Balancing shrinking numbers

9th May 1997 at 01:00
One answer to concern about English and maths in years three and four is to organise pupils by ability. Elaine Williams reports

Open doors into four of the spacious, high, Victorian classrooms of Lemington First School in Newcastle on any Wednesday morning and you are likely to find children aged seven to nine beavering away on maths projects.

On the first floor, seven-year-old David Smith and his group are quietly working on solid shapes, looking at edges, corners and faces. Others, such as nine-year-old Sarah Bannister are poring over worksheets, tackling some more advanced, pencil-biting mental arithmetic: "A florist has eight bunches of tulips with 10 tulips in each bunch. Five of them die. How many has she left?" Down on the ground floor, Amanda Leicester presides over a hubbub as her group of 21 works on the basic concept of "less than, more than", choosing objects around the room and attempting to compare and weigh them accurately. Nineteen of these children are on the special needs register.

She said: "We are concentrating on basic concepts. We still need to do a lot of work on numbers one to 50. At this age you see vast differences between children. This way I can focus better on the considerable needs of this group."

Children at Lemington First School in years 3 and 4 are put into sets for both maths and English. Setting was introduced by Sally Craigen, the headteacher, two years ago as a means of raising standards and dealing with large class sizes. The school will lose three teachers by the end of this year because of budget cuts and falling rolls, which has led to mixed-age classes of 35 children. Setting seemed one way of reducing the vast range of pupil ability and allowing greater scope for addressing individual pupil needs through differentiation. It was also one answer to government anxiety that achievement in English and maths is weakest in those years.

Contrary to the perception that younger pupils might feel stigmatised by setting, the children at Lemington seem content. David Smith, one of the youngest, was happy to be busy in the top set. He said: "You get hard work and it learns you more." Eight-year-old Tony Allison sitting next to him agreed: "You can work harder. I like working hard. I always finish me work." Caroline Tate, seven and in the bottom set, appreciated the attention she gained from Amanda Leicester. "You get so the teacher helps you," she said. "It's better for me."

Karin Smith, a parent governor, said parents were more than happy with setting. Her own children, both in the top set, were making better progress. She stated: "I used to help out in the classroom before they had sets and then the teacher seemed to have to set different work for almost every child and it took so much time. In a set, the teacher is explaining the same thing to all the children. She can get through more work. That has to push standards up."

Allison Faley has two daughters: Jade in a lower set and Natalie who has special needs. She was satisfied both girls were now getting more of the attention they needed. She said: "Jade seems to be doing more work now than last year. She doesn't seem to be falling behind so much."

Julie Kadleck, the deputy head, believes setting helps children's self-esteem. In English, there were children who were reading "everything" and developing comprehension and scanning skills, but there were others who couldn't read. She said: "When you are not the brightest in a mixed group it can be galling always to see other children doing harder work. Working with children of your own ability can boost confidence and motivation." She also believes that setting allows teachers to teach more efficiently to the whole class and to target individuals or groups better.

Next year, because of cuts, Lemington will no longer have the staff to create four sets for English and maths and will be limited to three groups of 35 children mixed from years 3 and 4. But Sally Craigen intends to continue with setting, albeit with larger groups.

Setting is just one of the standard-raising initiatives that Sally Craigen has undertaken since she took over the headship of Lemington. Situated on the edge of Newcastle's west bank, Lemington is an area devastated by industry closures, poverty, crime and drugs. Its population is falling: two and a half years ago there were 302 children on roll; next year it will be 235.

Despite its gaunt exterior, inside Lemington is bright, colourful and bustling. Sally Craigen has turned an old cloakroom area into into an attractive art gallery where children and parents display their work, and she has introduced adult education into the school - basic literacy and numeracy and "caring parent" courses.

Allison Faley, who has attended these courses, would like to go on to train as a classroom assistant. Sally Craigen said: "Allison would never have had the confidence to come into school and help without these courses. It's all about building self-esteem."

High Scope methods involving "plan-do-review" independent learning have been introduced into the school's nursery unit and taken through to reception and year one. All staff, including Sally Craigen took an evening course to learn High Scope methods. The improvement in children's performance is marked. According to PIPS measurement (Performance Indicators in Primary Schools) which Lemington subscribes to, up to 92 per cent of children were below-average achievers on entry to the school. After one year of using High Scope, 23. 8 per cent of children were above average readers in reception according to PIPS; 40.5 per cent (compared to 10.8 per cent previously) were above average in rhyme. In its report from the Office for Standards in Education last month, Lemington was praised for its attempt to create independent learners in the early years. It was also praised for the strength of its monitoring and evaluation.

Sally Craigen said: "When I took over I looked at all the children's work across the school. I gave feedback to staff on presentation, differentiation, progression and standards in general. I continued to do that twice a year. Now the curriculum co-ordinators are also involved, looking at work in English, maths and science twice a year. Staff are much more aware of what is going on across the school, and of ways in which they can move forwards."

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