An Roinn Oideachais agus Eolaíochta

 Department of Education and Science

Directorate of Regional Services

  

Whole School Evaluation

REPORT

 

Saint Laurence O’Toole’s Special School

North Strand, Dublin 1

Roll number: 19819L

 

Date of inspection: 06 April 2006

Date of issue of report:  15 December 2006

  

 

This School Evaluation report

1  SCHOOL CONTEXT AND ETHOS

1.1 Context

1.2 Distinctive character and atmosphere

1.3 Supports for students

1.4 Links with the community

2. Centre management

2.1 Role of board of management

2.2 Administration

2.3 Programme areas

2.4 Staff deployment

2.5 Accommodation and resources

3. Planning

3.1 Plan/policies

3.2 Planning process

3.3 Implementation of plan

4. Teaching and learning

4.1  Planning and preparation

4.2 Methodologies

4.3 Assessment of students’ progress

4.4 Outcomes and standards

5. Summary of findings and recommendations for further development

 

  

 

 

 

This School Evaluation report

 

This report has been written following an evaluation of St Laurence O’Toole’s Special School, Dublin 1. The evaluation is being carried out within the context of an expenditure review of those schools originally designated ‘Youth Encounter Projects’. It presents the findings of an evaluation of the work of the school as a whole and makes recommendations for the further development of the work of the school. During the evaluation, the inspector held meetings with the principal, the staff, the board of management and groups of parents and students, including a past pupil of the school. The evaluation was conducted over a number of days during which the inspector visited classrooms and observed teaching and learning. The inspector interacted with students and teachers, examined students’ work, interacted with the class teachers and reviewed school policy and planning documentation and teachers’ written preparation. Following the evaluation visit, the inspector provided oral feedback on the outcomes of the evaluation to the staff and to the board of management. The board of management was given an opportunity to comment in writing on the findings and recommendations of the report; a response was not received from the board.

 

 

 

1  SCHOOL CONTEXT AND ETHOS

 

1.1 Context

 

St Laurence O’Toole’s Special School is a community-based high-support school for children considered ‘at risk’. It provides an educational placement to twenty-four children, girls and boys, between the ages of eleven and sixteen years, from Dublin’s north inner city and the Docklands area. It also receives some children who are served by the Dart and Luas lines. In the current school year, the school was able to accommodate five new enrolments from a total number of twenty-five referrals. Those for whom the school does not have a place are, for the most part, vulnerable young people reported to be on repeated suspension from local schools for emotional and behavioural reasons.

 

St Laurence O’Toole’s Special School is one of five high-support schools – three in Dublin, one in Cork and one in Limerick, which were originally established as ‘Youth Encounter Projects’ in 1977.  According to information circulated by the High Support Unit of the Department of Education and Science in preparation for the current expenditure review, the original aim of the ‘projects’ was ‘to provide educational services for children who have become alienated from the conventional school system with the view of returning such children to the conventional school system in the shortest possible time’. Such a short-term remedial mission has proved to be impractical and unrealistic. Instead, in response to identified needs, this ‘Youth Encounter Project’ functions fully as a school, engaged in the long-term education and personal development of those young people in the community who suffer the most extreme and multi-dimensional forms of educational and social disadvantage. The school is funded by the Department of Education and Science and administered by Special Education, Section 2, of the Department.

 

 

1.2 Distinctive character and atmosphere

 

The distinctive character and atmosphere of St Laurence O’Toole’s Special School reflect the sentiments expressed in the stated vision for the school: ‘Our vision for this school is to be able to meet the needs of all our pupils in a happy, caring environment. We would like to offer the pupils a full and varied education, where they are able to recognise and value their achievements.’ 

 

The school’s twenty-four students bring with them combined consequences of poverty, violence, neglect, bereavement, mental health issues and the consequences of parental or sibling drug use, alcohol misuse, imprisonment, homelessness and suicide. Without exception, they have experienced failure and rejection in the education system. Shows of emotional disturbance on any day can range widely through severe withdrawal, outbursts of aggression, anger, frustration, subtle or overt bullying, or a range of challenging behaviour.  The professional, reflective management of a caring, structured and nurturing environment ensures that these young people, whatever their difficulties, are happy to come to school and engage meaningfully with a process of learning and personal development.

 

 Emphasis is placed on the social development of the students through the creation of a school community where all children are treated with respect by staff and fellow students. The school day begins with breakfast in the dining room for students and staff together. During this period, one notices the genuine quality of relationships at all levels which provide a sound basis for the personal and social development of the students. It is clear to the students that they are valued, so they feel safe to engage in a degree of banter with the staff and fellow students. They are made to feel safe in this school, so they can ‘be themselves’ knowing that their individual needs and local circumstances are understood. It is obvious too that they regard the staff as role models. The ‘bean an tí’ and the maintenance person play a central role in the welcome and friendship offered to the students. One gets a sense that certain students treat them as surrogate parents.

 

This ethos of care and respect continues to the classrooms where it underpins a realistic work ethic. Learning activities take place in a positive, stimulating and structured environment.  Each student has an individual education plan and clear goals. It was impressive to witness students who had felt marginalised in previous schooling, now actively engaged in learning.  Such a positive situation – even allowing for occasional disruption - is not something that happens without thoughtful planning and constant vigilance and engagement by the staff. It is a reflection of the genuinely holistic approach evident throughout the school. It is a model one might wish to see replicated in areas of the city and country where educational disadvantage and social exclusion are severe. Certainly one might suggest replication in the school’s immediate area, given the persistence of the waiting list for places in this school. The constant challenge which it embodies is not, however, to be overlooked.

 

 

1.3 Supports for students

 

Arising from the holistic nature of provision for students in St Laurence O’Toole’s Special School, supports are wide-ranging and relevant. Social and dietary supports are offered by the daily provision of breakfast and lunch, prepared by the ‘bean an tí’, and which students and staff take together in the dining room. Varied and flexible logistical support, including transport, is provided by the maintenance person. Students are offered the supports of an informed, professional and caring staff, a manageable student-teacher ratio, the support of special needs assistants (SNAs), appropriate one-to-one tuition, and committed school management. The school arranges access, as required, to the psychological services of the Mater Child Guidance Clinic. The presence on the staff of a youth worker offers students support in areas of their social and personal lives as they are lived in the circumstances of their immediate environment. He also acts as a link with some of the students’ out-of-school activities and engagement in local youth projects. The youth worker does not, however, work as school-home-community liaison person. The local educational welfare officer (EWO) visits the school on a weekly basis. While the school finds this contact to be useful, the principal expresses the need for a more intensive service from the National Educational Welfare Board (NEWB). The principal also expressed the view that the current perceived lack of sanctions by the National Educational Welfare Board means that the service is less effective than the service formerly operated by school attendance officers. The fact that the school does not have access to the services of the National Educational Psychological Service (NEPS) is unacceptable, given the needs of its students.

 

The school, through the principal, liaises actively with the parent or carer of the student. Individual parents initiate much of the contact with the principal by mobile phone calls or text messages. No formal structures exist for parents to engage collectively with the school. While one appreciates the difficulties associated with the successful organisation of such gatherings, the school might consider inviting parents to occasional functions with a view to involving them more fully in positive aspects of their child’s education.

 

 

1.4 Links with the community

 

The school has links on a number of levels with a range of interested parties. These include local schools, other local high support schools, third level colleges, the Health Service Executive, and in particular, psychologists from the Mater Child Guidance Centre. The school avails of local facilities, such as those offering go-karting, quad-biking and dry ski slopes to reward and incentivise their students. Visits to selected shops and restaurants are arranged to improve social skills and behaviour. In terms of wider contacts, the school has had considerable financial sponsorship from the Dublin Docklands Development Authority, which funded therapeutic crisis intervention training for the school’s staff, provided for the purchase of school library books and of a computer-based literacy and numeracy programme. Facilitators from Citi-Group are currently supporting the joint efforts of staff and board of management in drawing up a mission statement and an expression of the school’s vision for the future. The school has benefited from the provision of computers and a printer, sponsored by G-Tech Company. Most significantly, the Dublin Docklands Development Authority is working in collaboration with the Department of Education and Science towards the provision of a new school building.  

 

 

2. Centre management

 

2.1 Role of board of management

 

The current board of management of St Laurence O’Toole’s Special School is operating under the shadow of lengthy legal proceedings concerning school property. Once the court hearing about this is over, it is intended to re-constitute the board. Agreement has been reached with the Dublin archdiocese that the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Dublin will act as future patron of the school. In the absence of parent representation, it is intended to substitute local community representation.

 

The current school board meets at least once each term. Items on the agenda concern mainly operational matters of the school, as well as the progress of property and school building issues. Matters concerning staff and students are presented to the board by the principal. Active involvement by the board in internal school planning and the development of policies has been limited. The board’s main concerns at present are linked to the school’s temporary status. To operate effectively, board members point to the need for Department sanction for the school on a long-term basis. There is frustration among board members at what they perceive as the poor, inconsistent and contradictory nature of Department decision-making, with particular reference to the employment status of a number of staff. Matters raised by the board in relation to aspects of the administration and staffing of the school have been brought to the attention of the relevant section of the Department. The board considers that the three special needs assistants, currently operating very successfully in the school, should be assigned to whole class groups rather than to individual pupils. This has now been granted by the Department. It is a matter of serious concern to the school management that the National Educational Psychological Service (NEPS) plays no role in schools with such urgent and serious needs for educational psychological services. 

 

The board is conscious too of the need for further and continuous training for the staff, especially in managing challenging behaviour, but also in regular second level in-service. This is significant in the context of the school’s teaching staff being mainly primary teachers.

 

 

2.2 Administration

 

Administrative duties in St Laurence O’Toole’s Special School are borne for the most part by the principal, with broad staff support. The school does not have secretarial support, a situation which places additional burdens on staff members and especially on the principal. The functions of administrative principal are carried out in a thorough and comprehensive way in this school. Being a ‘walking principal’, her availability to the staff is appreciated. This is true especially when dealing with difficult student behaviour, not just as one other professional with relevant expertise, but also for the continuous support of staff members. She ensures thoroughness and high standards in the preparation of school documentation, in the area of programme and lesson preparation as well as in the wide range of policy documents readily available in the school. Her open, collaborative and inclusive approach to the management of the school is highly effective and leads to good morale among the staff. She engages in successful, informal contacts with individual parents and carers of the students, resulting in impressive attendance and retention rates in the school. Her personal ability to relate to a range of professional bodies, in both the public and private sectors, is noteworthy and of benefit to the school.  

 

 

2.3 Programme areas

 

Programmes in the school are designed to meet the needs of students in the areas of academic progress, the development of life skills and behaviour modification. They are devised and tailored to meet the needs of the individual student.

 

 The school follows the revised primary school curriculum, uses aspects of the Junior Certificate Schools Programme (JCSP) and depending on student ability, prepares them for the Junior Certificate examination. Development of literacy and simple numeracy skills is a key objective in all the programmes. The basic curriculum consists of English, Mathematics, Art, Physical Education (PE), Woodwork, History and Civic, Social and Political Education. The subjects offered are taught at a multiplicity of levels, to accommodate student abilities that range from non-reading to ability to sit a number of subjects in the Junior Certificate examination. A number of students take this latter examination each year, some succeeding in achieving a pass in five or more subjects, sometimes staggered over a two-year period. Six students are expected to sit this examination in 2006. Participation in a number of the literacy initiatives within the JCSP programme is proving successful, engaging the students in activities that interest them.

 

The development of literacy and numeracy skills, along with Social, Personal and Health Education programmes and PE are undertaken with the conscious aim of improving life skills. Underlying these programmes is the need for programmes to assist in behaviour modification. To this end, all staff are trained in Therapeutic Crisis Intervention (TCI) and are now in the process of devising behaviour modification plans for individual students. These plans are impressive, with items selected which are appropriate, manageable and agreed with the student so as to maximise chances of success.

 

 

2.4 Staff deployment

 

The school has four full-time qualified teachers, an administrative principal, and three special needs assistants. Three of the teachers are qualified to teach at primary and one at post-primary levels. Two fulltime positions are occupied by the ‘bean an tí’ and the maintenance person. A youth worker, who also works in the local community, is engaged in a range of personal and social programmes in the school. He does not act as school-home-community liaison person. While other high support schools have a staff member dedicated to home-school contacts and support for their students’ social and personal needs, including support of the student’s family or carer, St Laurence O’Toole’s Special School deals with the family through the principal, with help from staff members. Such contacts occur mainly in the context of school attendance and behaviour matters.  More direct support is provided through the class work of the youth worker. The extent to which the entire staff functions as a team, while at the same time carrying out individual roles and responsibilities, is admirable.   

 

All staff members are suitably qualified and experienced in their current positions. As well as initial professional and academic qualifications, most have experience in special education, literacy teaching and resource teaching. All have undertaken a number of appropriate continuing development courses (CPD). For teaching staff, these have included all primary CPD on the revised curriculum. All staff, teaching and non-teaching, have had courses in Therapeutic Crisis Intervention and have expressed the need for regular upgrading of this training. There is also an urgent need for relevant, suitable in-service for staff who teach students with such challenging behaviour and complex needs.

 

 

2.5 Accommodation and resources

 

 Accommodation is adequate for current needs. The school has sole occupancy of a pre-fabricated building, while plans are progressing for a new building, a site for which has been donated by the Dublin Docklands Development Authority. Furniture is adequate and appropriate teaching materials are supplied. All materials and equipment are well maintained, readily accessible and well utilised in implementing the various programmes. In particular, ICT resources for literacy and numeracy are impressive and very well utilised. The Physical Education programme is conducted in a building off-campus. The building could not, however, accommodate much programme expansion within its confines.

 

 

 

3. Planning

 

3.1 Plan/policies

 

Planning in this school is carried out with a high degree of commitment and professionalism. It is given detailed attention by the principal and all staff members. Approximately twenty relevant and up-to-date policy documents were viewed in the course of this evaluation. These included policies on health and safety, drugs, bullying, staff recruitment and assessment of student achievement. Codes of practice have been developed to regulate many aspects of school life, including dealing with sexual harassment, code of conduct for staff, and code of behaviour for students, outlining their rights, responsibilities, and grievance procedure.

 

Evidence was provided to confirm that the board of management and staff have taken appropriate steps to develop policies in line with the provisions in Children First: National Guidelines for the Protection and Welfare of Children (Department of Health and Children, 2004) and Child Protection: Guidelines and Procedures (Department of Education and Science, April 2001). Evidence was also provided to confirm that the board of management has adopted and implemented the policies. A designated liaison person has been appointed in line with the requirements of the Departmental guidelines.

 

 

3.2 Planning process

 

Planning in the school is collaborative and thorough. It is conducted on two fronts: firstly, that which pertains to the management of students’ learning and behaviour in the school and secondly, school development planning. The latter is facilitated by the primary section of the school development planning support service. The dynamism with which planning is carried out in the school was evident during the evaluation, not just in the documentation and teachers’ folders but in the interactions among the staff and their readiness to review and modify aspects of a plan that were less than successful. Some element of planning is inherent in the daily meetings of staff in the principal’s office, after students have left the school. Planning meetings are held once each month and good use is made of the allocated planning days for work in various curricular areas. These relate currently to the development of school plans for P.E and the implementation of an accessible science programme. Teachers plan and share as a group and with the principal for the yearly plans of the school. The updating of the school’s mission statement along with the formulation of a vision for the future of the school have been identified as priorities for future planning work. In fact, this process has already begun, involving staff and management, with facilitation support being provided by Citi-Group. The school also sees the need to develop, in the near future, a policy on equality issues.

 

 

3.3 Implementation of plan

 

The open, collaborative nature of planning in this school results in a shared ownership of decisions, policies, codes of practice and all items that pertain to the management of the students’ needs. The prioritisation of literacy and numeracy occurs across the curriculum. There is evidence that the common science plan, accessible to students with learning difficulties is being implemented, while work on a PE school plan is seen as urgent, given the completion of in-service by staff in this area. Collaborative staff planning of individual learning and behaviour plans, based on shared understanding of initial assessment instruments and outcomes, leads to almost seamless delivery of relevant and flexible programmes. Staff agreement and collaboration on the need for students to adhere to specific requirements of their individual behaviour plans result in a more agreeable environment for all.  

 

 

 

 

 

4. Teaching and learning

 

 

4.1  Planning and preparation

 

The success of the teaching and learning observed in St Laurence O’Toole’s Special School is due in large measure to the excellence of the planning and preparation in operation throughout all programme areas. Planning is collaborative and transparent. It is based on sound pedagogical principles and on intimate knowledge by the staff of the educational, personal and social needs of their students. Each programme area is comprehensively set out in terms of specific objectives, teaching activities and learning outcomes. A yearly plan for each subject incorporates aims, programme content, assessment processes, as well as listing the teaching methodologies, approaches and resources to be used. While this plan exists for all subject areas, the thoroughness and detail of the planning for English and Mathematics, as well as the conscious integration and linkages between these two subjects, are particularly commendable. Within the English plan, there are clear goals and strategies for each element of the programme, including receptiveness to language, pre-reading, reading and writing. The Mathematics plan incorporates a comprehensive checklist of the elements of each operation within the specific strands being taught. This planning is further refined by the preparation of a weekly individualised Mathematics book, which is presented to the student and which underpins the student’s individual education plan for the subject.

 

Plans for individual students, for both education and behaviour, are drawn up by staff members and a copy given to the principal to evaluate and place on file. Teachers update records of each student’s progress and achievements on a monthly basis. Regular review of IEPs and modification where necessary are an integral part of the teachers’ work.    

 

 

4.2 Methodologies

 

There is a student-teacher ratio of 6:1 in this school. Special needs assistants have been assigned to three students. While supporting in a special way the student to whom each has been assigned, these SNAs operate for the most part as whole-class support, assisting individual teachers in the management of classroom activities. This support allows the teacher the flexibility to conduct whole-group teaching, with the option, as appropriate, to divide the group, according to need, for small-group or individual attention. Good use of this latter method was seen in the course of a Mathematics lesson, where two students, given specific work by the class teacher, were supported by the SNA, while the teacher progressed the work of the other students in the group.  There is flexibility too in assigning certain students to a different class teacher for specific work, for example, in basic literacy or early mathematical activities.

 

Excellent use of an ICT integrated learning system by such students was observed in the course of the inspector’s visit to the school. This computer-based system manages the delivery of curriculum materials to students, so that they are presented with individual programmes of work. Teachers, trained in operating this system, assign courses to individual students, can modify courses, monitor progress and intervene when necessary. The system individualises the material, incorporates progression and produces reports. The immediate feedback it gives to the student is most valuable and affirming. Individual students were proud to show printouts of their progress in English and Mathematics to the inspector. It is also noted that the discipline inherent in performing a selected task is challenging, on occasion, for a student who has difficulty accepting correction. In such cases, a student’s interaction with an ICT programme can feature as an item in his or her behaviour plan.

 

Across the classes, a range of teaching strategies was observed to engage students’ interest and attention. Good questioning and listening skills were in evidence, especially in classes where the material accommodated a more discursive approach. Student reaction and input were encouraged. Teachers’ ability to refrain from comment at particular times, along with their inherent sense of knowing when not to progress a topic was indicative of a high level of expertise and of knowledge of their students. Involvement in games aimed at developing oral skills was a challenge but handled with efficiency and an unerring sense of direction change at the appropriate moment as attention waned. This exercise also represented a considerable and generally unaccustomed social involvement of the students. The professional agility and adaptability of the teacher during this round-table lesson was supported most relevantly by the attendant SNA. With clear pedagogical goals in mind and IEPs for each student, teachers are at all times aware of the need to use a variety of approaches and methods. Emphasis is generally on the understanding of a concept, rather than having an answer ‘right’ or ‘wrong’. Students’ fear of failure is fully appreciated, so while they are asked to correct certain points in their work, success is genuinely noted, teachers realising how significant all affirmation is to these students.  

 

However, to describe the management of work in a classroom in terms of conventional methodologies would be to underestimate what is occurring in each and every class in this school. Interacting with these students, the inspector was in no doubt about their multiple difficulties: their problematic life circumstances, their limited attention spans, their history of failure and rejection, their very weak literacy levels and their potentially volatile behaviour.

 

Yet, in every classroom there was order and evidence of work being done. While at times it was obvious that the engagement by students may be rather reluctant, many were productively engaged in their work. In all cases, the combination of personality, skill and professionalism of the teacher was the key to this success. Each teacher knows in detail the levels and stages of learning and behaviour of his or her students. In relation to learning, teachers have detailed plans of work to be covered by their class group and by each individual in that group. Each teacher works a programme that is structured, yet judiciously flexible and is constantly adapted, sometimes in content, often in presentation, to the learner’s needs. Each student has an individual education plan (IEP) which is a regular point of reference and an indicator of achievement. This IEP acts as an anchor and a motivator for the student, giving a sense of progress, of belonging and of self-worth. The student is also proud of work produced and which is neatly filed in individual folders within his or her own classroom space.

 

This high-quality work is supported every minute of the working day by the vigilance, skills, knowledge and commitment of each of the teachers. The ability of these students to work with any measure of independence or self-direction is extremely limited. What this means is a rather unique modus operandi developed by the teachers, operating as individuals but also as a unit. From the moment they arrive in school each morning, teachers are noting the moods and movements of each student, mentally planning or discussing with the principal and relevant staff members how best to handle potential difficulties. This may involve changing a task planned for a particular individual student. It means careful classroom management, being constantly alert to every movement of every student, being aware of possible ‘triggers’ that could leave a class in uproar. Excellent practice was observed in teachers’ ability to pre-empt situations involving the actions and reactions of particular students. Teachers were seen to be always one step ahead of such potential reactions. Intervention strategies were timely and appropriate, and generally they diffused potential crisis situations in an unobtrusive and pleasant manner. Teachers were adept at knowing when to give positive attention to a student, when to ignore particular comments or behaviour, when to give a caring gesture or directive statement. The positive contribution of the SNAs to this state of classroom management needs to be noted. 

 

Managing the learning and behaviour of the students is physically and mentally challenging for the teachers. It is supported in large measure by the caring, respectful, inclusive and humane atmosphere that exists among all staff and students in the school. Morale is upheld in a special way by the regularity of staff meetings, formal and informal, facilitated by the principal. The teachers’ ability to function in such an unencumbered professional way is also a significant barometer of the effectiveness of the school principal, who, herself has limited internal school support from the school’s board of management and no secretarial assistance. Her functions are further stretched by the fact that the school’s youth worker is scheduled to deal mainly with the students in the classroom setting. This means that along with her professional role, the school principal herself deals directly with the student’s parent or guardian in all matters pertaining to the student’s attendance and other school issues. 

  

 

4.3 Assessment of students’ progress

 

Assessment of progress takes place on a step-by-step basis for each individual student. Work is corrected as it is done, in a low-key way, feeding encouragement and reinforcing the student’s progress. Appropriate and regular reference is made to the student’s IEP, so that the teacher is aware of strengths and gaps in the student’s work and can act as necessary. Individual records of achievement are closely linked to the detailed planning for that student’s progress. Assessment of literacy, for example, is based on the learning targets for a specific period in oral language, reading fluency, phonological awareness, spelling, penmanship and use of a dictionary. Students value their folders which act as a portfolio of their work.

 

All students have regular reviews of progress. JCSP statements are used widely as positive expressions of achievement. Approximately seven students sit the Junior Certificate examination each year.

 

 

4.4 Outcomes and standards

 

St Laurence O’Toole’s Special School is clearly meeting the objectives for the Youth Encounter Project schools as articulated at the meeting of 16 December, 2005 (preparatory meeting for expenditure review). The first stated objective is ‘to provide personalised holistic education for young people at risk’. There is clear evidence in the school that this is happening in a planned, structured and flexible manner. Personal development, development of social skills and academic attainment are all happening within a nurturing, caring and stimulating environment. Students are seen to be engaged in a positive and productive way in their own learning and in the broader life of the school. Individual education plans and individual behaviour plans are used as structures to support learning, to motivate, encourage and measure achievement. Every aspect of this ‘personalised holistic education’ is planned and executed in a highly professional and collaborative manner.

 

In relation to the second stated objective, namely, the retention of these young people in the education system, records show that of the fifty-one pupils who left the school between 2001 and 2005, forty had reached age 15 or 16 years. This is a superb achievement. Of the eleven who left under the age of 15 years, seven went to another high support or special school or centre, three returned to mainstream primary or post-primary schools and one is reported to be in the National Remand and Assessment Unit. Such a high retention rate is a tribute to the professional supports in place to engage and retain the students. In meetings held with parents and students in the context of this evaluation, both sides said that the student found life in this school to be far more bearable than anything experienced previously. Students mentioned not being able to cope in previous schools and cited that inability as their reason for ‘messing’ and ‘getting into trouble’. They found it more manageable to be in a much smaller class and all noted the fact that teachers gave them ‘time’. They also commented favourably on the ‘manner of the teachers’ and the ‘learning facilities’ at their disposal. Parents further added that having fewer teachers to deal with, no homework and the individual attention received by their children made school life more manageable for them. Parents also made the very significant point that they believe that this school works for their children because it is an ‘independent’, stand-alone school. They strongly hold the view that a specialised unit within or attached to a mainstream school, even if such a unit were of the calibre of this school, would not work because their children ‘would always feel second-class citizens’ in such an establishment.

 

The third objective, ‘to provide support for these young people towards progression’, is an integral part of all aspects of the programme in the school.  It is understood by the students who know that all the professionals in the school are there for them, for their well-being and future prospects. Those wishing to return to mainstream schools are supported through the Junior Certificate programme. One such past pupil was interviewed in the course of this evaluation. St Laurence O’Toole’s Special School had clearly made a positive difference in her life. In all cases, personal and social development, improved behavioural patterns and increased self-esteem are deemed pre-requisites for any progression and are inherent in all aspects of school life. So too is the acquisition of basic literacy and numeracy skills, something that is given high priority throughout the curriculum. The progression record from the school is impressive. Of the forty fifteen and sixteen-year-old students who left the school in the past five years, thirty-three have progressed to FAS, apprenticeship, work or post-primary education. Parents of past and present students of the school expressed the view that continuation in the school should be possible to Leaving Certificate level, or at least until the students are older and possibly better able to withstand the potentially destructive contextual factors at work around them.

 

A concern of the expenditure review is how one might ascertain the long-term impact of the Youth Encounter Project Schools. The degree to which these schools, in particular, impact in the long-term on the lives of their students is not possible to predict with any degree of accuracy. Leaving the school at sixteen years of age, without considerable and continued support, the students are confronted by severe challenges. Inability to predict outcomes after the student leaves the school, does not, however, negate the substantial progress being made by these students in educational, social and behavioural fields, as observed in the course of this evaluation.

 

 

 

 

 

5. Summary of findings and recommendations for further development

 

The following are the main strengths and areas for development identified in the evaluation:

 

St Laurence O’Toole’s Special School deals with young people who have severe emotional, behavioural and learning difficulties.

 

Management and staff show an understanding of the needs of the students and show that they value and respect them.

 

The school offers a caring, happy and structured environment in which students are encouraged and supported to develop personally, socially and academically.

 

Clear goals and strategies are in place to achieve this desired outcome.

 

Teachers are suitably qualified, skilled, experienced and committed.

 

Learning is taking place at an appropriate pace and level, with professional focus on the development of students’ literacy skills.

 

This learning is underpinned by careful planning in both the educational and behavioural fields.

 

A culture of openness and collaboration underpins all the school’s thinking and activities.

 

The school enjoys valuable community support.

 

Measures are proceeding to ensure the stability and status of the school under new patronage, a re-constituted board of management and the provision of a new school building. 

 

As a means of building on these strengths and to address areas for development, the following recommendations are made:

 

The re-constituted board of management might be more broadly based, inclusive of parents and more involved in the future direction of the school.

 

The role of the principal needs definition. In particular, she should have secretarial assistance and the services of a person designated as home-school-community liaison person.

 

In the light of the very commendable practice of group teaching taking place in the school, it is recommended that six students per teacher should be the maximum number in a class. Five to one has been seen as a more appropriate and effective ratio in dealing with students who present with such extreme emotional and behavioural difficulties.

 

The provision of in-service training appropriate to the needs of teachers dealing with such students should be considered by the Department. Such training may be provided for as an outcome of the Report of the Task Force on Student Behaviour in Second Level Schools 2006.

 

In the context of the current expenditure review and of the professional and forward-thinking operation of this school, the Department should now clarify matters relating to the status of the school and its staff.

 

The matter of a constant waiting list of vulnerable young people out of school and seeking admission to this kind of school might also be addressed.

 

Measures to extend the services of the NEPS to this school should be introduced as a matter of urgency. The school should discuss its needs for a more intensive service from the NEWB with the relevant EWO and regional manager of the NEWB.

 

 

 

Post-evaluation meetings were held with the staff and the board of management at which the draft findings and recommendations of the evaluation were presented and discussed.