'We don't do predictable'
Science teacher Terry Roberts has what he calls a "percentage lesson". It's the kind you can pull out of your back pocket safe in the knowledge that a passing Ofsted inspector will rate it at least satisfactory. He doesn't teach many of them. For three years, like many teachers at Grange technology college in Bradford, he has been a partnership teacher - teaching with a colleague, often from a different department. And they don't do predictable.
Four times a week, he takes Set 3 - a Year 9 group on the borderline of getting level 6 in this summer's tests - with Deane Narayn-Lee, head of the school's ethnic minority achievement (EMA) department. "Ordinary lessons can be a bit mechanistic," he says. "But Deane and I encourage each other to be a bit more imaginative. We'll say, 'Let's push the boat out.' " The technique is a vital plank of the strategy to raise the language and thinking skills of pupils at a school where 95 per cent come from ethnic minority families, mostly Pakistani. Up to a third of teachers work at partnership teaching every year.
The idea of team teaching, coaching, peer mentoring and sharing good practice is built into the KS3 Strategy. But Grange has had a head start: teachers have been doing this since the 1990s. The school used to prop up the local and national league tables - in 1992, just 5 per cent got five good GCSEs. This year, the figure was 46 per cent, and the school's value-added - the difference it makes to pupil performance when deprivation factors are taken into account - is among the best in the country. Last year, the DFES proclaimed it one of the country's ten "best of the best".
Partnership teaching was developed by Narayn-Lee and his department to shift away from the traditional model of supporting pupils with language difficulties at the back of the class. But since schools gained control of their EMA grants in 1999, it has spread throughout the school.
Pupils in Set 3 are hard-pressed to tell which of their teachers is the scientist. "Mr Narayn-Lee does like all the lecturing stuff," Asad, 14, ventures. "He explains things on the board and Mr Roberts has a more practical way of teaching us." In fact, what Mr Narayn-Lee brings to the lesson is an emphasis on language. "If you speak to our students, you'd assume they're fluent English speakers, but their written, academic work doesn't reflect their spoken skills," he says. "The focus of this extra push is on the language of science. We want them to be able to explain their ideas, justify their opinions."
The double-act nature of partnership teaching is reflected in the planning - the two teachers prepare their lessons closely together in Monday morning brainstorming sessions. A typical lesson might see Mr Narayn-Lee introduce the topic, bringing out important terms, phrases and ideas, then handing over to Mr Roberts to discuss the practical side. Then it's back to Mr Narayn-Lee who might stimulate a discussion, before finishing with pupils producing some writing.
The two teachers have developed writing sheets for pupils - large, laminated forms that they can re-use and which guide them through planning an experiment, analysing the data they collect and evaluating the results.
"We'd observed they were finding it difficult to write up a full science investigation,"Mr Narayn-Lee says, "so we've provided them with writing forms to guide them through the sort of things they need to be thinking about."
Pupils are enthusiastic about the sheets. Today, Set 3 is determining whether matt black or shiny silver make for better solar panels by shining lights on different coloured beakers filled with water. Before them are the sheets they filled out the day before, taking them through the classic elements of an experiment: what the variables are, what they could measure, and their predictions of what will happen and why. Asad says the sheets definitely help. His friend, Anees, 14, says breaking the information down "into little bits" makes it easier to grasp.
Not all partnership teaching involves EMA teachers. Mr Roberts has worked with music staff. Sometimes experienced and more junior teachers in the same subject are paired. The focus may vary - some teachers are working on developing more visual teaching styles, or looking at mind mapping. But no matter the subject, says the headteacher, John Player, there is always a common theme. "Language and thinking skills are always at the core of all of it. You need higher-order thinking and language skills to be successful."
The scheme has already attracted the attention of the DFES, which has filmed a number of training DVDs at Grange. What impresses their officials is the way successful initiatives have been embedded into the whole school.
"The leadership and management make sure that what's learned on a small scale is looked at to see whether it can be scaled upwards," one EMA specialist commented. "'They don't see it as an ethnic minority issue; they see it as generic."
Team teaching is not cheap, but Mr Player is committed to developing it.
Posts equivalent to advanced skills teachers have been created for staff identified as excellent, with a particular emphasis on English, maths and technology.
The focus on language and thinking skills is backed by strong links with parents, relentless boosting to raise pupil aspiration, and clear targets and strategies for pupils so they know what's expected of them - and how they can get there.
Mr Narayn-Lee says team teaching has another benefit: it can lead to faster-paced lessons. "Last week we were teaching speed. The classic way is with a demonstration; we decided we'd have eight, all going at once, with the pupils going round spending three minutes on each.
"We didn't know if it would work, but at the end of the first lesson, the kids said: 'Fantastic, can we do it again?' "