An Roinn Oideachais agus Eolaíochta
Department of Education and Science
Subject Inspection of Special Educational Needs
Trá Lí, Contae Chiarraí
Roll number: 70560K
Date of inspection: 25 March 2009
Report on the Quality of Learning and Teaching in Special Educational Needs
This report has been written following a subject inspection in Gaelcholáiste Chiarraí, Trá Lí, Co. Chiarraí. 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 Chiarraí has two experienced, dedicated and effective teachers who have recognised qualifications in special educational needs and are committed to providing good quality education for all students. These teachers work closely with other colleagues, including two special-needs assistants whose good work is duly acknowledged in this report. The school’s total allocation of provision for special educational needs is 30.5 hours, and this allocation is used to good effect and for the purposes for which it was intended. Co-ordination of this provision is undertaken by one of the teachers who holds a post of responsibility as assistant principal. Among the needs identified are students with low achievement who are eligible for support, usually in the areas of literacy and numeracy, as well as students with low-incidence and high-incidence disabilities. Cognisance is also taken of supporting students who may have difficulties with Irish, particularly those students entering the school for the first time. Student support is provided in the form of individual and small group withdrawal. Decisions to withdraw students from classes are only made following consultation with students and their parents. Such decisions are regularly reviewed by all concerned.
The administration of the school’s support for students is ably co-ordinated by the aforementioned assistant principal. Responsibility for matters relating to Irish is undertaken by the other qualified staff member and both work closely with each other and with other staff to monitor students’ academic progress and social-emotional development. At the time of the evaluation, the school had undertaken its own self-evaluation of the quality of provision for students. Such commendable practice revealed the need to address a number of issues to further advance the quality of whole-school support. Forming a special educational-needs core team of teachers, who consistently work with mainstream teachers and with assigned students, is one identified outcome of the school’s self-evaluation and is in keeping with Department of Education and Science guidelines. To support and develop such practice it is recommended that all known additional hours be assigned to teachers when the main school timetable is being devised. This will assist in appointing the core group of teachers who can provide consistency of approach for students as they progress through the school from week to week and from year to year. Similarly this core group can in turn respond to the changing profile of students and access ongoing training in specific aspects of special educational needs. Synchronised timetabling will also provide an opportunity, to align and evenly distribute designated planning and regular meeting time, to assist in ensuring that individual students receive the allocation provided for them and will, as discussed, facilitate any future plans to engage with other colleagues on a consultative basis or through in-class supports.
The school’s self-evaluation process also recognises the value of extending the range of delivery models by introducing team-teaching. Such practice has many advantages and can remove some of the difficulties associated with withdrawal models, including students missing out on certain subjects at certain times, or students encountering so many teachers as to negatively impact upon students’ learning and coordination of provision. As discussed with teachers and principal, team-teaching is a mode of delivery which in keeping with the Department’s policy as published in Inclusion of Students with Special Educational Needs Post-Primary Guidelines (2007). This publication gives detailed information on the benefits and procedures associated with such a mode of in-class support.
The whole-school support for students with special educational needs is also witnessed in the provision of a well-resourced room, though it is noted that pressure of space does not always facilitate access to this room. Some further investment in ICT software combined with the extension of the practice of allowing students to display their own work is recommended. Such investment will be informed by reference to the respective websites of the Special Education Support Service at www.sess.ie and the National Centre for Technology in Education at www.ncte.ie. Displays of students’ work can inspire students to make their best effort and it also lends itself to promoting a sense of belonging and of being valued. This recommendation sits well with the impressive and proud display of photographs and other items along the corridors which capture and honour current and former students’ activities and achievements. Recognition of students’ personal, as well as academic development is also a noted feature of the photographs on display. A wide range of co-curricular and extracurricular activities is open to all students and teachers involved are commended for activities which clearly assist in making school a worthwhile experience.
School management pointed out the need for the installation of a lift to enable appropriate access to all areas of the school building for students with physical disability and others who have difficulty with mobility. Application has been made to the Department’s Planning and Building Section for this project. The application is in keeping with best practice in relation to the achievement of full participation, of students with disabilities, through universal design.
There is good provision and whole-school support for students with special educational needs in Gaelcholáiste Chiarraí where the relative small school size helps to ensure that the needs of all students are met in a manner that is often informal but always strives to be inclusive and effective.
The overall quality of planning and preparation was good but there are some areas that require attention. A systematic approach to the enrolment of first-year students is adopted by the school, with school personnel visiting primary schools and also arranging to meet with parents. At the beginning of the school year a standardised cognitive assessment is administered and this is followed by diagnostic assessments which inform teaching. It is recommended that consideration be given to administering the standardised assessments in the spring of the previous school year. Expeditious interventions thereafter can be then informed by such data combined with initial teacher observation of first-year students and acquired primary-assessment data.
The school’s admissions policy draws on the relevant legislative developments and in this regard it makes specific reference to students with special educational needs. As discussed with the principal, adjustments are required to remove some conditions of enrolment which are not in keeping with more recent legislation, particularly the Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs Act (2004), nor with school practices as witnessed during the course of the evaluation.
Considerable work has been undertaken regarding the school’s special educational-needs plan. The commendable support of Kerry Educational Service (KES) is acknowledged by school personnel and in this report. Work has also been undertaken in determining the roles and responsibilities of school personnel. It is suggested that identified roles and responsibilities, as well as documented plans and policies should be incorporated into a staff handbook. Planned engagement with individual education plans (IEPs) could also be advanced via such a publication, as could an outline of effective teaching and learning practices currently being adopted by teachers in their classrooms. Such a handbook would also serve to make more visible the work being undertaken by school personnel and assist with the adoption and promotion of whole-school initiatives.
A student register is already in place, detailing the student’s needs, additional hours allocated to students, the teachers and non-teaching staff involved, the models of delivery and the programme of work being undertaken. With some additional information this register will serve to inform and guide all staff in their engagements with individual students. Additional information could include an outline of students’ learning styles and strengths, the progress made, and when further progress will be reviewed, and by whom. Furthermore such a register would assist in tracking the cumulative effect of certain delivery models upon the overall additional hours allocated.
The school recognises the central role of the mainstream teacher in supporting students identified with special educational needs. Equally, there is awareness among staff of the need to continue to enhance the quality of communication, both formally and informally, among staff members. Plans to alter timetabling practices and engage in team-teaching will assist with such communication. As discussed, there may also be merit in adopting an overarching policy on inclusion. Such a policy will be guided by the aforementioned document Inclusion of Students with Special Educational Needs Post-Primary Guidelines (2007) and would facilitate agreed understandings on concepts such as ‘inclusion’, ‘whole-school approaches’, literacy’ and ‘numeracy’. The school has already begun to respond to students who may be deemed exceptionally able and gifted and further development in this area may benefit from accessing the relevant webpage of the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (www.ncca.ie).
The school’s own recognition of the need to provide ongoing professional development for mainstream teachers may, in part, be met by continuing to contact external individuals and supports such as the Special Education Support Service website (www.sess.ie). However, in planning for improvement, it is suggested that the quality of education and good practice that already exists among teachers should also be accessed. Presentations by staff for staff are to be encouraged as is an examination of the professional benefits of in-class supports.
During the course of the two-day inspection a total of 6 lessons was observed. Classes for these lessons were usually formed around small groups, or individual withdrawal, and included junior cycle and senior cycle students. In all lessons the quality of teaching and learning observed was good, with every effort being made to create purposeful learning environments in which students could learn individually and collectively.
Lessons were well planned and formed part of a sequence that was in keeping with subject and programme requirements. The atmosphere in the lessons was conducive to learning where students appeared comfortable in responding to and forming questions. Students’ respect for other students was a notable feature and one which was influenced by the manner in which teachers interacted with all students. Teachers’ knowledge of students’ interests and abilities was also wisely used to determine how to frame questions and who should respond. Skilful differentiation by teachers was often witnessed as was the promotion of student self-esteem and participation. Apart from lessons devoted to English language development, lessons were predominantly conducted through Irish and any necessary translation occurred naturally and without interrupting the pace and flow of the lesson.
A notable feature of lessons associated with Mathematics and the development of numeracy skills was the manner in which teachers were alert to the need to also incorporate the promotion of literacy skills into the lesson. Good use was made of the board to highlight keywords and to outline the purpose and desired learning outcome of the lesson. Where such keywords required translation into English this was provided, but good preparatory work by one teacher, and the good use of a self-made card game by another, preserved the integrity of the language used and of the language users. Discussions with teachers after these lessons focused on a range of possible strategies including the advantages of inviting students to compose, as well as respond to, questions individually or collectively. Such discussions also revealed the insight teachers had regarding their students’ learning styles and their commitment to assist students’ learning wherever possible.
Lessons devoted to English language and literacy development used a range of very effective teaching methodologies and strategies. Some exemplary practice was witnessed in these lessons with students involved in a range of activities that focused on reading, writing, listening, speaking, comprehending, role play and self-evaluation. One lesson prepared students for the selected reading piece by identifying and clarifying keywords that would be encountered. This lesson also made very good use of role-play to extend students understanding and vocabulary. The initial words as highlighted on the board were later reinforced and used to form part of a structured written exercise. Other lessons also used scaffolding to support students’ thoughts and to organise their learning. Students clearly appreciated this assistance as it allowed them to reveal their acquired knowledge and express it in a manner that was coherent and to their satisfaction. In this, as in all lessons, it was obvious that the teacher’s goal was to boost students’ self-esteem and encourage their efforts. A perusal of some copybooks bore witness to this with some copybooks containing detailed teachers’ comments to support and guide students.
In summary, the quality of learning and teaching observed was in all cases good. Teachers wisely combined their knowledge of both students and learning outcomes to promote effective and purposeful learning experiences. Good use of humour and praise were witnessed in all classes, and wherever possible, all teachers made every effort to interact and encourage students as a group, or as individuals. Students’ views on self-evaluation exercises were also discussed and such practices combined with greater opportunities for students to engage with one another merit further consideration.
Students’ engagement and achievements are communicated to home on a regular basis. Parents are facilitated, on request, to meet with teachers. Daily interaction between the special-needs assistants and parents also helps in this regard. As well as pre-certificate examinations, formal examinations take place at Christmas and summer. Reasonable accommodations in certificate examinations (RACE) are addressed by the school and all are mindful of the need to provide students with the opportunity to become attuned to the accommodations before the certificate examination.
Appropriate standardised and diagnostic tests are used to assist in determining students’ cognitive abilities. Sharing assessment data from testing and retesting students, combined with teachers’ observations will also assist in promoting a whole-school approach to literacy and numeracy as well as identifying those students who are making progress or who may require alternative supports. Such assessment data merits presentation to the whole staff either in the form of overall comparative findings or by communicating the progress made through individual case studies. Findings from retesting could, in turn, feed into the aforementioned student register.
As well as assessing cognitive domains the school is also encouraged to consider assessing students’ affective domains. Such tests could attend to obtaining responses in relation to how students feel about themselves, their school and their learning. The OECD publication Student Engagement at School; A Sense of Belonging and Participation, (2000), may prove of benefit given its very user-friendly format.
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. Feedback was particularly facilitated by teachers with small numbers of students. These teachers sat with individual students and engaged in assessing students’ efforts individually. In such cases guidance and praise were given to the students in a natural and effective way. To support such good practices, previously mentioned peer and self-evaluation opportunities should also be utilised wherever possible. Such practices could be incorporated into an overall school-assessment policy that includes an outline of various ways of presenting schoolwork and homework, and the value of peer and self- evaluation before presentation.
The previously mentioned commendable practice of school self-evaluation identified professional development in the area of student assessment. The school’s planned engagement with the local NEPS psychologist will assist in this regard.
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, April 2010