An Roinn Oideachais agus Eolaíochta
Department of Education and Science
Subject Inspection of
Special Educational Needs
Ballymahon Vocational School
Ballymahon, Co. Longford
Roll number: 71690F
Date of inspection: 20 October 2009
Report on the Quality of Learning and Teaching in Special Educational Needs
This report has been written following an inspection of the provision for special educational needs (SEN) in Ballymahon Vocational School. It presents the findings of an evaluation of the quality of the provision and the teaching and learning for students with special educational needs and makes recommendations for further development in this area 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 teachers. The board of management was given an opportunity to comment in writing on the findings and recommendations of the report; a response was not received from the board.
Ballymahon Vocational School is one of four County Longford vocational schools and one of two post-primary schools in the town. There are approximately 250 students enrolled. In recent years the school has made a commendable effort to address a previous gender imbalance and the fact that 42% of students in the present junior cycle cohort are female is evidence of its success. Two years ago the school accepted an invitation to participate in the School Support Programme under DEIS (Delivering Equality of opportunity in Schools) and as a result has been allocated a range of additional resources. Both the school’s mission statement which states the school’s aim to enable each student to develop to their fullest potential and the admissions policy which emphasises that the school welcomes all eligible students who apply including those with special educational needs reflect the school’s positive practice of inclusion. There is a positive and accepting whole-school attitude regarding students with additional needs in the Ballymahon Vocational School.
Enrolled students come from up to twelve feeder primary schools in the town and the surrounding area. Good contact is maintained with the feeder schools through the principal and the special educational needs co-ordinator, including visits to the schools and the transfer of student records. The school hosts an annual open night for prospective students and their parents and both the principal and co-ordinator are available to meet with parents on request. Incoming students sit a placement exam in the spring before entry.
The school offers a broad and balanced curriculum to all students. An analysis of the timetable showed good facility for student movement across subject selections and subject levels as well as programmes depending on individual ability and progress. Entering students are placed in one of two mixed ability classes but are set for English, Irish and Mathematics based on ability and previous achievement. In addition to these subjects, junior cycle students study Science, History, Geography, Music, Art, Civic, Social and Political Education (CSPE), Social, Personal and Health Education (SPHE), Physical Education and Religion. Each student also has one weekly class of guidance and one of computer studies as well as one weekly reading class to promote literacy development. First year students start the year with three weeks of taster sessions before choosing three subjects from a range of six options: Materials Technology (Wood), Home Economics, Metalwork, Business Studies, French and Technical Graphics. Since September 2008, the school has offered the Junior Certificate School Programme (JCSP) to one class each of students in second and third year. Correctly, not all students with SEN are in the JCSP, but those who are benefit from the structures provided by the JCSP framework as well as the whole-school literacy initiatives such as the Reading Challenge
At senior cycle students choose between the established Leaving Certificate and the Leaving Certificate Applied (LCA) programmes with the advice and guidance of the school. Regrettably, no students in the present fifth year cohort opted for the LCA programme. The school plans to increase its efforts to recruit a fifth year LCA class for 2010.
The school recently conducted a revision of its special needs policy. This policy document emphasises the school’s commitment to inclusion and provides information on a number of topics including the aims of planning, the identification of students requiring support and the organisation of support in the school. This is still a work in progress, but the school is commended for beginning the review and is encouraged to use the process to consider how the provision can be further developed. Advice on creating a whole-school policy on inclusion is available in the publication Inclusion of Students with Special Educational Needs: Post-Primary Guidelines (DES, 2007).
At the time of the evaluation, the school was in receipt of 64.67 teaching support hours for twenty-nine students with low and high incidence needs from the National Council for Special Education (NCSE). The school uses these hours appropriately to provide a variety of models of support including the withdrawal of individuals and small groups, in-class support in practical classes and additional support classes in some subjects such as mathematics. Five key teaching staff are responsible for the delivery of the majority of the resource provision, but all of the school’s teachers play some role in supporting students with special educational needs. A co-ordinator has been appointed to manage many of the duties associated with the provision as part of a special duties post. The principal was advised to meet with the co-ordinator to create a job description with a list of responsibilities and duties to be included in the revised SEN policy document. There is a defined SEN support team which includes the co-ordinator, the principal, a resource teacher and the teacher assigned to a designated, special class. While the team meet formally once each term and informally and briefly on occasion, it is suggested that more regular meetings be scheduled to facilitate the organisation and delivery of the provision.
Support is provided for mainstream staff in a number of ways. The SEN co-ordinator and resource teachers are readily accessible for advice and support regarding planning, teaching and assessment. All teachers also have ready access to the co-ordinator’s files which contain student profiles, professional reports, background information, and details of identified student needs, abilities and difficulties. The staff, including the principal, have engaged in relevant professional development from a number of sources including the Special Education Support Service (SESS), the school’s special educational needs organiser (SENO), a JCSP facilitator and the school’s own resource staff. Information on students with SEN is disseminated to all staff at the first staff meeting each September. This meeting is also attended by the SNAs. In the staff room there is an SEN notice board for timetables, updated information on students and opportunities for continuing professional development. The principal was very aware of the advantages of a smaller school. All teachers meet all students and know them well. This has created good staff relationships that facilitate staff in supporting each other and allowing easy access to support teachers for advice.
The school has two special needs assistants (SNAs) who are deployed on a rotational basis between the special class and the mainstream classes to provide care and support on a shared basis for students with special educational needs. Both SNAs are qualified and well-integrated into school life. Their work in the school is welcomed and valued by the staff.
A special class designated for students with moderate general learning disabilities was set up in the school in 2006. Each of the three current students has an additional condition in the form of autism or Down Syndrome. The school has created an admissions policy for the class which clearly states the procedures and criteria regarding admission. The class is housed in a prefabricated building in the centre of the campus. The building has a large open plan area divided into a kitchen, a quiet area, an area with a lap top, data projector and interactive whiteboard, and a group working area. There is also a separate student toilet and an office. There is appropriate security on the external and internal doors. The unit is staffed by an allocation of 1.5 whole-time equivalent teaching hours which is deployed through one fulltime teacher and additional hours supplied by a number of subject specialists. The students spend most of their time in the unit but some students attend mainstream classes for a few subjects and some school activities.
The school has a well-established procedure for gathering information about students from the feeder schools and parents. This information is used to create individual student profiles which are useful for staff when planning and preparing for the inclusion of students with special educational needs. Subject teachers plan using the School Development Planning Initiative (SDPI) template and consult with the SEN team to ensure their planning supports inclusion and references differentiation. It is recommended that all teachers consult the National Curriculum and Assessment’s Guidelines for Teachers of Students with General Learning Disabilities in the future curriculum planning for these students.
The majority of teachers taking resource hours plan although they do so in a variety of ways. Teachers providing subject support co-ordinate with the subject class teacher and follow the subject syllabus albeit with modifications and significant differentiation. Mainstream teachers help identify the specific needs of students to be addressed in support classes. Resource teachers collaborate with the relevant mainstream teachers to ensure common goals for individual students. Resource teachers use the information in the students’ files as well as their observations of the students’ specific needs. However, planning in many cases is too general and lacks sufficient detail to indicate specific individual learning and behaviour outcomes. Most teachers are correctly identifying general aims and objectives, but they need to specify how the objectives will be achieved and evaluated over a set period of time. It is recommended that the inconsistencies in the individualised planning methodology used by resource teachers be addressed. The school should develop and use a common planning template. The school must also consider how parents and the students themselves might become involved in the individualised planning process. The school was advised to access professional development in individualised planning through the Special Education Support Service (SESS).
Planning in the designated special class is more detailed. Students have individual timetables created in response to their individual needs. For example, one of the students is studying a number of Junior Certificate subjects, another student is enrolling in a number of FETAC modules and the third attends an LCA module on agricultural science. Overall each student has access to a broad curriculum which includes communication and language, Mathematics, French, Geography, Home Economics, Music, Technology (Wood), Art and drawing, Physical Education and dance, Religion, ICT and nature studies.
At the time of the evaluation, all three students in the unit were eighteen years of age. It is important that the school begin the development of Transition Plans for each of them. This should start with discussions between the school and the parents about the available after-school options. Considered planning and preparation now will lead to a smooth transition from the school to a suitable placement for each to continue their education or to begin training after leaving the school.
The quality of teaching and learning observed in Ballymahon Vocational School was good to very good. The pace of lessons was appropriate and repetition featured where considered necessary. Teacher modelling was used extensively. Good examples of individualised support and differentiation were observed in both support and mainstream classes. A good level of teacher-student interaction was observed during and between lessons. Teachers have a well-established rapport with students. There was an affirming atmosphere and a good use of praise and reinforcement techniques.
Most students were actively engaged in learning. However, a few teachers found some students had difficulty focussing on the lessons. Students with special educational needs, particularly those with attention deficit disorder or emotional-behavioural difficulty, can be difficult to engage. It is recommended that the school explore other methodologies for these students such as active learning, co-operative learning, peer-tutoring and reciprocal teaching to address this. The school should conduct an audit of staff needs in the area of continuing professional development so that a plan can be made to assess future training needs as part of the school’s long-term development plan. Teachers will also find the suggestions in the Guidelines for Teachers of Students with General Learning Disabilities useful in planning for student engagement.
There is a good range of resources available including information and communication technology (ICT) and appropriate software. Some resources are stored in the designated unit while others are in the staffroom or classrooms. There is one computer room with a number of laptops accessible to resource teachers as well as some appropriate software. A number of classrooms, including the designated classroom, have interactive whiteboards and data projectors. As part of the proposed refurbishment of the school, the principal has targeted the development of a resource centre in the school. It is envisioned that much of the support teaching would take place in this centre and that the centre would provide a store for the relevant materials and equipment. When the centre is developed, it will be useful to catalogue the existing resources within the school and to audit the staff’s needs for the purchase of additional resources.
There are a number of positive school assessment practices in place. Both class work and homework are collected and either corrected by the teacher or corrected by students under the teacher’s direction. Samples of work are retained to show progress and teachers set class and end of term tests to measure attainment. Some, but not all teachers, record their own observations on student progress. Teachers also use the JCSP learning targets to record progress.
Student scores on the standardised tests used as part of school’s entry procedure are retained, but there is no system for re-testing and there is no whole-school assessment policy to record the procedures which are in place. It is recommended therefore that the school develop a whole-school assessment policy with a focus on identifying learning outcomes and monitoring and recording progress. This process should begin with a review of current practices followed by an investigation of how other procedures such as Assessment for Learning (AfL) might benefit students. The website of the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (www.ncca.ie ) can provide some information on AfL. It will also be important to investigate formal measures of cognitive ability and literacy and numeracy achievement as well as other modes of assessment. A listing of approved tests is available on the Department of Education and Science website (www.education.ie). Section 2.6 of the publication, Inclusion of Students with Special Educational Needs: Post-Primary Guidelines (DES, 2007) features useful advice on developing assessment processes.
Ballymahon Vocational School maintains good relations with their assigned psychologist from the National Educational Psychological Service (NEPS) who provides both advice and psychological assessments on the school’s request. The school has an established system of providing reasonable accommodations in both school and state examinations for students with special educational needs who meet the set criteria. Candidates are identified early in their school career, applications are made in a timely manner and then students are prepared appropriately to avail of the required accommodation.
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:
The draft findings and recommendations of the evaluation were presented and discussed at a post-evaluation meeting scheduled for the principal and members of the special educational needs support team.
Published, March 2010