On the trail of excellence

21st October 2011 at 01:00
A few key indicators help distinguish the best primary classroom practice from the worst, researchers find

Teachers who set homework purely for its own sake, who over-discipline pupils and who use discussion sessions at the end of lessons only to check pupils' answers are predictors of a poor primary school, according to new research.

By contrast, excellent schools tend to employ teachers with impeccable organisational skills, who offer clear instructions and demonstrate respect and sensitivity towards their pupils.

Leading academics from around the country are conducting extensive research into primary and early-years education as part of the Government-funded Effective Pre-School and Primary Education project. As part of this research, the academics looked at Year 5 English and maths lessons in 125 primaries.

The aim was to distinguish which factors could predict pupils' cognitive and social progress. Schools where progress was high were considered "excellent"; at the other end of the spectrum were "poor" schools.

Teachers in good and excellent schools tended to be highly organised, and to waste no time during lessons. Their classroom routines were efficient and smooth: children knew what to do and when to do it.

These teachers, the researchers said, "made productive use of instructional time by maintaining good pace, and by ensuring that every second of their lessons counted".

In poor schools, meanwhile, teachers' expectations were far less clear and their time far less productively used. "Lessons were slow to start, pace was not maintained, and time was wasted during transactions," the researchers said.

In poor schools, teachers set homework purely because they had to do so. It was rarely linked to classroom learning. Similarly, lessons were seldom connected to other subjects or to the outside world.

By contrast, teachers in excellent schools understood that, in order to be meaningful, homework should be linked directly to pupils' classwork. They would make use of spontaneous learning opportunities as they arose - for example, by asking children to complete a story begun collaboratively in class. This allowed pupils to deepen understanding of learning begun in the classroom.

Indeed, learning in excellent schools was much more of a personalised exercise. Teachers were sensitive to pupils' individual needs and provided classwork to match. "The individual needs of the Year 5 children in these schools was met through their teachers' friendly approach, high expectations and appropriately challenging tasks," the academics said.

Possibly as a result, children in excellent schools were rarely disruptive. On the few occasions when teachers needed to discipline pupils, they did so with humour or a quiet reminder.

In poor schools, though, children were regularly disruptive. Teachers responded with frequent tellings off. These were usually public and sometimes involved threats, personal attacks and shaming or belittling of children. These schools were also more prone to chaos, and to excessively rigid teachers who used behaviour management to their own - rather than their pupils' - ends.

And there was greater dialogue between teachers and pupils in the excellent schools. Teachers would check whether all children understood the main ideas of a lesson. When these were obviously unclear, teachers would react immediately, changing the lesson to clarify.

They would also provide plenty of time for analysis and discussion of a topic. Teachers in excellent schools were almost twice as likely to include plenary sessions at the end of their lessons as those in poor schools. Poor schools that did offer plenary sessions tended to use them not in order to deepen understanding of a topic, but as an opportunity to check answers at the end of a lesson.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, relationships between pupils and teachers, and between pupils themselves, were much better in excellent schools than in poor schools. Teachers in poor schools were more prone to express disapproval or dislike of pupils, leading to pupils being less sociable and co-operative than in excellent schools.

The academics point out that the qualities of excellent schools are rarely distinct and often complement one another. For example, they said: "Personalising children's learning requires good organisational skills, and helps to create a positive classroom climate and to encourage discussion."


Effective Pre-School and Primary Learning Project


Enquiries to Brenda Taggart, research co-ordinator


Department for Education



- Have strong organisational skills

"Children in these classrooms know what they have to do, what to do if they need help, and have more responsibility for managing their time and resources."

- Establish a positive classroom climate

"Relationships between children, and between adults and children, are characterised by a true sense of liking and mutual respect, and classrooms are often described as happy places, with a buzz of productive learning activity."

- Personalise teaching

"These teachers are sensitive to the needs and interests of their pupils, and ... are more likely to make explicit the links between the learning and activities in the classroom ... These teachers link their homework directly to what children are learning in their lessons."

- Use dialogic teaching and learning

"Children are more likely to work collaboratively, to take part in instructional conversations ... to have opportunities to receive evaluative feedback (from the teacher or their peers)."

- Make frequent and better use of the plenary

"These teachers ... used the plenary to allow further discussion, exploration and extension, to provide opportunities for useful feedback and to consolidate and deepen understanding."

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