Thursday's child knows all its nouns

26th September 1997 at 01:00
Biddy Passmore reports from the New Labour heartland of Brighton and Hove, where the council's school effectiveness plan mirrors the Government's.

If any children need a boost to their literacy, it is the children of the Whitehawk estate in Brighton. A sprawling, low-rise, council development, started in the 1930s and much expanded since, it lies forgotten in a valley between the Regency terraces of smart Brighton and the forbidding gables of Roedean School. The inhabitants score highly on every index of deprivation: long-term unemployment (about 35 per cent), crime, single-parent families.

Seventy per cent of the children at Whitehawk junior school are on free school meals. Many of the children are noticeably small; many arrive inadequately fed in the mornings, having got themselves out of bed. And the population is highly transient: the school roll has dropped from 350 to 300 between last term and this term as families have moved out.

Above all, half of the children cannot read on entry to the school, a figure that matches the 50 per cent of pupils in Year 3 estimated to have special needs.

It sounds like a nightmare. And yet, as an Office for Standards in Education report noted last year, the school has many strengths: housed in a well-converted former secondary school, it is generously staffed By committed teachers under the leadership of an energetic head. Barbara Shackell, who has been at the school since 1989, is the kind of headteacher whom pupils greet in the corridor with genuine pleasure. For these pupils, school is a secure and happy oasis.

Whitehawk junior, under the guidance of "expert teachers" Alice Bradshaw, the language co-ordinator, and Jane Philip, the special needs co-ordinator, decided on a fairly prescriptive policy for their literacy hour. It takes place from 11 to 12 every morning and covers a specific area each day: creative writing on Monday, comprehension on Tuesday, spelling and phonics on Wednesday, grammar on Thursday and non-fictionresearch on Friday.

This being Thursday, it's grammar day. Members of a Year 6 class are going to write some simple stories for infants, complete with such refinements as apostrophes and speech marks if they can. In Year 5, pupils are sorting words into coherent sentences ("As Pooh Bear was strolling through the wood, he noticed a bird.") Unjumbling sentences is also the name of the game in Year 4, where each word is written on a piece of large white paper and they all have to be held aloft in the right order, sandwiched between the yellow paper for a capital letter and the green for a full stop.

Year 3, meanwhile, sounds from afar as if it's going in for a spot of noisy military drill. This turns out to be 70-odd children participating to the hilt as they demonstrate "nine hipposhopping" and "eight monkeys marching", not to mention "three rhinos roaring". "And whatare the words in the middle?", asks teacher Rachel Virgo. "That's right, they're nouns."

Are pupils at the school doing more language work than they were as a result of introducing the literacy hour? "No," says Barbara Shackell, "probably not, but the work is more focused." Have teaching methods changed, for instance by introducing more whole-class teaching? Again, not really; staff were already using a fair amount of whole-class teaching, but the sequence has become more formalised. In line with best National Literacy Project practice, each class starts with 10-15 minutes in front of the whole class, followed by individual exercises and a five-minute review at the end.

And what about target-setting? The school has not so far set specific achievement targets ; it simply aims at "substantial improvements in test scores and reading levels". Jane Philip, points out that Whitehawk junior pupils already make steady progress as they go through the school, which will become clearer when value-added figures are given with test scores. Where most junior pupils would be moving up from level 2 to level 4, Whitehawk pupils move up from level 1 to level 3, she says.

That's adding value. Now the school is going to see if it can add even more. The hope is that its more concentrated focus on literacy can raise more pupils to the level 4 the Government dreams of achieving for all primary pupils by 2002.

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