An inspector calls
My Education Week: The arrival of the cigire used to be met with dread, but now it’s part of a wider partnership process
Bench marks: Declan Cahalane at a science class with Marie-Therese Kilmartin, the principal of Coláiste Bríde, Clondalkin, Dublin. This school does not feature in Calhalane’s inspections, described below. Photograph: Alan Betson
Teachers can be apprehensive at the start of most inspections. It must feel strange to have someone in your classroom or to have to talk to a stranger about the way things are done in your school.
There’s an image of the stern inspector sitting judgementally at the back of the class, but that is far from the reality.
I am a subject inspector for chemistry and science at post-primary level. I used to be a chemistry teacher. Like all subject inspectors, I also conduct whole-school evaluations, and my work is varied. Some days, I am in the office at the Department of Education and Skills on Marlborough Street in Dublin. Other days, I’m on the road, sometimes travelling long distances to schools. There are often evening sittings of school management boards, so sometimes I stay overnight rather than travel back to Dublin.
There are 10 inspectors from the various science disciplines working across the five business units of the inspectorate. This group meets twice a year, and today I am chairing the meeting. Some of my colleagues represent the Department on the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment, and this is a good chance for us to discuss and contribute to the proposed changes to the new Junior Cycle science syllabus.
After the meeting, I touch base with a colleague who supported me on a recent whole-school evaluation. We worked together for three days evaluating lessons and meeting various groups of staff and students, and tomorrow we will return with our feedback.
On the way home, I stop for a swim at the Bull Wall. It’s a great way to unwind after a day at the office.
I arrive at the school with my colleague for the post-evaluation feedback day. We have prepared a presentation summarising the key findings and areas for development, which was reviewed with our regional manager.
We are greeted warmly by the staff who got to know us during our time working with them. Before we get started, we are brought to the staffroom for coffee. Then we get down to business. We have three separate meetings: one with the school’s senior management, one with the whole staff, and another with the board of management. A representative of the parents’ association comes to the meeting with the board, so the messages we give will be shared across the school community.
Parents and students were surveyed at the start of the process. This time, our feedback is very positive. The school is working very well and there are only a few areas that require further development. During the feedback, we have good discussions about our findings and the evidence on which we have based them. We always aim to be as constructive as possible in our advice. We know that schools are doing their best to manage within the context of tightened resources.
Back in the office this morning, I review yesterday’s notes and make some final edits to the report.
For quality assurance, our reports are edited by a colleague before being issued to schools and published on the DES website. Our role doesn’t end after the inspection. We do a follow-up visit a year or two later but, in the first instance, it is up to the school’s board of management to take ownership and work through the findings and recommendations.
The email traffic is quiet today. I take a quick look at the list of parliamentary questions which is circulated by the office of the Minister for Education. Sometimes, these will need an input from the inspectorate and our professional advice will be called for. They could be about the staffing of the inspectorate, the number of inspections carried out and their outcomes, or our views on numerous educational initiatives. There’s nothing there today.
I also follow up on some briefing material I prepared a while back on the proposed changes to the Junior Cycle science curriculum to see if anything further is needed. An unusual query comes my way from a member of the public looking for the old Intermediate Certificate science syllabus, which was last examined in 1991.
I spend most of the afternoon preparing for an end-of-year review, conducted by all sections of the Department, and next week I have a meeting with our chief inspector, Harold Hislop, and his management team.
One important item of business is to call the principal of the school I am visiting tomorrow and confirm the arrangements.
I arrive early so I can meet the teachers informally. It is always good to break the ice before lessons.
The school has already provided me with a lot of information about its provision for science and I’ve noted areas I want to learn more about.
During the day, I visit a variety of lessons, observing students in classrooms and labs. Students are generally well behaved, and try to do their best. I talk to them while they carry out practical activities. They are confident in explaining what they are doing, which is encouraging.
I am delighted to see teachers have given constructive feedback by writing comments in the students’ notebooks: research has shown this is more effective than a simple grading in helping students to learn. The worst-case scenario is when written work is not corrected at all.
As well as observing lessons, I meet the principal and the subject coordinator. I find that school planning is well advanced, with supports being developed to improve literacy and numeracy, and I tell them about some initiatives in other schools. It is really useful for schools and teachers to be able to share ideas and experiences.
It is a big school with a lot of students taking science or chemistry, so I return for a second day. The classroom visits proceed smoothly with no particular problems until someone drops a beaker in the middle of a laboratory lesson; the sound of shattering glass silences the room and all eyes turn to see my reaction. What is the old adage about omelettes and eggs? Well, you can’t work in a laboratory without occasional breakages. So, no harm done.
During the day, I reflect on what I have observed and discussed with the staff.
Subject inspection focuses on three areas; whole-school support, planning, and teaching and learning. There is much strength in this school’s provision for science but there is scope for development in laboratory organisation and some aspects of teaching and learning. The staff are reasonably happy with the feedback and, in our discussions, are already coming up with ideas for addressing the recommendations I made.
After the feedback meeting, the principal invites me for a coffee before I depart. It has gone well today, but sometimes we have to return with difficult feedback on issues such as discipline or classroom practice. However, our primary focus is, and always has been, on making improvements to the quality of teaching and learning.
When I get home, I have one more quick look at my emails. I notice that the briefing material prepared earlier has been returned for some further input, but I will look at that over the weekend. Tonight, I’m off to a film with some friends.