An Roinn Oideachais agus Eolaíochta
Department of Education and Science
Subject Inspection of Special Educational Needs
Cappagh Road, Finglas, Dublin 15
Roll number: 70180A
Date of inspection: 12 December 2008
Report on the Quality of Learning and Teaching in Special Educational Needs
This report has been written following a subject inspection in Coláiste Eoin. 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 SEN 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 and teachers. 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.
Coláiste Eoin was established by the City of Dublin Vocational Education Committee (CDVEC) in 1964 to cater for a mixed population of students from the greater Finglas area. The current student population is 222 students and consists of 140 boys and 82 girls. This population comprises students with diverse profiles including students with low and high incidence disabilities, students requiring English-language support, students from the Traveller Community and a significant number of students with literacy difficulties. The school has a full-time learning support post and currently receives an allocation from the National Council for Special Education of 67.5 resource teaching hours and 160 special needs assistant hours. The latter hours are shared between ten students with low incidence disabilities. A designated class for students with autistic spectrum disorders (ASD) was set up in the school in September 2006 with an allocation of 1.5 teachers and 2 full-time special needs assistant (SNA) posts. Together, under the strong leadership of the school management team, the special needs and mainstream staff have worked collaboratively to create a positive learning environment that supports the concept of inclusion.
All classes are streamed by ability with the lowest streams in the junior and senior cycle following the Junior Certificate School Programme and Leaving Certificate Applied programme respectively. As a result, the majority of students with special educational needs are in these classes. These classes are kept small but students are still offered a good range of subjects. At junior cycle, parallel classes are timetabled for English and Mathematics giving all students the option of studying these subjects at an appropriate level. Information from school-based testing, parents and feeder schools as well as from prior educational and psychological reports is used to determine class and programme placement. A transfer to a different class or programme is possible. Decisions regarding transfer are based on records of achievement and consultations with teachers and the student and their parents.
A number of arrangements are in place to support students with special educational needs. Commendably, the school’s preferred model is team teaching with either two resource teachers working together or a resource teacher working with a mainstream subject teacher. The option of withdrawal is retained in these situations to cope with both academic issues and behaviour management. The school also operates a limited system of small-group, and occasionally individual, withdrawal. Overall this is a very effective use of the available resources. There are designated rooms for resource teaching. All rooms have desktop computers, white boards and new data projectors. Interactive white boards are being installed in some rooms. The resource teachers have access to a range of equipment and materials, including laptops and software. There is secure storage for confidential files and psychological reports in the main resource room.
An experienced resource teacher with relevant post-graduate training has been nominated to co-ordinate the school’s provision for students with additional needs. The co-ordinator’s work includes realising an effective profiling system, managing student and teacher timetables, applying for reasonable accommodations in the certificate examinations, and liaising with the staff, the special educational needs organiser and the feeder primary schools. The co-ordinator summarises all psychological reports and disseminates this information to all teachers. The co-ordinator also attends the weekly meetings of the school’s Care Team along with the CDVEC psychologist, the education support worker, the home-school-community liaison co-ordinator, the guidance counsellor, the programme co-ordinators and the principal and deputy principal. Minutes of these meetings are kept and circulated.
Support teaching is provided by the co-ordinator and two other teachers with post-graduate qualifications in resource teaching/learning support. They collaborate successfully in planning and delivering the provision. The work of the resource teachers is supported admirably by the librarian in the school’s JCSP demonstration library. The librarian collaborates with the teachers in stocking appropriate reading materials and acts as an additional support when students receive resource teaching in the library.
Mainstream teachers have benefited from a range of SEN relevant in-service training including input on positive behaviour, behaviour management, individual educational plans (IEPs), and autism, delivered by external providers, as well as input on differentiation delivered by the school’s resource staff. Information on students with special educational needs is disseminated to mainstream teachers at the beginning of each year at a staff meeting. Throughout the year all teachers can refer students experiencing difficulties to the co-ordinator who will initiate an investigation. This may result in a number of actions including the administration of diagnostic tests, referral to the CDVEC psychologist or guidance counsellor or consultations with the student and the student’s parents.
The work of the school’s special needs assistants (SNAs) is guided by a list of duties that have been drafted with reference to Circular 07/02 and agreed with the principal and the SEN co-ordinator. The SNAs work collaboratively with the mainstream teachers and make a valued contribution to inclusion. They are involved in implementing behaviour targets and are requested to keep records of behaviours and strengths observed in students. Many of them have appropriate qualifications and all have attended relevant in-service training with the teaching staff. Two of the SNAs have also received training in PECS (Picture Exchange Communication System).
In 2006, a former woodwork room was converted into a unit for students with autistic spectrum disorders. The unit has capacity for six students and there are five students enrolled currently. The accommodation for the unit consists of a large classroom with an additional small outer area, a toilet, and a separate office and store room. The classroom has a suitably equipped kitchen area, a quiet corner, five individual work stations, a central area for group work and a range of storage shelves and presses. There is a good range of ASD-related materials and resources to support teaching and learning. There is at present no sensory room and the unit staff are of the opinion that the student needs are such that it would be beneficial to convert part of the present office area for this purpose. The unit gains from the support of a trainee psychologist who attends once a week.
In 2007 the school drafted an admissions policy for the ASD unit. It was written to clarify issues such as eligibility for enrolment, purpose of the unit and the relationship between the school and the unit and was guided by the existing CDVEC and school policies. As the end of this academic year will mark three years of the unit’s existence, it would be an opportune time to review and refine this policy in light of the school’s experience. For example, where one section of the policy states that the main focus of academic support is in the area of literacy and numeracy skills, it would be appropriate now to indicate how the programme in the unit addresses the impairments in areas such as communication, socialisation and sensory which are commonly associated with students on the autistic spectrum.
The whole-school admissions policy is very positive in its declarations that the “school supports the principles of inclusion and equity of access and participation in the school” and “the school welcomes applications from students with special educational needs or disabilities”. The verity of these statements can be seen in the inclusive practices that inundate the school. However, these statements and practices are confounded by other statements in the Admissions Policy that refer to the deferral or refusal of enrolment. Such statements are not in keeping with the spirit of inclusion. It is the role of the special educational needs organiser to assist schools in identifying the additional resources that are required to support a student with recognised special educational needs once they have been enrolled in the school. However, acceptance to a school should not be conditional on resources. Therefore it is recommended that the board of management review the admissions policy in view of these comments.
The co-ordinator has created an SEN planning folder with the support of the other resource teachers. This folder contains teacher and student timetables, information on procedures and practices, relevant policy statements, SEN-related templates, extensive lists of resources and plans for team teaching and withdrawal support for individuals and groups.
The SEN team have begun creating individual profiles for a number of students with complex needs and plans are in place to expand this practice to all students with special educational needs. The existing profiles tend to include a summary of the psychological assessment, the results of informal and formal school-based assessments such as standardised tests, any teacher observations, input from parents, information from the feeder school, minutes of meetings held with parents and students, and a list of the strengths and needs of the student. The school has allocated one class each week to the resource teacher and another staff member to continue the profiling process. The profiles have proved invaluable to the resource teachers in planning instruction and to the mainstream teachers in planning for inclusion. In addition, all teachers have been given a copy of the Guidelines for Teachers of Students with General Learning Disabilities (NCCA, 2007) to inform their planning. Laudably, the co-ordinator has recently put a tracking system in place to ensure the implementation of the recommendations in each student’s psychological report.
Coláiste Eoin has taken part in a pilot programme run by the Curriculum Development Unit on the implementation of IEPs and has proactively put plans in place to ensure IEPs will take a whole-school approach, will involve contributions from parents and students and will be reviewed regularly. However, the school has not begun to write individual education plans (IEPs) as yet. Planning documentation states that this is due to a union directive. The school should be aware that there is no union directive in force in relation to IEPs and that, regardless of this fact, good practice indicates that the process of individual planning is essential in ensuring that the educational needs of students with a disability or other special educational needs are identified and provided for as required in the Education Act, 1998. With this in mind, it is recommended that the school should reconsider its current position and engage fully in the IEP process. It is more than ready to do so.
Teachers providing resource teaching plan for assigned individuals or groups by recording aims, objectives and content. To do this teachers either use a school template which lists the content (knowledge/skills), methods, resources and differentiation for each lesson or devise their own method to record and monitor the group’s work. They submit these plans to the SEN co-ordinator around the time of the first mid-term break. Teachers involved in team teaching plan collaboratively and clearly denote the differing roles of the lead teacher and the supporting teacher. They are given time at the beginning of each school year for planning. During the year, planning is more informal but is ongoing and determined by the needs of the group.
The school has recently engaged in the process of developing and implementing positive behaviour plans with the support of the CDVEC Psychological Services. Along with others, a number of students with special educational needs have been identified and specific behavioural targets have been agreed with their collaboration. Targets are monitored by a key worker and, in some cases, self-monitored by the student with the support of an SNA.
Planning in the ASD unit is limited to listings of activities and resources in conjunction with a working timetable and is not sufficiently individualised to meet the complex needs of the students. Students with ASD require individualised plans with clearly defined learning objectives and outcomes to ensure the receipt of an appropriate education. It is strongly recommended that teachers in the unit engage in professional development to acquire the skills necessary to develop and implement meaningful individual education plans that will target individual needs and be the basis for planning, monitoring and recording and reporting progress.
The overall quality of teaching and learning observed in Coláiste Eoin is very good. Lessons begin with clear introductions with many explicitly stating the learning objectives so that students know what and why they are learning. Most students were engaged in their learning and teachers persevered to motivate the few who were not. Lessons proceeded at a good pace and with ample clarification and repetition. A positive learning atmosphere was fostered. Individual homework was checked during lessons and new homework was assigned.
Teachers know their students well and select materials and activities to target prioritised needs. A range of appropriate methodologies including differentiation, active learning strategies and visual and auditory stimuli were employed. Materials and resources in use were at an appropriate level for the ages, interests and ability levels of the students. Student work is displayed in classrooms and retained in student folders to facilitate monitoring progress. In a foundation level Maths class the computer and data projector were used to great effect and every opportunity to relate mathematical learning to real and relevant life experiences was taken.
A good rapport was apparent in most of the classrooms visited during the evaluation. Classroom management techniques are employed to good effect. Students are used to the enforcement of the set classroom rules and routines and teachers were patient but insistent in their co-operation. There is positive reinforcement of good behaviour and inappropriate behaviour was immediately and appropriately dealt with. In most classes students are motivated and responsive. Teachers provide positive reinforcement orally and with smiles and body language. Notes in students journals are written to commend student effort and achievement.
Team teaching was observed in a number of classrooms. In most instances, and in accordance with the subject planning documentation, one teacher lead the direct instruction while the second teacher wrote notes or recorded responses on the board or circulated to provide individual attention and support. In one instance, teachers intermittently and effortlessly changed roles and did so to good effect.
The school’s JCSP demonstration library is timetabled to host some support classes. Students are encouraged to use the library to access readable texts for pleasure, reading development and project work. Students worked individually and in small groups with resource teachers and the librarian. Teachers listened to individual readers, correcting errors and demonstrating strategies for word attack and comprehension. Students complete reviews of all books read using a basic template. A key word list is developed to support reading development.
Lessons in the ASD unit take the format of either individual or group work. At times students follow personal schedules to complete tasks suited to their needs and abilities at their own workstation under the supervision and support of the staff. At other times time-tabled group lessons take place in a central area at a table or on the floor. Students are encouraged to actively partake and are rewarded verbally for their efforts and achievements.
During the evaluation the students in the ASD unit were following a wide but somewhat imbalanced curriculum. It is fitting that large blocks of time are given to Language and Communication, Social, Personal and Health Education (life skills and social stories), Physical Education and the arts (Drama and Music). However, a more balanced curriculum would feature an increase in the time given to Mathematics, History and Geography and would include the Visual Arts and Science. It is recommended that future planning draw on elements of the Primary School Curriculum, the Junior School Certificate Programme and the NCCA’s Guidelines for Teachers of Students with General Learning Disabilities (2007) to develop a balanced curriculum.
On entry all students sit tests of reasoning ability and reading selected by the CDVEC. The results are used with other information collated on students to place students in classes. All first year classes sit subject-based tests at the end of each October. These results are used to secure attainment levels and to monitor class placement. Teachers administer summative assessments for all students in each subject at the end of the first and last term each year. Teachers also engage in continuous assessment throughout the year in the guise of classroom activities, aural and oral work, homework, portfolios and projects and practical work. Commendably, some teachers have also trialled peer assessment and self-assessment with some students.
In May of each year a resource teacher visits the main feeder primary schools to administer a standardised diagnostic test of reading accuracy and comprehension to any student who showed a discrepancy between ability and reading achievement in the entry tests. Additional diagnostic tests are administered by the resource teachers whenever it is deemed necessary, for example, as part of the response to a referral by a mainstream teacher. All test results and writing samples are collated by resource teachers and stored securely. The results are used in the profiling process that will inform planning and as an aid to tracking progress. Resource teachers also maintain careful records of work completed by students as well as retaining samples of student work.
The SEN co-ordinator oversees the applications for reasonable accommodations in the certificate examinations in consultation with the CDVEC psychologist. In many situations, the school endeavours to put exam accommodations in place from second year onwards. A list of students who are eligible for the spelling / grammar waiver is distributed to teachers prior to house exams as a reminder during correction. Students are given training in test taking with an appropriate accommodation such as using tape recorder for oral answering or availing of a reader or scribe whenever possible. The SEN co-ordinator also links with the special educational needs organiser and the CDVEC psychologist to process requests for assessments and individual counselling support.
Students are informed of progress through regular oral feedback, through comments and marks recorded on class work and homework and in formal school reports. Parents are kept informed through written communications in their child’s school journal, formal school reports and scheduled parent-teacher meetings.
There is a wide range of assessment practices and procedures in place in Coláiste Eoin but little of it is recorded. It is recommended therefore that the school endeavour to create a whole-school policy on assessment that clarifies the purpose of assessment in the school, including the unit for students with autism, and clearly outlines the agreed system of monitoring, recording and reporting student progress for all students, including those with special educational needs. The development of this policy should begin with a review of current practices and how they might be improved. Advice on the development of a whole-school assessment policy is available in the publication Inclusion of Students with Special Educational Needs: Post-Primary Guidelines (2007).
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 teachers of students with special educational needs and with the principal at the conclusion of the evaluation when the draft findings and recommendations of the evaluation were presented and discussed.
Published, June 2009