An Roinn Oideachais agus Eolaíochta
Department of Education and Science
Subject Inspection of Special Educational Needs
Ardscoil na nDéise
Roll number: 64900W
Date of inspection: 18 and 19 October 2007
Date of issue of report: 17 April 2008
Report on the Quality of Learning and Teaching in Special Educational Needs
This report has been written following a subject inspection in Ardscoil na nDéise, Dungarvan, Co. Waterford. It presents the findings of an evaluation of the quality of learning and teaching in provision for 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 school planning documentation and teachers’ written preparation. Following the evaluation visit, the inspector provided oral feedback on the outcomes of the evaluation to the principal, deputy principal and members of the school’s special educational needs support team. The board of management of the school was given an opportunity to comment on the findings and recommendations of the report; the board chose to accept the report without response.
While the number of students with special and additional educational needs is relatively small, the range of needs presenting is diverse and includes students with learning support needs, students with low and high incidence disabilities, and students learning English as an additional language. The additional resource allocation to the school totals 46 hours and is used in a variety of appropriate ways to support student learning. The special educational needs support team consists of an assistant principal who acts as coordinator, and works very closely with another colleague who has garnered much experience in this area. These two teachers are in turn assisted by a small group of teachers in delivering a programme that complements mainstream teaching and operates on the basis of individual and small group withdrawal. Of late, the school has begun to successfully re-engage in team-teaching arrangements where, rather than students being withdrawn from class, two teachers work together in one classroom. The school also employs a designated English language teacher for students learning English as an additional language. This teacher works in partnership with other colleagues and is mindful of the possibility that students with English as an additional language may also have special educational needs.
Students have access to all subjects at all levels in Ardscoil na nDéise. The school celebrates diversity and engages in inclusive practices which allow students to access, participate in and benefit from the learning experiences provided by the school curriculum. Interventions usually focus on specific language and mathematical needs, while a suitable balance is struck between individual prioritised learning needs and access to the broader curriculum. The school is very conscious of the need to ensure that student learning is not fragmented by having too many teachers involved in supporting their learning. In an effort to maintain consistency and continuity between teachers and students, all known allocated hours are assigned when teachers’ timetables are being devised. Such good practice is commendable and also assists in planning for meaningful collaboration between students, mainstream teachers and members of the special educational needs support team. There is quite a range of skills and experience among the support team and it was noted that some teachers have accessed an impressive range of relevant professional learning. All material resources, including two resource rooms, are shared among the staff. Information and communication technology (ICT) facilities exist in these rooms and the purchase of a printer and some more software packages would further assist in promoting learning opportunities. Teachers are encouraged and supported in accessing relevant resource materials and professional learning opportunities. The staff professional library, located in one of the resource rooms, consists of up-to-date and relevant material. Placing similar, and additional material in the staffroom may also prove beneficial.
A notable feature of the school is the high degree of teamwork and commitment in attending to the needs of all students. Members of the special educational needs support team work in partnership with senior management and the school’s guidance counsellor. Conscious of the need to continuously foster a collaborative culture among all teachers, the support team engages both formally and informally with their colleagues on a regular basis. Attendance at the weekly year heads’ meeting by a member of the support team would further strengthen collaboration and communication. It would be equally beneficial to put in place arrangements for the core support team members to meet formally. Such a timetabled meeting can also serve to facilitate meetings with representatives from external agencies.
The school engages with nearby special schools and centres and is also part of a local support network comprising of teachers and others involved in special education. In its own evaluation of professional development needs, the school identifies the importance of ongoing professional learning. The recent presentation to the whole staff by a member of the Special Education Support Service (www.sess.ie) further supported and affirmed the need for, and the challenge of, ongoing collaboration in differentiating and personalising learning for all students.
There is very good and well-organised provision and whole-school support for students with special educational needs in Ardscoil na nDéise, Dungarvan. An examination of students’ attendance records reveals that there is a high attendance rate among students in receipt of extra support.
Planning and preparation for students with special educational needs is well advanced in this school and is driven by the desire to allocate resources appropriately and to allow students have access to all subjects. Consequently, who supports student learning, and when and how this occurs, receives considerable attention from senior management and the core special educational support team. The contribution of all involved in such planning is duly noted.
All first year classes are formed on the basis of mixed ability. Interviews with parents and students, as well as mainstream teachers’ observations over the initial weeks of the school year, combine with other data to determine how best to proceed with individual and small-group withdrawal and team-teaching. In third year, further assistance is provided by way of parallel classes that align with certain mainstream classes.
The school adopts a clear, effective and systematic approach in identifying, planning for and preparing to support students with special educational needs. The core support team, with the assistance of the school’s guidance counsellor, engages with primary schools and external agencies to identify students with special educational needs well in advance of their entry to the school. Such information, combined with the result of standardised tests administered by the school, further informs the learning strengths and needs of individual students and the subsequent teaching arrangements and strategies to be deployed by all staff. Relevant information pertaining to individual students is conveyed sensitively and appropriately to the mainstream teachers and the school is flexible in its staged response to the needs identified. All documentation is recorded and stored appropriately. Individual teacher planning, both short-term and long-term, was found to have many good features and individual lesson plans and schemes of work were appropriate to the needs of the students presenting. Students’ work is monitored and stored, which allows for ease of access and affirmation of students’ progress. Most students had a file containing relevant work samples which were presented in a variety of modes. Good practice was witnessed among students with English as an additional language who had their own individual language portfolio.
Planning for special educational needs is put on the same footing as other subject planning arrangements in the school. As a result, the support team usually meets formally on three occasions throughout the academic year. As suggested above, greater opportunities to meet formally are deserving of consideration, particularly in light of the school’s recognition of the need to promote collaborative practices in order to achieve student learning outcomes.
While the school engages in inclusive practices this is not always immediately evident in some of the school documentation. The proposed review of the school’s admission policy will be assisted in this regard by recent legislation relating to special educational needs and by the recently published Inclusion of Students with Special Educational Needs Post-Primary Guidelines (2007). The above publication will also further inform the school’s well constructed Policy Statement on Pupils with Special Needs. The pro-active engagements by staff, in the areas of team-teaching and in teaching exceptionally able students, merit inclusion in any document revisions undertaken.
The school has engaged in individual education planning and is using a school-designed template to good effect. The special educational needs co-ordinator is commended for the efforts being made in interpreting and communicating the learning styles, needs and strengths of students to mainstream subject teachers. It is recommended that additional relevant student information be included in future templates and the Guidelines on the Individual Education Plan Process (2006), as published by the National Council for Special Education, will also assist such good work.
In all lessons observed the quality of teaching and learning was good. Students were engaged in their learning, were supported by their teacher when necessary and, on occasions, were guided in cooperative learning with their peers. The lessons visited concentrated upon advancing language and mathematical skills as well as addressing specific learning difficulties and content knowledge in certain subject areas. All lessons attended to cognitive, affective and social domains of learning. An examination of assessment records reveals that many of the learning achievements of students are in keeping with their abilities and education plans.
The combination of teachers’ subject knowledge and their positive disposition towards students with special educational needs ensured that learning occurred for each student in each lesson. In many of the lessons observed, the pace and content of the learning was differentiated through group and paired work. Good use of the blackboard to set out and revisit lesson objectives was also witnessed. A balance was maintained between the amount of time spent on priority needs and the time spent accessing the wider curriculum. A good working relationship was evident between teachers and students. Students were comfortable in asking for help and in receiving support from their teacher, and on occasions, from each other. Humour and praise were used to good effect by the teacher to create an atmosphere in which learning was always supported and where occasional errors or misunderstandings were used as further learning opportunities.
Lesson plans had clear objectives and were supported by suitably prepared handouts. A small group of students, studying mathematics, had their learning carefully sequenced by their teacher so that students were asked to explain orally what procedures they should follow before engaging with the problem posed. Good use of lower and higher order questioning by the teacher maintained student attention and additional material and questioning were provided for those students who had advanced further than their peers. Similarly, in another setting, students were subdivided into three working groups which allowed the teacher to differentiate for particular groups and individual students. Cooperative learning practices such as these were seen to have many advantages and allow, not only teachers to support individual learning, but also to allow students to support each others learning. In all lessons observed teachers constantly checked for understanding and provided students with a variety of strategies to organise and present their work. Teachers took time to listen to students and such good practice had a positive influence on how students listened to one another and responded to other students’ efforts.
Language enrichment was a key objective in some of the lessons observed. A noticeable feature of these lessons was the range and appropriate sequence of language skills which were integrated into each lesson. These language skills included oral, listening, reading, writing and comprehension skills. In such lessons, good use was made of suitable reading material to extend students’ vocabulary. A variety of questions were posed which guided learning. Encouraging students to compose, as well as respond to questions will also benefit students and their learning. The school is conscious of the need to promote reading among students and it is suggested that encouraging students to compose, print and share their own efforts may assist in this regard. Cooperative efforts, as well as individual composition, should be considered. As discussed, another related suggestion would be to provide a programme of paired-reading between transition year and first-year students. Such programmes have been shown to positively influence all participants’ attitudes to reading and to learning in general.
Interventions to support learning are informed and supported by a comprehensive range of assessment procedures. As well as Christmas, summer and pre-state examinations, teacher observation and daily and class-based assessment are valued in assessing student achievement and engagement. Following initial use of appropriate standardised and diagnostic literacy testing, students identified with special educational needs are retested by a member of the special educational needs support team. It is recommended that such good practice be extended to include standardised mathematical assessment and that findings should be appropriately shared with staff. The recent experience where a member of the support team addressed the staff has much potential in that it is context sensitive and can lead to greater collaboration and understanding between staff.
The school values students’ voices in determining the form and duration of any intervention. In a recent school-based survey of junior certificate students it was found that 30% of the cohort had been assisted at one time or another by members of the special educational needs support team. Student participation and achievement in state examinations are rightfully a source of pride for all concerned. It is noticeable that while academic expectations are high, they are placed in an atmosphere that is supportive and attends to individual student’s learning needs. In consultation with the local NEPS psychologist, the school adopts a systematic approach to arranging Reasonable Accommodations in Certificate Examinations (RACE). Students are facilitated in becoming familiar with the relevant accommodation provided during their pre-state examinations.
Students’ work is monitored, stored and used sensitively to assess and determine progress. The school has a homework policy which adopts a whole-school approach to the issuing, completion and monitoring of homework. The policy differentiates for ability levels. It is suggested that future consideration should be given, as a staff, on how best the school can facilitate various modes of homework presentation, correction and feedback. Students’ written work was found to be regularly corrected, and on occasions signed, dated and with concluding comments to encourage students in their learning. It was reported that peer assessment is also practised to enhance the quality of learning taking place. The role of peer-assessment merits consideration in any future review of homework and assessment policies. The student journal is used to monitor assigned work and to communicate with home. Parents are facilitated, on request, to meet with teachers.
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 members of the school’s special educational needs support team and principal at the conclusion of the evaluation, when the draft findings and recommendations of the evaluation were presented and discussed.