Combined effort

30th March 2001 at 01:00
Diana Hinds looks at how Essex runs the literacy and numeracy stategies hand-in-hand.

Essex has 500 primary schools to keep an eye on - some in extremely deprived areas and others in areas of great affluence - so the implementation of the literacy and numeracy strategies could easily have been patchy. Last month's highly favourable Ofsted report praised the authority's targeting of schools in need of intensive support and the strong links forged between its literacy and numeracy strategy teams.

Essex schools used to show average achievement in English and below average achievement in maths. But in the past three years, the proportion of 11-year-olds gaining level 4 and above has risen from 69 per cent to 76 per cent in English. Writing results alone showed a 5 per cent improvement, compared with a national increase of 1 per cent. In maths, 72 per cent gained level 4 last year, compared with 59 per cent in 1997.

Overall results for schools receiving intensive support are 7 per cent higher than those in other Essex schools.

For Peter Dudley, principal adviser for curriculum standards, the use of pupil data is important in identifying schools for intensive support and ensuring they are not swamped with help in literacy and numeracy at the same time.

Data from previous KS2 cohorts has also enabled the authority to set challenging targets for each pupil, based on progress made in more effective schools. Splitting each key-stage level into three, the "rule of thumb" now is that most children should improve by two-thirds of a level in most years, says Mr Dudley.

In 1996, Essex took part in the National Literacy Project - the precursor to the National Literacy Strategy. By the time the numeracy strategy got under way two years ago, the county had considerable experience in managing the literacy hour, which was immediately harnessed in meetings between literacy and numeracy consultants. The two teams have been able to discuss training programmes and timings together, and share their knowledge about the schoolsreceiving intensive support.

"Schools like it," Mr Dudley says. "In a national strategy, they are getting a customised approach from a team that knows something about them before they come in." Essex has made the most of its team of 30 school development advisers, in monitoring the strategies in schools that need only "light-touch" support. Ofsted has criticised advisers elsewhere for being insufficiently informed about literacy and numeracy, but Essex has involved them in training sessions "so that they were steeped in the strategies from the start", Mr Dudley says.

Gayle Gorman, literacy strategy manager, thinks there has been useful collaboration between the two teams on issues such as lesson structure, how to improve plenary sessions (often the least well executed aspect), and ways of developing pupils' "thinking skills" in both subjects. "It's been quite reassuring for both teams," she says.

"It's the same issues that come up for both, to do with teaching and learning." Specific techniques and teaching aids have also been passed between the literacy and numeracy teams. Both, for instance, now make use of whiteboards and pens, and special fans, with letters or numbers, which pupils can hold up with the answers on them, to encourage more active participation in whole-class sessions.

Drama, too, has been a favourite approach in the literacy hour - pupils re-enact scenes from books or create "freeze-frames", where each character holds up a speech or thought bubble. Numeracy consultants are now interested in using some of these ideas for number rhymes with younger children.

"We have been able to capitalise on the literacy strategy in terms of developing children's mathematical language, particularly in plenary sessions," says Chris Christofides, the county's numeracy strategy manager.

"Joined-up thinking is enabling us to target support where it's needed, so that schools can make good progress. What surprises us is that this sort of thing does not automatically happen in other authorities."

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