An Roinn Oideachais agus Eolaíochta
Department of Education and Science
Subject Inspection of Special Educational Needs
Terence MacSwiney Community College
Knocknaheeny, Cork City
Roll number: 71123Q
Date of inspection: 28-29 April 2009
Report on the Quality of Learning and Teaching in Special Educational Needs
This report has been written following a subject inspection in Terence MacSwiney Community College, Cork. It presents the findings of an evaluation of the quality of learning and teaching in provision for 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 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.
The high quality of provision and whole-school support for all students, including those identified with special educational needs, is a significant feature of Terence MacSwiney Community College. A team approach is adopted to meeting the needs of students. Good structures are in place which allows the school to respond to the above average concentration of needs through effective whole-school and classroom practices. These practices are constantly reviewed and are suitably flexible so as to meet individual student needs in the collective setting of the college. Senior management, including Vocational Educational Committee (VEC) personnel, deserve much praise for their leadership and for their ability to support and promote leadership among staff and students alike.
At the time of the evaluation the school was in receipt of 108 hours additional teacher allocation for special educational needs. Among the needs identified are students with low achievement who are eligible for learning support, usually in the areas of literacy and numeracy, as well as students with low-incidence and high-incidence disabilities. This allocation along with other supports and initiatives provided by the Department of Education and Science (DES), VEC and others is co-ordinated by a team of teachers who work effectively together and ensure that the allocation provided is used for the purposes for which it was intended. Co-ordination of the special educational needs provision is jointly and effectively undertaken by two staff members, whose dedication and commitment to their work is matched by other staff members, including special needs assistants.
The predominant modes of support offered to students are in keeping with Department guidelines and takes the form of small class formation and/or team-teaching. In its own policy statement the school clearly states “We recognise the entitlement of all pupils to a broad and balanced based curriculum and we strive to be a fully inclusive school”. All students have access to all subjects with a greater emphasis on developing literacy and numeracy skills occurring for certain classes. The school reports that the necessity to provide professional assessments in order to access additional resources impacts negatively upon the school as the allocation by the Department for such assessments does not meet the demands made by the number of students identified by the school. The school would welcome a mode of provision similar to the general allocation model that operates in the primary sector, where the needs of students can be met expeditiously and where engagement with support personnel may continue after the initial assessments are conducted. The school is very mindful of the interplay between the social, affective and cognitive domains that influence students’ learning and development. In this regard the school utilises existing resources to provide a holistic response to the needs presenting. In its own self-evaluation the school identifies the need for further staff training and access to professional support in the area of counselling.
The school is well resourced with appropriate learning materials and ICT facilities. Classrooms are well maintained and many have displays of students’ own work which assists with promoting their sense of achievement and belonging. This was particularly noticeable with the photographic display in the front hall which captured two present students’ trip to Antarctica. The Junior Certificate Schools Programme (JCSP) demonstration library is a credit to all concerned and is a significant feature of the school. The library is very much a creative and active learning centre with a range of activities taking place to nurture students’ literacy skills. These activities include, among others, students’ ‘make a book’ display and paired reading sessions between first year students and volunteers from the local community. The co-curricular and extra-curricular activities at lunchtime, after school and during holiday periods are appreciated by all and are acknowledged in this report. Such activities clearly contribute to the development of students’ self-esteem and to their acquisition of a range of knowledge and skills that will serve them well throughout their lives.
The school engages with a considerable number of external agencies to support students with their learning, their development and well-being. The dedication and concern of staff for their students ensures that such agencies are responded to and accessed as the needs arise. The school sees merit in some of these supports being located within the school where they can be more regularly and more easily accessed.
Given the variety of sources involved in funding responses to identified needs, the school is particularly conscious of the need for quality planning and preparation. The team approach adopted by the school, with various representatives attending regular meetings, works well. The school’s special educational needs policy document is well crafted and attends to a range of issues which are in keeping with the DES guidelines as published in Inclusion of Students with Special Educational Needs Post-Primary Guidelines (2007). The central role of the subject teachers is recognised by the school’s policy document on special educational needs and the school is well served with the inclusion of all roles in the school’s commendable staff handbook. The school correctly has a clear focus on the promotion of literacy and numeracy skills and seeks to adopt a whole-school approach to improving student attainment in these core areas. Literacy and numeracy are recognised as encompassing a range of interdependent skills including the promotion of oral skills and the ability to frame as well as respond to questions. In this regard it would be worthwhile to include in the staff handbook the school’s agreed definition of literacy and numeracy and the range of teacher-led actions that staff may draw upon in their daily practice. Such actions, many of which are listed in the school’s literacy document, could continue to be extended by drawing upon teachers’ classroom practices and upon initiatives as devised through programmes like the JCSP and the Leaving Certificate Applied (LCA).
A systematic and co-ordinated approach to planning and preparation is adopted by the college. Early engagement with the primary feeder schools, combined with engagement with parents and relevant others assists in planning and preparation for the following school year. Up to date standardised tests are administered before the end of the previous academic year and after students have been enrolled. Additional diagnostic testing of literacy and numeracy skills are conducted upon commencement of the school year. Subsequent interventions are also informed by teacher observation of students’ progress over their initial weeks in the school. This is good practice and lends itself to the promotion of a whole-school response.
The school recognises the benefits from consistent and simultaneous timetabling of additional teaching hours in tandem with construction of the main timetable. Over the years the school has shown admirable imagination and initiative in responding to identified needs. In the past the school pioneered team-teaching activities. The school correctly identifies the importance of literacy and numeracy skills for accessing the curriculum and enhancing life-long learning opportunities. Of late a concerted focus on literacy and numeracy for the smaller junior certificate class groups has been introduced which results in students receiving multiple sessions of triple classes across the school week. Teachers reported, and those students asked agreed, that team-teaching was their preferred mode of delivery as they viewed it as supportive of individuals within the collective setting. Teachers noted that such an arrangement also assisted with the induction of newer teachers and with the ongoing in-career development of more established teachers. As discussed, the school is encouraged to revisit its allocation of hours and examine how their optimum use may facilitate an extension of team-teaching arrangements which can assist with the promotion of a cross-curricular approach to literacy and numeracy. Such in-class support has been shown to lend itself to promoting student engagement in their own and in their peers learning, and assist with raising the levels at which students sit state examinations.
To facilitate an examination of the optimal use of hours allocated the school is encouraged to establish a student register, much of which the school has already in place. 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, assessment data, the progress made and when further progress will be reviewed, and by whom. Furthermore, such a document would assist in tracking the cumulative effect of certain delivery models upon the overall additional hours allocated. The register in turn would assist with ongoing developments with individual and group plans, and may be particularly informed by the formation of individual education plans (IEPs) for students in receipt of low-incidence hours.
A commendable range of individual and school-based professional development has been accessed by teachers and special needs assistants. In the past the school has unsuccessfully sought to enrol a staff member on the Postgraduate Diploma in Special Educational Needs, University College, Cork. The school has also facilitated in-house presentations by staff for staff. Given the high quality of training and good practice that already exists among teachers, the school is encouraged to further pursue such presentations. Future presentations may, for example, focus on aspects of teaching that support literacy and numeracy development or might examine the range of ways in which team-teaching can take place within a classroom setting. The school’s own recognition of the importance of accessing ongoing professional development for mainstream teachers and special needs assistants in the area of counselling is duly noted in this report and also merits consideration.
Planning for peer support is also encouraged in the school with senior students assisting as mentors and readers to junior students. It was observed by the school that students appreciate being helpers as well as being helped and an extension of this practice to assist senior members of the community with ICT skills was also discussed. In a similar vein, a culture of ‘catching the students being good’ permeates the school and a wide range of awards and celebrations are in place. To continue to support such good work the school is encouraged to examine how best to capture, on a daily basis, what they value most about student participation, engagement and achievement. As discussed, it is suggested that an extension of positive discipline procedures over shorter but regular timeframes, with in-school presentations at assemblies, merits consideration.
The reflective nature of the school and the constant attention to improving the quality of provision for all students ensures that planning and preparation are of a high standard. The recommendations outlined above are well within the school’s grasp and are in keeping with the outcomes of the school’s own self-evaluation exercises. The school’s efforts to personalise and maximise the learning experience for each student is particularly evident in the classroom interactions witnessed during the course of the inspection.
A total of nine classes were visited over the course of two days. Without exception the quality of teaching and learning observed was good with teachers skilfully combining their knowledge of students with their knowledge of subject content, skills and values. All students were found to be both courteous and curious, giving warm welcomes and firm handshakes. Such behaviour by students reflects well upon the overall school atmosphere and the efforts made by teachers to create a safe but challenging environment in which students’ confidence in themselves and in each other can develop.
The classes inspected ranged from first year to sixth year and included lessons focused on literacy and numeracy development, as well as lessons associated with ICT, Science, Home Economics and Horticulture. In general the class sizes were relatively small and, depending on the needs of the class or of individuals within the class, some lessons had two teachers team-teaching or had one teacher and a special needs assistant. The special needs assistants always ensured that the students they were assigned to were appropriately assisted, but did so in a sensitive and unobtrusive way, and in a manner that allowed all students to benefit from their presence in the classroom. Differentiated practices were used to good effect by teachers and constant monitoring ensured that all students had a sense of success by the completion of the lesson.
The whiteboard, overhead projector and/or data projector were used to good effect to indicate the goals and desired learning outcomes of the lessons. In some cases these outcomes were linked to keywords and revisited at the end of the lesson. Such good practice was used to show students the learning steps they had taken, to praise such progress and to motivate future efforts. In conversation with teachers and special needs assistants they revealed their detailed knowledge of each student’s progress, learning styles, personalities and home backgrounds. Compassion and care were equally matched with a desire to encourage and challenge students to achieve their potential while in school. All were always courteous towards students and acted as good role models and high standards were set for respectful interactions which were usually met. Students were encouraged to ask questions and it was clear that many felt it safe to do so and to seek assistance when necessary. Such confidence, in part, was derived from the positive responses they received from their teachers.
Boosting student self-confidence underlines all activities witnessed in Terence MacSwiney Community College. In classroom settings teachers skilfully and subtly ensured that students were regularly praised. Teachers framed and distributed both lower-order and higher-order questions in a manner that allowed students reveal what they knew. Teachers listened to students attentively and patiently. Where two adults occupied the room the frequency of dialogue with students, both private and public, was quite considerable and this helped to assist students to stay on task, to engage with the lesson objectives and to feel their contribution to the learning had validity and importance. Team-teaching settings offered time and space for students to engage with one another and so mirror the co-operative practices of the co-operating teachers. Student to student collaboration, where observed, allowed students to consolidate their own skills, assist each other and generate new knowledge collectively. Such practices in turn assisted with the school’s focus on a wide range of literacy skills, including listening, speaking, comprehending and questioning.
Through a combination of individual, cooperative and competitive structures students were usually held accountable for their learning which encouraged participation and engagement. In the Horticulture, Science and Home Economic lessons a suitable balance was struck between cooperative practical activities and theoretical concepts. In lessons devoted to promoting literacy, including digital literacy, and numeracy teachers made good use of students’ personal interests. Good cooperative practices were also witnessed in some of these lessons which allowed for the promotion of generic skills such as teamwork, listening, empathy, suspending judgement, communicating, turn taking and framing as well as answering questions. Independent learning and note taking were also encouraged in many lessons as teachers sought to strike a suitable balance between assisting students but also by avoiding the onset of learned helplessness where students become too dependent on teacher support.
Teachers are encouraged to continue to engage in the good practices witnessed during the course of the inspection and are further encouraged to continue to examine ways in which these context-sensitive approaches can be shared with, and witnessed by, other colleagues. While team-teaching is one way of sharing such practices, the school may wish to consider providing opportunities for teachers to present to colleagues within or across subject departments. The use of the highly commendable staff handbook as a forum for outlining successful teaching and learning strategies may also be worthy of consideration.
Assessment takes many forms in the school, all of which are designed to determine learning and inform teaching. Feedback to students was a constant in-class activity in the lessons observed with formative assessment often to the fore. Again the desire to instil confidence in students was often a key motivating factor on the part of teachers. Private one-to-one conversations within the classroom setting as well as more general feedback to the whole class group were used to good effect. Where more than one adult was present in the classroom this feedback was exponentially much greater and allowed for considerable dialogue to take place between teachers and individual students.
Students who use a range of literacy and numeracy kits are accustomed to engaging in self-evaluation practices. Such practices may assist in the formation of an overall school assessment policy that includes an outline of various ways of presenting schoolwork and homework, including the value of peer and self- evaluation before presentation. Assessing joint productive activity is another variation on this theme and one that would align well with the culture of the school.
Students’ engagement and achievements are communicated to home on a regular basis. Attendance is closely monitored and quantitative data is regularly examined to determine trends and patterns. Parents are facilitated, on request, to meet with teachers. Appropriate standardised and diagnostic tests are used to determine learning and inform teaching, though the school indicated that some tests are not in keeping with students’ cultural norms or abilities. Students’ progress is also assessed on a daily basis by subject teachers and by class-based examinations. As well as pre-state examinations, formal examinations take place at Christmas and summer. Students’ work is monitored, stored and used sensitively to assess and determine progress. In consultation with the local NEPS psychologist, the school adopts a systematic approach to arranging reasonable accommodations in certificate examinations (RACE). Students are facilitated in becoming familiar with the relevant accommodation provided.
The school is commended for the very good practice of retesting students in literacy and numeracy skills. Such 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. The school has many examples of success stories which could form the basis for such 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.
As documented and practised by teachers, formative assessment practices are an integral part of every lesson, and are interwoven with summative assessments to assist both teachers and students create purposeful learning environments.
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, December 2009