An Roinn Oideachais agus Eolaíochta
Department of Education and Science
Subject Inspection of Special Educational Needs
Cashel Community School
Roll number: 91497A
Date of inspection: 26 November 2008
Report on the Quality of Learning and Teaching in Special Educational Needs
This report has been written following a subject inspection in Cashel Community School, Co. Tipperary. 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 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.
Cashel Community School engages in a range of inclusive practices which are closely linked to the school’s continued efforts to improve the quality of learning and teaching for all learners in the school. The staff’s care and concern for its students is matched by an expertise and ongoing reflection, at individual teacher and whole-school level, seeking to do what is best for each student. The school’s efforts in providing quality schooling for all students in the community are supported by the leadership shown by senior management and by the spirit of cooperation among teachers. As discussed at the oral feedback meeting, the school has engaged in sometimes pioneering, but always effective practices, and is very well placed to respond to the recommendations that follow in this report.
The school has a considerable additional allocation of teaching hours to support the quality of learning as experienced by students with special educational needs. The total allocation is 160 hours which equates with an allocation of more than seven whole-teacher equivalents. These teaching hours are used for the purposes intended with one teacher equivalent attending to students with literacy and numeracy needs, three teachers assigned to the school’s resource centre for students identified with Asperger’s Syndrome, while the remainder of the allocation is focused on assisting students with a range of low-incidence and high-incidence disabilities. The vast majority of this additional support is located in the junior cycle programme. Suitably flexible models of support are utilised and include combinations of individual withdrawal from class, small-group withdrawal and, increasingly, use is being made of team-teaching arrangements, where two teachers work in the classroom, as opposed to students being withdrawn from class. The decision to withdraw students from classes is made following consultation with students and their parents. Every effort is made to ensure that such decisions are made in the best interest of the student and that they do not diminish students’ perception of themselves as learners or diminish future career choices.
The school has a designated resource centre for students identified with Asperger’s Syndrome, which is attached to the school and is accessed from within the main school building. These students are similarly encouraged, supported and given the skills to take as active a role as possible in the mainstream setting, and to use the resource centre to maximise their inclusion and engagement with the rest of the school. Where necessary, students can also avail of the resource facilities between classes, while a card system for leaving mainstream classes is another subtle and effective form of support. To further support inclusive practices, the school has a total allocation of 8.5 special needs assistants and their contribution to meeting the needs of individual students is duly acknowledged in this report. Indeed, the inclusive manner in which adults engage with one another in the building is a noticeable feature of the school and, no doubt, also positively influences the manner in which students engage with one another.
The school boasts a considerable number of teachers who have accessed, and continue to access, specific training in the area of special educational needs. The special educational needs provision is ably coordinated by one such staff member. The resource centre is also efficiently coordinated with a team of teachers working closely with identified students. A feature of the school is the effort to ensure that appropriate consistency of interaction takes place between students and teachers. This, in turn, results in minimising the number of teachers that form the special educational needs team while simultaneously maximising their impact upon the quality of learning and teaching for their students. Such good practice is further facilitated by the range and blend of subject expertise possessed by members of the team. In order to consolidate and build upon the good work already engaged in by the core team, and the coordinators in particular, opportunities for formal regular meetings are recommended. It is suggested that such a formal timetabled meeting would further assist existing informal arrangements in sharing good practices, resources and planning for future improvements.
In more recent times, the school has taken steps to disband the practice of forming a ‘foundation’ class in first year. The school is mindful of the need to ensure that these students enjoy as beneficial and as inclusive an experience as possible, and examines and reviews what is best for these students on an individual basis. The school is encouraged to consider how to maximise opportunities for all students to access all subjects in first year. In this regard, an agreed understanding on students’ access to modern languages, including Gaeilge, would assist in determining how best to support students in their learning. An extension of the team-teaching arrangements witnessed may prove to be helpful in this regard. In second year and third year maximum use of concurrent time-tabling, where subjects occur at the same time, is encouraged so as to facilitate student movement across levels in accordance with their ability in particular subject disciplines.
The school building is well maintained and the interior is decorated with a wide range of photographs and displays linked to students’ interests, activities and successes which add to a sense of community and belonging. Over the course of the two-day inspection students were found to be courteous and friendly towards one another, and despite the numbers occupying the building, care was taken by all to look out for one another. A wide range of co-curricular and extra-curricular activities are open to all students and this in turn assists in welcoming and including students in all aspects of school life.
Since its foundation, the school has been to the fore in meeting a wide range of needs. More established staff members brought with them an expertise and commitment which is still evident and is matched by more recent staff appointments. All concerned are deserving of much praise and the immediate challenge facing these teachers is to maximise the quality of provision and whole-school support by examining how best to engage with one another and with their mainstream colleagues.
The school has good lines of communication with parents and with primary schools, which facilitate planning and preparation in advance of students’ entry to the school. Engagement with relevant external agencies is also conducted so as to access the necessary resources and to subsequently facilitate the construction of the school’s timetable. In this regard, due cognisance is given to ensuring that there is a consistency of personnel and approach when working with students from day-to-day and from year-to-year. The deliberate timetabling of additional hours for students with special educational needs, in tandem with the overall school timetable, allows for such good practice and in turn, provides opportunities for formal planning time to be assigned to core members of the special educational needs support team. Such good timetabling practices will also support future plans to co-ordinate the extension of delivery models such as team-teaching. Such practices as team-teaching have many advantages and are very much in keeping with the Department of Education and Science (DES) Inclusion of Students with Special Educational Needs Post-Primary Guidelines (2007).
During the evaluation some discussion took place in relation to individual education plans (IEPs). The school has made good headway in this regard, though it is correctly mindful that the post-primary context requires some thought if an effective collective response to individual students’ needs is to be achieved. To track student progress, from first year through to sixth year, it is recommended that the school commence the construction of a student register for students in receipt of additional supports. Such a register might detail the students’ strengths, needs and learning styles, the additional hours allocated, the teachers and non-teaching staff involved, the models of delivery and programme of work being undertaken, as well as signalling progress made, when further progress will be reviewed and by whom. This register will serve to inform and guide all staff in their engagements with individual students and will in turn, assist and be assisted by, the ongoing development of individual educational plans.
The reflective practices engaged in by the school are founded on a collective desire to do what is best for each student. The school has constructed a Learning Support and Resource Plan as well as a draft document relating to the Asperger’s Syndrome resource centre. Both documents serve the school well and, as discussed, the school would benefit from a review of these and related policies and consider the construction of an overarching inclusion policy which takes account of how all in the school are supported in accessing, participating in, and benefiting from school life. The aforementioned DES Inclusion of Students with Special Educational Needs Post-Primary Guidelines (2007) may assist in this regard. The good work of teacher induction should also be considered under this policy, as should measures to build stronger links between the established support team and those assigned to the resource centre. Roles and responsibilities are outlined in the existing policy documents and it is suggested that these roles and responsibilities merit greater clarification and would also be of use if incorporated into the well-constructed staff handbook. Notwithstanding the good work of the special needs assistants, some further clarification on their non-teaching duties and further training needs, would also prove beneficial for all concerned. Detailed reference to the teaching and learning practices engaged by teachers would also serve both policy and staff handbook publications well, as would clear and agreed statements on such concepts as ‘inclusion’, ‘whole-school approach’, ‘exceptionally able and gifted students’, ‘literacy’ and ‘numeracy’. As discussed, some minor alteration to wording, relating to enrolment being conditional upon resources being made available, requires attention. A single enrolment policy for the school also merits examination.
The school is commended for its ability to identify and to respond to the changing and diverse needs of students. This is reflected in the school’s long-established commitment to inclusive practices and to varied models of support, including the increasing and effective use of team-teaching. Other supports such as the extension of peer tutoring were also discussed, and in particular the use of such practices to promote reverse integration among students. In such scenarios, the student identified with special educational needs could play the role of provider as well as recipient.
The overall quality of collective planning and preparation in the school is very good with admirable leadership being shown by senior management, co-ordinators and teachers alike.
In general, the quality of learning and teaching observed was good. A total of eight lessons were observed. The majority of classrooms visited were composed of small groups of students who received additional support with the development of their literacy and numeracy skills. Other lessons included individual work devoted to the development of social skills and one mathematics lesson engaged in team-teaching where the lesson was conducted by two teachers with a full class group. More often than not, teachers began lessons with an outline of the key objectives and the tasks that would be asked of the learners. This good practice assisted in mapping out the lesson for students, thus raising interest levels while simultaneously reducing anxiety levels among students. Some lessons used previous homework to link past learning with the next set of learning outcomes.
A palpable feature of the school is the sense of belonging that students seem to have with it. Such a sense of place was often inculcated by teachers who succeeded in engaging all students in the lesson and who valued individual contributions to the lesson. Best practice was seen where a differentiated approach was adopted by teachers. In such lessons students often worked individually on suitably challenging tasks. Teacher knowledge of students was also often used to good effect to engage students in the lesson and to maintain their interest in the learning activity. Such purposeful learning environments encouraged students to ask questions and seek clarifications where necessary. Judicious use of praise and humour also cultivated a positive learning environment. Good mobility by teachers allowed some students to ask questions in private and, where necessary, seek assurance that they were engaging correctly in the exercise.
Good teacher-student relations facilitated students asking teachers questions in an open and respectful manner. Students were encouraged to offer opinions and to listen to one another. There was little evidence of cooperative learning techniques such as paired work and group work. Teachers are encouraged to examine how such strategies might be used more frequently, to complement other forms of learning and to simultaneously build on valued social skills such as teamwork and turn-taking. Teacher questions were well distributed among learners with some higher order questioning taking place. The practice of displaying students’ work was witnessed on occasions and further extension of such practice is encouraged. Such displays have been found to also foster among students a sense of being valued and of being part of a community. They also motivate learners by showing students that they have a potential audience for their work and therefore that correction and subsequent redrafting are relevant, important and the norm for all writers.
In the lessons supporting literacy development, good use was made of resources such as reading kits, images, readers, and information and communication technology (ICT) facilities. An examination of students’ reading comprehension scores across the three junior cycle years indicates that student learning is in keeping with their overall ability. Similar use of resources was found in lessons devoted to improving numeracy and mathematical skills. Lessons focused on use of money, measurement, and algebra. Some good use was made of concrete examples such as weights and money. As discussed, the integration of literacy skills with numeracy skills merits consideration, as does the use of role play. Inviting students to compose as well as respond to questions may also prove worthwhile. Such activities could take place in pairs and small groups, as was witnessed in the team-teaching lesson where students were encouraged to simply ‘help each other’. Work with individual students was found to be in keeping with their individual plans and students responded well to the support being provided. Time to talk, to plan and to be listened to were clearly valued and of use in promoting the student’s overall learning and self-esteem.
To further promote the good practices witnessed, the school is encouraged to facilitate opportunities for teachers, especially those qualified in the area of special educational needs, to meet, identify and share with all their wealth of expertise and their teaching methodologies. While external presenters no doubt will still be required, the school should seek to complement such ongoing professional development, by encouraging its own teachers to present to one another in small groups or at whole-staff level. The context-sensitive and often tacit expertise of colleagues merits being explicitly shared and discussed. Such action could, in turn, assist subject departments in determining how best to meet individual needs of students in the collective setting of the classroom.
The school engages in a comprehensive range of procedures to assess students’ learning and to inform teaching. Students’ engagement and achievements are communicated to home on a regular basis. As well as pre-state examinations for the relevant year groups, formal examinations take place at midterm, Christmas and summer. Parents are facilitated, on request, to meet with teachers. Appropriate standardised and diagnostic tests are used to determine learning and inform teaching. Again, a review of the various tests in use across the school is encouraged, and students would be well served if such testing also focused on how students perceived themselves and their learning. Attention is drawn here to the OECD publication Student Engagement at School; A Sense of Belonging and Participation, 2000. Students’ progress is also assessed on a daily basis by subject teachers and at intervals by class-based examinations. Students’ work is monitored, stored and used sensitively to assess progress.
Some re-testing is already undertaken to determine progress in literacy and numeracy skills. In order to promote a collaborative and whole-school response, it is recommended that the findings from re-testing, along with other student gains, should be appropriately shared with colleagues. Such findings could in turn 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. Those involved in team-teaching are also encouraged to share their story, and to highlight the frequency and quality of feedback to students, that such a delivery model facilitates.
The school is considering a homework policy as part of its assessment procedures. In formulating future policy, it is suggested that the school address how best it can facilitate various modes of homework presentation, correction and feedback in a manner that maintains high expectations and differentiates for levels of ability. During the course of the inspection, oral feedback by teachers to students was seen to assist student learning. Students’ written work was found to be regularly corrected, and on occasions signed, dated and with concluding comments to encourage students in their learning. Where appropriate, consideration might also be given to promoting self-evaluation and peer-evaluation by encouraging students to review their own work, or that of their peers, before it is given to the teacher. The school may also wish to incorporate its homework policy into the aforementioned inclusion policy, where differentiated approaches to assessment can match differentiated approaches to learning.
The school has very good relations with the local National Educational Psychological Service (NEPS) psychologist and 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. Students’ participation and achievement in state examinations are rightfully a source of pride for all concerned. The visible pride of staff members in the achievements of individual students with special educational needs was witnessed on a number of occasions during the inspection. The school’s stated aim of developing the whole person is witnessed in the many awards presented from within and from outside the school, which give due recognition to students’ engagement as well as achievement. It is suggested that all students would benefit from a more structured positive-discipline system where individuals or class groups would be awarded on a regular basis for behaviour that is conducive to improving the quality of learning experienced by students in the school.
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, November 2009