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Back on the write track

Peace reigns in a school once marred by violence. And a writing scheme has helped the change. Jan Trebilcock finds out how

A typical Friday at Cobourg primary school in south London, and peace reigns. Candles flicker, the sound of Mozart drifts through the corridors while children absorbed in creative writing munch on dried fruit snacks.

Just two years ago the school was in special measures, with regular police visits, violence in the playground and little learning in the classroom.

Issues highlighted by inspectors included low standards of achievement, teaching quality, pastoral care and management.

But since then, some inventive teaching has transformed the school. Anne Sentkovsky, literacy co-ordinator, says: "Standards of writing threatened to keep us in special measures indefinitely and we needed a cunning plan."

She took a one-day course in Ros Wilson's Big Writing method and returned inspired. "It's a holistic, child-centred approach, which involves teaching children at the level they have reached. It fits in with my own philosophy - giving children real reasons to write, praising the good things, raising self-esteem, addressing their needs and empowering them, letting them know you care, and having high expectations."

So, with the blessing of Julie Evans, who joined the school as its head just after it went into special measures in June 2004, Anne and her colleagues set to work on raising literacy and behaviour standards.

"Pupils at Cobourg had become disaffected, so making lessons fun and relevant to their lives was vital," says Anne. Teachers pulled out all the stops to come up with imaginative ideas. "Trouble in the playground? Use it," was Anne's approach. "We gave the children a letter - which we had written - supposedly from Southwark's director of education. It said that playtime should be banned, because it was a waste of learning time.

"The children thought it was genuine and were shocked, especially when the head said she couldn't defend playtime because of the problems there had been. We let them mull it over, then suggested they wrote a letter persuading the director to change his mind. It resulted in some beautiful, persuasive writing. And we were soon forgiven for the deceit."

Children are encouraged to become responsible for their own learning.

Target sheets, adapted from Ros Wilson's criterion scale, set out the skills required for each level and give pupils the tools for self-assessment. Pupils behaving as if they want to avoid work are given the chance to opt out and sit apart from the class. "I want them to see what they are missing," says Anne. "They are soon desperate to rejoin the class."

Team teaching is used to add extra energy and excitement. Friday's Big Writing sessions are the culmination of days of preparation and planning.

Poems and stories are explored as sources of inspiration. Children make personal collections of "wow" words (ambitious vocabulary), metaphors and phrases to use in their own work. Competition is encouraged. For fun, teachers will ask a child to don a deerstalker hat, sneak into another classroom and "steal" the wow words from the displays.

Bursts of grammar and punctuation learning help children express their ideas more clearly and build their skills. "Adding punctuation means they are soon writing complex sentences," says Anne. "Introducing dialogue gives an opportunity for using a wow speech verb, like groaned or whispered. Add an adverb and they are raising their game again. The children love it because it's active. They don't even realise they are learning."

Positive peer pressure and team building also play a part. "Children need opportunities for talk - with ground rules of course. They can explain things to each other, share strategies and go to each other for help."

These methods helped pull Cobourg out of special measures a term early, and are now being adapted to improve numeracy and science teaching. Anne and her colleagues are sharing their ideas through inset days. "It's been hard work," she says. "But fun, and worth it"

See for a lesson plan by Anne Sentkovsky.


Ros Wilson has more than 40 years' experience in education, including 27 years in schools, 10 years in senior management, and 14 years in advisory and inspection work.

Her approach is for children from reception to age 14 and aims to raise Sats standards quickly for 10 to 11-year-olds. It encourages the "writing voice" through oracy, and accurate grammar and punctuation through the "posh voice".

A key strand of Big Writing is the teaching of "VCOP":

* Vocabulary - ambitious vocabulary is encouraged

* Connectives - words and phrases for connecting thoughts, ideas and sentences

* Openers - a range of ways of opening sentences

* Punctuation pyramid - the graphic representation of a realistic range of punctuation for each level

To learn more about Big Writing see

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