For Jaz Dhillon, a teacher at Shaw Hill Primary School in Birmingham, literacy lessons mean the chance to work with a class of twenty eight and nine-year-olds, rather than her usual thirty.
In today's hour-long session, her middle-ability group is using words and pictures to construct "story maps" of a tale the whole class has read - "A Balloon for Grandad" - while the top-ability group is writing versions of the balloon journey. Next door (where the class has gone swimming), Imtiaz Begum, the classroom assistant, sits round a table with the remaining 10 less able pupils, making story maps that rely more heavily on pictures and talking to them quietly in Punjabi to ensure they fully understand what is going on.
Language and literacy teaching pose particular challenges at Shaw Hill School, where 99 per cent of the pupils are Muslim Asians, with English as their second language. Around 14 per cent of the children speak Bengali and 85 per cent Mirpuri Punjabit as their first language; they learn English more slowly than they would in a more mixed environment because they do not need the language to communicate with their peers. For many pupils, their teacher is the only good model of English speaking they have.
Shaw Hill's approach to raising language and literacy standards has been to reduce class sizes. This has been done by making greater use of classroom assistants, and by making structural alterations to the building. Instead of two separate classrooms, side by side, for each year group, each pair is now joined by, literally, a hole in the wall. Classroom assistants are not legally permitted to work in a separate room from the class teacher, but this arrangement means that they can teach, quite legitimately, in the adjoining room, giving a smaller group more space, more time and more individual attention.
"We're bringing the numbers down so that teachers and children can talk more to one another," says Carol Brammer, the deputy head. "We're also giving children the calmness and quietness and space which are so important, qualitatively, to their learning experience."
The classes are noticeably calm, and hum quietly and productively even though, as Mrs Brammer admits, the organisation of this does place great pressure on timetabling. Spare rooms, such as those for music and television, are constantly in demand; whenever one class is out at PE or swimming, another group immediately moves in. For some literacy and maths sessions, the whole year group is divided into ability groups of approximately 20, with the classroom assistant working in the adjoining room and the third group finding a space elsewhere.
Jaz Dhillon, who shares her classroom assistant, Imtiaz, with Year 3, says that overall it means that for about half the time she is teaching a class of 20, not 30.
"Without Imtiaz, I would feel that sometimes some of the children are missing out, because you haven't had the time to give them that extra input. She can go over something 10 times with them if they need it - and it doesn't affect the whole class. It has helped their literacy immensely; the work that we deliver now is clearer and better, and more directed to their abilities. Many from the lower group have now moved into the middle."
It is a crucial part of the whole-school approach that Shaw Hill's eight classroom assistants are all involved with the teachers in the weekly planning of lessons; the school is also unusual in that classroom assistants, as well as teachers, receive in-service training. All but three of the assistants are bilingual; a teacher may not always know if a child has fully grasped a new concept, and relies at times on the assistant speaking in the mother tongue. They can also play a role in helping to assess a child.
"When I was doing my training, schools I went to on placement just used the classroom assistant to mix paint and wash the cups," says Imtiaz Begum, now in her second year at Shaw Hill. "You weren't involved in planning, and, apart from one-to-one reading and painting, everything else was a no-no. Here, everybody does what they can, and has the chance to use their skills. It's a great challenge."
Nasreem Naeem, an assistant in reception, has had three children at the school. She first became involved at Shaw Hill as a dinner lady, and then found herself helping read bilingual stories to the children. Five years ago, she became a full-time assistant, and she has just completed a National Vocational Qualification (NVQ) level 3 in childcare.
"Before I did this course, I sometimes wasn't sure if I was doing the right thing in class. Now I'm more confident, I know more. When we used to do cutting and sticking, I wasn't sure why the children were doing it; now I know they are developing their fine motor skills - and that helps me in my teaching."
Yvonne Brown, classroom assistant in Year 2, used to spend 15 minutes every morning before school targeting individuals at the tuck shop and testing them on words, as part of Birmingham's School Improvement Programme. She believes that the school's flexible teaching groups have improved the children's behaviour, making them less competitive in the classroom as well as in the playground.
"They have become better at co-operating, and they help each other more, " she says.
All the assistants that all have been on a week's training on a programme called First Steps, first developed in Australia and introduced at Shaw Hill over a year ago. Fast gaining popularity in this country, First Steps (for more details, see page 10) focuses on reading, writing, oracy and spelling, breaking learning down into small manageable pieces and linking progression and assessment so that teachers can easily determine what is the next step for each child. The programme also makes specific mention of children with English as a second language. Its lesson structure comprises a whole-class discussion, followed by group activity and a final plenary - a structure affirmed by the school's experience of the National Numeracy Project.
"First Steps has given us lots of ideas for making stories more interesting, " says Rabia Kanon, classroom assistant for Years 5 and 6, "like guessing what the characters are feeling, acting things out from one character's point of view or making story maps."
National test results have not yet shown a significant improvement at Shaw Hill, with only 28 per cent of 11-year-olds this year gaining a level 4 in English (up 4 per cent from last year), compared with 40 per cent in maths and 38 per cent in science. But staff are confident that, with many more children on the borders of level 4, next year could see a doubling of the figures.
Not the least of the difficulties is attracting and retaining good staff. Many teachers are put off by the deprivation or by the prospect of having to teach so many bilingual children. Those that gain expertise at the school are quickly offered promotion elsewhere.
Classroom assistants are unlikely to move on: most of them have families, so relish a job with school holidays, nor would many be able to finance the four-year training period to become fully qualified.
"There is a financial incentive for us to invest in the classroom assistants, " says Mrs Brammer. "They are becoming quite a bedrock for us." Furthermore, they are in a strong position to pass on its methods; only two of the school's teachers have so far received this training.
"I was photocopying things for the children to do and giving them to the teacher - she was really pleased," says Imtiaz. "That's power, that is. "