Breaking through class barriers

6th September 1996 at 01:00
Gerald Haigh visited two schools to see the different methods they employed to put primary teaching theories into practice. The education debate is full of soundbites about class size, traditional methods, funding, assessment and league tables. Perhaps, in the midst of it all, we are in danger of forgetting that it is the pinpoint of time and space where teacher and pupil meet which should be at the bright focus of the nation's energies.

There is a sense in which the primary class teacher's immediate concern is to get successfully through a day filled with these brief encounters with learning - to see the last child through the door, flop into a chair and take just a moment to reflect that, today, things went reasonably well. There were no major behaviour problems, the children laughed and clapped at a Mike Rosen poem, Dean finished his reading book and beamed at the classroom helper, Ramandeep returned, all smiles, after a long illness, the latest maths topic seems to be absorbing everybody, Anna staggered herself with the quality of her papier mache dog, Mr Jackson, Sam's dad, grudgingly apologised for causing a scene before school yesterday.

So I thought it was time to look past the big issues and remind myself of the smell of trainers in the cloakroom. To this end I visited two primary schools - West Kidlington in Oxfordshire and St Christopher's in Coventry. and let classroom teachers explain some of the skills, techniques and choices that enabled them to achieve these daily victories.


There was a time when virtually every primary school ordered its day with registration, assembly, some core work on maths or language, break, another lesson, and then lunch followed by art, games, drama or perhaps "topic".

There is much more variation now. You are quite likely to see, as at St Christopher's, maths going on in the afternoon in key stage 1. The placing of assembly, too, will probably vary through the week. One of the problems about having it early in the day is thought to be that it uses time when children are fresh and ready to learn.

There is another approach. At West Kidlington, assembly sets the pace. Karen Errington calls it "setting up values". "It stays with us through the day, and we and the children continue to take something from it."

From then on, keeping children motivated means working with them in different ways. Whole-class teaching and group work, for example - sometimes seen as rival methods - turn out on close inspection to be just ways of changing the pace without losing the rhythm.


Teachers like teaching the whole class. A day with KS1 children, for example is punctuated by little gatherings - children on the carpet, teacher in a chair. Fiona Evans, who teaches the reception class at West Kidlington, said: "The younger they are, the more carpet talk you'll do. We're forever saying come round and sit down."

Angela Woodfield, in Year 2 at St Christopher's is no stranger to traditional chalk and talk. Her blackboard had two sums written on it, headed "htu" (hundreds, tens, units) in time-honoured style. She had written the day and date twice in joined and unjoined handwriting. "Half the class are on joined up handwriting and half are not," she said. This formal-looking blackboard layout turned out to be a significant contribution to differentiation. The solemn labels are virtually meaningless. Angela's class appears to be informally organised - children in groups, facing inward around tables; different kinds of work going on. Often, though, they are working at quite formal tasks. "Six take away four?" asked Angela of one of her maths groups. "Come on, use your ruler - where's your brain gone?"

At key stage 2, the "carpet talk" still happens often. Increasingly, though, class lessons involve children staying in their places and engaging in the familiar rituals of putting up hands and occasionally coming out to add something to the blackboard. The skills of handling a whole class are the very stuff of teaching, and I have never tired of watching it done well. I sat in Carol Wake's classroom at St Christopher's for example, as she talked to her class about words which include the phoneme "ar". One by one they offered examples - "charm", "cargo", "star" and, to great praise, "marmalade" - all of which she accepted and wrote on the blackboard. There were mistakes, of course, so that she had to use time-honoured techniques to signal both correction and encouragement. Total acceptance of what children offer grates on some, but Carol found a compromise for the child who offered "calm". "Ah, there's a tricky thing - it's our English language again you see, so full of catches!" Carol's response is non-judgmental but it does not accept the mistake. It softens the blow and offers more information.


The problem with working with the whole class is that the longer it goes on, the more difficult it becomes to address different levels of understanding and ability. A good teacher strives for inclusion, framing questions, walking up to individuals, holding back eager pupils ("Miss! I know it! Miss! Miss!") to leave space for what others want to say. Always, though, comes the time to stop and set the children to work on differentiated tasks which will reinforce and add to the learning.

Which is where grouping within the class comes. The question is, how many groups can you keep on top of? Those of us tempered in the creative fires of the Sixties believed then that five was one group too many. Thirty years on, Carol Wake agrees. "I run four ability groups for maths, three of nine or 10 and one with just three." She runs similar groups for language work, "But I might not sit them together." Ability grouping within the class - and setting, which happens in Years 5 and 6 at St Christopher's - are both very common in today's primary schools.

Angela Woodfield, in Year 2 runs ability groups up to morning break each day. "If I'm going to teach a group, it might as well be a homogeneous group of seven to nine." Angela rejects the idea that differentiation of this kind implies a lowering of expectations for some pupils. "It's not so much letting them work at their own pace - it's more 'Come on! Work at my pace!'"

Group work allows some children to get on with work matched to their ability - often helped by classroom assistants or parent volunteers - while the teacher attends to one or perhaps two groups. By such means do primary teachers succeed in making progress in the face of increasing class sizes. "What is being asked of us against the background of large classes is difficult," said Angela.

Further evidence of blurring the informalformal boundary came when Angela spent some time before break in the corridor with children who had made string and yoghurt pot telephones. They were trying them out in various ways - with the string slack and tight, with the string going round a corner. Angela kept nudging them all the time. "Go on, try it!" and "Well, how would you do it then!" And of course, there was a quick foray to sort out noise coming from the toilets. "Excuse me! You're disturbing us out here!"

Some observers would assume that practical investigation like this should be labelled "informal" or "progressive". In fact, it is highly formal - closely defined, carefully guided, written up afterwards; the primary counterpart of the kind of experimental science I did with "Ticker" Mitchell at grammar school nearly 50 years ago.


The good feeling that permeates a well-taught primary class is clearly important to the progress of the pupils. It oils the wheels of the day, keeps disruption to a minimum, encourages despondent pupils, cheers up stressed teachers, and yet it tends to be overlooked by educational commentators. I talked at some length about what I think of as the "our class" factor to teachers at West Kidlington. Betty Cowell, who teaches Year 6, expressed it well. "Each class has its own character - a feeling of being different and special."

Moments of "class togetherness", are important in this - times of quiet talk; of sharing stories and memories. When it is well done, it is immensely reassuring to young children. At West Kidlington, for example, Kirsty Simmers has a technique for ending the day that reinforces this. "They tidy up, get their coats and bags and come back in, and we just have a quiet five or 10 minutes, perhaps talking, or perhaps just listening to music. Everyone is tired, and it's good sometimes just to sit and think while the music plays. Then they just quietly go."

"It's that 'classness' thing again," said Karen Errington. Primary teachers know that whatever the pressures of the curriculum, these times - at registration, at the end of the day, at moments between lessons - are too important to lose. Registration, explained Kirsty Simmers, is much more than taking names. "They want to come up and talk, and I encourage that. They want to show things, too, even at the top end of the school."

These are opportunities for picking up feelings and fears, and become part of the business of teaching children about relationships and the acceptance of others in the group. "Teaching," said Kirsty Simmers "is dealing with children and their lives."

Karen Errington agreed, but also weighed in with a distinctly Nineties practical spin. "We're managers of children, and part of managing people is making sure that they are happy and fulfilled. Successful business firms do the same thing."


Teachers are very aware of the dangers of publicly complaining about the job. As Fiona Evans put it, "Other professions have their own pressures, and they are not all well-paid." What marks teaching out, however, is what was described to me in the staffroom at St Christopher's as "the immediacy of the children".

The younger the children, of course, the more "immediate" they are. "There's no breathing space," said Angela Woodfield.

The message from Fiona Evans at West Kidlington was the same. "A young child is not going to look at her work and say, 'I wonder if I can improve this. I know, I'll colour it in while I'mwaiting'."

Inevitably, the demands encroach on break and lunchtime. Infant teachers in both of these schools routinely hear readers through their lunch break, and I found Fiona Evansin class when I walked round West Kidlington at morning break. "It would take me two days a weekof school time to hearmy readers if I didn't do this."

The lack of a real break away from the job, particularly at lunchtime, is one of the characteristics of primary school life.

There are more meetings now, and many more planning documents to be written, so that it is also much rarer than it used to be to find teachers gathering before and after school just to chat and share family stories. So while improved planning has given many children a better deal, as Carol Wake said: "Seat of the pants teaching has long gone" - it would be a pity if it were achieved at the expense of staffroom relationships.

Betty Cowell added that: "Children respond when the staff get on together - they pick up the banter between teachers."

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