An Roinn Oideachais agus Eolaíochta
Department of Education and Science
Subject Inspection of Special Educational Needs
Christ King Girls’ Secondary School
Half Moon Lane, South Douglas Road, Cork
Roll number: 62692I
Date of inspection: 26 February 2009
Report on the Quality of Learning and Teaching in Special Educational Needs
This report has been written following a subject inspection in Christ King Girls’ 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, and members of the school’s special educational needs support team.
While the school has a relatively low number of students presenting with identified special and additional educational needs, these needs are wide ranging and include students who are eligible for learning support, students with low-incidence and high-incidence disabilities, as well as students learning English as an additional language (EAL). The school’s admission policy welcomes students with special educational needs and the school responds to the diversity of needs presenting by using the additional allocation of 66.44 teaching hours for the purposes for which it was intended and in a manner that is flexible to students’ individual needs.
The administration of the school’s support for students is co-ordinated by a non-post holder who has no formal qualifications in special educational needs, but has an interest in this aspect of education. Two other members of staff have recognised qualifications and are timetabled to work with students either through one-to-one teaching or in smaller class groups. Other staff members are also timetabled to work, in a consistent manner, with students across the school week and when appropriate from year to year. Effective communication and co-operation also exists between the special educational needs team and the guidance team. The special needs assistants employed in the school form an integral part of the support structures in the school and their positive contribution is acknowledged in this report.
A significant positive feature of the school’s supportive response to students’ needs is the creation of smaller class groupings in English, Gaeilge, Maths and French. Such a structure allows all students have access to all subjects and all levels, with concurrent timetabling facilitating ease of movement from one class to another, as deemed appropriate by teachers, students and parents. Such a model of support deserves much praise, and one for which students themselves voiced appreciation. Clearly having access to the full range of subjects and levels, in such a supportive manner, promotes students’ own self-esteem as young people and as learners in all subject areas. These arrangements are further enhanced by very good informal communication between staff, and by common assessments and written schemes of work in each subject area.
As well as the formation of smaller class groups, some individual withdrawal is facilitated and again this is decided upon in consultation with parents and students. Commendable efforts are made to ensure that such decisions are made in the best interest of the student and that they don’t diminish students’ perception of themselves as learners or diminish future career choices. Again good communication and synchronisation of effort by the teachers involved ensures that students derive the maximum benefit from being withdrawn from class. During the course of the evaluation some reference was made to team-teaching, where withdrawal of students would be replaced by two teachers working together in the same classroom. The school is strongly encouraged to examine the benefits of such a mode of support and further comment in this regard is found in the next section of this report, under the title of planning and preparation.
The whole-school support for students with special educational needs is witnessed in the provision of three well-resourced rooms. Some further investment in ICT software is recommended and useful advice is available from the website of the SESS (www.sess.ie) and NCTE (www.ncte.ie). The extension of the practice of allowing students to display their own work in these rooms is also recommended. Such displays can inspire students to make their best effort and this also lends itself to promoting a sense of belonging and of being valued. These displays can also be done jointly or individually by students and this recommendation sits well with the impressive and proud display of photographs and other items along the corridors which capture and honour current and former students’ activities and achievements. Photographs of staff, including non-teaching staff, also impact positively on the overall atmosphere of the school. A wide range of co-curricular and extracurricular activities is open to all students, and teachers involved are commended for activities which clearly assist in making school a worthwhile experience.
There is good provision and whole-school support for students with special educational needs in Christ King Girls’ Secondary school, with due regard and respect being shown to all in a manner that seeks to attend to individual needs in the collective setting that is school. In seeking to provide and plan for a continuum of support for all students, the school is encouraged to continue to examine the benefits that other curricular programmes and modes of national accreditation may have to offer.
The overall quality of planning and preparation is good but there are some areas that require attention. A systematic and well co-ordinated approach to the enrolment of first-year students is adopted by the school. Following the offer of places, the school arranges a standardised cognitive assessment in early spring. This baseline data is then discussed by school personnel who engage with primary schools to further determine such abilities. Parents are subsequently invited to meet with school personnel and a further meeting, designed as an information evening, is arranged in May. The sequence of events above is in keeping with inclusive practices where assessment follows enrolment. The school’s admissions policy draws on the relevant legislative developments and in this regard it makes specific reference to students with special educational needs. As discussed with the principal, it is advised that some minor amendments are made to the admissions policy so as to reflect the above-mentioned sequence of events and the overall inclusive atmosphere and actions of the school.
In order to continue to capture, support and advance good practices, it is recommended that the school review a number of aspects in relation to planning and preparation. Such a review is well within the remit of the school and will assist in planning and preparing for both existing and emerging needs. Notwithstanding the good work and initiative of the present co-ordinator, it is recommended that such a position should form part of discussions when a review of school posts of responsibility is next undertaken. Some work has begun on the school’s special educational needs policy which is in draft form. As discussed with the principal and team, there may be merit in adopting an overarching policy on inclusion. Such a policy could attend to practices which support students in accessing, participating in and benefiting from school life. Such a policy will be guided by the Department of Education and Science publication 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 could also be incorporated into such a document. The good work conducted by the special needs assistants is acknowledged by staff and by this report. Their non-teaching roles and responsibilities could also form part of school policy, with a focus on how best to work with the teaching staff and other students so as to further promote student independence and celebrate diminishing needs as they progress through the school.
Such clarification of roles and responsibilities for all concerned could in turn form part of a staff handbook. Detailed reference to the teaching and learning practices engaged in by teachers could be incorporated into both policy and handbook. Reference could be made to the use, as witnessed during the evaluation, of a wide range of effective teaching practices and could facilitate agreed understandings on concepts such as ‘inclusion’, ‘whole-school approach’, literacy’ and ‘numeracy’. The school may also wish to use this opportunity to address how it responds to students who may be deemed exceptionally able and gifted (www.ncca.ie).
The school’s modes of support for students are usually delivered in the form of smaller groupings or individual withdrawal. Team-teaching where two teachers teach the same group of students at the same time is already being developed with Leaving Certificate Vocational Programme classes and with Physical Education classes. There is merit in the school examining such team-teaching practices with regard to students identified with special educational needs. The school’s concurrent timetabling with the smaller classes, as well as the individual withdrawal structures, could be adapted relatively easily to form team-teaching arrangements. A brief outline of the benefits to students’ learning and to teachers’ professional learning can be found in the Inclusion of Students with Special Educational Needs Post-Primary Guidelines (2007).
In relation to individual students’ progress, good work is already underway to produce a student register. 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. 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. Good work in developing an agreed collective response to individual needs in the form of individual education plans is underway. Further developments in this area will allow the school to plan with parents, teachers and students and this in turn will inform and be informed by the student register. Such planning will also help to show the progress that students are making academically, socially and emotionally. The planning templates available in the Guidelines on the Individual Education Plan Process (2006), issued by the National Council for Special Education, may assist with future developments.
The school’s own evaluation of the need to provide ongoing professional development for mainstream teachers may, in part, be met by continuing to contact external individuals and supports such as the SESS (www.sess.ie). However, in planning for improvement, it is suggested that the quality of training and good practice that already exists among teachers should also be utilised. The quality of teaching and learning witnessed was of a high standard and it would be worthwhile to provide staff members with opportunities to share their own good practice with their colleagues.
During the course of the two-day inspection a total of ten lessons were observed and the quality of teaching and learning observed was very good. Classes for these lessons were usually formed around small groups or individual withdrawal and spanned a wide subject range across junior and senior cycle programmes, which included English, Mathematics, French, Business, Gaeilge and English language support. All lessons were well planned and formed part of a sequence of lessons that was in keeping with subject and programme requirements. 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. Students clearly appreciated the high, but realistic, expectations that their teachers had for each of them.
Lessons began with an outline of the learning outcomes for the particular lesson. Keywords for the lesson were usually written and discussed by the teacher and students at the beginning, with reference being made to previous learning. The atmosphere in the lessons was conducive to learning and students and teachers engaged respectfully with one another. Teachers’ knowledge of individual students assisted in ensuring that the lessons were of interest and pitched at a level that was appropriately challenging. On occasions, some teachers used their knowledge of individual students’ ability and learning styles to differentiate the learning process by content as well as by process and final product. Regular encouragement and feedback helped to keep students focused and helped to create a safe learning environment where mistakes were permissible and, when they occurred, were used to advance learning for both teachers and students.
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. This was witnessed in one particular lesson where students appreciated and identified a number of benefits associated with co-operative learning. One student observed that she was able to learn better because she was given the opportunity to not only learn from her peers but also learn from a combination of hearing herself speak and from having to think before speaking. Other skills that students identified with co-operative learning included teamwork, empathy and listening. Such skills are in keeping with the NCCA’s work on key skills and school management should continue to examine how best to encourage teachers to share how they incorporate such skills into their 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, as witnessed, be interwoven wherever possible. The advantages of inviting students to compose, as well as respond to, questions individually or collectively were also discussed, as was the use of role play and recording students’ efforts.
Students’ understanding of mathematical concepts and facts were assisted by good use of concrete materials. One teacher made very good use of flashcards and images to study Venn diagrams and, in the process, addressed both literacy and numeracy skills. Another teacher reinforced learning about measurement by encouraging its practical application to produce individual bracelets which also promoted discussion on sequencing and on teamwork. A noted feature in these and other lessons was the respectful and helpful manner in which students interacted with one another. In a lesson where the student was in receipt of one-to-one instruction, excellent planning documentation by the teacher ensured that the student was working at a pace that was in keeping with her classmates and ensured that good lines of communication existed between the teachers involved and the student. The celebration of diminishing need was captured by the teacher informing the student: ‘I won’t help you as much with this one’.
Lessons devoted to English and to language acquisition in Gaeilge and French were also well planned and conducted in a manner that facilitated student-teacher interaction and learning of all key language skills. Use of the target language by the teachers of Gaeilge and French significantly assisted learning for those students identified with special educational needs and revealed to the students their teachers’ passion for their subject and their belief in their students’ ability to learn the language. Images and the use of graphic organisers were used to good effect to keep the students focused on the lesson, as was the good distribution of questions from the teacher. One teacher made very good use of imagery and lower-order questioning when introducing a poem, only moving towards more analytical and higher-order questions once the essential facts and concepts had been acquired by all students. Students in receipt of English language support made very good use of the opportunity to practise and develop their language skills by engaging, not only with the teacher, but also with each other. As stated by the student above, peer-assisted learning provides students with opportunities to listen, speak and learn.
In summary, the quality of learning and teaching observed was very 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 commendable efforts to interact and encourage students as a group, or as individuals. In light of the very good practices witnessed, the one significant recommendation pertaining to teaching and learning is that teachers examine how best they can share their practice and promote job-embedded professional development. The establishment of the commendable Community of Practice initiative offers many possibilities where teachers can focus on a range of aspects associated with teaching and learning. Another possibility is the extension of in-class supports such as the aforementioned team-teaching.
With regard to the subjects taught, the school engages in a comprehensive range of procedures to assess students’ learning and to inform teaching. Common assessments and schemes of work help teachers to plan and implement actions that attend to students identified with special educational needs. Students’ engagement and achievements are communicated to home on a regular basis. Parents are facilitated, on request, to meet with teachers. Daily interaction with the special needs assistants and parents also helps in this regard. 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. Up to recently students were facilitated with these accommodations in pre-state examinations. It would be important that such practice is restored.
Good links exist between the guidance counsellor and the special educational needs support team. Appropriate standardised tests are used to assist in determining students’ cognitive abilities. It is recommended that students identified with potential needs in the areas of literacy and numeracy undertake further diagnostic assessment which, when shared with colleagues, will assist with student learning and inform teaching. The school is encouraged to determine, in consultation with the local NEPS psychologist, the suitability of more recently available diagnostic assessments. Combining teacher observations and concerns with assessment data emerging from testing and retesting will assist in promoting a whole-school approach to literacy and numeracy. Such actions will assist in tracking individual students’ progress and inform decisions regarding the need to put alternative supports into place. Assessment 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 given its very user-friendly format.
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 teachers with small numbers of students, who sat with individual students and engaged in assessing students’ efforts individually. In such cases, guidance and praise were given to the students in a natural and effective way. To support such good practices, previously mentioned peer and self-evaluation practices should also be considered as means of monitoring student progress and identifying further learning goals.
The school’s homework policy clearly states that ‘special consideration is given to students with special educational needs’. The school may wish to incorporate its homework policy into the aforementioned inclusion policy, where differentiated approaches to homework and assessment can be itemised and matched with 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, December 2009