Classes can be as big as 55 at one WestMidlands primary. But with a pair of teachers and a couple of classroom assistants working as a team, it's a system that plays to everyone's strengths. Helen Ward reports
What teacher could not make it as a stand-up comic? Every day an audience, probably bored, possibly hostile, meanders into your room, buzzing on a sugar high from playground sweets. Your task is to enthuse them while - and this is something few comedians would advise - teaching them fractions. It is a tough job that sometimes calls for back-up.
Which is where team teaching comes in.
"It's like a double act," says Gill Owens, who teaches Year 5 at Mount Pleasant primary, Dudley, West Midlands, alongside Helen D'Arcy. "After a couple of years, you can finish each other's sentences. You do a bit of banter, it's enjoyable." It must be, because Mrs Owens has stayed in the same school for 16 years.
From nursery through to Year 6, there are no classes at the 425-pupil school, just year groups. Up to 55 children a time are taught by two teachers working side by side.
"It started when we changed the building," says headteacher Gail Bedford.
"We were in a Victorian building with small classrooms. As the school grew, mobile classrooms were added to cope with the increase in numbers.
"The building work began just after the school's centenary in 1988.
Two-thirds of the building was remodelled and one-third was newly built. I thought the space we were able to create by putting areas together would benefit the children and give me the opportunity to really develop team teaching. We now have eight teaching areas for nursery, reception and Years 1 through to 6."
There are few corridors, and even though the offices, ICT facilities and gym are conventionally laid out, the building has an open-plan feel. Each teaching area is the size of two normal classrooms, with two boards and facilities for group work.
The 54 pupils in Year 3 are taught by Rebecca Tonks and Claire Grinsell, with the help of two teaching assistants, CherylBrown and Chan Patel. Both teachers take all pupils, each acting as lead or support according to who is strongest in the subject being taught.
The literacy hour, for example, is usually opened by Mrs Grinsell, who is literacy co-ordinator. Meanwhile, Miss Tonks checks that everyone is keeping up. Then the class breaks into two groups. Miss Tonks takes the lower ability group on one side of the teaching area, while Mrs Grinsell works with the high ability children. The class comes together again for the plenary session.
During maths, the roles are reversed, with Miss Tonks, who is ICT co-ordinator, kicking off. Other subjects are shared out; Mrs Grinsell prefers religious education, for example. This is one of the key advantages of team teaching. "The teacher who is more confident in literacy or history will lead," says Mrs Bedford, "and for their colleague it is a form of professional development. Their strength becomes your strength and you gain confidence."
Open-plan designs are nothing new. They became popular during the post-Second World War rebuilding programme. And the trend was accelerated by the 1967 Plowden report, which advocated child-centred teaching.
At the time it was seen as a reaction to authoritarian styles of the pre-war era. Educational historian Cathy Burke, of Leeds University, says:
"In the early 19th century, children were all taught together in a large rectangular hall. There could be as many as 300 pupils in this area. They were managed by the monitorial system, older children managing the younger ones, with a teacher on a raised platform controlling the monitors."
At the turn of the 20th century, this rectangular space became the school hall, and a corridor and classrooms were built around it.
Dr Burke says: "It was a very rigid system; desks and chairs would be screwed down and children had no ability to move. That was what Plowden was criticising, the authoritarian teacher with a desk that faced rows of children."
But open-plan schools can have problems of their own. Myatt Garden primary, in the London borough of Lewisham, opened in May 1971 as a series of linked spaces with no corridors or classrooms.
Curtains enabled teachers to create smaller spaces, but these quickly gave way to walls as teachers demanded their own space, and wanted to put up resources and displays. Noise was also a major problem, with no specialist art or music rooms.
Carefully thought-out teaching practices allow Mount Pleasant to bypass many of the difficulties faced by earlier schemes. "We set the standard we expect and the noise level we expect and will tolerate," says Mrs Owens.
"Obviously for certain activities you negotiate. One half of the class can't do music if the rest are doing something quiet. That timetabling is sorted out at the start of the year."
So what is it like to have another teacher in your classroom? Mrs Owens says: "Teachers from others schools are often curious, they are horrified to hear you have someone watching you all the time."
Teachers agree one benefit is finding out what goes on in other people's classes. "Coming here was an eye-opener for me," says Mrs Grinsell, who joined the school six years ago from Westfield primary in Wambourne, Staffordshire. "I had not seen that many people teach before. Here I've been able to see other people teaching - and teaching well - and I've been able to borrow ideas."
But watching people teach is less fun than doing it yourself. Miss Tonks says: "Claire Grinsell is a literacy specialist so she would teach one subject and I would have to sit back. It was odd to give ownership of the class to someone else.
"The hardest part was establishing myself. Because Claire has been here for six years she had taught some of the children's older brothers and sisters, the parents knew her and they didn't know me. Some of the kids thought I was a classroom assistant; it took a long time for them to see I was a teacher as well."
And still there is that question of being watched. You may not feel so bad about getting to gawp while your colleague enthrals the class with that tricky science bit you've never quite got the hang of. But what if it's you having to do the tricky science bit and it's all going horribly wrong?
Mrs Grinsell admits it is a "good way of making sure you are always on the ball", but points out it is not about being examined or tested by your colleagues.
"It's not competitive, it is good for team-building, a real partnership experience. When you are teaching you are focusing on making one point, but other points that can be made are just as important, and need to be shared.
The other teacher can say to the children, 'what about this, have you thought of that?' It is a double act, it becomes natural."
Over the years, the team-teaching method at Mount Pleasant has become so finely tuned that teachers can slot in or out of classes in a variety of daily, weekly or termly routines without losing their rhythm.
Asked to name her teacher, 11-year-old Katie Fisher rattles off: "Mrs Geddes, Mrs Harthill, Mr Bateman, Mrs Woodhall and Mrs Collins."
Jo Harthill is in fact the deputy head, and teaches Year 6 two and a half days a week, a job-share that's covered for the rest of the week by Claire Woodhall. Jason Bateman is a Year 6 teacher, Jane Geddes is a specialist teaching assistant. Bev Collins, a long-term supply teacher, moves around the school, but works one morning a week with Year 6 so they know her before she starts taking daily booster classes after spring half-term.
But, if you are being taught, how well people explain things is a more important distinction than management roles.
"Mrs Harthill is better at explaining maths," says Katie, "and Mr Bateman is better at literacy." Katie has been team-taught since starting school six years ago. She says: "It is a better system, because people in my class get separated into groups. Mrs Geddes has people who need more help. Mr Bateman is a bit stricter than the other teachers, but Mrs Woodhall sometimes makes jokes if you give a silly answer. It's a nice atmosphere. I like having a choice of teachers."
Of course, Katie's classmates may disagree with her assessment. And that is the point.
Teachers' strengths differ not only in their knowledge of curriculum content - the Assyrian empire or how to construct electrical circuits - but teaching styles are also individual. Some teachers and pupils prefer visual aids while others rely on speaking and listening skills. And children, like adults, may simply get on better with one person than another.
"Not all pupils learn in the same way," says Mrs Bedford. "And not all teachers teach in the same way."
Inspectors praised teaching at the school, and lauded leadership as outstanding. The school's 2001 Ofsted report points out that teachers and support staff have an excellent understanding of the subjects and that planning is effective and assessment extensive.
Mrs Geddes, 40, is involved in planning alongside teachers. She works with small groups of up to eight children. "When you are team teaching, the teachers are responsible for separate areas, one for English, one for maths and science," she says. "I work with the lead teacher for each subject to differentiate work for my group."
Marking and report writing is shared between the teaching team, as are parents' evenings. All parents will see a teacher who works with their child, but a teacher does not have to see every parent.
Parents are extremely supportive. Many attended the school themselves, and at least one child is from the fourth generation of his family to be educated at Mount Pleasant. All 107 parents surveyed by Ofsted agreed the teaching was good.
Mrs Bedford says: "My vision of teaching has always been about the relationships between adults. It is that element of banter among teachers and with the children that we have here. It is about creating an environment in which everybody feels comfortable with each other so you can share a joke, share a concern, be aware when someone is happy and when someone else is having a bad morning. It is about the security that gives children."
AT THE DOUBLE
Team teaching is just one of the innovative schemes at Mount Pleasant primary.
* The children's centre for under-fours, which opened with lottery funding, provides a play space for families. This enables parents and carers to find out how the very youngest children learn.
* Next year, Year 1 teachers will trial a scheme applying the teaching methods of the nursery and reception's play-based foundation-style curriculum. The Government's innovations unit is taking an interest in the outcome.
Gail Bedford found that children were unsettled by the loss of familiar classroom objects, such as sandpits, when they moved up to Year 1 and started on the national curriculum. To reduce anxiety, the more play-based teaching style will be used at the start of Year 1 from September.
* For the past three years, during the first half-term of the year, one teacher from each year group has spent a morning a week with their former pupils in their new class. The scheme, designed to ease transition, works because the school has two intakes - so there is a "spare" teacher in reception.
* The school takes seven students a year from University College in Worcester. Paul Taylor, Worcester's PGCE primary course leader, says:"The students observe a range of teaching strategies in the school and appreciate the evidence of clearly established and planned team teaching."
* The school has also carried out research to help identify the type of support children are going to need as early as possible.
Jo Harthill investigated the backgrounds of a reception year cohort that seemed particularly difficult. She found the reception group had a high number of boys, low-income families, and children born prematurely - all factors that can affect achievement. Extra teaching assistants and nursery nurses were diverted to the reception year.