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Back to school means back to being the best;Platform;Opinion

August and September are crucial to achieving the targets you set for the class and for yourself, says Brian Toner.

WE ALL know how difficult it is to drag ourselves back to school after the summer but there is always something just a little bit special about the first day when the children return. If we can capitalise on their eagerness, we stand a good chance of setting the tone for a successful year.

You can almost touch the freshness and enthusiasm. The new white shirts are gleaming beneath smart haircuts and the healthy outdoor look from Majorca or the back garden is much in evidence as friends shout in delight at seeing each other after the six-week separation.

Various rites of passage are under way. The most obvious is among the shining new primary 1 children where it is difficult to tell if the children or their parents are more proud. The presence of an increasing number of video cameras following children into the classroom means that this event may be shown to future grandchildren who may never experience school as we know it.

Primary 7 pupils are quietly asserting their newly acquired authority as they stake out the best areas for playground games. In our school, due to the vagaries of geography and the siting of boys' and girls' toilets at different ends of our 1930s stepped-site building, new P4 boys graduate to an all-male playground and join the big boys. Some jump in without a care as if they have always lived there while others shrink back and seek security in small groups of like-minded friends.

Once inside, an eerie calm settles. Perhaps because the class has a different teacher or, more likely, because no one has been used to getting out of bed and concentrating so early in the day during the past six weeks. This is where the teacher has to seize the moment and begin as she means to go on.

A classroom works best where children are clear about what is expected of them in their work and behaviour and where there is no place for ambiguity or double standards.

The first morning is when the class teacher lays out her stall. The children need to know how to enter and leave the classroom, how they pass jotters to and from the teacher, where resources are kept and how to access them as well as the work habits which are required from the remainder of the class when the teacher is involved with a particular group.

The teacher has to play her part by ensuring she has planned and prepared for each minute of those early days. There can be no busking "till I find out what the class is like" - especially when all relevant information should be available in pupil assessment folios.

A misplaced educational correctness causes many teachers to ignore one of the main factors that can affect classroom work - how they organise the furniture. Desks and tables are grouped unthinkingly in sixes or eights because that is seen to be the approved method and to do anything else may risk the disapproval of headteacher or advisers. Classrooms have flexible lightweight furniture which children can move and a teacher has to decide which arrangements best help her and the children to achieve.

Most pupils work individually most of the time and the skills of whole-class teaching are expected to be part of every class teacher's repertoire. Too often children's concentration can be handicapped by making them all sit within easy eye contact of many other members of a group. Give the children a chance. Allow them to sit in a design where concentration can be more easily maintained and if that leads to sitting in rows, so be it.

The months of August and September can be difficult for relationships and handling this area well will contribute more to long-term achievement than setting homework and gym kit routines.

The August school is quite a different place from its June predecessor where secure relationships are long established. Starting the year throws new children and teachers together, each finding their way into new relationships. The teacher, as leader, has to show sensitivity in establishing the relationships which will help everyone to achieve, but she must not forget that this is a three-way arrangement involving parents.

Parents can be just as uncertain in August as children are. They, too, are faced with an unknown teacher and will not be sure how to interpret remarks and comments which are fed back by children. With older children, parents will not meet the teacher until the first parents' evening and by then many misunderstandings may have grown into resentment.

The central issue for the teacher in building security and relationships is how effectively she can take forward the children's prior learning. She will have received assessment folios and lists of 5-14 attainment levels but she should look at them with some scepticism. This has nothing to do with unreliable information, or the methods of the previous teacher, but everything to do with what children forget during the summer holidays when they will not have done a sum or written a description and when many may not even have read a book.

Effective revision has to be the priority in the first month as a springboard to future confidence. The teacher who revises well will increase her children's confidence and she will also increase her own confidence rather than being worried that the class has not done all that she expected.

Back to school time is characterised by enthusiasm and goodwill but it also imposes many stresses on children, teachers and parents. The class teacher has the task of capitalising on the goodwill and developing sound relationships. The effort involved in establishing confidence will lead to children achieving well through the remainder of the year.

Brian Toner is headteacher of St John's primary, Perth, but the opinions here are personal.

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