An Roinn Oideachais agus Eolaíochta
Department of Education and Science
Subject Inspection of Special Educational Needs
Roll number: 62530F
Date of inspection: 20-21 November 2008
Report on the Quality of Learning and Teaching in Special Educational Needs
This report has been written following a subject inspection in North Monastery Secondary School, Cork. 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 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.
North Monastery Secondary School has undergone a number of changes in recent years which have positively impacted upon the quality of provision and whole-school support for students identified with special and additional educational needs. The appointment of a new principal and deputy principal, combined with engagement with more recent DES funded initiatives, has resulted in the creation of a greater team approach to meeting the needs of all students in the school. This core team is co-ordinated by the school’s special educational needs co-ordinator who is experienced and qualified in this area of education and undertakes such duties as part of his role as assistant principal. The team is also supported by two special needs assistants, whose contribution is duly acknowledged in this report. The principal’s own commitment to, as well as qualifications and experience in, special education, assist in the promotion of inclusive practices that benefit all students in the school.
The school’s total allocation of provision for special educational needs is 47.5 hours and is used appropriately. Among the needs identified are students with literacy and numeracy needs, students with low-incidence and high-incidence disabilities, and students requiring English language support. Data from standardised literacy and numeracy tests show that there is an above-average number of students requiring support in this area. Such students are supported by the DES allocation of 22 teaching hours. An examination of provision from the NCSE (National Council for Special Education) data reveals that there is a relatively small proportion of students with additional teaching hours. Students with low-incidence disabilities receive an allocation of 21 hours, while high-incidence disabilities account for 4.5 hours. Unusually, within this group, the school has more students with identified low-incidence disabilities than high-incidence disabilities. This may be explained, in part, by the necessity to provide professional assessments in order to access such resources. The school reports that the allocation by the DES for such assessments does not meet the demands made by the number of students identified by the school. The school would welcome a mode of provision similar to the general allocation model that operates in the primary sector, where the needs of students can be met expeditiously and where engagement with support personnel may continue after the initial assessments are conducted. Students with English as an additional language are supported by a language teacher with qualifications in this area of learning. In this regard, it is reported that the well-appointed language laboratory on the school campus is used to good effect. It is a notable and commendable feature of the school that all students are encouraged to study a modern language.
Upon entry, and following assessment and engagement with parents and primary schools, students are placed in streamed classes. Such classes are formed on the basis of student ability and choice across three subjects, Business Studies, Metalwork and Materials Technology Wood. This results in the formation of a de-facto special class based on pre-determined subject choice and overall ability. This in turn results in students’ options and future career choices being foreclosed upon at a very early stage in their post-primary education. The school is encouraged to review such practice and examine the benefits of adopting a mixed-ability approach to first-year placements, where all students can experience all subjects and make informed decisions thereafter. Such a review may also wish to evaluate the impact of 50-minute and 45-minute lessons upon the quality of learning and teaching. Such longer than usual classes limit opportunities for access to a greater variety of subjects as the 28 hours of student instruction are divided into 37 class periods where 42 periods would be the weekly norm.
Interventions to support students 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. This support is provided in a flexible and student-focused manner and includes individual student withdrawal and small-group withdrawal. The increased use of team-teaching, where two teachers work together with students in one classroom, is deemed by the school to be making a positive impact upon learning and teaching. Such a delivery model is in keeping with DES guidelines and would also appear to be an effective means of utilising some of the teaching hours provided by more recent initiatives funded by the DES. Decisions to withdraw students from classes are made following consultation with students and their parents. Every effort is made to ensure that such decisions are made in the best interest of the student and that they don’t diminish a student’s perception of themselves as learners or diminish future career choices.
Senior management supports the school in a range of practical and effective ways. Material resources are available on request and a number of designated rooms are equipped with a range of materials including laptops and software. A small investment in one or two printers in the most recently designated room would facilitate students’ work being further displayed in these rooms. Such displays would have the dual effect of motivating learners while simultaneously promoting a sense of belonging and inclusion. A range of co-curricular and extracurricular activities is open to all students and teachers involved are commended for promoting activities which clearly assist in making school a worthwhile experience. The visible pride the school possesses for past endeavours by former pupils is visible in the photographic display throughout the school. A greater display of photographs, capturing the activities and achievements of currently enrolled students and their teachers, would add to the existing sense of place and belonging.
This inspection found that the quality of provision and whole-school support for students with special educational needs is good. The school recognises that the quality of such provision and support impacts upon all learners and all teachers in the school.
A systematic and co-ordinated approach to planning and preparation is adopted by the school. Early engagement with the primary feeder schools, combined with engagement with parents and some assessment of students’ abilities, all take place before the end of the previous academic year. All first-year students are involved in a 6-week induction programme into the school and this innovation would appear to be very much appreciated by the students. Mentoring programmes between fourth-year and first-year students, including paired reading, are also becoming more established in the school. All concerned are deserving of much praise for their actions. The school’s admissions policy is easily read and up-to-date. It makes reference to the relevant legislative developments and in this regard it makes specific reference to students with special educational needs. The tone of this section of the policy is positive and welcoming. However, reference to admissions being conditional on resources being accessed, is not in keeping with the spirit of the Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs Act 2004.
Forming a special educational needs core team of teachers, who consistently work with mainstream teachers and with assigned students, is in keeping with Department of Education and Science (DES) guidelines. To support and develop such practice it is recommended that all known additional hours be assigned to teachers when the main school timetable is being devised. This will assist in maintaining the core group of teachers who can access ongoing training and provide consistency of approach for students as they progress through the school. Such timetabling will also provide an opportunity, to synchronise and evenly distribute designated planning and meeting time, to assist in ensuring that individual students receive the allocation provided for them and will, as discussed, facilitate any future plans to engage with other colleagues on a consultative basis or through in-class supports.
The co-ordinator’s dedication to his work, since appointment in 1994, is duly acknowledged in this report. Under his guidance the school has developed its Learning Support (Remedial) Provision Policy. An examination of such documents, drafted in 2000 and 2004, show an awareness of the emerging needs in the school. To support such good work the school is now encouraged to formulate a policy on inclusion for all present in the school. A special educational needs policy would form part of the overall inclusion policy. Such a policy will be guided by the Department of Education and Science Inclusion of Students with Special Educational Needs Post-Primary Guidelines (2007). Identification of the roles and responsibilities for the members of the special educational needs support team is recommended. Notwithstanding their good work, the roles and responsibilities of the special needs assistants should also be addressed, with a clear focus on celebrating the diminishing needs of students. Such clarification of roles could form part of the staff handbook where reference could be made to how members of the team can support the key role of the mainstream teacher in improving the quality of learning and teaching for all students enrolled in the school. Detailed reference to the teaching and learning practices engaged in by teachers could be incorporated into both policy and handbook, as could clear statements on such concepts as ‘inclusion’, ‘whole-school approach’, literacy’ and ‘numeracy’.
The school is commended for identifying and responding to the changing and diverse needs of students. Plans to extend curricular provision are well advanced with the decision to provide the Junior Certificate Schools Programme. Such a decision reveals the school’s desire to meet the needs of all its students and the school is well placed to make optimal use of this initiative. The school’s student-centred focus is seen in its varied support models and, in particular, in the effective and increasing use of team-teaching where two or more teachers work in the same classroom. As discussed, such in-class support promotes inclusive practice while also enhancing the learning opportunities for identified students. Those involved are strongly encouraged to share their experiences of team-teaching with other colleagues so that the practice can be extended.
A student register detailing the students’ needs, additional hours allocated to a student, the teachers and non-teaching staff involved, the models of delivery and the programme of work being undertaken is recommended. With some additional information, such as an outline of students’ learning styles and strengths, as well as progress made and when further progress will be reviewed and by whom, this register would inform and guide all staff in their engagements with, and planning for, individual students. Furthermore, such a register would assist in tracking the cumulative effect of certain delivery models upon the overall additional hours allocated. The register could initially focus on those students identified with low-incidence disabilities and develop to eventually incorporate all students in receipt of additional support.
During the course of the inspection the commitment and dedication of members of the core team was very evident. Many of the core team members clearly value continuing professional development and have accessed a considerable and admirable range of learning that is pertinent to their work. As discussed, the mainstream teacher has a key role in promoting inclusive learning among students and the school has provided whole-staff learning opportunities on a range of issues including autism, literacy and numeracy. The planned introduction of the Junior Certificate Schools Programme will assist in this regard. It is suggested that the Special Educational Needs Support Service (www.sess.ie) may also assist in providing professional development opportunities on an individual and whole-staff basis. The school is also encouraged to enquire into the possibility of a staff member being enrolled on to the Postgraduate Diploma in Special Educational Needs, University College, Cork.
The overall quality of collective planning and preparation in the school is good, with admirable leadership being shown by senior management, co-ordinators and teachers alike.
During the course of the inspection seven lessons were witnessed. These lessons ranged from individual withdrawal and group withdrawal to whole-class teaching and team-teaching. Lessons concentrated on the acquisition of subject-specific knowledge, skills and attitudes as well as other skills such as literacy, numeracy and in some cases social skills. In all cases, learning and teaching was centred on both the individual and collective needs of the students. The overall quality of learning and teaching observed was good. Over the course of the two-day inspection students were found to be courteous and helpful. However, on occasion, students were met on the corridor during class time and, upon inquiry, appeared to be dismissed from class without being assigned an alternative teacher. Such practice cannot be countenanced and needs to be addressed as a priority.
In most cases, good teacher-student relations facilitated learning and lesson pace was appropriate to the students’ abilities. However, the length of class periods was challenging for many students and requires review. Teachers are encouraged to examine a range of differentiated approaches to learning and teaching by sharing what works and discussing what might work. A variety of approaches could be explored in tandem with an examination of how best to maximise the presence of two teachers working in the same class. On many occasions, students were encouraged to offer opinions and to listen to one another. Further development in the area of peer and self-evaluation is also encouraged. In some lessons very good use was made of co-operative learning techniques such as paired work and group work. In such lessons, when other students were working together, teachers were then able to engage and assist individual students with their learning. Other lessons focused specifically on developing social skills such as teamwork, empathy and listening. Such skills are in keeping with the NCCA’s work on key skills and teachers should consider how such skills may be incorporated into mainstream lessons. As discussed, the development of critical thinking among students requires the development of social skills such as listening, suspending judgement, communicating and turn taking. Similarly this overlap of skills is also seen in the recognition that literacy includes development of oral skills and that the development of numeracy and literacy skills should be interwoven wherever possible. The advantages of inviting students to compose, as well as respond to, questions were also discussed, as was the use of role play.
The interdependence between learning and assessment is also worthy of consideration where identification of various homework activities and framing of questions can assist in determining and informing individual student progress. Despite the old-style desks, some teachers managed to create seating arrangements that promoted learning through co-operative practices. Plans to obtain more suitable school furniture have been submitted to the DES and such provision will assist in the promotion of co-operative learning. Consideration should also be given to ensuring that all rooms and facilities are accessible and that classroom doors are altered so as to make the rooms visible from the corridor. Many rooms are very well decorated with students’ work and the quality and upkeep of such displays is a credit to all concerned. As well as promoting a sense of belonging, such displays of students’ efforts motivate learners by showing students that they have a potential audience for their work and therefore correction and subsequent redrafting are relevant, important and the norm for all writers.
In summary, the quality of learning and teaching was good. Teachers wisely combined their knowledge of both students and learning outcomes to promote effective and purposeful learning experiences. Good use of humour and praise were witnessed in all classes, and wherever possible, all teachers made every effort to interact and encourage students as a group, or as individuals. Adequate time was given to allow students formulate responses and students’ use of alternative learning styles and strategies were accommodated and in some cases actively encouraged.
The school engages in a comprehensive range of procedures to assess students’ learning and to inform teaching. Students’ engagement and achievements are communicated to home on a regular basis. Parents are facilitated, on request, to meet with teachers. As well as pre-state examinations, formal examinations take place at Christmas and summer. Reasonable accommodations in certificate examinations (RACE) are addressed by the school and all are mindful of the need to provide students with the opportunity to become attuned to the accommodations before the state examination. Appropriate standardised and diagnostic tests are used to determine learning and inform teaching. Students’ work is monitored, stored and used sensitively to assess and determine progress. The majority of testing takes place in the spring before students enter the school. To facilitate smooth commencement to the school year and to avoid any unnecessary disruption to learning and teaching, it is recommended that all testing take place before students enter the school. Teacher observation, particularly of first-year students, can then align with the data and determine what further interventions may be required. Such interventions can then occur in a more timely manner.
Good links exist between the guidance counsellor and the special educational needs support team. As discussed, the school is encouraged to determine, in consultation with the local NEPS psychologist, the suitability of more recently available assessments. The school is commended for the very good practice of retesting students in literacy and numeracy skills. Such data merits presentation to the whole staff either in the form of overall comparative findings or by communicating the progress made through individual case studies. Findings from retesting could, in turn, feed into the aforementioned student register. As well as assessing cognitive domains the school is also encouraged to consider assessing students’ affective domains. Such tests could attend to obtaining responses in relation to how students feel about themselves, their school and their learning. The OECD publication Student Engagement at School; A Sense of Belonging and Participation, 2000, may prove of benefit.
Both individual and whole-class feedback was a common feature of all lessons and such practice assisted in affirming acquired learning and informing desired learning. Feedback was seen to be particularly facilitated by the team-teaching practices observed. Previously mentioned peer and self-evaluation practices also allowed students to monitor progress and identify further learning goals.
All students were found to be in possession of the school journal, though many did not appear to be documenting homework. Some journals had written notes from teachers and encouragingly some were written in praise of student achievement and engagement. The school is strongly encouraged to develop such practices further and to look at how it might develop a positive discipline structure where students can be encouraged and rewarded for a range of activities that contribute to their learning. Weekly class and individual awards might be considered. The school’s homework policy is being developed and this in turn could link with reinforcing desired behaviour and practices among students. The school may also wish to incorporate its homework policy into the aforementioned inclusion policy, where differentiated approaches to assessment can match differentiated approaches to learning.
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.
Published, March 2009
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.
Response to Recommendations – Report of Inspection of Special Needs.
The Manager acknowledges the key recommendations in the Draft report on the School Inspection of Special Educational Needs, November 20-21, 2008, and offers the following response.
· Extension of in-class supports is under way
· Examination of the benefits of mixed-ability approach in first year is being carried out.
· Additional hours are assigned where known when main timetable is being devised. It must be stated that, in many cases, additional hours are allocated after the timetable has been drawn up and, very often, when it is already in operation for some considerable time.
· School policy promoting inclusion is being drawn up in conjunction with SDP
· Development of student register of special needs in the form of the integration of non-class services is in progress.
· Addressing the issue of the length of class periods will not be undertaken in the short term.
· Teachers sharing work in the form of team-teaching is currently being developed with very positive results.
· The replacement of classroom furniture i.e. single desks to be replaced by tables and chairs is in progress.
· It is acknowledged that students should not be out of class during class time and this issued is currently being addressed.
· The value of positive discipline practices is acknowledged and is being incorporated into the Code of Behaviour/Discipline which is currently being re-developed.
· A school homework policy will be developed in conjunction with SDP.