An Roinn Oideachais agus Eolaíochta
Department of Education and Science
Subject Inspection of Special Educational Needs
Mercy Secondary School
Roll number: 64971W
Date of inspection: 9-10 April 2008
Report on the Quality of Learning and Teaching in Special Educational Needs
This report has been written following a subject inspection in Mercy Secondary School, 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.
Mercy Secondary School engages in many inclusive practices which are based on a clear philosophy that informs and guides collective and individual actions. There is a high standard of provision and support for students with special educational needs and the school gives witness to the close association between the promotion of inclusive practices and the provision of high-quality education for all its students. The overall findings of this evaluation are very positive and the majority of recommendations resonate with already documented priorities that have emerged from the school’s own self-evaluation processes.
The school’s total allocation of 72.5 hours for provision for special educational needs is used appropriately. Three dedicated members of staff, with special duties posts, coordinate provision and whole-school support. These assigned staff members have accessed, and continue to access, suitable training and professional development. They are assisted and encouraged by senior management. All three possess a keen interest and passion in relation to special and additional educational needs, including Traveller education. The school provides three well-furnished and well-equipped rooms which are used to meet the needs of students through individual and, to a lesser extent, small-group withdrawal. The school’s commitment to quality provision is also witnessed in its stated plans to purchase interactive whiteboards which will enhance existing information and communication technology (ICT) facilities.
As well as the three special duties post holders, there are another seven colleagues involved in delivering supports to student learning. These teachers work consistently with assigned students over the course of the academic year. It was reported that the number of teachers involved can fluctuate from year to year and it is recommended that all known resource hours be assigned to teachers when the main school timetable is being devised. This will assist in maintaining a core group of teachers who can access ongoing training and will provide for consistency of approach as the students progress through the school. Such timetabling will also provide an opportunity to synchronise, and evenly distribute, designated planning time among the coordinators of learning support, resource and Traveller education.
Students have access to an extensive and balanced curriculum and a sense of belonging and participation is actively nurtured by the school through, among other things, its buddy system and by its extensive extracurricular and co-curricular activities. The school adopts suitably flexible and responsive approaches in deciding how best to meet individual student’s needs. Interventions usually focus on specific language and mathematical needs, and an appropriate balance is struck between individual prioritised learning needs and access to the broader curriculum. In addition to mainstream teachers’ support for learning, the school’s modes of delivery for supporting students with special educational needs are usually formed on the basis of individual and small-group withdrawal. Decisions to withdraw students from any particular class are taken in consultation with students and their parents. The school is mindful of the implications such decisions may have on students’ future career choices. Team-teaching arrangements, where two teachers work in the same classroom, have recently been introduced and it is recommended that such good practice should be extended. Similarly, and as discussed, the advantages of grouping more students together, for learning support and/or resource teaching, rather than an over reliance on one-to-one provision, is also recommended.
The quality of short-term and long-term planning, at individual and whole-school level, is of a high standard, effective and very well documented. Key staff members work closely together to ensure that the transition from primary school is conducted in a cohesive and supportive manner. Good internal lines of communication are complemented by the school’s well established relationship with the feeder primary schools. Planning and preparation is a constant in the work of the school coordinators. Much of this work is conducted informally and in order to support this good practice it is recommended that a formal weekly timetabled meeting of coordinators be established. Opportunities to attend regular formal meetings with senior management and with other colleagues, such as year heads and guidance counsellors, are also recommended.
The daily practice, witnessed during the course of the inspection, indicates clearly that the school has given much thought to planning and preparation. This is reflected in the school’s special needs policy and in other school documentation relating to admissions, Traveller education, mixed ability teaching, assessment procedures and homework. A stated aim of the school’s special needs policy is ‘to promote inclusiveness’ where inclusion is correctly described as a ‘process’ which involves all teachers working collaboratively. An example of this, and a notable feature of the school, is the constant reciprocal interaction between members of the special educational needs support team and the students’ mainstream teachers. The detailed resource pack, which each member of the support team receives when assigned to a new student, is deserving of much praise and could be enhanced by a one page outline of relevant information for mainstream teachers. This in turn will allow confidential information to remain securely and safely stored. The school recognises that supporting collaboration between teachers also requires ongoing whole-school access to, and application of, professional learning. The school has provided many worthwhile opportunities for whole-staff engagement with external presenters. In future planning, it is suggested that access to further supports and training such as those available from the Special Education Support Service website (www.sess.ie) may prove useful. However, it would be important to ensure that the sharing of existing internal and context-sensitive skills, already in use on a daily basis by staff members, is also promoted. Adoption of such a practice will also assist in promoting the school’s stated aim of nurturing a ‘community of learning’. Some newer members of staff have engaged in cooperative teaching practices in other settings and this experience should also be drawn upon to inform future planning.
As discussed, provision for all students should be utilised in a manner that is as inclusive as possible. Therefore future planning will require an examination of how to further advance the very good work achieved to date with students from the Travelling community. Such planning will be informed by Department of Education and Science published guidelines and recommendations (www.education.ie). An example of the school’s inclusive approach is seen in the merit system for school attendance, devised as part of the school’s Traveller Support Programme. The extension of such strategies to improve and recognise attendance and punctuality would benefit all students, in particular the small number of students who are regularly absent from or late for school.
Any future planning and policy review should take cognisance of how best to support exceptionally able and gifted students. The very good work of the school’s two special needs assistants also deserves to be documented and used to formulate future policy decisions. The school has also done much pioneering work in planning and preparing to include parents in the education process and such work is duly noted in this report. As discussed, and in light of more recent legislation, the school’s admission policy requires review.
The reflective practice witnessed, at both individual and collective level, is very much focused on attending to the learning needs of all learners in the school and such a focus informs and is influenced by planning and preparation which is of a high quality.
The overall quality of teaching observed was good and in some cases very good. In general, student achievement was seen to be in keeping with their assessed levels of ability and all lessons attended to their learning needs. The majority of lessons observed were based on individual and small-group withdrawal. Lessons were well planned and addressed subject-specific content including Mathematics, English, Home Economics, Geography and History as well as specific individual learning needs. In nearly all lessons the content was student-centred and many lessons also attended to reinforcing basic life skills required by students. Teachers were purposely willing to share insights into their own learning and life experiences which in turn encouraged students to do likewise, safe in the knowledge that what they had to say would be listened to and respected. Such good practice may in part account for the quality and frequency of questioning engaged in by the students with their teachers. The natural and respectful manner in which students framed questions is a credit to all concerned.
The overall level of student self-advocacy is commendable, as is the manner in which students listened and engaged with one another during the lessons observed. Lesson planning often took cognisance of students’ expressed learning needs. It is noted that students’ views and students’ degree of progress are also determining factors in choosing the type and length of any intervention.
Where applicable, the whiteboard was used to good effect in outlining and tracking the objectives and course of the lesson. In some cases, individual students were encouraged to come to the board with correct answers which the teacher had subtly checked for accuracy in advance. As well as enhancing students’ self-esteem this practice also visibly assisted in promoting student participation and motivation. Good use was also made of concrete materials that brought the outside world and students’ world into the lesson. The practice of displaying students’ work, often typed, was witnessed on occasions. Such displays have been found to also nurture similar emotions of being valued and part of a community. They also 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. The creative use of handheld technology, as witnessed in one lesson, presents possibilities for lessons where ICT facilities may not be easily accessible.
Where students were grouped together they usually actively engaged with the teacher and all students were purposefully and cleverly included in the learning. In such circumstances some lessons employed differentiated approaches to learning and drew upon pair-work to encourage student-to-student dialogue and to facilitate teacher engagement with individual students. The school is well placed to make more use of cooperative learning given the overall positive learning environment that prevails in the school and the natural manner in which some students were on occasions seen to request and to come to the assistance of one another. Future plans to extend delivery models such as team-teaching will also allow teachers to share and to adopt methodologies which will complement and support existing good practice.
The school engages in a comprehensive range of procedures to assess students’ learning. Students’ engagement and achievements are communicated to home on a regular basis. It is noted that the school report makes specific reference to students’ efforts as well as achievement. Parents are facilitated, on request, to meet with teachers. Appropriate standardised and diagnostic tests are used to determine learning and inform teaching. Students’ progress is also assessed on a daily basis by subject teachers and by class-based examinations. As well as pre-state examinations, formal examinations take place at Christmas and summer. Students’ work is monitored, stored and used sensitively to assess and determine progress.
The school is currently examining new standardised tests which will attend to students’ language and mathematical development and will further facilitate the existing good practice of retesting. In order to promote a collaborative and whole-school response, it is recommended that the findings from retesting, along with other student gains, should be shared with colleagues in a manner that will inform teaching and promote learning. In more recent times, members of the special educational needs team have presented to colleagues and it is suggested that such good practice should be extended to facilitate sharing of assessment information, based on entire year groups or individual case studies.
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. Students’ participation and achievement in state examinations are rightfully a source of pride for all concerned.
The student journal is used to monitor assigned work and to communicate with home. The school has a detailed homework policy which lists the different forms such assignments can take. This policy states that homework is to be differentiated according to the needs and abilities of the students. 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. Students’ written work was found to be regularly corrected, and on occasions signed, dated and with concluding comments to encourage students in their learning. The quality of these comments was used to good effect, not only by the students but also by the teacher assigned to provide additional support.
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, September 2008