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School improvement minefield;Research focus;Briefing

Laurels for enhanced results at 11 may have been handed out too hastily. David Budge reports

THE Government's literacy and numeracy strategies may have received much of the credit for the improvement in 11-year-olds' test scores but a new research study suggests that many other factors have contributed to the success.

The National Foundation for Educational Research surveyed 245 schools and found that they had introduced no fewer than 630 separate approaches in an attempt to raise achievement at key stage 2.

Most were designed to develop literacy and numeracy skills but some tried to improve pupils' behaviour, self-esteem and social skills.

Although the strategies were highly diverse, the researchers found that they could be grouped into eight broad categories: new teaching methodsresourcesintensive intervention programmes (198 strategies); additional support from adultsother pupils (137); target-setting (98); ability grouping (89); improved curriculum planning (37); subject specialist teaching (27); homework policies (26) and increased teaching time (17).

"The high proportion of strategies involving new teaching methodsresources reflects the influence of national initiatives, such as the literacy and numeracy strategies, which were in their pilot stages at the time (spring 1998)," reports NFER researcher Caroline Sharp.

"This category also included LEA and school-based initiatives, such as the introduction of new teaching approaches for particular subjects and the purchase of new reading books or computers.

"Just under a quarter of schools drew on additional support from adults to reduce teaching ratios and to target attention on particular pupils in specific subject areas. The most common example of this type of approach was to use parents, volunteers or teaching assistants to provide one-to-one support for reading. Other common approaches involved the use of target setting for groups or individual pupils and grouping by ability (particularly setting for mathematics)."

The researchers point out that it was difficult to establish what effect the strategies had had on pupil achievement, for three reasons:

some were designed to establish positive conditions for learning rather than have a direct impact on attainment levels;

several strategies were being used simultaneously;

some year groups were more able than others.

But having carried out follow-up case studies in 12 of the schools the researchers concluded that the successful strategies had conveyed three general messages to pupils: learning is rewarding, help is available, and the school pays attention to your needs.

"This research suggests that it may be useful for schools to consider the outcomes of their strategies in terms of the messages they convey to pupils," Caroline Sharp says. "Staff could initially ask themselves how their new strategy is intended to impact on pupils' perceptions of learning, support and emotional well-being. Schools could also consider involving pupils in the process of change by asking them to help clarify the problem, keeping them informed and seeking their views of the impact of change."

Pupils believed that strategies such as subject-specialist teaching and target setting had helped them to prepare for the transition to secondary school, Caroline Sharp adds. One child had spoken for others when she said: "I think it's good to swap around because when you move up a class you think 'I'm not afraid and I'm not shy with this person because I know her very well'."

Strategies to raise achievement at key stage 2: a process of educational change, by Caroline Sharp, is posted on the NFER's website

A full account of the 12 case studies appears in a new NFER publication, "Creating a climate for learning: strategies to raise achievement at key stage 2", by Brooks, Sukhnandan, Flanagan and Sharp.

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