. This is also effective in keeping the students on task and in supporting the lesson structure.
Best practice was observed where teachers used discussion to promote student engagement with the lesson and encourage contributions. Students were addressed by name and teachers adopted an informal style when interacting with them. In a number of lessons, there was a good level of enthusiasm among students to volunteer answers and to participate in lesson activities. This was encouraged and praised by the teacher and contributed to the positive learning environment. However, in some lessons students were passive and less interaction took place; this meant that the classroom atmosphere was not as conducive to learning. The most successful lessons made use of a range of appropriate methodologies including a good mix of active learning practices and progression from one to the next was seamless. The wider use of strategies to ensure the active engagement of all students is recommended. Teachers maintained discipline in a sensitive manner.
Lessons observed generally involved mixed ability groups of students. Some examples of the praiseworthy differentiated practice used by teachers included emphasis on pronunciation of key words, spelling of key words and noting them on the whiteboard. When whole-class teaching occurred at the end of some of the observed lessons, it helped to draw together key points for the students under the guidance of the teacher and provided a very effective recapitulation of the lesson. Teachers should plan for a recapitulation of the lesson towards the end of each class in order to reinforce the learning objective. In a number of classes, students were clearly engaged in their learning. They listened attentively to their teachers, responded to questions, asked questions and completed class activities and written exercises. This interactive approach is good practice and it is recommended that this approach be extended across all lessons where practicable.
The majority of teachers made effective use of a number of relevant resources including PowerPoint presentations, worksheets, models, wall charts, diagrams and the whiteboard to enhance teaching and consolidate learning. A DVD was used as an effective tool at intervals in one particular lesson to clarify and reinforce the lesson content. This is good practice, particularly in a structured context where it is appropriate to the lesson content.
Where observed, students’ performance of experimental work was carried out safely and students displayed good practical skills. This demonstrated that students are developing team-working skills through the performance of experimental work. Best practice was observed where students displayed established routines for setting up and tidying up after their work. These established routines help students to gain a sense of responsibility for the efficient conduct of experimental work. In one lesson visited, students checked on agar plates which had been prepared in a previous lesson and discussed potential reasons behind their unexpected results. Questioning was used as an effective teaching methodology in some lessons observed. It also served as a useful method of keeping students alert and focused on the task in hand. There is a need to guard against chorus answering; some successful attempts to do this were observed in a number of the classrooms visited.
A range of assessment activities is utilised in the college. Formative assessment practices included questioning, homework, experiments, checking of exercise book work and observation of student activities.
Continuous assessment is carried out using end-of-topic tests, while summative assessment takes the form of formal examinations. End-of-term examinations take place for first, second and fifth-year students at Christmas and summer. Examinations for certificate examination classes take place in November with ‘mock’ examinations in the second term. Results of these assessments are conveyed to parents in school reports.
During the evaluation a range of students’ mandatory practical notebooks, class-work notebooks and homework exercise books was observed. These displayed a range of student abilities which generally reflected the mixed ability nature of the classes observed. Some notebooks were maintained to a high standard and were checked and annotated regularly. Best practice was observed where students were provided with direction as to how their work could be improved upon. This good practice forms part of the underlying principles of Assessment for Learning. It is recommended that this practice be extended throughout the science department.
Homework tasks are generally assigned at the end of the class and most homework exercises are corrected in class the next day. It is recommended that the science team considers the development of common correcting practices and puts in place procedures for follow-up on corrections and comments made in all notebooks. The good practices evident in areas of the assessment of student work should be disseminated among the science team and documented in an assessment policy for Science.
The following are the main strengths identified in the evaluation:
· It is commendable that the science laboratories are only used for science subjects.
· Teachers generally retain the same science class from one year to the next; this level of continuity is commendable.
· A good level of collaboration was evidenced among members of the science team.
· Good practice in the delivery of individual lessons was observed where short-term planning was good, the materials and apparatus to be used had been prepared in advance and the
aims of the lesson were outlined to the students at the outset of the lesson.
· Best practice was observed where teachers used discussion to promote student engagement with the lesson and encourage student contributions.
· Continuous assessment is carried out using end of topic tests, while summative assessment takes the form of Christmas and summer tests as well as ‘mock’ examinations.
As a means of building on these strengths and to address areas for development, the following key recommendations are made:
· It is recommended, as a priority, that emergency shut-off points for gas be relocated to more accessible point within the science laboratories.
· It is recommended that the health and safety statement be reviewed in light of the Safety, Health and Welfare at Work Acts of 2005.
· It is recommended that appropriate lockable storage be arranged for toxic and flammable chemicals.
· As resources become available, the third laboratory should be fitted out to enable the mandatory practicals associated with the revised Junior Certificate science syllabus to be carried out there.
· It is recommended that future planning meetings of the science department be used to discuss and produce a three-year developmental plan for the reorganisation of the laboratories.
· The wider use of strategies to ensure the active engagement of all students is recommended.
· Teachers should plan for a recapitulation of the lesson towards the end of each class in order to reinforce the learning objective.
· The good practices evident in areas of the assessment of student work should be disseminated among the science team and documented in an assessment policy for Science.
Post-evaluation meetings were held with the teachers of Science and Biology and with the acting deputy principal at the conclusion of the evaluation when the draft findings and recommendations of the evaluation were presented and discussed.
Published March 2010