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Sixth-formers to the rescue

We are all aware of the depressing teacher:student ratio, but Janet Murray discovers how your own students can help with the deficit...

However great you are at the job, you can't escape the teacher:student ratio. With many classes pushing 30, providing students with individual attention can prove challenging. But the maths department at Wootton Upper School in Bedfordhire has hit upon an innovative solution by capitalising on their most valuable in-house resource - the sixth-form.

Last February, 12 AS maths students were recruited to assist in Year 9 maths lessons in the run-up to the SATs examinations. Results suggest their work has had a huge impact on exam performance. The number achieving level 5 increased by 7 per cent and levels 6-8 increased by up to 3 per cent.

"We're delighted with the results," says assistant head Roy Ashley, who was head of department when the scheme was put in place. "But we're also pleased at the impact on students' confidence."

The idea of using sixth-formers to support younger students was in response to disappointing SATs results in 2002. While 78 per cent of students achieved level 5 or above, too many remained at level 4. Analysis of exam papers showed that students were performing well on some level 5 questions, but slipping up on easier tasks. "We looked at offering lunchtime or after-school support," he says. "But other departments were offering this kind of support and many of the students we hoped to target were already receiving additional help at lunchtimes or after school. We didn't want them to end up feeling resentful about losing out on so much of their free time and just switch off." The department agreed that whole-class support would be much more effective and the idea of using the expertise of sixth-formers proved to be an economical way of improving mathematical knowledge and developing interpersonal skills.

As Roy Ashley puts it: "We felt it would be a great way for sixth-formers to gain and earn money. And it's the kind of work that looks great on a university application. We also felt Year 9 students would benefit from building relationships with older students." AS maths students were interviewed by key stage 3 maths consultant Mary Wood. She led a training session for the successful applicants, including a demonstration lesson and discussion of what would be required of them.

Confidentiality was a key concern. "I pointed out the need for sensitivity with the younger students and any lack of knowledge and understanding they might encounter," says Mary Wood. "We also emphasised the need for consultants to follow the teacher's lead, adhere to instructions and not show students their own methods of solving problems, as this could lead to confusion."

The consultants were timetabled to work in a maximum of two lessons per week during their free periods and care was taken to ensure sixth-formers were not placed in potentially awkward situations such as assisting in a class with a sibling or family friend. A letter was sent out to parents, informing them about the arrangements, but as the sixth-form students would always be supervised, there were no issues relating to child protection to address.

Roy Ashley remains tight-lipped about the financial side but he admitted that the sixth-formers received remuneration that was "above the minimum wage and better than McDonald's". Teachers identified 45 students considered to be on the level 45 boundary and developed schemes of work based on ideas in the KS3 booster packs for maths. Teaching groups containing borderline students would follow these schemes in key lessons, when they would be joined by up to two consultants. After the main part of the lesson has been delivered, consultants circulated. Having been made aware of borderline students, they helped all students, but monitored targeted students more closely. A prompt sheet, filled out by the teacher, outlined key concepts used in the lesson and suggested questions consultants might asks students. At the end of the lesson, consultants noted observations about what students said and did, for discussion with the teacher.

The sixth-formers clearly rose to the challenge. "You start to feel responsible for the progress of the students in your charge," says Adam.

"At the end of each lesson we discussed each students' progress with the teacher and tried to develop new strategies to use in the next lesson.

Working in a professional relationship with a teacher has been very good."

Fellow student Mohammed agrees: "I've gained a new perspective on the professional work of the teacher and of the teaching assistants, who are becoming an increasing part of the classroom scene." Year 9 student Louise is among the many who appreciate the additional support: "I was a bit surprised at first when the sixth-formers arrived, but I found it helpful to have them around. I hope that next this year's Year 9 students get the same opportunity." Roy Ashley is hoping other schools will follow suit.

"It's cheap and benefits all involved," he says. "The students are very happy with it and results show it's definitely having an impact."

This year, all Year 9 students will benefit from having sixth-formers in their maths classes. A number of Year 13s have opted to continue working as consultants and a new group of Year 12s have also been recruited. As numbers are limited, some students have even volunteered to work for free.

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