An Roinn Oideachais agus Scileanna
Department of Education and Skills
Subject Inspection of Special Educational Needs
Roll number: 65450W
Date of inspection: 26 November 2009
Report on the Quality of Learning and Teaching in Special Educational Needs
This report has been written following a subject
inspection in CBS Thurles, Co.
A range of special educational needs are identified in CBS Thurles, including students with low incidence and high incidence disabilities, as well as students with low achievement in literacy and numeracy. In more recent times the school, under the leadership of senior management, has developed practices that actively seek to support all students with their learning and so maximise the impact of the eighty six hours of additional provision allocated to the school. A notable feature of the school is the vision outlined more than once by senior management which correctly seeks to personalise the learning of each student and in so doing attend to the individual needs of all students, including those identified with special educational needs. This report identifies the good practices in place in the school and makes recommendations for further development.
A team approach is adopted in co-ordinating the additional support provided by the school. The guidance counsellor, as part of an assistant principal’s post, works with a staff member qualified in the area of special needs education. These two teachers consult regularly with senior management who are actively involved in the co-ordination of provision. Classes in the school are formed on the basis of mixed-ability in first year with concurrent timetabling. Additional support is provided through the formation of smaller class groupings and through individual and small group withdrawal. Students requiring support with specific subjects may also be aligned with the relevant qualified teachers. The decision to withdraw students from classes is made following consultation with class teachers, students and their parents. Significant efforts are made to ensure that such decisions are made in the best interest of the student and that they don’t diminish a student’s perception of themselves as learners, or diminish their pleasure from learning and their subsequent future career choices.
The school is encouraged to continue to examine and review what is best for each identified student on an individual basis. It is recommended that such a review should examine closely the benefits of team-teaching. School structures, combined with the collaborative culture among staff, can be configured to such a mode of support for student learning and, as discussed, for teacher learning also. Research indicates that team-teaching can assist in engaging with students the school describes as “…of the middle ground who do not demand attention”. Circular 23/03 which states “wherever possible, schools should provide additional help for children in the mainstream classroom…” and the Inclusion of Students with Special Educational Needs Post-Primary Guidelines (2007) will support future efforts in this regard.
Support for students with English as an additional language is also undertaken by the school. The school is mindful of the unique needs that may present among this cohort and are aware of the potential for this cohort of students to also present with a full range of special educational needs, including being exceptionally able and gifted.
There are five fulltime special needs assistants appointed to the school and their contribution is duly acknowledged by the teaching staff in the school and by this report. In conversation with both teachers and special needs assistants it is clear that diverse non-teaching duties of the special needs assistants positively support the inclusive practices undertaken by the school.
The school is well resourced with an impressive range of appropriate materials and ICT facilities that are used regularly. Two rooms are set aside for individual and small group withdrawal and ICT integration into regular classrooms and lessons is actively being undertaken by the school. A wide range of co-curricular and extracurricular activities are open to all students and this in turn assists in welcoming and including students in all aspects of school life. The school wishes to actively promote student reading and, as discussed, the introduction of a cross-age paired reading programme involving first years and fourth year students may prove beneficial in this regard. Similarly, an examination of how ICT can promote aspects of literacy and numeracy in all lessons would also be worthwhile.
In more recent times the school has made significant advances in providing whole-school support for students identified with special educational needs. Further developments will involve planning and preparation and given the quality of interaction with students, teachers, special needs assistants and senior management, these developments are well within the remit of the school. Furthermore, the school’s senior management have a keen understanding of change management which augurs well for the school’s engagement in responding to student’s individual needs in the collective setting of the school and of its classrooms.
Communication with primary schools and with parents facilitates collaborative planning and preparation. Engagement with external agencies is also used to good effect and it is noteworthy that some of the external personnel contacted in the course of conducting this inspection spoke very favourably of the school’s efforts to promote learning in an inclusive manner. Engagement with the Special Educational Needs Organiser assists in accessing the necessary resources for students with low-incidence and high-incidence needs. Tracking of these resources is evident in the school and it is recommended that such work would benefit from the creation of an electronic register of students in receipt of support. Such a register would document individual student’s needs, additional hours allocated, 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 and their impact upon achieving optimum outcomes for students. Similarly, the register could inform and be informed by the good planning being undertaken to meet identified individual needs.
As discussed, the post-primary context, with its large student population, many teachers and many subjects, contains significant challenges to implementing a collective response to students identified with special educational needs. The school has begun to develop its individual education plans and continued attention to this process is recommended. The planned engagement with the Special Education Support Service (SESS) will further support such good work. Timetabling of all known additional teaching hours at the time of the construction of the master timetable will also assist with planning and preparation. Such practice will allow the provision to be utilised in a range of purposeful and proactive ways, including team-teaching. It will in turn further facilitate staff communication through the allocation of a regular meeting time for the two members of the core team to meet with each other and other relevant personnel.
While the school has many set procedures that are implemented cohesively it recognises, and this report recommends, that the school formulate a written policy that seeks to capture and inspire inclusive practices which promote student participation, engagement and learning. Such a document should be seen to support and not replace the existing good informal practices witnessed and discussed. It is suggested that the Department of Education and Science Inclusion of Students with Special Educational Needs Post-Primary Guidelines (2007) may assist with such work. Once drafted it may be useful to use the policy document as a lens through which all school policies can be viewed where the degree to which they promote inclusive practices can be determined. The special needs assistants in the school contribution to such a policy document should also be given consideration.
Clear statements on the central role of the subject teacher and on agreed context-based interpretations of terms such as ‘inclusion’, ‘differentiation’, ‘assessment’, ‘whole school approach’, literacy’ and ‘numeracy’ may also be of benefit in formulating the school’s policy statement. In general terms the school is advised that a greater focus on literacy development in all subject areas is usually more effective than an over-reliance on reducing the number of subjects that students study. In the context of the school’s promotion of ICT and the use by some teachers of graphic organisers, a particular focus on the promotion of digital and graphic literacy may prove useful. Transfer of such references into the staff handbook, as well as a brief outline of the successful teaching and learning practices engaged in by teachers, may also prove useful in capturing and promoting the diverse methods that are employed in meeting the diverse needs presenting.
As indicated above ongoing professional learning for staff members is an integral part of the school’s planning and preparation for special educational needs. This is all the more important the central role of the mainstream teachers is considered. In this regard the school is encouraged to continue to access external support but to also consider further ways in which colleagues can best share their own context-sensitive practice and wisdom.
The school recognises the importance of planning and preparation and its impact upon the quality of learning experienced by all students. The good stewardship and reflective practices engaged by the school place the above recommendations well within its remit.
The overall quality of learning and teaching observed was very good. Ten lessons were witnessed over the course of the two-day inspection and involved seven teachers. These lessons ranged in size from individual and small group withdrawal to whole-class teaching groups and spanned both junior and senior cycle programmes. The lessons focused on a range of learning outcomes including the development of literacy and numeracy skills, specific individual learning needs as well as attending to certain subject disciplines and activities including, English, Mathematics, Materials Technology (wood), French, German, Geography and Computer Studies.
Lessons were well planned and well paced with a range of appropriate resources used to good effect. In the lessons inspected teachers were attentive to individuals throughout and questions were framed and distributed in a variety of ways that appropriately challenged and supported learners. The purposeful learning environment encouraged students to ask questions and seek clarifications where necessary. Judicious use of humour and praise combined with good classroom management skills to ensure that students were engaged in a range of meaningful and purposeful learning activities.
In lessons with whole-class teaching groups teachers made good use of direct and global questioning and allowed sufficient time for student responses. Teachers paid attention to ensuring all students participated in the lesson and made sure that all students were given an opportunity to think and to respond in a supportive environment. Purposeful and strategic seating of students also assisted in maximising students’ engagement and achievement. Teachers took cognisance of the level of difficulty associated with the questions they posed and praised students’ efforts appropriately. In the smaller-sized lessons students were seen to respond well to each others efforts, and gave each other ample opportunities to participate in and benefit from the interaction. In these lessons differentiated practice and constant feedback were particularly noticeable. Student self-advocacy was also promoted in these lessons where students had a voice in determining how best the lesson would assist them with their learning. Students were visibly comfortable with helping one another and were benefiting from the additional support being provided.
Use of paired and small group work was evident in some lessons and promoted student participation and learning. Such practice also facilitated individual interaction between teacher and student. A range of skills including, turn taking, teamwork, the use of technology, use of graphic organisers, higher-order thinking skills and listening skills were also witnessed during the course of the inspection. In the lessons concerning modern languages the opportunity for students to practise their language skills in both German and French were taken by the students. Confidence to participate was in part due to the appropriate level of teacher error tolerance and teacher support. As with Materials Technology (wood) and Computer Studies, the teamwork and choice of actions promoted by the teachers ensured that students with identified special educational needs were both recipients and providers of peer-driven support. Keywords and practical concrete examples were the norm in the individual and smaller-sized English and Mathematics lessons observed with students afforded every opportunity to acquire the requisite knowledge and skills at a pace and in a manner that suited their individual learning styles. The constant overlap between literacy and numeracy needs was not lost upon these teachers as, in the case of some mathematical learning, the dominant challenge was on occasions associated more with words than with concepts.
The use of dialogue was a common feature in lessons. Students were encouraged to determine what keywords might mean and to also explain to teachers what they were doing or planning to do. Encouraging students to compose as well as respond to questioning was discussed with some teachers as was the practice of multimedia recordings of students’ efforts.
The well-equipped resource rooms are used to good effect with software programmes and interactive whiteboards used regularly. The school may wish to track the impact of some of these software programmes upon the identified students’ numeracy, reading, writing, listening, speaking and comprehension skills as they transfer across the school curriculum and into subject-specific classes. Similar examination of the impact of the interactive whiteboard, which was seen to good effect in the lessons visited, may also prove to be useful.
The quality of learning and teaching observed was very good and student learning was clearly benefiting from the additional support. The school is encouraged to examine how best it might share with colleagues the good teaching and learning practices witnessed during the course of the inspection. It is suggested that the staff handbook may be useful in documenting these practices. Activities such as team-teaching may be useful in providing opportunities for teachers to witness these same practices.
The school engages in a range of procedures to assess students’ learning and to inform teaching. Once the student is enrolled in the school standardised tests are administered to determine how best to support learning. Assessment data combines with other data gathered from subject teachers and parents inform what additional assistance may be required. Relevant information on individual students is communicated to staff in a manner which assists with student learning. Investigations into the most appropriate screening and diagnostic tests to determine ability and attainment levels in literacy and numeracy are ongoing and are made in consultation with the school’s guidance counsellor. Students’ progress is also assessed on a daily basis by subject teachers and by class-based examinations. Students’ work is monitored, stored and used sensitively to assess and determine progress. As well as pre-state examinations, formal examinations take place at Christmas and summer. Parental interaction with the school is ongoing and encouraged.
In order to promote a collaborative and whole-school response to aspects of assessment such as literacy and numeracy, the school is encouraged to appropriately share findings from retesting, along with other student gains, with colleagues. Such findings could also usefully feed into the aforementioned student register. 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. This information can in turn support subject department planning where all teachers can identify, for example, the literacy and numeracy demands and developments associated with their own syllabi and programmes.
A range of nationally accredited curricular programmes are on offer in the school. Participation and achievement in state examinations are rightfully a source of pride for all concerned. The bar of expectation is set high but in a manner that is realistic and mindful of each student’s circumstance. The school adopts a systematic approach to arranging reasonable accommodations in certificate examinations (RACE). Twelve centres were provided for RACE by the State Examination Commission in 2009 and the school has expressed concern relating to the resources required to facilitate students in becoming familiar with the relevant accommodation in advance of sitting state examinations.
In the classrooms visited feedback to students regarding their efforts was provided in a range of ways and students were appreciative of the teachers’ efforts to use the opportunity to encourage and guide future learning. Feedback was given orally and in writing, both privately and at whole class level, but always sensitively and in a manner that affirmed student effort. The school’s positive report system for effort and commitment is commended and offers much potential in allowing the school to capture and celebrate what it values as a school, including aspects of student development that may not necessarily be solely associated with academic endeavour.
The school’s assessment policy is being formulated and the school is encouraged to document the need to differentiate assessment and homework in a manner similar to the differentiation that occurs with teaching and learning in the classroom. As witnessed, the use of graphic organisers for both class work and homework is a good example of this overlap. Similarly, peer and self-evaluation practices associated with formative assessment also allow students to monitor progress and identify further learning goals. The use of fourth-year students to assist with first-year students’ homework has much potential and may align with the previous suggestion in relation to cross-age programmes of learning. In formulating its policy on homework the school may wish to adopt a broad interpretation of the assessment policy to include how all data associated with special educational needs can be used to affirm and promote good teaching and learning in all lessons for all students.
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 principal and members of the school’s special educational needs support team at the conclusion of the evaluation, when the draft findings and recommendations of the evaluation were presented and discussed.
Published May 2010