An Roinn Oideachais agus Eolaíochta
Department of Education and Science
Inspection of Special Educational Needs
Scoil Phobail Chúil Mhín
Coolmine Community School
Clonsilla, Dublin 15
Roll number: 91315O
Date of inspection: 04 December 2007
Report on the Quality of learning and Teaching in Special Educational Needs
This report has been written following a subject inspection in Coolmine Community School. It presents the findings of an evaluation of the quality of teaching and learning for students with special educational needs (SEN) and makes recommendations for the further development of the teaching of students with special educational needs in the school. The evaluation was conducted over two days during which the inspector visited classrooms and observed teaching and learning. The inspector interacted with students and teachers, examined students’ work, and had discussions with the teachers. The inspector reviewed college planning documentation and teachers’ written preparation. Following the evaluation visit, the inspector provided oral feedback on the outcomes of the evaluation to the principal and teachers. The board of management of the school was given an opportunity to comment in writing on the findings and recommendations of the report, and the response of the board will be found in the appendix of this report.
Coolmine Community School serves the large, suburban area of Clonsilla which is part of the greater Blanchardstown area. The population of this locality has risen dramatically in recent times. The school population exceeds 1,000 students and originates mainly from four feeder primary schools. At the time of the evaluation the school was in receipt of 115.15 resource teaching hours and 110.3 special needs assistant hours form the National Council for Special Education. In addition, the school has a Department of Education and Science allocation of two ex-quota learning support posts. There is also some provision from subject teachers who provide specific subject support. The school is led by a strong management team in taking a whole-school approach to special educational needs. School documents proclaim a commitment to inclusion and state clearly that the school favours mainstreaming.
As part of the enrolment process, the school follows specific procedures to support and ensure the inclusion of enrolled students with special educational needs. These include providing relevant information on parents’ open nights, and scheduling meetings between support teachers and parents/guardians and between support teachers and prospective students. Every feeder school is visited and the sixth class teachers are interviewed about each child. Parents/guardians are interviewed as well and the information is recorded.
The organisation of first year classes is based on the students’ performance on a group test of reasoning ability and on achievement tests in English, Irish and Mathematics administered respectively in the autumn and spring prior to entry. The results are used to create an upper band of three mixed ability classes and a lower band of five mixed ability classes. The upper band usually contains some able students with specific literacy difficulties but the majority of the students with additional needs are placed in the lower band. Many academic, social and personal development benefits can accrue from mixed ability classes, particularly in first year. It is advised therefore that the school review this practice and consider instating mixed ability classes across the board for first year students. It is good practice that all first year students have the same choice of subjects including two modern foreign languages.
After the junior cycle, students can opt for placement in one of the two Transition Year classes or they can choose to proceed directly into the Leaving Certificate established or the Leaving Certificate Vocational Programme. Provision of the Leaving Certificate Applied programme had been under discussion in the school for some time but a recent attempt to offer it was undersubscribed.
Support is provided throughout the school in a variety of ways including small classes, reduced timetables with additional supports in core subjects, and withdrawal for subject-support or learning support in literacy or numeracy. Students are also supported by the guidance and learning support departments in choosing subject and programme options and the availability of training in exam techniques and the use of reasonable accommodations. In-class support is provided for specific students through their special needs assistant.
The school is to be commended for its policy document titled Educational Provision for Students with Learning Difficulties / Special Needs. This is a comprehensive text which has been adopted and ratified by the board of management. It links to other school policies and calls for other policies such as those on discipline and anti-bullying to be amended to consider “the needs and responsibilities of individuals involved”. The document effectively outlines the roles of personnel central to the provision including the class teachers, the resource teachers, the special needs assistants, the management, the parents/guardians and the students. It stresses the importance of effective communication within the school and between the school and home. It sets procedures for identifying students with additional needs. It details the organisation of the provision and lists the types of supports available. It is suggested that, when this document is next reviewed, consideration be given to how the school currently identifies and supports its more able students and how this might be further developed. Useful guidance is available in the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment’s 2007 publication, Exceptionally Able Students: Draft Guidelines for Teachers (www.ncca.ie).
There is an experienced and competent core special educational needs (SEN) team of six teachers led by a co-ordinator. The co-ordinator and one of the team members hold post-graduate qualifications in special educational needs. The school hopes to facilitate similar training for a third teacher in the near future. The team is scheduled for weekly meetings. Minutes of these meetings are recorded and distributed to other relevant personnel including the principal and the deputy principal. It is part of the SEN co-ordinator’s role to advise and support teachers on teaching and learning styles and appropriate methodologies. The SEN co-ordinator is also a member of the pastoral care team which meets regularly.
The co-ordinator has an office with secure storage for resources, materials, tests, student records and reports. Four small rooms are used as dedicated support rooms. Six laptop and four desktop computers are available as well as a good range of suitable software. One of the support rooms is fitted with an interactive whiteboard and a data projector. Teachers also have access to a range of resources which include televisions, videos, CD player, reading kits, reading books, and workbooks. The management provides the SEN team with an annual budget to purchase teaching and test materials.
The members of the SEN team are involved in a number of commendable, collaborative practices. Together the team creates an annual planning agenda. This constructively details ongoing work and makes proposals for future work. Tasks set for the current school year included increasing collaboration with colleagues, collating strategies, developing an SEN information library, tracking exam results of SEN students, planning a programme for English, developing a junior and senior cycle parents’ handbook incorporating study skills, collating information on continuing professional development opportunities for staff, developing subject-based key word lists and creating an inventory of department resources. The team is also involved in planning the support timetables for individual students.
The SEN team have established an excellent system to communicate with their mainstream colleagues. This includes storing relevant information on students on the internal computer system which is only accessible to teachers and on supplying daily updates on the staff room plasma screen. The team hold lunchtime meetings on individual students with the concerned teachers. The co-ordinator also meets separately with each support teacher to discuss individual students’ needs and to develop learning plans. At the first staff meeting of every year the co-ordinator makes a presentation on recent developments in the school’s provision and disseminates information on newly enrolled students with special educational needs.
Significant supports are in place for the mainstream teachers of Coolmine Community School. Mainstream teachers may refer students experiencing academic difficulties directly to the special educational needs team using a school-created form. The team investigates and intervenes as appropriate. A summary record is kept of the intervention and signed off when completed. Teachers can readily access information on individual students and their needs and on specific types of SEN. They can borrow appropriate teaching materials from the SEN co-ordinator. Meetings with subject departments and members of the SEN team are held periodically to discuss issues around inclusion and in-class support. In the staff room there is a stand displaying a variety of information leaflets on learning difficulties. They note characteristics of conditions such as dyslexia, autism and attention deficit disorder, and offer teaching strategies.
The school’s special needs policy encourages continuous professional development for all teachers through a variety of means including in-school development days, access to relevant courses, provision of a library and the loan of SEN-related books and ongoing communication between learning support/resource department and the teaching staff. The entire staff have had in-service on a range of relevant topics including Asperger’s Syndrome, readability, literacy across the curriculum and special educational needs policy. The business and science departments are piloting modes of differentiation in their subject areas. The science and mathematics teachers recently experienced a presentation on mixed ability and differentiation from the Second-Level Support Service. Individual members of the SEN team have attended conferences held by professional and support organisations as well as short courses on ICT and special educational needs, Applied Behaviour Analysis and dyslexia. All of these efforts are commendable. Contact with the Special Education Support Service (www.sess.ie) will be useful in planning future SEN-related staff training.
The four special needs assistants (SNAs) working in the school all have FETAC Level 5 training. Each is assigned to a specific student with a diagnosed special educational need. The SNAs work closely with the SEN team and with the mainstream teachers of their assigned students. The school has created an extensive SNA handbook which details the support role from the perspective of the student, the teachers and the school. This book is a practical document containing generic advice on coping with a variety of special educational needs. The book also contains a supply of a single page weekly planning template which is used by the SNA to record the content and objectives of each lesson and to record observations.
The school has a distinctive system of peer support for students with SEN. The Meitheal Group is a select group of fifth and sixth year students who volunteer to provide continuous peer support for the integration of first year students. They receive training from a guidance counsellor who acts as the Meitheal Co-ordinator. Contact Meitheal Group is a sub-group of the larger Meitheal Group. Since 2004 the Contact Meitheal Group, in co-operation with the learning support department, has provided more focused support for a specific group of first years with special educational needs/learning support needs. A member of the SEN team acts as this group’s co-ordinator.
Up to twelve teachers are involved in providing support for students who are learning English as an additional language. There is one designated classroom. One hundred and eight students are in receipt of support in this area.
The school’s admission policy declares that the school’s ability to accept students with particular needs is dependent on the resources provided by the Department of Education and Science, that final confirmation of a place depends on the board of management’s confirmation from the Department that the necessary resources will be provided and that learning support is provided subject to the resources provided by the Department. These statements do not take cognisance of the National Council for Special Education’s policy of automatic response. In addition, these statements are not consistent with the school’s claims to be inclusive or with the school’s commendable range of inclusive practices. It is therefore recommended that the school review the relevant sections of the admissions policy. Section 2.4.1 of the Inclusion of Students with Special Educational Needs: Post-Primary Guidelines will provide some clarification in this regard.
Subject policies are encouraged to have a statement on special educational needs including procedures for identifying students in need, the methodologies to be used and the resources available. An example was given of the Religious Education department which has worked with the SEN team to produce a document with information on the needs of students with general learning disabilities, strategies, planning suggestions and a sample lesson outline. This is an example of good practice and it is suggested that other subject departments follow this lead. The National Council for Curriculum and Assessment’s Guidelines for Teachers of Students with General Learning Disabilities (NCCA, 2007) includes subject-specific recommendations and guidance for post-primary teachers of students with mild general learning disabilities and is therefore a useful reference for planning.
The school’s SEN policy correctly states that planning is a prerequisite for all effective teaching and especially so for students with special educational needs. A small number of resource hours are timetabled for planning. All learning-support and resource teachers prepare schemes of work on a school-designed template. These are kept in the student’s file on completion. Subject support is given in co-ordination with the mainstream teacher’s plans. The resource and learning support teachers liaise with the appropriate mainstream teachers regarding what to target. The quality of the planning at class level is varied and it is recommended that this be highlighted as an area for future development in the learning support department.
Individual education plans (IEPs) are prepared for some students. A standard template is used which allows the recording of objectives, activities, methodologies, resources, and evaluative remarks. These IEPs are produced collaboratively with the student’s teachers and a copy of the IEP is given to the parents/guardians. The school is to be commended for beginning the IEP process. It is recommended that, under the leadership of the SEN co-ordinator and the SEN team, the school continue to evolve the process. It will be necessary to plan how best to ensure that the resource teacher, the student, the mainstream teachers and the parents/guardians are all facilitated equally to contribute to the identification of the student’s interests, needs and abilities and to the formation and evaluation of the learning and social targets.
Most teachers were well-prepared and some excellent examples of planned and structured teaching were seen in the eight lessons observed during the evaluation. Half of these were one-to-one sessions and the others were small group withdrawal sessions. Five of the lessons were providing subject support, two involved direct instruction of literacy skills and one was targeting ICT skills. Most teachers were very aware of their student needs and abilities. This knowledge in tandem with prior planning consultations with the mainstream teachers resulted in appropriate choices of content and language. Class work was focused on the understanding of key concepts and the development of basic skills. Differentiation was evident in the setting of tasks and questions in the group situations. Most teachers began with a review of previous learning and then presented appropriate lesson objectives. Sometimes this was done with advance organisers like a mind map or an outline. Some teachers commendably reiterated the objectives throughout the lesson and returned to them at the end. Teachers had high expectations of their students which challenged and motivated them in their learning.
A variety of teaching strategies and methodologies were in use. Common strategies included asking leading and probing questions, using the board to illustrate points, noting key words for spelling and using closure exercises for revision. A number of teachers effectively used variations of visual and mind mapping techniques to help students to organise information. Active learning was also seen in a number of lessons with students manipulating vocabulary cards and using topic sentence cards to sequence an essay. One teacher used a reciprocal teaching activity which consolidated the student’s learning by putting her in the role of a teacher. In another classroom, a teacher competently facilitated co-operative learning groups to complete set tasks. Co-operative learning is an arrangement in which students work in mixed ability groups and are rewarded on the basis of the success of the group. Research suggests many benefits of co-operative learning groups including greater student effort to achieve, higher achievement, longer retention of learning, increased time on task and greater productivity by all students. In addition, co-operative learning groups can promote personal and academic social support and therefore facilitate inclusion, particularly in the mainstream classroom.
A significant amount of support is given through the withdrawal of individuals for subject support. It is recommend that the school consider benefits of using some of these allocated hours to engage in co-operative teaching and in-class support. A second teacher in a classroom can provide needed support to more than one student. It can free the subject expert to work with groups of lower attaining students or higher attaining students while the support teacher supervises the remaining students in completing set tasks. It would be a more effective use of resource hours. More information on both co-operative learning and co-operative teaching is available in Section 5.3 of the Inclusion of Students with Special Educational Needs: Post-Primary Guidelines.
The school has developed a range of assessment procedures. As well as sitting a standardised tests in reasoning ability and achievement tests in English, Irish and Mathematics prior to entry, selected students are also administered a range of diagnostic tests. This information helps the school to further identify students who will require support. Assessment outcomes are disseminated to teachers to inform their preparation, planning and teaching.
Overall there was good evidence that the staff in the learning support/SEN department maintain regular contact with parents/guardians to keep them informed. The minutes of meetings about students with parents/guardians are recorded, dated and signed on a school template and kept in the student’s file. Parents/guardians are able to discuss their children’s progress with the support teachers at the annual parent-teacher meetings. They may also seek an appointment to speak with a support teacher at other times during the school year by arrangements with the SEN co-ordinator.
The school has not been assigned a psychologist from the National Educational Psychological Services since 2005. Some psychological assessments have been funded by individual parents/guardians and the school. The SEN co-ordinator tries to meet with the psychologists before and after scheduled assessments. Mainstream teachers may refer students for additional assessment or diagnostic testing directly to the special educational needs department. All students receiving low scores in the language usage and spelling sections of the Differential Aptitude Tests are automatically referred to the special educational needs department for testing.
The SEN team facilitates students who wish to apply for reasonable accommodations in the state exams. Similar accommodations are provided as needed for in-school exams whenever possible. The SEN team offers training and support to students in the use of accommodations and provides advice and support to the teachers who act as exam supervisors.
The school does not have an overall whole-school policy on assessment. It is recommended that the school documents and reviews all existing practices related to the assessment of students including those with special educational needs with the view of creating a policy that would provide a clearer focus on identifying and recording learning outcomes for all students. Useful guidance on the development of an assessment policy is available in Section 2.6 of the Inspectorate’s publication, Inclusion of students with Special Educational Needs: Post Primary Guidelines.
The following are the main strengths identified in the evaluation:
As a means of building on these strengths and to address areas for development, the following key recommendations are made:
Post-evaluation meetings were held with the principal, the deputy principal, the co-ordinator of special needs and the teachers of students with special educational needs at the conclusion of the evaluation when the draft findings and recommendations of the evaluation were presented and discussed.
Published October 2008
Submitted by the Board of Management
Area 2 Follow-up actions planned or undertaken since the completion of the inspection
activity to implement the findings and recommendations of the inspection.
First key recommendation: With regard to its inclusive practices, the school should undertake a review of the admissions policy.
The Admission Policy was reviewed by the Board of Management on 15/01/08. The following sentences were deleted from the Admissions Policy:
‘The school’s ability to accept students with particular needs is dependent on the resources provided by the Department of Education and Science that are necessary to meet the student’s needs’
‘Final confirmation of a place will depend on the Board of Management’s confirmation from the Department of Education and Science that the necessary resources will be provided’