25 November, 2015 - Address by Dr Harold Hislop, Chief Inspector - Research Conference 2015 of The National Council for Special Education

Opening Address by Dr Harold Hislop, Chief Inspector, Department of Education and Skills at the Research Conference 2015 of The National Council for Special Education

Croke Park Conference Centre, Dublin
Wednesday, 25 November 2015 at 10.00am


A chairde, ba mhaith liom ar dtús mo bhuíochas a ghabháil leis an gComhairle Naisiúnta um Oideachas Speisialta as ucht an chuiridh dom labhairt ag an gComhdháil thábhachtach seo.
Bhí an-áthas orm nuair a mhínigh bhur gCathaoirleach, Eamon dom, go mbeadh an chomhdháil seo ag díriú isteach ar thábhachtach an oide gairmiúil. Tuigim go maith go gcaithfear béim speisialta a chur ar na riachtanais oiliúna agus tacaíochta atá ag múinteoirí a bhíonn ag freastáil ar pháistí a bhfuil riachtanais speisialta oideachas acu. Is féidir le comhdháil mar seo cabhrú go mór chun feabhas na múinteoireachta a chur chun cinn, ní amháin do dhaltaí le riachtanais speisialta ach do na daltaí uile atá in ár scoilenna. Is mór agam, mar sin, an seans seo mo thacaíocht a thabhairt don ócáid agus don obair atá idir láimh agaibh.

An opportunity to thank you

I was glad to accept this invitation to open this conference for a number of reasons. Firstly, it gives me a public opportunity to thank your Chairman, Eamon, and the CEO of NCSE, Teresa, as well as the members of the Council and executive, and all the members of the team for the contribution they make in improving the delivery of education services to children and persons with special educational needs. Under Eamon's strategic chairmanship and Teresa's professional leadership, the Council has helped to improve significantly the delivery of services for children with special education needs and it has made important contributions to policy and practice in this vital area of educational provision. Is obair an-tábhachtach a bhíonn ar siúl agaibh chuile lá, agus guím gach ráth uirthi.

Bringing together research and practice

Secondly, I was delighted to speak here this morning, because your conference brings together two themes that are critical for the quality of learning for all children: research and teachers' practice. Many countries around the world have adopted different policies and actions to improve learning in schools for all pupils. Most state that they want to enhance and support the quality of teaching, but many different routes are taken to achieve this.

Investing in and improving teachers' research-based professional practice

In Ireland, we have committed ourselves - even in the middle of an economic recession - to improve teaching and learning by investing in high quality teacher education.

  • We have lengthened and reviewed the content of initial teacher education programmes.
  • We have given the Teaching Council a range of powers to oversee initial and continuing education programmes and to ensure that we have a fully registered teaching profession.
  • We are moving on to make continuing professional development a normal and mandatory part of the teacher's career, through the development of Cosán, the national framework for teachers' learning.
  • We have changed school inspection to focus on teachers' practice and the quality of students' learning, and the Inspectorate's new Code of Practice re-affirms and strengthens our commitment to respectful, co-professional working with teachers to encourage improvement.
  • We are building on the high regard in which Irish teachers are held and placing our trust in teachers by offering them opportunities to use more varied forms of student assessment, school self-evaluation and co-professional peer review to examine and improve their work with young people.

The underlying theme through all of these developments is to ensure that teachers' practice in schools is informed by research about how children learn - we want the highest standards of research-informed practice for our children. Your own conference today has exactly that combination. It seeks to bring the learning from research to the practitioner in the classroom; it shows how practitioners can conduct and enrich research knowledge about effective learning and how to support it; and it enables all of us, in this room and in our learning communities, to apply the lessons of research in classroom practice, and indeed, in policy development.

NCSE contributing to policy

NCSE, although it is a relatively new organisation in the Irish education landscape, already has a strong track record in undertaking and disseminating independent research; and in providing evidence-based policy advice to the Minister for Education and Skills on special education issues.

Over the years the NCSE has commissioned major pieces of research and the reports have been interesting and valuable, reassuring and at times unsettling. Valuable research papers have been provided already on such subjects as:

  • The education of blind and visually impaired children
  • Parental experiences of services for children with Special Education Needs
  • The experiences of students moving to further and higher education.

Influential policy advice reports have been provided in relation to:

  • The education of deaf and hard of hearing children
  • The role of Special Schools and classes
  • The education of children with challenging behaviour

I know, you are currently providing policy advice on educational provision for students with Autism Spectrum Disorders, and that another very interesting piece of forthcoming NCSE research will be the review of the Altered Provision Project. This project involves the appointment of a teacher, through the provision of additional teaching hours, rather than that of new SNA hours, to engage with students with Emotional and Behavioural Difficulties/Disabilities (EBD) entering post-primary schools.

NCSE research findings are always informative and based on corroborated evidence rather than on the latest fads or narrow interests. The findings have often caused policy makers and decision makers to look differently at the experiences of children and at the quality of service being provided. That's exactly what good research should do. And in doing so, good research should enable and inform change and improvement.

NCSE informing change in policy

Here too, NCSE has much to be proud of. The NCSE's 2013 paper Supporting Students with Special Educational Needs in Schools paved the way for the publication in 2014 of A Proposed New Model for Allocating Teaching Resources for Students. In that work, you put forward a better way to provide necessary supports to the children who need them most. It is good to see that the model is being piloted in over forty (47) primary and post-primary schools in the current school year to test whether the proposals work in practice. And other recommendations from this research work in 2013 and 2014 are being implemented. The Department is supporting NCSE to establish an Inclusion Support Service, and the Council's work has influenced the development of enrolment legislation which aims at protecting the rights of children with SEN, as well as the provision of information to parents and teacher education.

(As an aside, here, as I mention the new Inclusion Support Service, I wish to acknowledge the important contributions that the Special Education Support Service, the National Behaviour Support Service and the Visiting Teachers for the Visually and Hearing Impaired have made in improving services for children with various learning needs and challenges. I want to wish all involved in these organisations and in NCSE every success in forging the new Inclusion Support Service under the NCSE umbrella.)

NCSE research informing teachers' practice

Of course, it's not enough for research to inform policy making - though that is important. I'm just as interested - indeed more interested - in research that impacts on teachers' practice, on the practice of school leaders and support staff, and the practice of those working directly with teachers and school leaders, such as advisers, SENOs, inspectors and others.

Like me, you have probably heard criticism that, in the field of education, we are slow to adopt teaching and learning practices that are supported by well-grounded research. Critics often point out that how we teach appears to have changed relatively little over the years. They contrast teachers with medical professionals, who, they say, are always evolving the way they do their work to make sure that it reflects the most up-to-date state of medical research and knowledge. Whether that is true or not, what is really impressive and very welcome is the emphasis in today's conference on a strong linking of up-to-date research with the practice of teachers and teacher educators to ensure that teachers' work and teacher education achieve the inclusion for all students that we need.

Achieving inclusion for all learners is no small task. So, it's very good to see Jennifer Doran, Head of Research and Communication in the NCSE, drawing together the lessons from NCSE policy advice that can inform teacher education, in her paper, "Teacher Education for Inclusion" for today's programme. Peter Hick's study on initial teacher education and Dr Carmel Duggan's paper on continuing professional development for inclusion in Ireland are further timely contributions.

We are indeed fortunate to have Professor Mel Ainscow here to address us this morning. A highly respected international expert in areas of equity, inclusion and school improvement, Mel will speak about: Learning from Differences: a strategy for teacher education and development in respect to student diversity.

Mel Ainscow has promoted the ideas of partnership between national government, schools and other stakeholders for some time. Messages delivered by Mel ten years ago are now being embraced generally. His ideas, such as inclusion being a process, and one concerned with the identification and removal of barriers to allow for the presence, participation and achievement of all students really tackle the complexities of inclusion. They have the power to change our perspective from one concerned with supporting groups of children with special education needs, to one focussed on recognising and addressing the needs of all learners. I am sure we are in for a stimulating and thought provoking session with him.

This afternoon's sessions promise an equally valuable contribution to improving practice in schools. Over the past twenty-five years, students with disabilities have been provided with a variety of assistive technology. We know that assistive technology can provide access to the curriculum and is essential to many activities that take place daily in schools. So, the presentations by Dr Chris Abbott and Dr Richard Wynne will provide a valuable opportunity to reflect on the role of Assistive Technology for Students, and how it can increase the independence of learners with special education needs.

During the reform of teacher education that was launched in Ireland in 2011, we recognised that within the initial and continuing professional development of Irish teachers, we had to place much greater emphasis developing teachers' abilities to understanding and address students' special educational needs and the challenges of inclusion. It's clear that work presented to us at this conference has the potential to make a significant contribution in bringing about the sort of changes that colleges of education and university education departments, as well as schools, are challenged to implement.

Indeed, the work of NCSE at this conference and in general, challenges all of us in the education system to reflect on the effectiveness of our practice. Ultimately, all of us must ask questions of ourselves about the quality of the learning experience of children and how effectively all the available resources are used, and how well children are learning:

  • As teachers or early years practitioners, each of the sessions today will prompt us to ask deep questions about "How effective is my personal practice in promoting the inclusion and full achievement of the young people in my care?"
  • As policy makers, we have to ask whether, when tough choices about spending priorities have to be made, "Are our decisions supporting inclusion fairly and effectively?"
  • And the work of NCSE challenges evaluators, such as inspectors, to make sure that we also look at how effectively teachers, practitioners and leaders in schools and early years settings are using the available resources to deliver good learning for all children and young people. In fact, that is one of the reasons we in the Inspectorate are currently piloting new forms of inspection in primary and post-primary schools that focus on the quality of provision for students with special educational needs. And it's also why our new early years education-focussed inspections will consider carefully the quality of provision for inclusion - a point that NCSE very usefully made to us when it commented on our draft inspection framework for early years inspections during consultations earlier this year.
  • And finally, there is a challenge for NCSE itself: is it self-reflecting and asking itself not only about how efficiently it allocates resources in schools, but reflecting on how effectively those resources are being used in each school to facilitate the inclusion and full achievement of young people? How do those reflections inform the Council's day-to-day decision making on the allocation of resources?

Mar sin, mar fhocal scor, treaslaim leis an gComhairle ar ábhar na comhdhála seo, agus guím gach ráth ar an obair agus ar an díospóireacht a bheidh agaibh inniu. Tá súil agam go mbainfidh sibh go léir taitneamh agus tairbhe as an lá.

Go raibh maith agaibh.