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Neanderthals win prizes

You see them arrive in the nursery and you watch their destructive progress through school. They have parents who whinge and who throw stones as well," was one head's description. "Sometimes you talk to other heads in the same area and they will have the same thing at the same time," said another.

"I'm going to try and retire by 2008," added a third. "I've got one in Year 1."

They are talking about a phenomenon known to every head and teacher, which has been dubbed, with the sort of gallows humour that affects troops on the battlefield, the Neanderthal year group. It turns up every five or six years, and contains a larger than average number of children with emotional difficulties, and troubled families. Teachers face bad behaviour and low attainment, and there may be a preponderance of boys. In Year 6 they bring your national test results down - which wouldn't matter if only ministers and local authorities understood - and threaten to damage the entire atmosphere of the school.

Primary staff care about and work hard for these children, who often come from very difficult backgrounds, but when they reach a critical mass they put a major strain on schools. Even the most earnest heads can joke about it - have to joke about it - but the phenomenon is serious.

Chief inspector David Bell acknowledged the problem in his annual report this month. He said almost every school in England contains a group whose behaviour is so bad that they are impossible to teach.

It doesn't take very many hard-core Neanderthals to drag waverers along with them. "They do come in groups," said the head of a three-teacher rural school. "It doesn't take many to make a group in a small school, when one person arrives and provides the yeast to help all the others rise to the surface."

A small school can be virtually destroyed by such a group, because their influence is proportionately that much greater. If there are only two classes, they can poison half the school. And of course the reverse is true. A few dominant positive role models in Year 6 can improve the atmosphere. If you have got a Neanderthal group in Year 6, you won't meet your targets - but the following year you will look brilliant with much less effort. For struggling or damaged children, attaining a level 3 in maths and literacy can represent a great deal of hard work on the part of both pupil and teacher.

The small-school head said: "When the achievement awards first came out I applied for one when the results were really bad because I knew those children had really achieved. I was told in no uncertain terms there was no way that was achievement."

"If you had a Neanderthal group every other year you'd get lots of achievement awards, because your results would shoot up," another head commented.

Heads must try to keep everyone in the school thinking positively about them, trying not to taint the way the rest of the children in the class feel about themselves. It requires extra resources, and careful thought about deployment of staff, assistants and supply teachers. Obviously, their teachers are under particular pressure, again compounded in a small school, where the same person has to take them for several years.

Former headteacher and TES Primary magazine agony uncle Gerald Haigh says planning is important - make sure the difficult class has a strong, wise teacher. One classic solution for a larger school, he says, is to re-organise classes and split up groups of friends. Setting in core subjects can help split up groups too (although they may well all end up in set three).

"It's important not to let them start revelling in their reputation," he says. "In fact, by that point it may be too late. Heads need to watch that teachers aren't labelling by denigrating the class ('Not 4H again!') This takes real effort, because the problems with the class can start to be a major focus of attention and the whole thing becomes self-fulfilling. Staff eyes swivel towards the class in assembly, at lunch, and lining up on the playground. The class become aware of how they are perceived and some start to enjoy the attention, and the admiration of peers in other classes."

Try not to label the whole group, he advises. "Heads need to say at meetings, 'Let's not talk about 4H, let's talk about individuals and see what's to be done'. It is about balance.

Schools do all this and more, but the problem is only reduced, not eradicated. But there are pluses. "We took in a pair of twins," says an inner-city head. "They're completely off the wall. We have actually done incredibly well with them. They came to us in Year 3 with nothing. Now they're in Year 6 and one is a good solid level 3... I shall miss them, actually," she admits.

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