The devil's in the detail

19th March 2004 at 00:00
Gerald Haigh visits a primary that is confident its high teaching standards will be reflected in much better results now that it has learned how to break its targets down into small chunks

Alderman's Green primary, in Coventry, is a school with a problem. Here's head Steve James describing it and, as he does so, just see if you're nodding in agreement, because he's certainly not on his own: "We've always had a very robust programme monitoring the quality of teaching and learning. We have book trawls, lesson observations, looking at planning.

Standards of teaching, assessment and planning are judged good by Ofsted standards, and yet we haven't been getting the results at the end of key stage 2 and, as a consequence, our PANDA (Performance and Assessment) rating puts us well below similar schools."

It's becoming clear that there are many schools like Alderman's Green. They are well led and orderly, they have able and hard-working teachers, and yet the returns - at least in terms of measured performance indicators - continue, year after year, to be disappointing.

The Intensifying Support Programme (ISP) is intended to target these primaries by helping them to identify and then focus on those elements of literacy and numeracy that are holding back progress across the board. At the heart of the process is a structured system of closely defined targets.

As national co-ordinating director Sue Pidgeon explains: "It's a quite distinct structure, whereby schools set curricular targets and class targets each half-term."

Underlying this is the belief that any attempt to keep all aspects of literacy and numeracy moving forward at the same time invites vagueness of aim. Dean Thompson, Coventry education authority's ISP co-ordinator, says:

"Schools tend to say, 'We're weak on writing, so let's do more writing', whereas we want to identify, with senior management, what it is in writing that they're weak on - it could be spelling or text types, for example."

The whole-school writing target agreed at Alderman's Green between Mr Thompson and the school's head, Steve James and his colleagues is about children putting their knowledge of grammar to use in their writing. Says Mr Thompson: "We could see grammar being taught, but we couldn't see it making an impact on children's writing."

The solution was to sharpen the aim, set some closely defined targets and concentrate on them long enough to make a difference. Mr James says: "We take an overall target - to have a sense of what a sentence is, for example, at key stage 1, which is straight from the literacy strategy. Then we break it down into three target statements: 'must', the target for everyone; 'should' for children on track; and 'could' for more able children."

From this process emerges a "target group" of children who can realistically be lifted into the "on track" category. The process is closely recorded and monitored, and reviewed at half-termly meetings.

Mr James is full of praise for Mr Thompson: "He'd been the literacy consultant previously. He's an extremely able person who gives sound advice that's respected by the staff."

This level of trust was crucial, because in schools already suffering death by TLA (Three-Letter Acronym), the prospect of yet another one coming through the door could have been counterproductive. Says Mr James:

"Although most teachers will say, 'We're sick of new initiatives', my colleagues were all positive when they heard that this scheme involved more support from Dean for literacy and numeracy."

In fact, properly handled, the ISP is not a way of asking teachers to do more work. "There's really nothing new," Mr Thompson says. "It's based on sound teaching and learning, picking it up and sharing it."

The important thing, he adds, is to get teachers away from what he calls a "coverage mentality": the feeling that they have to be "doing" all of the literacy and numeracy strategy documents all of the time.

"Their fear," he says, "is that someone will tap them on the shoulder and say, 'Hey, you haven't done an objective on homophones.' The answer is that maybe they've been doing something more important - and you can't do everything all of the time."

Although Mr James believes that local authority support from the co-ordinator and the school's adviser have been crucial, he acknowledges that the ISP structure of targets is becoming embedded in a lasting way.

This is important if the programme is to have a broader impact.

Says Sue Pidgeon: "It's the structure and the systems that are helping them. It aims to give schools and teachers more ownership of what they're doing."

Mark Treadwell, deputy head and curriculum co-ordinator at Alderman's Green, says: "I think I'm more focused in my teaching now. It hasn't meant more work because it's been introduced progressively, in a way that's logical and makes sense."

He has seen results, too: "In the first term we did lots of work on connectives. This term we're working on paragraphs, and I'm pleased with the way the children have taken the work from connectives into their work on paragraphs."

How do improvements at Alderman's Green compare with those at other pilot schools? An initial evaluation of ISP has shown improvements in participating schools in key stage 2 Sats, with English results rising by 2 per cent at level 4 and above and mathematics results improving by 2 per cent at level 5 and above.

These results are marginal, but Mr James feels that improved test results will take time. In his school he expects a marginal improvement again this year, but is confident of real progress in 2005.


A pack of materials explaining the Intensifying Support Programme, including a video, is due to be sent to all local authorities in April.


At Alderman's Green, the Intensifying Support Programme involves school targets, year group targets and group targets in reading, writing, mental maths and written maths.

For example, in writing, the school target is "To develop pupils' abilities to apply grammatical skills to improve the purpose and organisation of their writing." For Year 1, Term One, this becomes: "To develop the sense of a sentence."

For group targets, this is broken down into three statements for children of different abilities: "Must be able to recognise that a full stop means the end of a sentence"; "Should be able to say a sentence and count the words"; and "Could write a simple sentence".

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