An Roinn Oideachais agus Eolaíochta
Department of Education and Science
Subject Inspection of Science
Coláiste na Sceilge
Cahirciveen, County Kerry
Roll number: 76068N
Date of inspection: 15 May 2006
Date of issue of report: 15 December 2006
This Subject Inspection report
This report has been written following a subject inspection in Coláiste na Sceilge. It presents the findings of an evaluation of the quality of teaching and learning in Junior Certificate Science 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 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 board of management was given an opportunity to comment in writing on the findings and recommendations of the report; a response was not received from the board.
Science is in a fairly strong position in the school. Junior Certificate Science is a core subject. The school currently offers Biology, Physics, Chemistry and Agricultural Science as optional subjects to Leaving Certificate level. It is suggested that management and staff continue to devise strategies to encourage student uptake of all science subjects at Leaving Certificate level. The operation of a taster system in Transition Year (TY) allowing students an extra year of experience and maturity before making their subject choices is good practice. Currently students study only Biology in TY. To further enhance the scientific literacy of students, it is recommended that modules of Agricultural Science, Chemistry and Physics also be provided as components of the TY programme.
The ten teachers in the science department, eight of whom teach Junior Certificate Science, are professional and committed to their work. New teachers to the school are facilitated by the Kerry Education Service who offers an induction programme. All science classes at both senior and junior cycle are of mixed ability. It is commendable that all students are encouraged to study higher-level Science at Junior Certificate and final decisions regarding chosen levels are generally not made until after the pre-examinations.
The time allocation for the sciences at Junior Certificate and Leaving Certificate levels is in line with the class-contact time recommended in the syllabuses and supports the delivery of the curricula, with almost all classes receiving an even spread of lessons over the week. This is commended. Generally, classes retain the same teacher from second through to third year of junior cycle, and again in senior cycle. This is good practice. Consideration should be given to extending this system to first year where possible. It is significant that two Science teachers are also learning support teachers, who provide extra help to enhance further the scientific understanding of students who require learning support.
It is good to note that students have an input into the creation of the subject-option blocks. Students’ initial choices are used to create a “best-fit” model for senior-cycle subjects. Students entering fifth year are well supported in making appropriate subject choices. The principal informs parents in writing of the importance of the sciences for future careers. Third-year students have a weekly timetabled lesson of Guidance. The parents of third-year and Transition Year students attend an information night on the entire programme and subject options available in senior cycle. The excellent practice of operating a telephone helpline to provide advice during the subject selection process is highly commended.
The school is well resourced for the teaching of the sciences, with four laboratories and a demonstration room. All laboratories are in very good condition and are very well maintained, which is to be commended. They all have their own associated preparation and storage area attached. Although some of the science teachers have been allocated a laboratory, flexibility exists between all the science teachers for laboratory use and the sharing of resources. This is laudable. To maximize the utilization of these very good resources and to enhance the teaching and learning of Science, it is recommended that Science classes be timetabled for the laboratories ahead of non-Science subjects, including Mathematics. This is in line with the recommendations in Safety in School Science, published by the Department of Education and Science. Very good organization of materials and equipment is in evidence in the laboratories. A lot of thought has been put into strategies for the best storage and accessibility of equipment, materials and chemicals for the completion of student-based practical work. Excellent work has been employed in the organisation and storage of class sets of equipment for the mandatory experiments in Junior Science and Leaving Certificate Biology. This level of organisation is highly commended.
There is a fine provision of safety equipment such as fire extinguishers, safety glasses and laboratory coats in the laboratories. Copies of the published guidelines on safety – Safety in School Science and Safety in the School Laboratory published by the Department of Education and Science in 1996 – are available in the science department. Very good work has resulted in the storage of chemicals according to storage classifications, thus ensuring the segregation of the oxidisers and the flammable chemicals. Colour coding of the chemicals according to storage classifications could further enhance this safe practice. It is recommended that a flame-resistant cabinet be purchased for the safe storage of flammable chemicals. It is commended that the school has a health and safety statement which was reviewed during the academic year 2005-2006 in consultation with members of the science department.
Although management provides no specific budget allocation, requests for necessary materials and equipment are facilitated. Science teachers are encouraged to continue to enhance these resources. The laboratories contain two laptop computers, one data projector, overhead projectors and a television and DVD player. There is an information and communication technology (ICT) suite in the school that can also be used for the teaching and learning of the sciences. Data-logging equipment has also been purchased for the teaching of Science. All laboratories have internet access. Management is to be commended on the provision of such facilities. Examples of the use of this equipment to support the teaching and learning of the sciences include PowerPoint presentations, animations and other visual stimuli. The science teachers are encouraged to build on this very good practice and expand the use of these facilities to support the teaching and learning process.
It is significant that management encourages teachers to avail of all continuing professional development (CPD) training being offered. All teachers have attended in-career development in the sciences. Whole-staff development days, including those focusing on classroom management and interpersonal skills, have also taken place. This is praiseworthy. Involvement in the teachers’ design teams and action research under the auspices of the National Biology Support Service has facilitated the development of resources and the undertaking of research projects on classroom methodologies. This participation in professional development is highly commended. Kerry Education Service provides financial support for further study.
A high level of provision is made for co-curricular and extra-curricular science activities, including fieldtrips, participation in Science quizzes, participation in Irish Science Olympiads and visits and entries to the Young Scientist and Technology competition. Currently some learning support students are partaking in the web-based project, Science Across the World and are communicating with students in other countries including Poland, Lithuania and Italy. This is very good practice. Those involved are to be praised for their commitment to facilitating these educational and stimulating activities.
The team of Science teachers at the school meets on a formal basis each September and informally thereafter. A good tradition of collaboration is apparent and since there is no Science co-ordinator, informal collaboration ensures that resources are replenished. Well-stocked laboratories provide evidence of successful planning for resources. Consideration should be given to formalising the system for the management of resources in the laboratories. The appointment of a Science co-ordinator on a rotational basis to act as the link between management and the Science department, to co-ordinate the organisation and purchasing of resources and to arrange meetings is suggested. Laboratory-access organisation provides further evidence of collegiality and collaboration. A high level of collaboration also exists in the instance where a class group is shared between two teachers for one lesson per week to facilitate smaller groups of students for practical work.
Policies, including those on admissions, code of behaviour and special education needs have been put in place under the process of school development planning. Others are currently awaiting ratification by the board of management. Subject department planning, along with the development of curricular policies, were addressed as part of the school development planning process during the academic year 2005-2006. A common programme of work for the revised Junior Science syllabus has been devised. This is good practice as it enhances the standardisation of learning and teaching of Junior Science across the school. Similarly, common programmes of work in Leaving Certificate Biology have also been devised. It is suggested that, over time, all plans could be further developed to include timeframes and the resources available for the learning and teaching of each topic. Assessment methods and examination preparation, as well as continual revision work, could also be included when and where appropriate. Subject syllabuses and Guidelines for Teachers should provide the basis for such detailed planning. The excellent practice of reviewing common programmes of work on an annual basis further supports the effective teaching and learning of the Sciences. It is noteworthy that along with the long-term programme of work for Science, the department folder also contains minutes of meetings, stock-control guidelines and subject planning information.
Superb evidence of individual teacher planning has been seen during this inspection. The comprehensive individual planning material presented, which, included acetates, handouts, assessments, electronic resources and in a few instances monthly schemes, is to be commended. On a classroom level, all teachers were teaching material wholly relevant to the various syllabuses. Advance planning and preparation for the lessons observed was thorough and of high quality. Teaching materials, including chemicals, equipment, revision games and worksheets, which suited the needs and abilities of the students, were introduced to the lessons at appropriate times. The teachers’ willingness to share resources that they have found effective in teaching, supports collaboration and collegiality in the planning and delivery of the curriculum.
The short-term planning for all of the lessons visited resulted in well-structured lessons that were student centred and directed at a pace appropriate to the students. Whole-class teaching was used effectively at the start of lessons in order to clarify the objectives and expected learning outcomes. Correction of homework or challenging questions were used as the initial activity of lessons to consolidate prior learning and to establish baseline knowledge, which was then employed very effectively to progress student learning. In general, questioning was also used well in order to involve the students and to advance the work of the lesson. The policy of directing questions to individual students, which is generally employed by the teachers, is noted as good practice and it is recommended that this be continued and further developed where appropriate. The students responded positively to these challenges and in the main, were impressive in the quality of their answers.
In many instances very effective use of a range of relevant resources and props provided strong visual stimuli and elucidated and reinforced significant points. It is noteworthy that student worksheets were used to underpin student knowledge and understanding and facilitated the teacher in providing individual student support where necessary. Good reference was made to examination techniques, and revision strategies such as a matching card game were successfully utilised, as were examination questions. Good links were made with everyday life to explain difficult concepts.
In the aonad lán-Ghaeilge, the use of Irish for classroom management was very good. The language was used in interactions with students and for teaching the lesson content. Along with developing students’ scientific knowledge and understanding, teachers commendably took every opportunity to extend students’ range of vocabulary. Continual questioning of students in Irish ensured constant reinforcement of vocabulary and student use of the target language. Student worksheets and written work also served to reinforce students’ scientific understanding and knowledge of Irish. This is excellent practice.
Practical work was highly organised and students were supported in their work as their teacher circled the room. The investigation was discussed in advance and the experimental set-up clearly demonstrated with the aid of an overhead projector. It is noteworthy that students were asked to predict the expected results. The students, whose practical skills were well developed, worked in pairs and demonstrated interest in the task at hand. It is recommended that increased emphasis on the investigative approach to practical work be adopted in order to develop further those skills required for successful completion of the practical assessment components in the Junior Certificate Science examination. Due regard was given to safety procedures, with students automatically donning safety goggles and laboratory coats when required. The employment of a plenary session on completion of the practical activity to discuss results and practical write-up and to reinforce student learning is excellent practice. It is suggested that teachers build on this good practice to enhance the teaching and learning process.
In all classes visited, the good, and in some instances excellent, relationships that exist between teachers and students generated an atmosphere which fostered the development of student learning. Teachers were positive and affirming of good work and effort and students were relaxed but attentive in the main. Good use was made of wall space to add visual stimulation through the medium of Irish and English in the laboratories. The physical environment of the laboratories was further enhanced by the presence of plants.
In the main, students enjoy Science and the challenges it brings and are focused on their learning. Overall the quality of teaching and learning in Science was very good in the lessons observed.
Assessment is carried out on an ongoing basis by questioning in class, homework and formal assessments twice a year. Regular class tests on specific topics are used to encourage and motivate students. Examination classes are assessed through ‘mock’ examinations during second term. Each teacher maintains a record of students’ progress, for example, attendance, homework and test results.
It is significant that in one instance student project work has been utilised as a component of formal assessment. Teachers are encouraged to build on this good practice. The setting of a common examination paper in first year is very good practice. It is recommended that this be expanded to all year groups where appropriate, as it helps to establish a common direction for the subject, whilst ensuring consistency and cohesiveness within the department.
A strong focus on homework and classwork was evident in the lessons observed. Homework was carefully monitored in some instances. It is good to note that some student copybooks illustrated a number of good examples of the desirable practice of teacher annotation, which reflects the principle of assessment for learning (AFL). Further information on AFL can be accessed at www.ncca.ie.
A fine commitment to oral assessment of learning, both of material done as prescribed homework and of learning in the lesson timeframe itself, was observed. Teacher questions and questions asked by the inspector were, for the most part, answered fully and indicated a good level of understanding on the part of the students.
Practical notebooks are generally of a high standard. It is recommended that the good practice of assessing students’ practical work and laboratory notebooks as a component of the end-of-term examinations, which is employed in many instances, be introduced into all year groups. Such practice is encouraged as it reflects the assessment objectives of the Junior Certificate syllabus in particular. An aggregate mark that includes both practical and written components of the examination provides a more accurate indicator of a student’s ability in the subject. It also provides motivation for engagement by all students with the practical element of the course and ensures regular monitoring of student laboratory notebooks.
The lessons observed showed a good level of student achievement. Students’ outcomes in terms of knowledge of the subject are generally good. Students are enthusiastic about their learning in the main, and display a conscientious approach to homework. This is commended.
The principal processes an analysis of the State examination results, which is subsequently communicated to the subject department. It is good to note that parents receive written reports which also incorporate student attendance, following formal examinations. In addition to these reports, information regarding ongoing student progress is given to parents through annual parent-teacher meetings and the student’s journal. Classes preparing for State examinations have two parent-teacher meetings per annum. Parents may also meet management and teaching staff by appointment. This is commended.
The following are the main strengths and areas for development identified in the evaluation:
There is good whole-school support for the sciences as evidenced by the provision of Science as a core subject in junior cycle, Biology in TY and Physics, Chemistry, Biology and Agricultural Science for Leaving Certificate.
A professional approach is taken to the teaching of Science in this school. This was evident from the level of planning documentation, collaboration on the management of resources and the individual preparation for the lessons observed.
The standardisation of learning and teaching of Junior Science across the school is facilitated by the common programme of work that has been devised. Over time, the plans could be developed further to include timeframes and the resources available for the learning and teaching of each topic.
A high quality of teaching and learning of Science was observed. A variety of teaching methodologies, including student practical, pair work and effective questioning, was appropriately employed.
It is significant that two Science teachers are also learning support teachers, who provide extra help to enhance further the scientific understanding of students who require learning support.
The use of the scientific language through the medium of Irish is at a high level and students are obviously used to hearing and using Irish.
Very good student and teacher rapport provides a positive environment and thus enhances student learning. The students were impressive in their understanding in the main and their practical skills were well developed.
A range of assessment modes, including formal examinations and questioning, is employed to determine student progress and achievement.
An area for development that could be considered is the extension of the good practice of assessing students’ practical work and laboratory notebooks as components of the end-of-term examinations to all year groups.
As a means of building on these strengths and to address areas for development, the following key recommendations are made:
Increased emphasis on the investigative approach to practical work should be adopted in junior cycle.
To enhance the scientific literacy of students further, it is recommended that modules of Agricultural Science, Chemistry and Physics also be provided as components of the TY programme.
Science classes should be timetabled for the laboratories ahead of non-Science subjects.
A flame-resistant cabinet should be purchased for the safe storage of flammable chemicals.
Post-evaluation meetings were held with the teachers of Science and with the principal at the conclusion of the evaluation when the draft findings and recommendations of the evaluation were presented and discussed.