More staff, not fewer pupils

7th December 2007 at 00:00
If primary 1 is to become more like pre-school, it would make better sense to increase staffing than cut class sizes, according to teachers handpicked by HMIE to showcase their work.

A Curriculum for Excellence makes it clear that learning through play should be embraced in the early years and the strengths of nursery built on in P1. However, if active learning is to continue into primary from pre-school - where the ratio of staff to pupils is 1:10 - staffing will have to increase, according to Isabel Gillon, depute head of pre-school to P3 at Papdale Primary, in Kirkwall: "You can do a lot more with two full-time workers in a class of 25 than with one teacher in a class of 18."

Ms Gillon was commenting after HMIE asked Papdale to showcase its work on smoothing transitions between pre-school and nursery at an early years conference this week. It was designed to highlight the things that gave inspectors a "buzz" and made them "happy", as Graham Donaldson, senior chief inspector, put it. "Inspectors are not always seen as saying positive things," he said, "but what we are hearing about today is good and inspirational about the work going on in Scotland."

At Papdale, the introduction of formal learning in maths and reading - programmes such as Improving Primary Mathematics and Jolly Phonics - has been delayed in P1 in favour of "a more active, child-centred approach in line with what's happening in pre-school".

In other areas of the curriculum, like environmental studies, worksheets have been replaced with hands-on experiences, again borrowing from the nursery approach.

P1 teachers in the Orkney school, Margaret Hay and Dorothy Clark, told the conference they believed reading programmes should not be introduced until the end of P1 when children were "ready" and more aware of what "words are about and for". Ms Hay said: "Research shows it has a detrimental effect to introduce reading too early. We should introduce it at a developmentally appropriate age. That way, pupils develop their learning and have a solid base to build on, so when you introduce formal areas they are going to fly."

Boys have reacted particularly well to the new regime. "You are giving them a chance to develop, and develop their minds. In Scandinavian countries, they don't start formal learning until they are six or seven. Until that point, they learn through activities," said Ms Clark.

However, both teachers agree that the new approach needs additional staff to "interact" with the children. Both have benefited from the full-time support of an early years worker. "You must have the staffing to make it happen," said Ms Hay.

Kate Cherry, assistant chief inspector, said: "Children can be self-motivated in pre-school but, in P1, suddenly they have to sit and wait. That independence and responsibility can be maintained while gradually bringing in formal learning."

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