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Small is beautiful, claim teachers and pupils

Hillhead Primary achieves smaller class sizes goal; the impact has been dramatic

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Hillhead Primary achieves smaller class sizes goal; the impact has been dramatic

The Government's goal of smaller class sizes has been portrayed as an SNP hobby horse, with some experts claiming negligible benefits. But at Hillhead Primary in East Ayrshire, one of the few schools to have achieved it, the impact has been dramatic.

A five-year-old girl stands up to run her hand through the air in a smooth "S" shape, then looks expectantly at her friends.

She gently encourages them in a way that is assured and mature, even teacherly - "Come on, think about it. That's right. Well done!" There is only a flicker of satisfaction when her friends identify the right letter - it's no big deal these days for a P1 at Hillhead Primary to lead a class in synthetic phonics.

The Kilmarnock school has benefited from East Ayrshire Council's determination to achieve the Scottish Government target of P1-3 classes with no more than 18 pupils. This year, it has two P1 classes of 13; one P2 of 18; one P3 of 17; and one P23 class of 19 (a new arrival pushed numbers above 18).

"The quality of teaching and learning that goes on in smaller groups is unbelievable," says P1 teacher Lisa Miller. Learning has a less rigid structure and more relevance to the children. She issues fewer directions, pupils have more responsibility, and they listen to each other more.

She used to have a class of 30 P2s - "It felt like a lot more" - and a different role. "It was a lot of crowd control, even though the children weren't badly behaved," she says.

Hillhead was able to reach the targets thanks largely to a new post created for a P23 composite teacher, funded by the council. Headteacher Wendy Connelly stresses that the school was "very lucky" to have had a storage area which could be easily converted into a classroom. Built in 1938, it has capacity for 280, but a roll of 178. "There are colleagues across the authority who would like to have done what we have, but weren't able to," she says.

Mrs Connelly is nonplussed by antipathy to smaller classes and suggestions that their effect is minimal. She wonders whether too much focus is on attainment, obscuring the impact on achievement.

A school like hers stands to gain from smaller classes, she believes. Its pupils are among the most deprived in East Ayrshire. Many have social, emotional and behavioural difficulties, and lives have been blighted by some parents' unemployment and substance misuse.

"There's more teaching time available for each child now," she says. "The teacher gets to know the children inside out. The staff feedback is that they can deliver a far higher level of pastoral care."

Staff are relaxed and chirpy as I wander back and forth between the P1-3 classes. There is a sense of calm and quiet industry in each room.

"I see staff less stressed by the job," Mrs Connelly says. "They spend the same amount of time they always spent working, but rather than doing things that were time-consuming - perhaps not that valuable, but which had to be done - they can do more effective teaching, make learning more active and set richer tasks."

P3 teacher Louise Muir says: "I feel as if I'm a better teacher and that the teaching and learning standard has improved greatly."

Before, she was getting through reams of marking at home, but children were "never benefiting from your hours of work. Now, when I'm working out of school, I'm planning and coming up with new ideas. I don't feel I'm ever chasing my tail".

Miss Muir carries out assessment jointly with the children. They write and say what they think, as well as mulling over her comments. They think more deeply about their work, instead of waiting for a smiley face or a sad face from their teacher.

Some pupils are still trying to get level A maths, but at least she has time to help: "If there were 25 in the class, they wouldn't get level A."

It is too early to say whether smaller classes will have a long-lasting effect on attainment, but Mrs Connelly says "tremendous results" were achieved by last year's P1s, with 19 out of 26 passing level A maths - against none the previous year. (The class sizes target was reached in P1 last year, but only this year in P2-3.)

Miss Muir's days pan out with fewer surprises, since she knows pupils better and can pre-empt behavioural problems. Children have come to know classmates' strengths and weaknesses, and are more tolerant of each other.

"They gel better as a class," Mrs Connelly says. "It's like a family situation, whereas in a class of 25-30 they don't all know each other."

"The children were happy to come back to school after Christmas, happy to see their teacher," Miss Muir says. "You've got more time for them, and if you've got a positive relationship, they'll do more for you."

Miss Muir's links with parents are strengthening. Five pupils got hamsters for Christmas. She decided to help them draw up care plans, a level of attention on a small group which she could not previously afford, and the children are putting these into practice with their parents' help.

Parents' nights, meanwhile, have become more useful as there is time for a lengthy chat about each child.

Miss Muir believes teachers' relations with each other have also improved, because they do not feel confined to their own classrooms. The two P1 teachers work closely together. They sometimes bring all 26 P1s into one group, perhaps for singing or PE. If there are pupils in either class struggling with the same concept, they can be grouped together for a short time.

Two years ago, P1 teacher Gillian Thomson, in her sixth year at Hillhead, had a P3 class of 28, and "simple things, like moving them around the school, were difficult". She was trammelled into less creative teaching than she aspired to: "A part of you thinks, `I want to do more,' but you physically can't."

She has four tables in her room, spread far apart with three or four children at each: "They are not crammed in, so they settle quicker."

It also helps that one pupil goes to the school's nurture group - the first in East Ayrshire - four mornings a week.

P1 has the luxury of a large area that is kept clear and has no defined use. Smaller classes allow more flexibility and spontaneity, says Mrs Connelly. Outdoor learning, for example, becomes more feasible: "You can just get up and go, whereas before it was a huge operation."

She believes smaller classes allow the school to get to the nub of Curriculum for Excellence: teachers respond to children's needs, rather than imposing inflexible timetables. When three Polish girls arrived in P1-3, the school was better able to meet their language needs.

Pupils, too, prefer smaller classes. Shannon Duffy (P3) is sure that, at another school, she was in a class of 59 that had only two desks. The antics of a "really, really bad boy" made the situation even worse.

Fellow P3 Shaunni Brown enjoys playing games but does not believe she could in a bigger class, because "everybody would be grabbing".

"I like it when it's quiet," says classmate Chloe Scott. She would find it difficult to write if among "hundreds" of pupils.

Acting principal teacher Lynsey Abercrombie is a former nursery teacher, and believes smaller classes ease the transition into P1. There is space for role play and sand play areas, creating an environment resembling a nursery. Active learning, too, becomes easier.

Transition after P3 is what Mrs Connelly sees as potentially the only drawback of smaller classes. Staff have no wish to throw pupils, accustomed to small groups, into an environment where their teacher would be a remote figure, but at one point last year the P4 class had 31 pupils.

A boy in Miss Muir's P3 class, who was given to frequent outbursts, has become well-mannered and less likely to misbehave, which she puts down to constant attention from adults. For him to enter a class of 30 would be a "nightmare".

Team-teaching is one potential solution, Mrs Connelly says, "but you have to get the right mix of staff". She may try for smaller P4 classes next year, but that would hit learning support and behaviour management. A P4 teacher could be left "pulling hair out" if transition is not managed well, she concedes. "It's about being very creative with the resources you've got."

Mrs Connelly also draws attention to a conundrum, which will be familiar to anyone with an understanding of NHS waiting lists.

If a waiting list for a minor operation shortens significantly, people who would have otherwise gone private or put up with their ailment start seeking treatment, sending numbers spiralling upwards again.

Hillhead Primary has become renowned for its success in achieving class- size targets - as a result, it took in six P1s this year whose parents chose the school for its small classes.

How it can be done

East Ayrshire Council's progress in reducing class sizes was highlighted by former Education Secretary Fiona Hyslop late last year.

National statistics had revealed that only 13 per cent of P1-3 pupils were in classes of 18 or fewer, for the second year running. A fall in teacher numbers of 2,089 since the SNP came into power was making the policy even harder to implement.

Ms Hyslop told the Association of Directors of Education in Scotland that the lack of progress was "unacceptable", and pointed to headway made in East Ayrshire.

It had put 30 additional teachers into early primary, by maintaining teacher numbers - despite falling rolls - and redirecting teachers from pre-school into primary classes. As a result, 41 per cent of East Ayrshire's P1-3 classes contained 18 pupils or fewer, up from 7 per cent the year before.

Graham Short, executive director of educational and social services, said the council's progress was attributable to an internal review of education spending and staffing. He highlighted plans in its draft 2010-11 budget to create more classes of 18 pupils or fewer. Given budget forecasts and the need for capital investment in some schools, however, no target date had been set for achieving the target throughout East Ayrshire.

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