27th May 2005 at 01:00
JOAN SALLIS Answers your questions

As a parent rep in a primary school I feel inadequate. On some issues it is clear what will please - or upset - everybody. If they were trying to cut teachers, make classes bigger or charge for outings I would know without asking what I had to fight for. But now I realise some things are not that simple and I need help.

Two years before I was elected they had to allocate a number of our children "with borderline birthdays who were also attaining below or above average" to classes below or above. This was because a small infants school closed with declining population and we had to accommodate an extra 20 or so who lived nearest to our village. Mine were not affected, being average age-wise and progress-wise, but so widespread an upheaval caused a big fuss, especially where ability was known to affect the decision and parents felt that the newcomers should be the only ones "graded". Now the "bulge" has been absorbed by a newly built JMI school which has taken the infants from the village where the school closed and also some of our juniors living nearer to it. But the head wants to repeat the process in the juniors because "their class numbers are now a bit uneven and it worked very well for both ends of the ability range". Some children will have been moved twice, and parents can't even understand why it had to be done in the first place, saying over-sized classes would have been better. It is also proposed to "set" juniors for literacy and numeracy to improve progress.

Some parents say bright children should be stretched, others that juniors should not be graded at all.

Inevitably parent governors, having listened carefully to everybody and allowing for the fact that the least privileged may be the least vocal, realise you cannot please all. They have to decide what is best educationally for the school as a whole. What happened a few years ago may have been unavoidable, because the first two classes are not legally allowed to be over 30, and progress difference within the age range may also be greater.

Now you have to decide whether the change which was brought about by accident for infants is right for the majority of juniors, and unless there are junior classes over 30 or significantly bigger than others it is up to the head and staff to convince you of that beyond doubt. Some of the children may be liable for a second move. That is serious - and junior age bond very strongly. If it isn't required to correct over-large classes I think the obligation is on the head to convince you that topping and tailing again is wise. I would need to see strong arguments for wholesale setting of juniors by ability. Most special needs can be catered for at this age by extra help within the class, while above-average ability can benefit from differentiated teaching and extension activities and clubs within the school.

As far as parents are concerned, remember that a representative is not the same as a delegate. You must listen all you can, but in the end make up your own mind what is best for the majority and be prepared to justify it.

Questions for Joan Sallis should be sent to The TES, Admiral House, 66-68 East Smithfield, London E1W 1BX, fax 020 7782 3202, or see where answers will appear

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