Three into one goes just nicely

12th September 2003 at 01:00
IMPROVING PRIMARY SCHOOLS, IMPROVING COMMUNITIES. By Tony Cotton with Jasbir Mann, Anna Hassan and Stella Nickolay. Trentham Books pound;15.99

PLANNING, TEACHING AND CLASS MANAGEMENT IN PRIMARY SCHOOLS (second edition). By Denis Hayes. David Fulton pound;17

Anyone wanting to know what primary schools should really be like could find no better place to begin than Improving Primary Schools, Improving Communities, a far more exciting book than it would appear from the publisher's description on the back cover.

Tony Cotton doesn't waste a word as he weaves descriptions of the life and work of staff, children and parents from three multi-ethnic urban schools to produce a firecracker account of how determined leadership and courage (in rejecting notions of limited expectations and horizons) can provide outstanding learning experiences. The book makes a cracking start in comparing the backgrounds of the schools described in their Ofsted reports with the views that the schools themselves project in their prospectuses, mission statements and development plans. The prejudices and stereotypical thinking of the former stand out a mile.

Tony Cotton is a lecturer at Nottingham University and was chair of governors at Mellor primary school in Leicester. At the time of writing Jasbir Mann was head of Mellor, Anna Hassan former head of Millfield community school in the London borough of Hackney, and Stella Nickolay a senior teacher at Radford primary school, Nottingham.

I would guess that the teacher co-authors' role has been more one of editing than writing. It isn't fashionable to talk of charismatic heads - the focus has moved on to devolved leadership and teamwork - but these three know exactly what they want for their children and the direction in which they want their schools to go. This isn't always easy. Anna Hassan's log reflects the determination of the three heads: "I go home for another half-term break depressed, disappointed, exhausted both mentally and physically but determined that this school will improve, at whatever cost to me."

There is clearly a child-centred message that echoes back to the best practice of the 1960s, and every page seems to bring out a challenge to current thinking. It's great that the schools don't bang on about inclusiveness; instead they value respect in all its facets as a driving force in achievements and relationships. Alongside the list of targets in Mellor primary's classrooms is a list of things that everyone in the class can do. There is a "thank you" tree, a set of branches with notes pinned to it with messages of thanks from pupils to each other. To encourage mutual respect, teachers and children address each other by their forenames. One of the ways of broadening ideas of respect was a "Mathematical Survey Exploring Racism"; children set the questions and devised response tick-boxes, sorted out the responses and prepared their work for display.

The schools' expectations of pupils are huge, as is the breadth of experience that the children gain. The description of Mellor's whole-school productions of Macbeth in English, Gujerati and Punjabi gives a feel for some of the creative tasks undertaken.

The book isn't soppy or sentimental. Tony Cotton isn't providing a hypothetical vision. Instead, he offers some amazing examples of precisely what can be done now to improve not only urban multicultural schools but all primary schools. The suggestions for discussion and development activities in this engaging book will liven up staff and governor meetings.

The three schools achieve a broad curriculum and happy, confident children who also do well in their Sats. This is just the book to read at the beginning of the school year.

Those at the beginning of teacher education would also do well to get hold of a copy of Denis Hayes's Planning, Teaching and Class Management, but make sure that it's this second edition, updated in line with the 2002 standards for qualified teacher status. Part one remains almost unchanged from the first edition and is based on the structure of the earlier competence documentation, particularly DfEE 1998b. The author takes each of the 39 competences and succinctly puts them into the context of primary school teaching. This section is particularly useful as an introduction to teaching.

Part two of the book looks in more detail at ways of meeting all of the 42 standards required for the award of qualified teacher status. Getting through this steeplechase of requirements is an extreme sport that makes the triathlon look like an activity for wimps. Denis Hayes has the knack of not only describing the hurdles, but also giving clear and sensible advice on how to clear them successfully. An improvement on the earlier edition is the use of a thumbnail index for quick reference. The uniform treatment of each standard under the headings of implications for practice, indicative forms of evidence and specific forms of evidence makes the book easy to use.

It will prove invaluable to student teachers and their lecturers. Those responsible for mentoring trainees and newly qualified colleagues will find it a useful guide to requirements and helpful in focusing support.

Mike Sullivan is an inspector and former primary head based in the West Midlands

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