An Roinn Oideachais agus Eolaíochta
Department of Education and Science
Inspection of Special Educational Needs
Mullingar Community College
Millmount Road, Mullingar, County Westmeath
Roll number: 71450I
Date of inspection: 4 March 2008
Report on the Quality of learning and Teaching in Special Educational Needs
This report has been written following a subject inspection in Mullingar Community College It presents the findings of an evaluation of the quality of teaching and learning for students with special educational needs and makes recommendations for the further development of the teaching of students with special educational needs in the college. 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 college 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.
Mullingar Community College strives to be an inclusive school. The current school population includes students with a wide range of abilities from diverse backgrounds. A number of students present with a combination of learning, language and social needs. School-created tests in English, Irish and Mathematics are administered to incoming first-year students prior to entry. These results are used with other information from parents and feeder schools to determine class placement. Four first-year class groups are formed. Students in the upper range of ability are placed in two mixed-ability classes while the remaining students are streamed into two other classes. Streaming, especially at such an early stage, is contrary to the principle of inclusion and is not supported by research. Mixed-ability classes are preferred as they reduce the risk of less able students being stigmatised and encourage teachers to maintain high expectations for all students. In addition, mixed ability grouping provides opportunities for more able students to work with their peers in co-operative learning activities. The Junior Certificate Schools Programme (JCSP) is provided for one of the lower classes in second and third year.
The school uses its allocated resources to provide a range of supports such as supplementary teaching for students in both the junior and senior cycles. The complex arrangements in place include individual and small-group withdrawal for resource teaching, smaller classes, split classes, learning support classes and co-operative teaching in mainstream classes. This system is a flexible one which tries to respond to individual students’ needs in balance with available resources. Resource teaching is provided primarily by withdrawal from an agreed subject area. Learning support is timetabled opposite Irish where possible to facilitate withdrawal for those students who are exempt from taking this subject. There are a number of instances where team teaching or in class support is available. A small room has been designated as a resource room. It is used for some of the individual and small group tuition. This year two teachers have been given time to locate all relevant school materials and resources to this room and to catalogue them. This room has storage provision and wall displays of educational posters and examples of students’ work as well as two desktop computers and a printer.
At the time of the evaluation, the principal was acting as the co-ordinator of the provision for students with additional needs, but steps were being taken to appoint a teacher to a special duties post to take responsibility for this work. The appointed co-ordinator will be facilitated to receive some training in the area of special educational needs and inclusion. A job specification for this post is to be agreed by the teacher and the school management. The school is referred to section 3.4.1 of the Inclusion of Students with Special Educational Needs: Post-Primary Guidelines (Inspectorate, 2007) for guidance on this latter point.
The principal identified a special educational needs support team composed of two teachers with learning support qualifications and the home-school-community liaison (HSCL) co-ordinator. These teachers are not substantially involved in delivering the provision. This team meets on occasions to identify students with additional needs and to discuss provision. The two teachers perform a number of special education needs related tasks as part of their posts of responsibilities such as completing applications for reasonable accommodations in certificate examinations, liaising with feeder schools, administering tests, advising and supporting teaching staff. The HSCL co-ordinator has responsibility for purchasing resources and has organised training and support in paired reading at home for parents. When the special education needs co-ordinator takes up the designated post, the membership of the special education needs team and the duties of the individual members should be reviewed. The team meetings should be weekly or, at least, monthly and chaired by the new co-ordinator. Minutes of meetings should be kept and copied to management who should attend these meetings as required.
Procedures are in place to identify students who will require support, including gathering information from feeder schools and parents, and assessing levels of cognitive ability and attainment for all first years. There is a whole-school acceptance of the presence of students with additional needs and the general staff attitude towards the concept of inclusion is good. However, many teachers find students with both learning and behavioural difficulties challenging. As a way of providing practical support for staff and as a means of updating their existing skills, it is recommended that an audit of staff training needs in this area be undertaken. The school should consider facilitating professional development for all mainstream staff in a number of areas such as inclusion, differentiation, behaviour management and specific methodologies to support learners with general learning disabilities. Continuous professional development in these and other important areas should feature in the whole-school plan. The Special Educational Support Service (www.sess.ie) may be able to provide some of this training.
This year the school has identified one particularly academically gifted student and is providing extra support to ensure that this student achieves full academic potential. The development and implementation of procedures to identify and support gifted and talented students is a commendable practice and it is advised that the school develop a policy to guide this action. The document Gifted and Talented Pupils: Guidelines for Teachers published by the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA, 2007) will provide direction.
The school has an allocation of 128 hours for special needs assistants (SNAs) to support students with special educational needs. At the time of the evaluation there were five SNAs working twenty-eight hours each. Most teachers willingly accept SNAs in their classrooms and feel their support is essential. The SNAs require more guidance in a number of areas of their work including their role in class discipline and their working relationship with staff. The special education needs co-ordinator, with the management, should meet with the SNAs on a regular basis to provide the support that they need. It is recommended that the school develops an SNA policy to clarify the role of the SNA in the school and to act as a guide for all. Reference to section 3.14 of the Inclusion of Students with Special Educational Needs: Post-Primary Guidelines will be useful.
The school has developed an admissions and enrolment policy. It is recommended as a priority that the school review the relevant sections of the admissions and enrolment policy to ensure that it is in line with the Equal Status Acts (2000 and 2004) and with the policy of inclusion promoted by the DES and referred to in the Education Act (1998) and the EPSEN Act (2004). Section 2.4.1 of the Inclusion of Students with Special Educational Needs: Post-Primary Guidelines will provide some clarification in this regard.
There is no overall whole-school policy on the provision for students with any additional needs. It is strongly recommended that the school conduct a review of all existing practices and procedures for the provision of learning support, language support and resource teaching and begin the process of developing a whole-school policy on inclusion. Section 2.3 of the Inclusion of Students with Special Educational Needs: Post-Primary Guidelines will be a useful reference in this endeavour.
There is some evidence of collaboration between the teachers delivering support teaching and the corresponding mainstream subject teachers. Support and advice in the areas of literacy and numeracy is available to new teachers in the learning support and resource areas from the teachers on the special education needs support team. Mainstream teachers can access information on students, including oral summaries of the psychological reports, through the team. An informal procedure exists whereby mainstream teachers can make referrals in relation to students requiring additional support by speaking to the year head who discusses it with the principal.
Each teacher assigned a student or group for learning support, language support or resource teaching creates a profile using a school-designed template called an ‘Individual Record Sheet’. The information is gathered from the student, the psychological report and the class tutor. These record sheets convey an awareness of the competencies and limitations of individual pupils and serve as a guide to planning.
All resource teachers in Mullingar Community College complete some basic planning with the school-created template for learning support, language support and resource teaching. In the best examples of planning, teachers note appropriate aims and objectives of each lesson and outline the resources, methodologies and assessment strategies to be used. This is the beginning of good practice but in many classrooms there is scope for development. Teachers should consult the Guidelines for Teachers of Students with General Learning Disabilities (National Council for Curriculum and Assessment, 2007) and ensure that all students with special educational needs have access to a broad, balanced and relevant curriculum that is differentiated to their particular level of achievement and ability.
The school has not begun to engage in a formal individual educational planning (IEP) process yet. The existing special education needs team practice of creating profiles, sharing information and observations, planning and collaborating with mainstream staff forms a good foundation. The school should consider advancing an IEP process in preparation for the impending implementation of the relevant sections of the Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs Act, 2004. The IEP process will help to identify priorities for programming and planning across all curriculum areas and will provide a means to monitor and report on students’ progress and achievement. In addition, IEPs are an effective means of further involving the students and their parents in their educational progress. The Guidelines on the Individual Education Plan Process, published by the National Council for Special Education (NCSE, 2006) can provide some guidance about this process.
Teachers were prepared, empathetic and supportive. There was a positive atmosphere in classrooms and affirming reinforcement was given to students by most teachers. Students were, in the main, co-operative and engaged. A good rapport and good levels of constructive interaction were noted between students and teachers.
The dominant classroom methodologies employed in the support classes were direct instruction and guided independent work although, in some classes, team teaching and in-class support from a resource teacher were observed. Some examples of differentiation in the levels of questioning and in the preparation of materials were noted. In two lessons, good examples of the teacher-led development of problem-solving and thinking skills through active learning were seen. Good questioning techniques were also seen in these two classrooms. Learning was evidenced in the homework, class work and projects examined and in the level of participation in the lessons.
The school has taken part in some Junior Certificate Schools Programme (JCSP) literacy initiatives including the Reading Challenge and Paired Reading. The latter consisted of a cross-curricular literacy project with some first-year students receiving paired reading support from selected fifth-year students. This year the second year JCSP class is taking part in the Make-A-Book project.
There is a great need for the school to have access to up-to-date expertise in the area of special educational needs. During the evaluation, it was suggested that a permanent member of staff, willing to train as a resource / learning support teacher, be identified. Creditably, by the end of the evaluation, a candidate for training had been identified and a commitment made by the management to facilitate it. This teacher should play a key role in the special educational needs team and as a resource to all teaching staff.
In addition, in many classrooms, teachers providing supplementary teaching lacked the experience and knowledge to be fully effective. It is not good practice when the majority of such support teaching is almost wholly the responsibility of part-time and less experienced teachers. It is therefore recommended that the school reduce the overall number of part-time teachers who are involved in the provision of resource and literacy support. Steps should be taken to identify a small number of permanent, whole-time teachers who if given support and training would be willing to devote a proportion of their teaching time to working with students with special educational needs.
Tests to establish levels of cognitive ability and attainment are administered to all enrolled first years. Attainment tests are re-administered to third year students and to students in fifth year who experience academic difficulties. Some students are re-tested at later stages with diagnostic tests but there seems to be no consistent policy for this.
Much of the observed teaching was diagnostic, in that teachers assessed and responded accordingly as they worked with students. There was little evidence of school-wide procedures for recording the progress of students receiving additional support and supplementary teaching other than the practice of teachers using the school template to briefly note the work covered. Files of test results, psychological and medical reports are locked securely in the principal’s office and are accessible to teachers on request. Many students are facilitated to apply for reasonable accommodations in the state examinations and some accommodations are available in school examinations.
There are no specific arrangements in place for reporting progress to parents of students receiving additional support or supplementary teaching. However on request parents may make an appointment to meet with the support teacher during the parent-teacher meetings or at another time.
The school should examine existing practices and procedures for monitoring, recording and reporting learning outcomes for all students, particularly those with special educational needs who may not be successful in state examinations. This review could contribute to the development of a whole-school policy on assessment which would become part of the whole-school plan. Section 2.6 of the Inclusion of Students with Special Educational Needs: Post-Primary Guidelines published by the Inspectorate will provide guidance on the creation of an assessment policy.
The following are the main strengths identified in the evaluation:
· Mullingar Community College strives to be an inclusive school by welcoming a diverse range of students and by providing a flexible system of provision which is responsive to student needs.
· A special duties post with the responsibility of co-ordinating the provision for students with special educational needs has been created recently.
· Procedures are in place to identify enrolling students who will require support
· There is a whole-school acceptance of the presence of students with additional needs and the general staff attitude towards the concept of inclusion is good.
· Most teachers willingly accept special needs assistants into their classrooms and feel their support is essential.
· Teachers use a school-created template to plan teaching in the areas of learning support, language support and resource.
· Teachers were prepared, empathetic and supportive using a variety of methodologies and techniques to engage students.
· The school has taken part in Junior Certificate Schools Programme (JCSP) literacy initiatives.
As a means of building on these strengths and to address areas for development, the following key recommendations are made:
· An audit of staff training needs in the area of special educational needs and inclusion should be conducted.
· The school should develop a policy to clarify the role of the special needs assistants in the school.
· A review of the admissions / enrolment policy should be conducted.
· The school should review existing practices and develop a whole-school policy on inclusion.
· The school should increase the number of permanent whole-time teachers while reducing the overall numbers of teachers involved in the provision of resource and literacy support.
Post-evaluation meetings were held with the teachers of students with special educational needs, the principal and the deputy principal at the conclusion of the evaluation when the draft findings and recommendations of the evaluation were presented and discussed.
Published October 2008