There has been a lot in the press of late about teacher workload. It is a very real and difficult problem at the moment. The UK government are making the right sort of noises about it but I will remain quietly sceptical until there is a genuine recognition of the amount of hours that teachers currently put in and the knock on problem of staff retention and well being. As a small school, any changes in teaching staff has a huge impact on the school. Although in a good place at present, we have had problems retaining staff in the past, which made life rather difficult at times for my predecessor. Much of this could be put down to workload, especially in a small school where each teacher takes on many subject leader roles, as well as dealing with the large ability spread found when teaching mixed age classes.
Our focus of late has been to consider how we mark. What is meaningful marking and what feedback is of value to the children? We have very much shifted our mantra here in the last year to the clear understanding that if it doesn’t support the children’s learning, then why are we doing it? This sounds a simple perspective, but with all the pressures coming in from outside, harder than it seems. A good place to start for us was the EEF marking review, which can be found on their website. The main findings being to avoid acknowledgment marking (tick and flick), set targets, feedback verbally when you can and give children time to respond. It also talks about differentiate between a misunderstanding or a careless mistake e.g. missing full stops.
We are also looking to develop our curriculum and the structure of subject leadership at the school. The question is how can we continue monitoring effectively and raise standards, without overloading staff. It is this change and development that I feel will have the biggest impact on retaining staff and reducing workload in a small school, but more importantly than that, start to turn around the outcomes of the children in our care.
Over the past year we have invested in ‘Maths No Problem’, a text book based approach to maths mastery in the Primary school, based upon the Singapore method. Mastery for our school means giving children the opportunities to develop a deep understanding of the core concepts of mathematics, enabling our pupils to be adaptive, and be able to move on to more complex material with confidence. This also links in well with our thoughts around the growth mind set, enabling children to have the opportunities to stretch themselves and not be afraid to get things wrong.
Implementing Maths No Problem has been more challenging than we had initially hoped. That is not because of the content or because of the programme itself, which most of the staff here like. The issue is how do you teach a mastery approach with a mixed age class where the ability spread is significantly wider than that of a single aged year group?
Initially we tried teaching both year groups in the same classroom, although logistically this didn’t work. Where some areas crossed over their were opportunities to work together, but for anyone who has worked in a mixed age class, finding that middle ground in order to stretch the more able and support the less able can be tricky with this approach. The answer for us was to split the class, so that the teacher taught both groups as individual lessons. This poses it’s own problems. To begin with where do you put the other year group in a school with very limited space? What happens to the other half of the class while the other is doing maths? And what do school’s do in an environment where budgets are getting smaller and smaller?
To solve these issues we needed to carefully organise timetables and make sure that space was used to the best it could be – this included using the hall, the staff room and any other suitable available areas for teaching. We have a new room due to be added in the next holiday, which will ease some of this pressure. We were also able to use our more experienced TAs to teach the other half of the class, developing reading, writing and grammar skills in the process.
So what has been the impact of Maths No Problem? So far so good – we have noticed a positive change in the children’s understanding of maths. Time will tell but progress seems to be positive.
Welcome to our blog. I’m not planning for this blog to be particularly frequent or regular, but I do intend to add my thoughts on developing a small school, alongside the positives and challenges that go hand in hand with leading and working within one. Hopefully it will resonate with people who have experience of small schools and may even be of some use.
Prior to working at St Giles, a small C of E school in Hertfordshire, I worked in a large international school in Sharjah. Like most teachers, I end up forming a deep bond with the schools I have worked in and the communities that they sit in. Leaving Sharjah English School was difficult for me. I had worked there for six years mostly as the Deputy Head, had thoroughly enjoyed the experience and made many friends among the people I had been privileged to meet and work with there. It was the right time to move on and the new challenge of working in a small school context, completely outside of what I had experienced before, was something I was looking forward to and excited about. My initial thoughts were that this would be lovely. Surrounded by green fields, I had images of may pole dancing and long summers. While much of this turned out to be true I was also to find out that there were more complications and challenges working in a small school than I had foreseen.
St Giles is a half form entry school of less than 100 pupils with 4 classes, 3 of which are mixed age. It is a very special place. I can’t quite describe the feeling you get as you walk into school here but it is warm and friendly and something all our visitors comment on.
Hopefully this blog will outline some of the highs and lows we have faced here at St Giles, and how we have overcome them.