An Roinn Oideachais agus Eolaíochta
Department of Education and Science
Subject Inspection of Special Educational Needs
Ardscoil na Tríonóide
Athy, Co. Kildare
Roll number: 68077S
Date of inspection: 25 February 2009
Report on the Quality of Learning and Teaching in Special educational Needs
This report has been written following a subject inspection in Ardscoil na Tríonóide. 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 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 teachers and to the principal.
Ardscoil na Tríonóide’s admissions policy commendably states that the board of management welcomes students with special educational needs and that it will do all that it can to identify, plan and provide for the needs of students with special educational needs seeking admission. In practice, the school welcomes a diverse student intake and has a number of procedures in place to promote inclusion.
This year the National Council for Special Educational Needs has allocated Ardscoil na Tríonóide 87.75 resource teaching hours to support specific students with low or high incidence special educational needs. As well as this, the school has an allocation of twenty-two teaching hours to support students requiring learning support. The combined allocations provide a total of 109.75 hours of support teaching. However, at the time of the evaluation, the school timetable showed that only 58.40 of these teaching hours were being used to provide direct instruction to the specific students. This is a matter of great concern. It is Department policy that extra teaching hours are allocated to schools to support students identified as requiring learning support, and to individual students in accordance with their assessed special educational needs, to ensure the provision of a high-quality education in as inclusive an environment as is possible. It is essential that the correct and full use of the allocated resource and learning-support hours, for the purpose for which they are intended, be implemented as a priority.
The model of organisation of the provision for students with special educational needs in the school centres on instruction during the Irish classes, from which the students have been exempted. In addition, a number of junior cycle students with special educational needs have been allowed to discontinue the study of Science to provide support time. However, an examination of their student files suggests that these students are capable of pursuing the course. It is vital that schools provide a broad and balanced curriculum for all students, including those with special educational needs. It is recommended that all students be given the opportunity to study Science by ensuring differentiated instruction and facilitating models of in-class support. Pertinent advice and support for science teachers is available in the Special Education Support Service’s publication Science Differentiation in Action: Practical Strategies for Adapting Learning and Teaching in Science for Students with Diverse Needs and Abilities (2008). Furthermore, a number of the classes providing resource teaching that were visited are too large for effectiveness. It is suggested that the school consider alternatives to the withdrawal model as the only support model by investigating the range of co-operative teaching models available.
The school has a basic special educational needs policy and this policy is currently being revised. The draft in progress is at an advanced stage with significant work already done in developing procedures and documenting practice within the special educational needs provision. On completion, it should more accurately reflect existing practices as well as outline the future direction of the provision. The Inspectorate publication Inclusion of Students with Special Educational Needs: Post-Primary Guidelines (2007) provides useful information on policy development. The revision of the school’s special educational needs policy is also an opportune time to look at other areas. For example, it would be appropriate for the policy to consider the implications of the school’s code of behaviour for students with special educational needs. It is good practice for school to reference the differentiation which may be necessary in implementing a whole-school behaviour policy with students with certain special educational needs. As a second example, it is noted that the school does not have a whole-school policy regarding the identification and support of gifted and talented students. The establishment of appropriate identification and support procedures might also be considered in the revised policy. Related advice can be found in the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment’s publication Gifted and Talented Pupils: Guidelines for Teachers (2007).
School management has designated one teacher to act as the co-ordinator of the provision for students with special educational needs. This teacher liaises with management, the special educational needs organiser and the school’s assigned psychologist, attends pastoral care meetings and is available to advise and support staff. Seven teachers are involved in delivering the support teaching. Three of these teachers have appropriate post-graduate qualifications and deliver the majority of the provision. All of the teachers engaged in resource teaching have a positive attitude and a sincere dedication to supporting students with special educational needs. The teachers only meet as a team infrequently but those meetings are minuted. The teachers have requested a timetabled weekly meeting. The granting of this request would facilitate their development as a team and ensure real collaboration. Mainstream teachers can refer students to the co-ordinator and team at any time during the school year but a specific audit of students experiencing difficulties is scheduled for each October.
The school has been allocated three fulltime special needs assistants (SNAs) to provide support in and out of the classrooms for seven students with autism spectrum disorders or physical disabilities. All of the SNAs have completed appropriate courses to qualify them for their work. They are supervised by the special educational needs co-ordinator and follow the guidelines set down by the school management. The SNAs are included in all aspects of school life and are readily accepted into most of the mainstream classrooms.
The school has a large designated support classroom with five desktop computers, a range of relevant resources and secure storage for student files containing individual student profiles, psychological reports, work samples, test results, and copies of communications with parents and mainstream staff. An inventory is maintained of all teaching resources.
There is a good level of contact with parents. The school operates an open-door policy and both management and teaching staff are accessible. Parents of students with special educational needs are requested to provide copies of previous professional reports and to complete a form regarding their child’s learning and the supports they have received. Parents are always consulted on such matters as the provision of support and the selection of subjects. The practice of recording all meetings with parents, and the decisions made, is a positive one.
The school’s assigned National Educational Psychological Services’ psychologist supports the school through frequent visits and by organising special needs-related in-service through cluster group meetings. At the time of the evaluation, plans were in place for the psychologist to provide a social skills training programme for a number of targeted students.
The provision of an appropriate and inclusive education for students with special educational needs is challenging for both mainstream and resource teachers in post-primary schools. Schools must be pro-active in supporting staff in facilitating access to continuing professional development opportunities in the area. It is recommended therefore that an audit of the training needs of both mainstream and support teachers be conducted as an ongoing means of supporting staff. In particular, resource teachers require in-service in the development and implementation of individual education plans, as well as information on specific conditions and associated methodologies. The mainstream staff could benefit from input on topics such as inclusion, differentiation, active learning methodologies and co-operative teaching.
The school has developed a range of procedures to gather information on incoming students. These include visits to all fourteen feeder schools, collation of previous reports and assessment information and interviews with parents of students with special educational needs. Also at entry, the school’s guidance counsellor and resource teachers together administer a standardised cognitive ability test to the new students. Students with documented and significant special educational needs are exempted from sitting this test. The test results are disseminated to teachers to help them understand the students and to help them identify underachievers. First-year classes are formed by dividing an alphabetical list of the students’ names into class groups. The use of the results of this cognitive ability test with the other available information on incoming students should be to create truly mixed ability classes. After entry, there is an established referral system for staff to use.
Profiling of individual students with special educational needs is advanced for first and second years. These profiles are a collation of personal, educational and assessment information for each student. They also list the student’s strengths and needs and note the type of supports provided by the school. However, they are not individual education plans (IEPs) in that they do not specify the learning outcomes that are to be achieved by the student over a set period of time and the teaching strategies, resources and supports necessary to achieve those outcomes. Engaging fully in the IEP process can be considered to be best practice in planning for pupils with special educational needs. IEPs are central to the development of inclusive practices. It is recommended, therefore, that the school now build on the established good practice of profiling and engage more fully in the individual education planning process.
There is little evidence of a planning structure for resource teachers. Planning tends to be limited to the selection of topics and activities, albeit with the subject teachers’ guidance and based on each student’s self-identified needs. Resource teachers record the work done, on a scheme-of-work template, after the lesson is completed rather than planning based on specific learning objectives. If in place, each student’s IEP would provide the needed guidance and structure for each resource teacher’s intervention.
Information on the abilities and needs of students with special educational needs is disseminated to staff at staff meetings. Some subject departments have included useful statements on planning for students with special educational needs in their subject policies. Subject departments should ensure that subject planning documents include useable information to guide teachers in including and differentiating for students with special educational needs. All subject teachers should refer to the applicable subject section in the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment’s 2007 publication, Guidelines for Teachers of Students with General Learning Disabilities in their planning. When IEPs are developed collaboratively with subject teachers, they will become an invaluable guide for mainstream teachers in their development of differentiated class-level planning. Members of the special educational needs team are available to provide advice and support for staff.
The school has a number of students with autism spectrum disorders (ASD). These students are allocated resource hours to support their inclusion. These hours are currently used to provide subject support to ensure access to the curriculum. However, these students also have specific needs associated with their ASD which should be addressed. The school is advised to provide autism-specific support for these students, in particular the development of their coping, communication and social skills.
A positive example of the school’s promotion of inclusion is the participation of Transition Year and fifth-year students in the Best Buddies programme run by KARE, a local voluntary organisation which facilitates the students in befriending young adults with intellectual disabilities and promoting their inclusion.
Most resource teaching observed was in the guise of subject support. Observed teaching practices ranged from good to very good. The observed lessons were mainly teacher led and began with expositions and modelling for the students. The pace of lessons was good and there was a suitable amount of repetition. Teachers introduced and reinforced the language and terminology specific to each subject topic. There was intentional development of oral and written subject-based vocabulary. Student contributions were effectively initiated through open-ended questions and probing. Students were encouraged to ask their own questions. A mutual respect for teachers and students was present in most classrooms and there was an effective use of praise to encourage all student efforts. Students encountered were happy, motivated, co-operative, and polite and displayed a good work ethic.
A few lessons very successfully employed active learning strategies and provided significant visual supports for students. For example, in a first-year mathematics lesson, students worked in teams, overlapping coloured plastic hoops and placing chips in the created segments to simulate Venn diagrams, to create problems for team mates to solve. In a third-year geography lesson, students revised map-making skills and the importance of using appropriate symbols. Also in this class, students in pairs used the Junior Certificate Geography marking scheme to correct the work of their peers. This activity, under the teacher’s guidance, served to consolidate their learning. All support teaching would benefit from the similar use of active learning strategies with accompanying visual information to reinforce learning.
A number of students, with and without special educational needs, have significant difficulties in the area of literacy. Yet no evidence of targeted literacy instruction based on specific needs was observed. It is recommended that the school develop a whole-school literacy plan to specifically address their individual needs and to ensure a developmental approach to reading across the school. This literacy plan, with the development and implementation of individual education plans as mentioned in the previous section, will help ensure targeted instruction in literacy.
According to a school planning document outlining student assessment procedures, the standardised cognitive ability test administered as part of the school’s entry procedure is used by the special educational needs team to identify students who may be in need of support or further assessment or who are underachieving. In addition to this, formal information on student ability and achievement is available to the special educational needs team in the form of feeder primary school reports and reports of previous psychological assessments. This information is used in the development of the student profiles. The special educational needs team also periodically administer diagnostic tests.
Many of the diagnostic tests currently in use by the school are either dated or unsuitable for use with the full age range of the whole-school cohort. The school should review its continued use of these particular tests, as a range of newer and more appropriate standardised tests are now available. A copy of the Department’s list of approved tests for second-level schools is available on the Special Education Support Service website (www.sess.ie).
The school facilitates applications from students for reasonable accommodations in the state examinations and strives to provide similar accommodations in the school-based trial examinations. This latter measure is of significant benefit to students and can be considered good practice.
Work remains to be done in relation to a number of practices in the area of assessment of and for students with special educational needs. It is recommended that the school collaboratively develop a more detailed whole-school policy on assessment which relates to all students, including those with special educational needs, and which clarifies how student progress is monitored, recorded and reported. Advice on assessment and the development of a school policy is available in the Inspectorate publication Inclusion of Students with Special Educational Needs: Post-Primary Guidelines (2007).
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 teachers of students with special educational needs and with the principal at the conclusion of the evaluation when the draft findings and recommendations of the evaluation were presented and discussed.
Published, January 2010