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Thinking Big, acting small

Deptford Green school in south London is an inner-city comprehensive working against the odds - its children speak 26 first languages, 42 per cent come from one-parent families, 60 per cent are on free meals, and pupils have an average reading age on entry at 11 of 8.9 years. However it has a stable staff, a positive ethos, exam results have improved significantly since 1987 and the school is oversubscribed.

As part of the Lewisham school improvement project, Sue Harry, deputy head with curriculum responsibility, and Wendy Bisiker (check name), head of English, set up a voluntary school improvement group. This, in turn, established a project to focus on structured group work as a means of improving pupils' achievement.

The approach was two-pronged: implementing new teaching strategies with Year 9 and carrying out research on pupil outcomes at the same time.

They discovered that some departments - performing arts, humanities, technology, English and modern languages, were more confident about using co-operative learning (which involves sharing resources, mutual goals and joint rewards) than areas such as maths, science and art. Some staff assumed that any group work was co-operative.

Not everything the Deptford Green improvement group learned was positive: collegiality and professional support between teachers improved, but gathering baseline data in classrooms was labour intensive and problematic. The project revealed the need for systematic feed-back from students about what they have learned socially as well as academically, and that schools may need to think big and "act small" to get school improvement off the ground. "We need to allow for teachers moving at different rates of change," they concluded.

School improvement from within, Sue Harry and Wendy Bisiker, Deptford Green school.

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