Liz Parkin knew there were gaps in her school's practice - especially at key stage 2 - after she'd conducted an audit to identify needs in language. "The children were working hard, the teachers were working hard, but something was missing and we weren't getting the results," says the language co-ordinator of Ridgehill Primary School in Stalybridge, Cheshire. In terms of factual writing, for instance, she felt the materials they had been using assumed a level of understanding of English that the pupils didn't have. The teachers needed more knowledge about what factual writing involved, and how to break it down into small steps for teaching. "We wanted effective, simple-to-organise techniques to use in the classroom."
In September last year, the whole staff arrived for Tameside LEA's First Steps training course - some with worries that it would add to their workload. They became the first UK school to do the two-day training. Though all enjoyed these training days ("It was the first time staff had come to me and said 'We wish the INSET had gone on for a week!'," says headteacher Sue Nicholls), there was still a little foreboding. "We came away with a lot of ideas," Year 3 teacher Jane Jackson recalls, "but I still felt - oh gosh, now I've got to go and do them."
On the first day back at school, however, the foreboding began to evaporate. The starter ideas offered through First Steps training are simple, snappy and practical. Things like extending sentences (offering a brusque statement like "The dog went to the shop" for pairs of children to expand by adding adjectives and adverbs) which went really well with the Year 1 class, to the poem for Year 4 ("The pirate was amazing, appalling, adroit; he was boisterous, bellicose, bold..."). Teachers appeared in the staffroom at break saying, "I tried so-and-so ... and it worked!" As time went on, the First Steps methodology took hold. "Modelled writing" - where the class investigates how various genres of published texts are structured, and the teacher uses this information to demonstrate and discuss the process before pupils try their own versions - has proved popular because teachers found it focused their own thinking about the way texts are constructed, and what to look for as children's writing develops. First Steps problem-solving techniques, where groups of children work out the rules underlying aspects of writing, also encourage teachers to reflect on English usage.
"It's been an eye-opener to watch the way staff have grown in confidence since we started," says Sue, "and to look at samples of writing across the school and see them vastly better - and to see the staff enjoying their teaching again."
With the writing methods well established, Sue and Liz are now introducing First Steps assessment techniques. They also intend gradually to introduce other components of the project - reading, spelling and oracy.
In this they will be helped by Tameside LEA, where the English adviser, Chris Threlfall, has been sufficiently impressed by First Steps to appoint a full-time advisory teacher to initiate training and support schools involved in the project. Margaret Huxley took on this post in September and has now seen 20 schools trained with LEA support. She also helps maintain the Tameside First Steps network for schools to share their successes and discoveries.
Sue Nicholls reckons it will take some time before First Steps teaching begins to affect national curriculum test results, but the staff are very positive. A quick poll of "best features" yielded the following: "Instant accessibility of teaching techniques."
"My children's vocabulary has absolutely blossomed."
"The modelling and the structures are really supportive - for the children and for us."
"Our demands are not so vague."
"It enthuses the children. They've gone from 'Oh no, not writing!' to 'When can I finish my story?'"