Léim ar aghaidh chuig an bpríomhábhar

Thursday, 6 Nov 2008

Second Level Teaching Standards: Discussion with Department of Education and Science.

I welcome Mr. Eamon Murtagh, assistant chief inspector, Ms Doreen McMorris, assistant chief inspector, Mr. Niall Kelly, senior inspector, and Mr. Oilibhéar de Búrca, cigire sinsearach. They will give a presentation on behalf of the Department of Education and Science inspectors on the quality of teaching in secondary schools, particularly in Irish, mathematics and science. Judging by their executive summary, they will speak on a subject-by-subject basis. Members have also indicated this as their preference and will contribute on each subject.

I invite Mr. Murtagh to begin his short presentation on the three subjects. As a matter of course, I must draw his attention to the fact that members of the committee have absolute privilege, but this does not apply to witnesses appearing before it. Members are reminded that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person in such a way as to make him or her identifiable.

Mr. Eamon Murtagh

I thank the Joint Committee on Education and Science for its invitation to discuss the quality of post-primary teaching. The inspectorate is a division of the Department of Education and Science. In carrying out its quality assurance functions at second level, it operates a programme of evaluation, including subject inspection. This focuses on the quality of teaching, which most directly and powerfully affects the quality of outcomes demonstrated by students. Many school factors, most notably the quality of school leadership and planning, can help to promote the quality of teaching.

Broadly speaking, post-primary inspectors are finding that subject departments are well established in schools, individual teacher quality of planning tends to be high, students are engaging in a good range of learning activities and teachers are using assessment for learning approaches. The areas where inspectors see scope for development include the quality of subject plans, widening the range of teaching methodologies used and ensuring that teachers' questioning promotes higher order thinking in students. Frequently, inspectors recommend a greater differentiation in teaching to meet the needs of all students in class groups.

In Irish teaching, inspectors identify a number of positive aspects. Often, they commend the progress teachers are making in planning for Irish and their commitment to using the target language in lessons. Inspectors comment favourably on the use of pair work and group work to enable students practise their oral language and on teachers' linking of lesson content to students' everyday experiences. Inspectors have expressed some concerns about the teaching of Irish, including an over-emphasis on "teacher talk" in lessons and insufficient attention to planning the development of students' oral language skills. Inspectors' reports refer to the limited use of information and communication technology and the tendency of preparation for the written certificate examinations to dominate the classroom practice of teachers.

In mathematics, inspectors report some high quality teaching characterised by in-depth subject knowledge, the use of a variety of teaching approaches and good rapport with students. They are finding that mathematics teachers are planning collaboratively within well established subject departments and that flexible arrangements enabling students to learn in class groups suited to their abilities are working well. However, teaching in mathematics is predominantly teacher-led, taking the form of demonstrations by teachers followed by the practising of examples by students. Frequently, inspectors warn against over-reliance on class textbooks. They note that over-emphasis on preparation for the certificate examinations can detract from a focus on developing students' understanding. They encourage greater use of the available ICT resources in the teaching and learning of mathematics.

In the science subjects, inspectors refer to well resourced and well maintained science laboratories with good access to ICT equipment as positive learning supports. Regularly, inspectors note good planning and high levels of attention to safety procedures. Overall, they find that science lessons are engaging for students and that teachers make particular efforts to link science to students' everyday experiences. However, inspectors find that not all students are learning science in an investigative way and that the potential of ICT is not being fully realised.

Some significant ongoing developments will affect the quality of teaching in the three subjects. These include support for Irish teachers in preparing for the increase of the oral component to 40% of the certificate examinations and the Project Maths initiative, which will result in revised junior and senior cycle mathematics syllabuses and a greater emphasis on applying mathematics to real-life problem solving. The National Council for Curriculum and Assessment is undertaking a revision of senior cycle science syllabuses with the intention of making science subjects more attractive to students.

This is a brief summary of the recurring themes in the inspection reports on the quality of teaching in second level schools. We will be happy to clarify any aspects of our written submission or to respond to any questions.

I thank Mr. Murtagh. Given that members will have read the detailed summary, we will commence on the subject of Irish.

I welcome the delegates and thank them for their report. The executive summary is supported by the individual subject accounts.

I accept Mr. Murtagh's comment that the quality of teaching affects the quality of learning outcomes. Speaking as an educator and a former classroom teacher, we should focus on this matter. While Mr. Murtagh stated the emphasis on oracy is the main aspect, this is not consistent with the fact that the primary assessment is a written examination. Until we tweak the system, Mr. Murtagh's statement has no basis.

By 2012, the oral component of the leaving certificate examination will account for 40%. While this is welcome, there is an inconsistency on which I would like Mr. Murtagh to comment. An optional junior certificate oral examination is available. There are some 700 secondary schools in the country and only 23 are offering the optional junior certificate oral exam. The current second year students will sit the leaving certificate in 2012. Will the optional junior certificate be mandatory by 2010? In my view it should be, in preparation for the oral being worth 40% in 2012.

Allied to that, many second level students go to the Gaeltacht in the summer, which I welcome. I have personal experience of students returning to the classroom to see the subject based on writing and grammar. Many children do not succeed at this level. That oral skill they have developed is lost. When will the Department fix this and get the balance right? We need a move on this to coincide with plans for 2010 and 2012.

The inspectors stated that only one third of classes are unsatisfactory in respect of oral work. I am very surprised at the finding, which would be a very encouraging figure to me. We have failed in the teaching of Irish as an oral language. It is of grave disappointment to me.

Will the inspectorate consider giving leadership to plan for fluency? The inspectorate should examine planning for fluency for all our children in the country by the leaving certificate and then work backwards from that point to junior infants. Children are enthusiastic for Irish at junior and senior infants and it gets much more difficult after that. Any primary school teacher will confirm this. A second class child is learning "d'fhág mé" meaning "I left it" and "d'fhágamar", and a second year student is learning "d'fhág mé" and "d'fhágamar". Where are we going? We are getting it all wrong with the teaching of Irish. In teaching colleges, one is still learning that "d'fhág mé" is the first person singular and "d'fhágamar" is the first person plural. What are the comments of the inspectors on planning for fluency? Have the inspectors examined where we would like our kids to be and planned up to that point, as opposed to starting high and going down?

Thank you, Senator.

I have two other questions. Will I wait?

The Senator will have to wait.

Mr. Eamonn Murtagh

The emphasis in the primary curriculum is on communication in Irish. There is little emphasis on learning formal grammar at the primary level. The objectives of the curriculum are to enable children to communicate with each other and with adults to meet their everyday needs and talk about matters in which they are interested. The change in the allocation of marks at leaving certificate level is designed to increase the emphasis on oral fluency in the post-primary syllabus. The conclusion is that there is too much emphasis on the literature curriculum and too much emphasis on the preparation for the written part of the examination. The increase in the oral examination marks is to incentivise teachers and students to focus on preparation of the oral aspects of the exam. A support service works with post-primary teachers in helping them to bring about those changes.

The Senator referred to the optional junior certificate oral exam, of which very few schools avail.

Mr. Eamonn Murtagh

We encourage more schools to avail of it. It is important that students have the experience of an oral examination at junior certificate level before progressing to the leaving certificate. Feedback from the support services suggests that many more schools are considering that.

What power have the inspectors to bring this about?

Mr. Eamonn Murtagh

The Minister has powers to make the junior certificate oral mandatory. However, we need to think about the practical implications of that. The system does not have the capacity to introduce the model of oral examination at leaving certificate level. We do not have sufficient examiners to do so. It would have to be an oral examination at school level and difficulties must be resolved.

In other words, the inspectors do not have the means. It is all talk and no action.

Mr. Eamonn Murtagh

No, it is a policy decision for the Minister whether the junior certificate oral exam is optional. In announcing the increases in marks for the oral, the Minister stated that the junior certificate oral exam will remain optional.

The education system is doing nothing to promote the Irish language. In fact, by keeping the focus on the written exam the inspectors are working actively towards killing the language. That is a strong statement to make.

The statement is noted. The Minister will appear before the committee in two weeks time and the Senator can ask about that topic.

I welcome the inspectors. It is a tribute to the quality of teaching in the Irish education system that, notwithstanding the resource allocation, the PISA outcomes are remarkable. As a general observation, the inspectors may wish to comment on the consequences for their work when the inspectors are undertaking whole school evaluation or subject matter evaluation that requires them to gather the cohort of subject teachers. Who will provide cover for those classes when the teachers are, by necessity, engaging in dialogue with the inspectors? That applies to all subjects covered here. Has the inspectorate carried out an impact analysis on the uncertified supervision issues? This is without prejudice to what the Minister may agree in terms of how this will be implemented. I invite a comment on that.

I am not a good Irish speaker, much to my shame. The one time I had to speak Irish to a person with whom I did not have a language in common was in the Irish Embassy in Moscow in 1980. Then I discovered that I was relatively fluent. This leads me to the difficulty I see in the main areas of concern on page 5 of the presentation, which refers to the fact that teachers give "insufficient attention to planning the development of students' oral language skills". From my European experience, it seems that there is a natural level of gravity that asserts itself among a group of people who are multilingual. We gravitate to the language that most people can speak. Outside Gaeltacht schools such as Coláiste Lurgan, which my son enjoyed when he attended last summer, it is difficult to create an atmosphere in which Irish is the spoken language for those for whom the natural mother tongue is English. I endorse the comments of Senator Healy Eames. When one returns from the Gaeltacht environment, one returns to the written language.

A principal of a secondary school tells me there is an increase in the number of parents seeking an exemption from studying Irish, coming from primary to secondary. This is on the grounds of dyslexia or other reading or learning difficulties. The same pupils who seek an exemption from Irish are able to study French, Spanish and German, subjects that have a similar handicap. I do not know if that is a valid observation. What are the comments of the inspectors?

Mr. Eamonn Murtagh

I ask my colleague Ms Doreen McMorris to comment on how the inspectorate will manage its work in schools in light of substitution arrangements.

Ms Doreen McMorris

We have not done an analysis yet because the details of how the change will affect schools have not been worked out. In the context of inspection work, inspectors show a considerable level of flexibility in arranging meetings. It is only since 2003 that the inspections have become an active feature of school life. Since then we have reduced the extent to which meetings need to take place because we have well established practices and schools are used to the process of subject inspection. They know what it involves and therefore the need to have meetings with teachers at the beginning of a subject inspection has greatly reduced. Furthermore, all of our procedures have been published in booklets and are available on the web. Schools are very familiar with them. The extent to which we need pre-evaluation meetings has greatly reduced.

Of course, we still need to meet staff, principals and subject teachers to feedback the findings so I am not in any way suggesting that meetings are not important. We must also remember that teachers are scheduled to teach for a maximum of 22 hours a week. During the school day, time is available when teachers can be met. It is not always essential that all teachers attend a meeting. Teachers work collaboratively and on many occasions they must agree that some attend and others do not. It is a flexible approach which involves collaboration at school level which is what we are about.

Will the witnesses address the issue of exemptions?

Mr. Oilibhéar de Búrca

The figures show an increase in exemptions. The reason an exemption awarded for an attested learning difficulty will exempt one from the study of Irish while permitting one to study a modern European language is the criteria applied. It applies only in the case of Irish because Irish is a core subject. Modern languages are available as option subjects.

I understand this. Are the statistics distorted because parents or students perceive Irish as too difficult to learn and seek an exemption citing dyslexia and then proceed to learn one or two modern European continental languages?

Mr. Oilibhéar de Búrca

A comment on this would require one to second guess the quality of information provided to obtain the exemption. This information is in a psychologist's report which indicates the level of disability was so clearly prescribed that it would be difficult for the person to function with a second language.

On a related issue, surely research has been done on the outcomes whereby one can check whether someone got an exemption from taking Irish and obtained an A, B or C in honours French or German. It would be of interest if such information could be passed on to the committee because we would then know whether people receive exemptions because they think it is a difficult subject or whether they have genuine learning disabilities. I am not an expert and I assume that if one can take French one can also take Irish.

May I ask a related question? I would be surprised if children who receive an exemption in Irish succeed with French or German. It would not be consistent and it would show we have a serious issue with Irish.

We are examining how to improve the competence of children in Irish. Many children need a waiver in spelling or grammar to do well in Irish. They may have good fluency but they are poor at spelling. They may have this one dyslexic tendency but they do not test into the overall dyslexic range. At present, this is almost impossible to achieve because a child tests into the dyslexic range or not. This is an area which we should examine.

The Senator should ask a question. I will return to Senator Healy Eames. I gave her leverage but she did not take it.

Does the Department have an openness to examine this?

I welcome the Department inspectors to the meeting. I share the concerns about oral Irish at junior certificate level. The theory is to use it or lose it. At primary level, the focus is on the spoken word but the first three years at second level are focused on the junior certificate exam with texts to read and the syllabus to be covered and oral Irish is pushed to one side. I am concerned about the amount of English spoken during Irish classes. I have children at school and I hear what they tell me and what other people tell me. By the time the pupils reach fourth year they have forgotten and they must start again to get oral Irish right and have a basis for the leaving certificate. While the practicalities of having an oral Irish exam for the junior certificate may be difficult, more emphasis must be placed on the spoken word in the approach to the junior certificate.

With regard to subject planning, since I began teaching we have come a long way with regard to collaboration and sitting down as departmental teams discussing what we teach and how we do so. However, discussing it and doing it are different. We have subject inspections and whole school inspections. On the day the inspector arrives it is like taking out the good china when the parish priest calls. One's best foot is put forward. However, this is not necessarily what happens when the inspector leaves. I have a difficulty with this because on the day of the inspection one may have a practitioner who is excellent and who wows the inspector but the same practitioner may have a high level of students taking grinds because the parents feel they are not getting what they deserve.

I have a difficulty with grinds. I know it is a culture and if John, Mary and Niall are getting grinds then Sheila down the road needs to get one also. However, there is a level of ineffective teaching. The witnesses have discussed the statistics. Are spot checks done if the Department has a concern about the effectiveness of a teacher? By and large most teachers are conscientious and diligent and want the best for their students. However, there are those who are ineffective and who do a disservice to the children in front of them. Therefore, these children need to take grinds in Irish, mathematics and other subjects. I am extremely concerned about this and I want to know what is happening in this regard.

Ms Doreen McMorris

I will begin by referring to the issue of the grinds. I am afraid no one can control parental choice. If parents choose to get grinds for their children neither we nor the schools can control it. With regard to ineffective teachers, I remind Deputy Conlon that the inspectorate's role is to evaluate the quality of education. All of our procedures have been developed based on the Education Act 1998. The Act emphasises the importance of consultation and partnership in establishing these procedures. At present, our approach to evaluation in post-primary schools can be summarised by the whole school evaluation and the subject evaluation.

At present, we do not have procedures for teacher evaluation apart from in exceptional circumstances. Some procedures date back to 1985 and predate the Education Act so I will not focus on them as we are tight for time. We focus on quality at whole school level and quality in terms of the subject as a whole. By this I mean we are examining what is happening throughout the school. For example, in a subject inspection on mathematics we will examine the overall provision for the subject, the timetable arrangements and the planning which takes place at school level. We also visit classrooms and we see individual teachers.

We provide feedback to individual teachers and groups of teachers on our quality judgments. We do not focus on the individual teacher or identify individual teachers in the report. However, we comment on incidents of what we consider to be poor quality teaching and we will state in our reports that while the majority of classes are doing certain things, some classes are not. Our feedback at school level is given to the teachers and management personnel. We will make clear our judgments but at present we do not focus on individual teachers.

Do I take it your method and culture of evaluation is evolving?

Ms Doreen McMorris


Are the reports on the school in Mullingar and in CUS an indication of a more forthright commentary without identifying individuals per se?

Ms Doreen McMorris

We are bound not to mention individuals. That is part of our code of practice.

Of course, I would expect that.

Ms Doreen McMorris

Our procedures and processes are evolving. Members must also remember that we started only in 2003. The two examples picked by the Deputy are in the category of situations of poor practice but that is not to say there are not more examples. We randomly pick schools so they appear at all levels on the quality continuum.

With regard to Deputy Conlon's point and the response to it, in terms of planning versus implementation, is the performance of the teacher not key? A system of audit which leaves out performance and delivery seems to be incomplete.

Ms Doreen McMorris

No, we do not leave it out as such. The subject inspection looks at planning as well as the quality of teaching and learning. We question the children in the presence of teachers and triangulate what we see because while much depends on the teacher, not everything does. We also look at assessment. In essence, we look at the subject in its totality. We look at whole school provision, planning, teaching, learning and assessment. We do not leave out performance. Rather, it is just one component of what we do.

Mr. Eamonn Murtagh

It is vitally important to clarify that during the course of the whole school evaluation, several teachers in a range of subjects will be visited by the inspector and the teaching and learning in their classrooms observed. The inspector will interact with the students to determine their knowledge of the subject area, their attitudes to it and so forth. I would not like Members to get the impression that inspectors do not visit teachers in their classrooms.

To clarify, though, if there is a particularly dire teacher, there is no mechanism to get rid of him or her.

Ms Doreen McMorris

As we speak, discussions are at an advanced stage regarding how underperformance will be managed. Those discussions have not yet reached a conclusion and are taking place in the context of 2016, so we are not at liberty to say any more on that issue. However, I stress again that our evaluation processes are evolving.

The Council of Europe is preparing a report on minority languages and how they can be revived or retained and one of the languages under scrutiny is Irish. That reporting process is only beginning so if witnesses have any information they wish to pass on, I would be happy to be the conduit for that.

I returned this week from Cape Verde, a former Portuguese colony where Creole is the favoured language. The authorities are having difficulty teaching Portuguese in the schools there because the determination of parents and children to speak their national language overrides everything else. It is ironic that in terms of speaking our national language, we are at the opposite end of the spectrum.

We are focusing here on bad teachers and children not speaking Irish but the most fundamental question is whether our Irish teachers are fluent themselves. If they are, that will be passed on, with enthusiasm, to the children. If they are not fluent, there is nothing to be gained from calling them bad teachers. Instead, we must examine what is happening at teacher training level to give competency to primary and secondary teachers.

I am glad the witnesses referred to the whole school in terms of evaluation. Perhaps we need to consider a complete structural change at primary and second level, so that if there are fluent teachers in a school, they can teach the oral elements of the language to students, while teachers who are better at theory can deal with that aspect. We must accept that some teachers are not going to be good at all aspects of teaching. As a musician, I went through a school system where it was assumed that one absorbed the practical elements of music from the sky and learned the theoretical elements in the school.

Witnesses said that over reliance on text books is not good but if a teacher does not feel competent to do anything other than work through the text book, then he or she will rely on that text book. Similarly, if teachers do not have other resources to tap into, they will rely on text books. In that context, alternative primary sources of information must be made available to teachers.

I am preparing a report for the Council of Europe on teaching history in areas of recent conflict. In terms of reform in both the teaching of history and Irish, the consensus seems to be that the progress at senior cycle has been excellent, with teacher support services readily available. However, problems still persist at junior cycle level. The curriculum is too broad, important issues cannot be dealt with properly and reform is necessary. When one makes this case, the response is that the senior cycle has just been fixed and the authorities cannot now deal with the junior cycle. However, technology and life is moving so much faster now. We must change and adapt more quickly in order to meet the needs of the current student cohort.

Mr. Eamonn Murtagh

The Senator's remarks on Creole and Portuguese are mirrored in our context. English is the dominant language here and where one has a dominant language, the minority language is always going to struggle for its identity in that linguistic context. Schools play a very important role in maintaining the language and the Gaeltacht is extremely important in providing a focal point for Irish users.

The Senator also asked about the fluency of Irish teachers. At primary level, the same levels of qualification persist as have been in operation since Irish became a compulsory subject on the curriculum. One needs an honour in Irish at leaving certificate level to gain entrance to a college of education. Our experience is that 85% of students going into colleges of education for primary level have either an A or B in the leaving certificate. They are very high achievers in the Irish language.

Teachers who come into the system through other routes, such as being trained abroad, are required to pass a qualifying examination in Irish — Scrúdú Cáilíochta sa Ghaeilge — before they can be fully recognised as teachers within the system. However, an issue that comes into play in this area is that of ongoing professional development. As Senator Quinn remarked earlier, if one does not use a language, one loses it. That is as true for teachers as for anybody else. It is important that teachers are given opportunities to renew their language skills and to participate in professional development courses during their careers.

We have a very large support service at primary level, called Tús Maith, which aims to improve teachers' proficiency in Irish and to provide them with avenues and opportunities to do so. At second level, we also have support services which apply to the junior and senior cycles. There are no plans to reduce those support services at present.

Mr. Murtagh talked about different levels of fluency and in that context, children who attend gaelcoláistí have an enormous advantage over those who attend mainstream schools. It is not the case that gaelcoláistí are widespread throughout the country, although they are increasing in number. Levels of Irish among children who go to mainstream schools are very different from those of children who are exposed to Irish all day, every day.

Mr. Eamonn Murtagh

Language is a skill and opportunities to practice that skill increase one's fluency. Clearly, students who attend gaelcoláistí have far more of such opportunities than children who attend English-medium schools. That is not to say we do not encourage English-speaking primary schools to give children opportunities to speak Irish throughout the day. Where we see children leaving primary school with good standards of spoken Irish, we can attribute a lot of it to the fact that the speaking of Irish is encouraged, incidentally, throughout the day in those schools. As the Deputy correctly pointed out, the demand for Irish medium education is quite strong. Approximately 35,000 children are educated through the medium of Irish, most of whom attend gaelscoileanna in the English speaking parts of the country.

Gaelscoileanna have been established every major town in the country but many of these areas lack gaelcoláistí. While I am sure this proliferation has contributed to fluency in Irish, I ask Mr. Murtagh's whether any difficulties have arisen.

What help can be made available at second level to children who experience difficulties in learning Irish but who do not test within the learning support range? Their teachers may advise private grinds in such instances.

Mr. Eamonn Murtagh

We are not aware of any difficulties in terms of learning outcomes for students attending gaelcoláistí and other Irish medium education. The most recent research we conducted was in 1988, when we made a comparison between the reading achievement levels of primary school students in Irish medium and English medium schools. We found that the standards were somewhat better in Irish medium schools but the socioeconomic profile of the children attending these schools is somewhat better. We have no evidence to suggest that any significant problems arise in respect of students in Irish medium education.

Would it be wise to produce another report?

Mr. Eamonn Murtagh

We plan to conduct further research in that area in coming years.

Mr. Oilibhéar de Búrca

The question of support for students in language acquisition who do not come within the category to which Senator Healy Eames referred is properly a concern for all teachers. We encourage the inclusion of differentiated learning both in planning and in practice. In this way, a targeted intervention can be made to identify those who fall into that category.

It is not happening.

Mr. Oilibhéar de Búrca

I cannot say "Yes" to that.

Immediately upon entering second year, children are being streamed from honours to pass level.

Mr. Oilibhéar de Búrca

I can only speak about what I see. In my experience, students are moved from one level to another with the full knowledge and consent of parents and after due consideration of the capacity of the students concerned.

That is not the case in practice. It is a major concern and I would like the inspectorate to instruct schools that parents should receive correspondence before their students are moved. This issue has been brought to my attention on a number of occasions.

I concur with Senator Healy Eames based on my own experience. Parents have complained to me that their children were arbitrarily moved from high level to low level mathematics or language subjects without consultation.

Perhaps a number of such incidents should be examined in more detail, even if Mr. de Búrca's general experience shows that it is not the case.

Mr. Oilibhéar de Búrca

That is my general experience.

It may be useful to investigate the increase in the number of students who take bunleibheal Irish. I am concerned about this increase, although I appreciate that the grading system for Irish has not greatly changed over the past several years.

We will leave our consideration of Irish at that because we should proceed to the remaining two subjects.

Are we going to discuss science and mathematics together?

No, we will discuss mathematics first, followed by science.

The inspectorate is concerned that most of the teaching in mathematics and science is teacher led rather than student driven. Teachers do not encourage a sufficiently investigative approach and are not stimulating curiosity in pupils. The inspectorate has consistently stated that inadequate use is made of information and communications technologies, ICT. These are interesting findings. How is the inspectorate changing these practices to put the child at the centre of the learning process so that he or she is actively engaged and is offered differentiated learning? We are average in science according to the programme for international student assessment, PISA, and below average in mathematics in terms of the numbers we need to study the subject at higher level if we are to remain competitive.

The teaching plans sound weak if, as the inspectorate attests, they are solely content based and do not specify learning outcomes, methodologies or ICT usage. The latter is critical to science.

Ms Doreen McMorris

On a point of clarification, the PISA outcomes test mathematics for life rather than reporting on curriculum mathematics. This is an important distinction. We are at the OECD average in PISA but we have concerns about the number of high achievers it reports.

Ms Doreen McMorris

I do not refer to higher level mathematics but to the higher achievers at PISA in so far as we are focusing on varying proficiency levels. We are a few percentage points below the OECD average for the highest levels of five and six but we perform well at lower proficiency levels. Our students are more clustered than other OECD countries. More Irish students perform better at the lower levels, whereas we do not have as many students at the high or low ends.

In terms of what the inspectorate is doing to improve performance, our reports on mathematics highlight examples of good practice. We encourage good practice among teachers at school level. The Department and the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment has conducted an extensive review of mathematics, including an examination of international practices. We are now at the exciting point of introducing a new initiative, project maths, to our schools. Project maths sets out to achieve the ends to which the Senator referred by means of varying methodologies, increasing ICT use, encouraging student engagement and expanding differentiation and activity learning. The project will take a number of years to be completed because we are changing a culture.

Ms Doreen McMorris

The project sets out to change the traditional didactic approach, which remains part of our system.

Why does Ms McMorris think 5,000 children failed basic level mathematics in this year's leaving certificate examination?

Ms Doreen McMorris

The Senator is speaking about the ordinary level leaving certificate.

Ms Doreen McMorris

I remind the Senator that in the early 1990s, 20% of students failed. While the current rate is much higher than what we want, it is an improvement on the past. When foundation level mathematics was introduced in 1994, the intention was that the course, which is very practical and heavy on applications, would account for 25% of our student cohort. The uptake of that course has been 10% to 11%, therefore many students are taking a course that is not appropriate to their needs. Members will ask why they are not taking foundation level. One of the main reasons is that third level colleges have been slow to recognise the foundation level as an alternative.

Ms Doreen McMorris

However they are moving on very much to accepting high grades at foundation level as an alternative to an ordinary level grade. My last look at the list of courses showed over 200 third level courses for which foundation level maths is accepted, for example accounting at the Institute of Technology in Sligo and engineering at University of Limerick. These courses accept foundation level maths but our students are slow to accept the foundation level as the course most appropriate to them. There are perceptions out there.

There are perceptions.

Ms Doreen McMorris

We are trying very hard to get underneath those perceptions. That goes part way to answering the Senator's question on why the EFNG rate is as high as it is.

The second last paragraph of page four states, "Inspectors often identify the area of teacher questioning as one that needs attention, particularly in relation to the need to promote more higher-order thinking among students". Would I be correct in interpreting this as meaning our education system at this level should promote our students' ability to think rather than remember? The commentary on page six states, "In the majority of schools and classrooms mathematics is taught in a traditional, didactic way. Teaching is predominantly teacher-led", etc. This is a reversion to the old way where teachers told students how to do something and told them to memorise it. I have spoken to a number of maths teachers who were very enthusiastic about project maths but were concerned about the roll-out of resources and time to implement it. The framework design has been enthusiastically accepted.

Group work has been accepted in life. People work in groups. Whether one is working on an accountancy audit team or a design project, one is learning to work with other people and the relative skills of a team where some people might be stronger in some areas than others. Will project maths encourage that process in principle? Is it trying to get teachers at the junior cycle in particular, or perhaps in both cycles, to learn how to think rather than how to remember? Is it encouraging group work to facilitate people's working in teams because that is broadly speaking going to be their experience of working life?

The inspectors speak about traditional approaches and how a subject is taught in a particular way because that is how it has always been taught. When a student, particularly at leaving certificate higher level, comes up with a slightly different problem, he or she is not able to think it through because he or she has not learned to do this. I agree with Deputy Quinn on the need to teach them how to think and tease it out.

They need to learn why, not how.

Ms Doreen McMorris

I will try to deal with all of the points, because they are interrelated. I will begin with Deputy Quinn's point about the traditional approach and the emphasis on recall. That has been a feature of our system for a long time and has been the traditional approach. The examination system has evolved over the years to put a strong emphasis on rewarding procedures, knowledge and reproduction of what is learned in the classroom. If one examines any research or commentary on mathematics in Ireland, that is a fact. We are not the only country to come up against this challenge. Mathematics is made up of two things: that kit bag of techniques, knowledge and procedures and the application of the knowledge and understanding to problems in a wide variety of contexts. Traditionally we have emphasised the first strand. With project maths we are moving, as many European countries are, towards more emphasis on applications and producing mathematically literate people rather than people who are able to reproduce information.

Deputy Quinn mentioned understanding. There are two types of understanding: instrumental understanding, which is just doing the sum; and relational understanding, which is knowing when to do a sum and when to apply it. We have to emphasise the relational understanding more. Exams to date have been an influence on what happens in classrooms. It is an accepted fact that what is tested is taught. However, in project maths we are setting out to change how teachers teach and work with their students. I will not use the phrase "team work" as much as "group work" and "varied approaches". There is a place for whole-class teaching but there is also a place for more group, project and investigative work and interpretation. One does not always have to get an even, correct answer. Life is not made up of even numbers.

That brings me back to Deputy Conlon's point about a leaving certificate student not being able to do the sum because it is not as was met before. There will be more emphasis on that. The project will be prioritised in the context of support for schools. It will be mainstream for all schools in September 2010 and in the year before that there will be a programme of professional development for all teachers. The project started this September and has involved just 24 schools.

Does it include junior and senior cycle?

Ms Doreen McMorris

Yes, and this sets it apart from anything we have done before. Everybody is very enthusiastic about this. Schools were invited to apply for it. We have approximately 700 second level schools and over 200 were so enthusiastic they said they were ready to go. We chose 24 schools to ensure a good spread across the country and not just have schools with a higher capacity. We all know about the Hawthorne effect, that the pilot is sometimes better than the real thing.

Are lower socioeconomic groups included?

Ms Doreen McMorris

There is a good spread right across the 24 schools. The reason a small pilot group was chosen is to allow what happens at school level to feed into the process of curriculum development and how the exam develops. Students' voices will be taken on board, not just teachers'. This is entirely new and a completely different approach from anything we have done before. Traditionally we have developed the curriculum and then the assessment. This time we are doing it all together and it includes both junior and senior cycle so as not to have teachers teaching one way in one class and then changing mode to teach another way. All the teachers in each of those schools are engaging in this. It is not just those who are willing to go with it.

Ms Doreen McMorris

It will take time. There is no quick fix because we are talking about changing culture. However, a national co-ordinator and six regional development officers are already in place to drive this.

That was one of my questions, because there is a change in the perception among students that the methodology rather than the answer is important, that they would be rewarded for each step taken and if the answer is not correct at the end, they have not lost everything. That is important. The establishment of departments of maths in schools is to be welcomed. However, there is sometimes a difficulty with getting people to share methodologies. Somebody who has developed something thinks it is theirs and that they should nearly have a patent on it. This can happen where somebody has been long established in a school and new people come in. It is very refreshing to have the new methodologies to encourage the teaching of maths and particularly the take-up of higher level maths. Maths was not my forté. I loathed the subject. I did it because I had to do it. To get students to develop a love of maths is very important.

For junior certificate, transition year is a year when one can make wonderful strides in developing methodologies which allow students to think in a different way, develop and be ready to take the next step when they move to the leaving certificate cycle.

One concern is the number of people who fail higher level mathematics in the leaving certificate. Are alarm bells ringing in schools if there are students who are consistently underachieving? The failure rate is 4.5% this year and others are 3.8% and 3.2%. With anybody at that level, should there not be an alarm bell or warning system that would indicate a student should consider taking an ordinary level paper rather than doing a higher level paper and failing it? Do the witnesses have any thoughts on that?

Ms Doreen McMorris

On marking, I should clarify the system, which we have had for very many years. A negative marking system has been a distinctive feature of the marking of exams for the junior and leaving certificate, which means students are not marked on the answers. Every line of work produced by the students is marked and a penalty is received every time they go wrong. The right answer in the exams is not what matters; it is the work involved. That has always been the case.

There was a question regarding mathematics departments and the extent to which teachers genuinely share. The comments were correct in that the setting up of departments has been quite slow because it represented a significant culture change. In the literature one can see the term "egg box" used to describe mathematics teachers and teachers in second level schools. This means each person operates independently, just like six eggs in a box. This has changed as a function of the in-service put in place in 2000 for the junior certificate syllabus revision. Teachers have engaged very well with that in-service and have come to realise the benefit of departments. We have focused on that in particular.

Change is slow and to get people planning together and really talking about the issues they meet is a very progressive step. We have quite a bit to go before we will find teachers sitting in on the classes of others or team teaching. We must move in that direction. We encourage that at school level and when we see it, we praise it and talk about it.

We are seeing it happen in cases where there is a leaving certificate applied programme that is well embedded or the junior certificate school programme. These are programmes rather than subjects but there is a mathematics component in both. The teachers who have engaged in those programmes have seen the benefits of this and they are much more willing to tend this way. We have a road to travel in this respect.

With regard to the dislike for mathematics, I have taught it for very many years to all levels. The sense of satisfaction coming from the subject can be experienced by anybody at any level. There are attitude problems and perceptions that sometimes influence how a learner behaves. Very often this comes from the adult sphere, as in Ireland it is quite acceptable for a person to say he or she was no good at mathematics but is doing well none the less. Nobody says such things about literacy. It is a western phenomenon.

Many young people feel they are no good at the subject and will not be able for it before they even start. A very interesting part of the research in PISA is around the self-efficacy area, or the student's perception of how good he or she is. PISA showed a strong correlation between self-efficacy and performance, which means that if a student thinks he or she will do well, the chances are greater he or she will do better. It is not just related to Ireland and PISA worked out that self-perception is very important. As parents, adults and schools, we have much work to do in that area.

We must develop Senator Barack Obama's theme of "Yes we can."

Ms Doreen McMorris

The Deputy's last point concerned what she called the failure rate. We look at this as the rate of people achieving an E, F or NG, in other words, those who do not achieve a D in the leaving certificate. The Deputy mentioned the higher leaving certificate in particular. The rate has been approximately 3% to 4% over the years and tends to be in that range. It is not high at all when one considers all the leaving certificate subjects.

The Deputy's question concerned the reason people take this risk when failure is so significant. This is not because mathematics is the most important subject but rather its importance for third level entry. For that reason almost all our students take it although it is not compulsory. This has great implications for students if they do not pass the subject and the Deputy's question is obvious as a result.

I can only answer from what we know of our work in schools. There are people who have difficulties on the day. The mock exam — which happens in most schools — will deliver a message to a student if there is real risk. Sometimes people are prepared to take that risk. We find teachers normally take the safe route and it is my own experience that if teachers feel a child will not get a D, they will tend to advise the student to take the ordinary level exam.

Considering the performance of those taking ordinary level, there is a high percentage of the A grade at ordinary level. It is logical to suggest the reason so many get an A at ordinary level is because a very significant number make late decisions and drop down, although not all do. It is not a particularly big problem as the rate of 3% to 4% is not huge.

My fear is that if somebody is taking higher level mathematics at leaving certificate, that person is considered a high achiever and will probably take six or seven other higher level subjects. If that person fails mathematics, where will he or he be left? It is difficult.

Ms Doreen McMorris

The Deputy is moving to the guidance area. Students need guidance to make the right choice in terms of load. Some will want to take seven higher level subjects as a type of insurance and others will take one ordinary level subject and six higher level subjects. The decision making is very important for students.

Advice can be given but students may not necessarily take that advice.

Ms Doreen McMorris

That is the point.

I will give Senator Fidelma Healy Eames 30 seconds.

What type of take-up is there on recommendations to improve practice? For example, there is the recommendation for teachers to observe model classes or team teaching. In my experience this could be like a red rag to a bull with some staff to suggest that teachers should observe the better practice of others.

Ms Doreen McMorris

We do not have any control in that respect. Our role as inspectors is to evaluate, advise and support so we do not have the power to tell anybody to do anything. The approach we take is to explain the value of certain approaches. We make suggestions and recommendations and answer any questions. We leave it at that. The recommendations in the report are always summarised at the end and the board of management is invited to respond to them. Very often we get in response some lines from the board indicating certain actions have already been taken. We would not normally see that team teaching has been introduced because that is too much at this stage.

The school response is the best way of knowing what action is taken. In time we will return to schools and once we have been around schools — after approximately four years — it is our policy to go back. Once this happens, we are in a position to look at what we recommended before and ask questions as to how the school is progressing. We must take schools from where they are.

In any inspection process, the idea of consulting students would be very important. The witnesses mentioned earlier that there is some level of feedback taken from students during the inspection process. With regard to the pilot, the witnesses mentioned listening to student voices. Compared with the current actions of inspectors and hopes to tap into the student voice — they are the ultimate consumers of education — where is it intended to take the process and how will it happen?

Ms Doreen McMorris

We have to acknowledge that our processes are evolving. We have already engaged in the ICT evaluation. There was a student survey — a very extensive one. We recently carried out a systematic evaluation of guidance involving 50 schools, in which we gave every student in a randomly chosen group a questionnaire about their experiences of the guidance service — what they wanted from it, what they felt they had got enough of, what they needed more of and so on. At the level of the inspectorate's processes we are already doing that. In terms of the classroom, however, as a maths inspector, part of my job is to work with the class — to question them to see how the teaching I have just observed is working through at the level of the student. Thus, it is already very much part of what we do.

The Deputy's third point was about project maths. The students' views will be communicated through close work with teachers in the pilot. After all, there are only 24 schools, and there is quite a substantial team of support people who will be seeing how everything is bedding in and how it is working out. How the students are responding will be examined as part of the process.

I have a related question. On page 6 of the executive summary Ms McMorris mentions that the resources available to teachers are under-used in the teaching and learning of maths and that this applies particularly to ICT. Obviously on this side of the debate within the Oireachtas, the argument would be that ICT facilities within schools are insufficient. Could Ms McMorris clarify what she means by stating there is insufficient use of ICT by maths teachers?

Ms Doreen McMorris

What we are finding is that teachers are using ICT in planning for classes. They have handouts and sometimes they will take something off the Internet. They tend to use these technologies in the planning stage. However, they are not using what is there as much as they should be in the context of teaching and learning. When our inspectors are out in schools they are actually looking at the context. It is an important part of our code of practice that we do this. We look at the facilities and what is available. The inspectors are finding that there is lots of potential for teachers to use more of what they have.

Can Ms McMorris give us an example of what she means?

Ms Doreen McMorris

For example, there are some software packages which have been provided free, particularly through the maths support services, yet the children are not using them as much as they should be. That is one very obvious example.

What about the use of whiteboards in schools?

Ms Doreen McMorris

We see quite a lot of whiteboards, but our view on whiteboards is that in view of their cost, the money would be better invested in ICT equipment. We are not saying there is anything wrong with whiteboards, but it is a matter of priorities. Our report on ICT gives a lot of detail on that. It was an extensive evaluation because it involved many different dimensions — case studies, observations, interviews and so on. They have a lot of potential but there are other priorities.

While the discussion was going on I checked a website I had seen before. Apparently the remote control for the Wii games console — not the console itself, but the remote — can be used to achieve an 85% to 90% effective virtual whiteboard for a couple of hundred euro, including the projector, versus €5,000 for a whiteboard. Have recommendations in this regard been made to teachers who are complaining that they cannot afford a whiteboard in order to make the technology as widely available as possible? I take Ms McMorris's point about reprioritising because of cost, but if a school can have a whiteboard for under €500 by employing some twisting and turning of gadgets, this could be a good option. The technology is available on various websites — the one I was looking at was Johnny Chung Lee's page. Would Ms McMorris recommend that teachers who are in the know use that sort of technology?

Ms Doreen McMorris

We would never recommend any particular technology or project. After all, we are talking about school-based decisions. We recommend that they make the best use of whatever they have, that they think carefully and, furthermore, that they build in the extent to which teachers will have the skills and the will to use them. There is some fear out there among teachers. With all the good things in the world that does not automatically mean students will benefit. Our priority when we are in schools is the quality of education for the students. We leave all that important decision making where it belongs, which is at the level of the school and the maths department.

Spoken like a true mathematician.

I would like to continue with this but we must move on to science.

I enjoyed reading Mr. Kelly's report on the teaching of science. We are about average in terms of our OECD performance. More important, we are very much below the top-performing countries such as Finland and Singapore. However, my particular concern is that we are below the level we need as a nation in terms of innovation and the knowledge society. In Mr. Kelly's view, why is there such a low level of uptake in the sciences for leaving certificate? It is pretty good in biology but very poor in physics, chemistry and agricultural science.

Mr. Kelly recommended greater collaboration between science and learning support. I am delighted to see this recommendation. Why is it recommended for science but not for maths and Irish? I know I am going back to our previous discussion but I thought it was very interesting that that was pointed out, because in my experience maths and Irish are the subjects in which people seek private grinds, not science, yet a clear link is made there.

My final question cuts across all three subject areas. In all of the reports the authors recommend the use of more effective and active methodologies by teachers. I welcome that. Should benchmarking have been used as a reward system in this regard? Was it a missed opportunity? Could it be used in that way in the future? The team of inspectors is out there observing good practice. Those teachers get no more money or reward for good practice than poorer teachers.

Just to clarify, the inspectors will not be able to give their opinions on that.

All right, but nevertheless I will ask the question.

Do the representatives see teachers as being open to the amount of retraining and rethinking that is needed in project maths, in investigative science approaches and in the move towards oracy in the Irish language?

Mr. Niall Kelly

I thank the Senator for her questions. To deal first with the statement about Ireland being below the OECD average——

No, it is at the OECD average in science.

Mr. Niall Kelly

With due respect, I think it is slightly higher than the OECD average.

That is based on 2004 figures.

Mr. Niall Kelly

If we look at the PISA report for 2006 we can see that the high achievers are at the OECD average, and with regard to general competence in science we are significantly above the average — about 5%. In addition, the 2008 OECD report Education at a Glance, in discussing the number of science graduates per 100,000 in the 25 to 34 age group, states that Ireland ranks fourth in the OECD — which is a significant outcome — and second in the EU. That certainly paints a picture.

With regard to the Senator's question about uptake at leaving certificate level, the committee will be aware that in 2003 a revised science syllabus was introduced for junior certificate science, which was first examined in 2006. This relates equally to the question raised by the Senator about active teaching methodologies, because this revised syllabus is predicated on a hands-on, investigative approach to science teaching and learning. What we expect to see as a result is a continuing increase in the uptake of science subjects. The Senator mentioned that the uptake of biology at senior cycle is high. In fact, the general trend in biology is that numbers have been increasing over the last few years. Similarly, there is a positive trend for agricultural science. The numbers in agricultural science have doubled over a ten-year period, which is similarly a very encouraging statistic. Physics uptake has certainly decreased somewhat — by about 2% — over the last number of years. However, if we compare surveys carried out over a similar period in England, Scotland and Wales we can see they are also experiencing a decline in that area.

Why does Mr. Kelly think that is?

Mr. Niall Kelly

There has been considerable thought on this issue. It is a complex question. Why that may be is a complex question but the future for us lies in the investigative approach and the adoption of those methodologies. In this country we see that the uptake would be significantly influenced. Equally, leading on from that there has been significant curricular revision and the NCCA is currently revising the syllabus for physics, chemistry and biology at senior cycle. One of the focal points for that work is the belief that it will lead to increased uptake at senior cycle.

The inspectors are working on that one. The practical approach at junior certificate level is welcome in which 35% of assessment is done in advance through practical work.

Mr. Niall Kelly


That is very welcome. The inspectors recommend greater collaboration. Why should that be the case in respect of science and learning support but not in Irish and mathematics?

Ms Doreen McMorris

That is not mentioned in this summary because we had some difficulties trying to draw into a short document all the things we wished to say. In almost every report, reference is made to mathematics and suggestions are offered concerning greater collaboration between the two departments. The issue is always addressed and is a key part of what we do.

Generally speaking, we find that very good work is going on in mathematics and it is not ignored. Just because it is not in our summary does not mean we ignore it. However, we are talking here about people with identified learning difficulties and that is where the learning support is applied. We are not talking about support for a child who might wish to do higher level but is more suited to ordinary level. That is a different area, as the Senator will know.

There is a difficulty here because the children who are tested for the learning support range must be quite weak, with a level below the tenth percentile.

Ms Doreen McMorris

At second level the schools have a resource and for those children who are having particular difficulties, there is certain freedom at school level to use that resource. One does not have to belong formally in that area as judged by a standardised test.

My finding is that there are children around the 30th percentile who are getting no learning support and are gradually falling behind, year by year. I have seen this happen at primary level. By the end of their second level experience they are down almost as low as learning support level because they are not managing to stay with the class teacher. These are the children for whom I have concern. They are not the high achievers or the very low achievers, but the ones in the mid-range that are gradually falling behind.

Ms Doreen McMorris

The Senator is obviously thinking of people she has met or cases she knows.

I know it from practice.

Ms Doreen McMorris

Yes, but I would suggest the Senator is talking about individual school levels. In situations like that, parents should be in contact with the schools and should attend parent-teacher meetings, discuss these issues and address them through approaches such as differentiated learning and other means. Mr. de Búrca said this earlier.

This comment is widespread and was said to me by class teachers when I was working in teacher education. It is now being said by parents. It is a more common problem than is suggested. The issue is that differentiated learning is not easy work for teachers. We can recommend all we want and it is easy to do so but this must be inculcated into practice and we must see how it is being embedded. Our investment in teachers in this country has been nil and throwing an odd in-service day at them does nothing to change practice.

The inspector cannot comment on that——

Inspectors can comment. How open are teachers to in-service training? How much planning is there for the future so that teachers can be helped to change practice and thereby engage all learners in their classes? There is a considerable ability range involved, from the above learning support group up to the high achievers.

I shall call briefly on Mr. Murtagh because I realise the inspectors are precluded from giving their opinions on Government policy.

Mr. Eamonn Murtagh

I will not comment on the policy issue. Decisions in respect of learning support are essentially made at school level and take into consideration the resources available. Learning support is designed, as Senator Healy Eames rightly pointed out, for the children at the lowest level of achievement. Priority is generally given to literacy and numeracy in supporting those students. I do not believe we would ever have a situation where a student at the 30th percentile would be described as requiring learning support because that would mean we would have to provide learning support for a third of the population——

They are still not doing well in class. That is the point.

Mr. Eamonn Murtagh

There are other avenues and interventions available at class level that can help support those children without necessarily providing learning support.

Mr. Eamonn Murtagh

Group teaching, differentiated learning, all those things——

We are back to the teacher.

Mr. Eamonn Murtagh

Yes, the teacher takes first responsibility for the progress of the student in the class. The learning support teacher, as the name suggests, is a support and students' needs must be met primarily in the class and then supported outside it.

The Senator's other question concerned how open teachers are to professional development. Project maths gives a good indication of that. One third of post-primary schools in Ireland voluntarily offered to become involved in an innovation which will require teachers to engage substantially in professional development activities. That is a fairly good indication that there is a good climate among teachers regarding professional development.

With regard to learning science in an investigative way, in their executive summary the inspectors made reference to the fact that not all students are having this experience. It is stated in the body of the report that some schools are not applying this methodology as they are required to do by the syllabus. Why is that the case and what are the gaps? What can be done?

What is the vision for this project in terms of the future and the progress that might be made? Are there adequate resources for schools to exploit this opportunity? A linked factor is the way in which students are given full scope to explore science and to truly investigate. There is obviously a limit as to where one lets them go and health and safety issues are involved. In some schools the ceiling is falling in but we do not want to see the roof being blown off.

Mr. Niall Kelly

Regarding the difficulties, and the reason the programme is in certain schools, in the experience of inspectors there is only a limited number of schools in which students are not learning about science in an investigative way. We are talking about junior cycle where the syllabus was first introduced in 2003, and first examined in 2006. It is still finding its way into the system. We are now fruitfully moving from the culture that was there for many years and towards an investigative approach, towards encouraging students to problem solve, enabling their ability to think, to ask "How?" and "Why not?"

We saw those measures move ahead, initially through the application of support services whereby we had a junior science support service that worked intensively and fruitfully to support the implementation of the junior science syllabus. The junior science website is available and provides a range of ICT-based resources that teachers can actively use in their classroom teaching.

With regard to the resources element of Senator Ryan's question, every laboratory in every school was given a grant of €3,500 at the inception of the junior science syllabus. There was capacity within the system to allow schools continue with the old syllabus if they believed their resources needed time to be in a state of readiness to implement the syllabus.

I am happy to say that all schools are now implementing the revised syllabus. They all believe they now have the resources to deliver that syllabus.

Mr. Kelly spoke about a limited number of schools. How many are there and what efforts are being made to push them along?

Mr. Niall Kelly

I do not have the exact number. As for the efforts to push them along, there are two ways in which this happens. There is our work involving science inspectors who visit schools and work with teachers. Through evaluation and the advice and support they offer, the inspectors identify areas where there can be improvements in practice. They support the teachers during their evaluation work to bring about these improvements. There are support services in place also. A substantial number of teachers throughout the country attended in-service training for junior cycle science and received significant support for this. Those resources remain in place. There are still a significant amount of support services in place for science in the junior cycle and for physics, chemistry and biology at senior cycle. There is a range of supports for teachers from the inspectorate. We are in the process of finalising a publication that examines science at junior cycle level. This could offer valuable advice to schools and a commentary evaluating the state of science at junior cycle. This could be useful to teachers in reviewing how they could improve their practices in the classroom.

What happens in the case of a school that does not do this either because it is unwilling, unable or without the resources to do it? What happens when a school does not implement the syllabus?

Mr. Niall Kelly

All schools are now implementing the revised junior cycle science syllabus.

This means the report is out of date if it suggests some schools are not implementing it.

Mr. Niall Kelly

The executive summary refers to the way in which the subject is taught and to the investigative methodology.

That is part of the syllabus according to the reference in this report.

Mr. Niall Kelly

One can teach an experiment by saying if one follows steps one, two, three, four and five one will arrive at the result. Or, one can design the experiment in a different way, that encourages students to consider how to investigate something. In such a case one forms a hypothesis at the beginning. One can then see what measurements one needs to take. One then identifies the variables one needs to control. One performs the experiment, examines the result and tries to investigate in this way. This involves a cultural shift for some teachers from the previous approach, which involved setting part one with part two, followed by part three, and the result would follow and then the experiment is deemed complete. The executive summary refers to the move to a more investigative methodology, which is more open-ended in nature. It takes time for this culture to be established in schools.

I agree there has been a huge change in the way science is taught. For many years science was not offered to everyone or was not compulsory. However, I know of many schools where science is automatically taken in first, second and third year up to the junior certificate, which is welcome. The practical element, including mandatory experiments, is welcome also. However, there is a need for some practical component at leaving certificate level since students do so many experiments during the course of their studies. I welcome the planned introduction of a practical component in the report. It would be very effective in teaching leaving certificate science.

I am concerned about students who do not take physics and chemistry as a subject. Such students may find themselves doing a third level course in which the requirements or the book list did not give sufficient information and did not stress that physics or chemistry would be a part of the course at third level. Such students can suddenly find themselves doing a course in which physics or chemistry is a significant component and they may have great difficulties with this. Perhaps this is another area where work needs to be done. I am loth to add more work to anyone's load, but perhaps there is a need for guidance. Perhaps there could be a more in-depth examination of what comprises courses at third level, so that students who have not studied physics or chemistry at leaving certificate would not be at a disadvantage, or find it more difficult. Such students may opt out or change course half way through feeling they cannot cope because they have not done these subjects.

On the take-up of physics and chemistry at leaving certificate level there could be a role for the transition year. There is much latitude in transition year to do wonderful things. I am aware that in biology one dissects the heart and examines eyes and it is all very practical and "hands on". Perhaps there are resources available into which teachers could tap. Perhaps they are unaware of such resources or are not using resources to encourage more students to take up physics and chemistry as there is certainly a fall-off in the number of students.

The delegation may not be able to comment on this matter, but we all recognise that professional development is very important. People need professional development in all walks of life, but it is a nightmare for those managing schools on a day-to-day basis. It is possible for four, five or six teachers to be out on in-service training on any given day whether it is for maths, science or Irish. Parents seek increased class contact time. They see it as a business where the student is the customer and they need maximum class contact time. However if a manager cannot get a subject-matched teacher then there is a difficulty. The time has come to examine the options for professional development, including how and when it is delivered to allow schools to offer maximum class contact time for the pupils in the care of schools, who are there to be educated. The delegation may not be able to comment on this, but it is a matter about which I have strong views.

Before the witnesses respond I will comment. I agree with the views of Deputy Conlon on the transition year. It could be used for more practical applications. There seems to be anecdotal evidence that since transition year was put in place, children do not take to leaving certificate level what are perceived to be more difficult science subjects, such as physics and chemistry rather than biology which is seen as a less rigorous subject, although it is not. Children take part in transition year work experience and then continue to work afterwards. They may work on Saturdays and Sundays and sometimes on Thursday evenings and do not necessarily have the time required to do physics, chemistry or other more difficult subjects. I do not seek a view on Government policy, but is there any anecdotal evidence that more children work after completing transition year? Is the transition year impacting on their study time and their choice of subjects? I recognise that the delegation does not represent the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment, NCCA, but has it received any feedback from teachers in schools about whether a general science subject at leaving certificate level could be helpful?

I refer to the professional development of teachers. Consider the countries at the top of the OECD programme for international student assessment, PISA, such as Finland. It chose to invest in teachers at the beginning of the 1990s. Now all its teachers are educated to the level of a masters degree or above. By comparison, the percentage of teachers in Ireland who are educated to masters degree level is in single digits.

Consider the culture change referred to by Mr. Kelly which is necessary to introduce more effective practices and to lead to improved outcomes for all pupils. Could we improve practices by the provision of masters degrees for teachers? This may allow for a thorough examination of methodology, learning outcomes and information and communications technology. At present we rely on the goodwill of principals to release teachers, which is a very ad hoc arrangement and involves disruption of the school day. It is not possible to plan ahead effectively under this arrangement. It is surely time for a new look at ways to upskill teachers.

Will the delegation address Deputy Conlon's questions first?

Mr. Niall Kelly

I take the point raised by the Deputy about the necessity for information on physics and chemistry for some third level courses. Guidance counsellors can play an important role in informing students and parents and working with teachers to ensure the correct information is available. This is part of our work in whole-school evaluation. The issues of free flow of information and supports for students frequently arise in discussions with subject departments. The whole-school evaluation has a section dealing with supports for students and this includes the provision of guidance for students.

The second question was on the role of transition year. It was suggested that there may be resources that could be tapped into further to encourage the uptake of physics and chemistry, in particular, at senior cycle. A wide range of resources are available for transition year which have been developed specifically for it, which are more widely available through the Internet and information and communications technology and which we encourage teachers to develop and use as widely as possible with students. Our experience with transition year is that there is a wide and varied experience of science for students, and the experience tends to be practically based and students experience science experimentally. That encourages them to want to study science at senior cycle.

The third question was on the area of CPD and the Chairman has said that should not be commented on. The Chairman asked a question on transition year work experience and whether that influences students' classwork. We do not look at that area in our evaluation work with schools and students, but we look at what influences student learning and I have not had that issue brought to my attention as being a factor. The question of feedback from teachers in schools on a request for a general science subject was asked, and I can only rely on anecdotal evidence in answering. A final question was asked by a Senator on a policy matter on which I cannot comment.

Are we talking about the pursuance of masters degrees in specialist subjects at second level?

Mr. Kelly has said he is not allowed to give his opinion.

Based on the teachers who have masters in those areas, would Mr. Kelly find they are using more of the approaches he is promoting, such as investigative or student-led approaches in the teaching of science? What is his experience of teachers in the classroom who have a masters degree in these areas?

Mr. Niall Kelly

When we visit a school to do a subject inspection in science, one element we look for is the qualifications of the teacher. Looking at distinctions between various qualifications and attempting to draw an analysis or comparison between what one experiences in the course of a subject inspection is not something we have engaged in. The programme of professional development in place, initially to support the implementation of the physical sciences and the revision of physics and chemistry, and latterly of junior science, has significantly moved practice among teachers to adopting an investigative methodology.

To move practice forward it is important to carry out that analysis.

Senator Healy Eames has had adequate time for comments and questions. We are no longer engaging in commentary. Are there any final supplementary questions?

I thank the delegation for appearing before the committee today. It has been a very interesting discussion in which valid points were made by Members of the Oireachtas on Government policy on which the delegation could not comment on but which will go back to the Department. The delegation has been very helpful in illustrating the progress made and the challenges that remain. I thank the delegates for their time.

The joint committee adjourned at 11.55 a.m. until 10 a.m. on Thursday, 20 November 2008.