SECOND-YEAR pupils from one of Aberdeen's least advantaged areas are leaping ahead academically by up to a year after their school ditched mixed-ability teaching and slashed class sizes.
A combination of classes of no more than 20 in S1 and S2 in broad bands of three ability groups is transforming performance and discipline at Torry Academy. Some 25 second-year pupils - a quarter of the year group - have started Standard grade courses in English, maths and modern languages a year early, a previously unthinkable option.
The 450-pupil school, in a community with few traditions of higher education, is one of two in the city receiving pound;250,000 a year over three years as part of the Scottish Executive's education action plan initiative. Raising attainment is a key objective.
Jack McConnell, Education Minister, was due to visit the school last month but was forced to cancel.
Proposals for small classes and broad-banding came from the staff themselves. "My top group of S2 pupils have jumped a year at least. I see a tremendous difference," Helen Milne, principal teacher of modern languages, said. "It's the first time I have ever been able to really teach properly and I think it has brought back some of the fun because you are able to have a much better relationship with the pupils. There is not a period that goes by without interaction with every pupil. You pick up on things more quickly."
One top group, three middle and one lower of 14 pupils make up this year's S2, with class sizes well below previous levels of up to 33. The S1 intake has two groups at each stage. Before, most non-practical classes were in the high 20s and reading ages could vary between six and 14.
Pupils are divided up in S1 using 5-14 national test results, the city's own standardised internal testing and the views of primary staff and guidance teachers. "There have been very few mismatches," Mrs Milne said. Pupils can move between groups and for particular subjects where they are stronger. "No pupil is kept back," Jenny Cranna, assistant head, said.
Staff are well aware researchers say there is no firm evidence to favour banding and of continued mixed feelings about scrapping a practice central to the Scottish comprehensive tradition. Mrs Cranna, however, says that no one wants to see a return to previous class sizes and that parents are supportive.
"Attendance, discipline and ethos are bette and there have been very few complaints," Mrs Cranna said. "Classes are more manageable and there is more awareness about pupils having problems. The top group has only had one or two incidents in two years and even in the bottom group, there are far fewer discipline problems. Pupils have much more confidence than they would have had in mixed-ability classes."
Teaching is easier as it is much more focused and differentiation is over a narrower ability range. "You can employ a wider range of methodology and you can actually do group work. It's not such a thought. With an S1 class of 33, you cannot do group work," Mrs Milne said.
She believes the evidence about progress will come through finally in external exams next year when she expects a raft of unprecedented Credit 1s for the top group, while she is also certain the middle groups will achieve far better General awards.
Mrs Cranna is hopeful there will be no retreat once the current year groups progress up the school. "We will not go back to classes of 28 or 29. That would be demoralising to kids and staff," she states.
Bob Skene, Torry's headteacher, believes that school attainment is moving ahead nicely. "It's the broad-banding, pushing attainment at all levels, high expectations, more focused teaching, more computers in the classrooms. The broad-banding also allows us to target support for learning staff where it's most required," he says.
Mr Skene enthuses about primary-secondary links, the renewed focus on the first two years and the emphasis on literacy and numeracy - all helped by the extra funds that have brought additional staffing and materials. He believes the package adds up to a substantial attempt to reverse a pattern of low expectations and shows that school can make a difference.
GETTING THE HABIT EARLY
Primary 7 pupils from Torry's three feeder schools now come up one afternoon a week for extra languages, science and computing, taught by secondary staff, to get a feel for the academy and its expectations.
In return, all P7 science is delivered by specialists while languages staff maintain close links from P6 onwards. Pupils follow either French or German through to S2.
The school's "Successmaker" programs for English and maths have been extended to P6 and P7, reinforcing the basic foundations for secondary study. All pupils in S1 and S2 spend three periods a week on the programs which have been shown to push up attainment sharply.
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