An Roinn Oideachais agus Eolaíochta
Department of Education and Science
Subject Inspection of Special Educational Needs
An Mhainistir Thuaidh
Roll number: 62531H
Date of inspection: 20 Deireadh Fómhair 2008
Report on the Quality of Learning and Teaching in Special Educational Needs
This report has been written following a subject inspection in Gaelcholáiste Mhuire, An Mhainistir Thuaidh, Corcaigh. 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.
Gaelcholáiste Mhuire, an Mhainistir Thuaidh, has a relatively small number of students identified with special educational needs. The Department of Education and Science’s (DES) allocation of 11 hours, based on school size, and an allocation of five hours based on individual needs, is used for the purposes intended. The majority of allocated hours are used to create smaller class sizes, mainly in second and third year. Such utilisation is designed to support students learning in a range of subjects while also attending to improving individual students’ literacy and numeracy skills. The school, for its part, also supplements the DES allocation and all allocation is used to enhance students’ learning opportunities in a manner that avoids negative labelling or foreclosure on students’ future career options.
Class groups are formed on the basis of mixed–ability and students have access to all subjects. The school also purposefully assists students in improving their proficiency in Gaeilge by providing additional classes in first year. A notable feature of the school was the frequency and quality of Gaeilge heard, between student and teachers, during the course of the inspection. The school has suitably high expectations for all aspects of student’s development, while also taking account of individual needs, strengths and interests. Until recently the school’s provision for special educational needs was coordinated by a teacher qualified in the area. This is no longer the case. The good work of the former coordinator is acknowledged in this report. The recommendations, that follow, very much hinge on a staff member being assigned to coordinate provision and ideally, that staff member should have accessed relevant training or be willing to access such training.
The school’s admission policy correctly states that the school supports the “principle of inclusiveness” and states that the Board of Management “welcomes pupils with various or special educational needs”. Further reference to enrolment is made in the schools Learning Support Policy. As discussed at the post-evaluation meeting, and not withstanding the positive statements identified above, the Board of Management is advised that, in light of more recently enacted legislation, the school’s Admission Policy merits review. In particular attention is drawn to references in both the Admissions Policy and the Learning Support Policy, where the enrolment of students appears to be conditional on additional resources being made available. It is suggested that such reviews would be informed by the DES Inclusion of Students with Special Educational Needs Post-Primary Guidelines (2007).
The quality of upkeep of both the school grounds and buildings, combined with the displays in class and along the corridors, are a credit to all concerned and assist in promoting a sense of belonging for both staff and students. Such a sense of belonging and of being valued is further nurtured by the wide range of extra- and co-curricular activities engaged in by students and supported by teachers. Such activities are open to all, and in this regard, students very much appreciate the range of options and the, often voluntary contribution, provided by staff members. The school provides a designated room which is used to support individual students in their learning. Some further investment in ICT for this room would very much assist in attending to individual students learning, where interest in ICT can be used to engage and sustain learning. Such minor improvements would also provide teachers with an opportunity to access relevant software in class time. As witnessed in other classrooms, the good practice of student work being placed on display would also be facilitated by such an investment.
Good timetabling practices ensure that there is continuity of support across the school week. Such good practice will also support other models of support, such as team-teaching, which is already engaged in by a small number of teachers. Such work focuses on additional Gaeilge classes and reflects well upon staff members’ willingness to meet the needs presenting in a variety of flexible and effective ways. The school’s belief that all teachers are responsible for all students is equally commended. A range of continuing professional development activities have been accessed by individual teachers and collectively by the school. It is suggested that the website of the Special Education Support Services may assist in this regard where a range of online courses can be accessed. It was reported that, in more recent times, staff members have begun to present to colleagues on various issues and the school is encouraged to foster the sharing of in-house expertise where colleagues can support one another, formally as well as informally. A focus by staff on specific aspects of teaching and learning was discussed and an audit of staff strengths and interests might also be beneficial in this regard.
Planning to meet the needs of incoming first years is undertaken in a systematic manner by the principal. Until this year standardised tests were used to identify potential strengths and needs among students. As stated earlier the appointment of a trained coordinator is required for such work to continue so as to inform teachers with regard to students’ learning. Good informal lines of communication exist between staff and teacher observation is also used to good effect to identify students who may benefit from additional support.
The school’s involvement in the ‘Learning School Project’ and the references in the staff handbook to good teaching and learning practices reflect the school’s own recognition that planning for teaching and learning is at the heart of what the school does and seeks to do. Individual planning in the lessons visited was often of a high standard. The school has also begun to engage with individual education plans.
The school’s Learning Support Policy correctly identifies the role of parents in their children’s education. It is suggested that further expansion and clarification of the roles of others in the school merits consideration as does an agreed definition and understanding of what special educational needs means in Gaelcholáiste Mhuire. In forming such an understanding benefit may be drawn from identifying the many and varied special educational needs of students, including students who may be deemed exceptionally able and gifted. In this regard, attention is drawn to recent publications by the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA). Consideration should also be given to cataloguing the commendable teaching strategies engaged in by teachers. All of the above would gain a greater audience, and possibly greater use, if also included in the teacher’s handbook. Again, it is suggested that the aforementioned appointment of a coordinator would facilitate such collective engagement in aspects of teaching and learning. Further extension of team-teaching practices also merit consideration in planning and preparing for all students needs. The benefits of team-teaching, where two or more teachers work in the same classroom, are well documented, and may be of particular use in light of Gaelcholáiste Mhuire’s commendable desire to promote the Irish language among its students. Given the good levels of cooperation among staff and the split class structure in place, the school is well placed to extend this practice on a phased basis. In extending the practice it would serve the school well to monitor the impact of team-teaching on all students learning, including the exceptionally able and gifted. It would also be of interest to track the impact of two teachers conversing openly tri Gaeilge during the lesson has upon students’ engagement with and attitude towards Gaeilge.
Procedures in relation to planning and preparation for incoming students could usefully be documented in the school’s Learning Support Policy which could in turn become the school’s Special Educational Needs Policy. This policy document could extend its references to teachers’ particular roles and responsibilities, provide further information regarding effective teaching and learning strategies, and tease out a broader definition of special educational needs which is more dividend than deficit based and which outlines clearly the range of desired learning outcomes for students. Such a document could also outline assessment procedures and the use of such assessment data. The formulation of this policy, which relates to students with special educational needs, would also facilitate the removal of any unnecessary duplication with the school’s enrolment policy. However it would be important for the school to take the opportunity to clearly state in both policy documents, that the assessment data provided by primary schools is solely used to inform learning and teaching.
During the course of the inspection, five lessons were visited. Both junior and senior cycle lessons were observed. Particular attention was given to the smaller class groupings which are formed from the additional supports provided. These lessons concentrated on English, Maths and French. An opportunity to observe a timetabled, one-to one lesson, between a student and teacher was also availed of during the inspection. As in keeping with the orderly manner in which students conducted themselves on the corridors, the classrooms visited saw positive interaction between students and teachers, and where facilitated, between student and student. Students spoke confidently when asked questions by their teachers and responded well to their teacher’s judicious use of praise and humour. In general, teachers used a variety of open-ended and closed questions. Teachers’ decisions on when to employ global questioning and when to avail of more direct questions were determined by the content of the lesson and by teachers’ knowledge of the student. In all lessons, questioning was used to determine and advance learning in a manner that ensured students had a positive view of themselves as young people and as learners.
Lessons were well structured and well paced. In one lesson observed, a suitable balance was struck between cooperative learning strategies and other, more didactic, teaching strategies. Students were organised into working groups and set tasks which helped them to consolidate and promote their own learning and that of their peers. Teacher mobility ensured that the task and the outcomes could in turn be differentiated to meet the learning needs of individual students. Students were divided into pairs and small groups with clear instructions on the focus of the exercise and the time it would take to complete. All students engaged in the task and listened attentively and respectfully to each group’s response at the end. Such commendable practice allowed all to participate in the lesson and to draw on each others strengths while simultaneously enhancing their oral and listening skills, and their teamwork and critical thinking skills.
A smaller class formation in the junior cycle concentrated on an excerpt from a drama. Fourteen students were in the class and the teacher ensured that all students participated in the lesson. Teacher-led questioning was the main means by which students engaged in the lesson. As with all classes good use was made of the whiteboard to guide the lesson and good use of student enthusiasm was used to achieve the learning objective of the lesson. Students were seen to read with confidence and understanding, which was further evident in their ability to subsequently answer the questions posed by their teacher.
A lesson on ‘the weather’ during French class drew upon a range of audiovisual material to focus and maintain students’ attention. Students were at ease in moving from Irish to French. Good use of paired work was also evident in this lesson with the teacher moving from group to group to ensure and guide learning. This well planned lesson was clearly linked to previous lessons and part of an overall scheme of work, with the teacher taking advantage of the smaller class group to maximise student participation and engagement.
Mathematical learning was advanced in another junior cycle class. Again, good use was made of the overhead projector and the whiteboard to engage students’ attention. Higher order questioning was also used to challenge students to give of their best during the lesson. A focus on problem solving and the variety of ways of tackling a problem allowed students to generate and test theories in an atmosphere that promoted risk taking and rewarded effort and participation. Students clearly benefited from the quality of planning engaged in by the teacher and by the time and consideration given to each student’s effort.
The overall quality of learning and teaching observed during the course of the inspection was good. The quality of learning in lessons that employed a range of strategies, including student-to-student interaction, appeared to be very good.
The college engages in a comprehensive range of assessment practices. Daily classroom observation and interaction with students combine with more formal assessment practices to inform teaching and learning. Students’ progress and achievement are communicated to home on a regular basis. Parents are facilitated, on request, to meet with teachers.
It was also reported that the school has good support from the local National Educational Psychological Service (NEPS) psychologist. Up to recently, standardised and diagnostic tests were used appropriately and to good effect. As previously mentioned, a qualified coordinator to engage in the administration, interpretation and dissemination of such findings, is required as a priority. In turn, use of standardised tests to re-examine students’ progress assist in informing teachers, and advance a collective approach towards student engagement and achievement with regard to aspects of literacy and numeracy. Class-based examinations are administered on a regular basis and Christmas and summer results are appropriately monitored, stored and used to track student progress. It is commendable that student effort is also communicated in the reports that are forwarded to home.
A notable feature in the classrooms visited was the very good and simple practice of a place on the board for teachers to jot down homework given by each teacher for any given day. The school has a well documented homework policy which clearly outlines the importance of homework for learning. The approximate amount of time that homework should take is also listed. Given the range of ability among learners, it is suggested that the homework policy should also reflect differentiated approaches to assessing and assigning homework by content, process and product.
Students’ written work was found to be regularly corrected, on occasions signed and dated, and always with concluding comments to encourage students in their learning. In lessons inspected teachers made every effort to give as much feedback as possible during the course of the lessons. Such feedback was always conducted in a courteous and caring manner, with the given understanding that assessment and feedback were used to determine what future learning outcomes were desired and how best these might be achieved. The bar of expectation is set high in Gaelcholáiste Mhuire, students are appropriately challenged to learn in a purposeful learning environment that takes due cognisance of each student’s individual needs, strengths and goals.
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, deputy principal and principal at the conclusion of the evaluation, when the draft findings and recommendations of the evaluation were presented and discussed.
Published, November 2009