Good, bad and different of mixed groups

14th November 2003 at 00:00
This is the first time Queensferry Primary has formed a composite class. For 12 years I have tried to avoid it because I know how much families dislike the idea. I have argued that it is the quality of the teacher rather than the form of classroom organisation which matters, but still families are not convinced.

It makes me wonder how genuine parental consultation by the education authorities is, since it is widely known that families prefer normal year groups, yet still many schools have composite classes.

Do parents realise that the days of one teacher, one class in primary schools are about to go forever? Will this be shared with them before August next year?

Is it possible for all interested parties to have a full debate about this issue, to come to an understanding about the best way forward for children?

Some schools exist with very small numbers of pupils, despite their neighbours having vacant spaces. Do children in such circumstances get the best possible education? Would they gain from having a number of teachers with different skills and abilities? Would they benefit from the company of larger numbers of children? Would the teachers gain from working alongside other colleagues?

Two members of my staff spent their October holidays in Zurich, looking at Swiss schools and marvelling at the wonderful quality of their buildings.

Could the quality of Scottish school buildings be greatly improved if there was some rationalisation?

We started this session with 14 classes but, following the September census return, it was decided that we should restructure some for the second half of the term.

A first reaction was that this decision should have been made in June, but then the children and their parents would have worried about it over the summer holidays. As it was, we had a difficult meeting and two weeks later the children had resettled and their families were, for the most part, reassured.

What are the problems then of composite classes? A teacher teaches the individuals he or she is presented with. If that means grouping children for teaching reading, will a P4 child's self-esteem be knocked if he or she is in a group with P3 pupils? Our parents worry about that.

Will bright youngsters gain from overhearing oral work aimed at older children? Will less bright young children feel upset if they do not understand much of what they hear which is presented for older classmates?

The teacher may have fewer pupils - 25 maximum - but must plan for two classes. Now we have to resolve the problems associated with running two parallel programmes of environmental studies.

We have argued that whole class interactive lessons are contributing to improvements in teaching literacy and numeracy at the early stages. Yet we are moving away from that when we form composite classes.

Setting helps attainment in some subjects. Yet staffing at the primary school stages is still such that there is very little room for manoeuvring.

Where it is possible, promoted staff join teaching teams and management time is cut back, enabling reorganisation of classes.

At Queensferry Primary we will continue to try to find innovative ways of making our composite class a success for all concerned.

One blessing came on the in-service training day. We had set aside time for the staff to explore the new Assessment is for Learning website and download our first test papers, which we had understood would be ready by October. Since we were unable to locate it, the composite class's teacher had crucial extra time to prepare for her changes.

Sheilah Jackson is headteacher of Queensferry Primary in Edinburghwww.queensferry-ps.edin.sch.ukIf you have any comments, e-mail scotlandplus@tes.co.uk

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