Sarah Whitehead describes a project that she undertook as part of a postgraduate professional development course for SENCOs. She highlights the value of having time for systematic professional reflection, and how this can be used to good effect when introducing ‘Catch Up’, an intervention designed to support reading development

I work as a SENCO in a Birmingham junior school and during the autumn of 2005 I began a Master’s level postgraduate course in Professional Studies – SENCO Training at the University of Birmingham. The second half of the course required me to undertake a research study. Coincidentally, during the spring term of 2005 my Birmingham City Council support teacher, Wendy Selwyn-Smith, introduced me to Wave 3 and its support programmes. I especially liked Catch Up and thought it would work well in my school. Pupils who found reading difficult also had difficulties with writing. Although Catch Up is seen as a support for reading, it also involves writing activities during each session. The then SENCO from our partner infant school also liked Catch Up. We decided we would introduce Catch Up in both schools and that it would be a great way to support the transition of pupils from infant to junior school. The class teachers and teaching assistants were happy to give it a go, while retaining a healthy scepticism about whether it would really do what it says on the tin.

Getting started

During the summer term all the teaching assistants and I had training from a Catch Up teacher. This was three morning sessions with follow-up afternoon activities to be done with pupils in school. We decided to spend the remainder of the summer term getting to know the procedures for assessing pupils and running a Catch Up session. In consultation with class teachers and teaching assistants, I selected six pupils per year group who would be using Catch Up the following academic year. In addition, I had three or four pupils of similar ability who would not be using Catch Up, but would continue with the existing support programmes in school.

Moving forward

The important thing with any new initiative is not getting it into school, but making sure that it becomes an established part of the timetable. We are a three-form entry junior school with a year group coordinator for each year. Each year group has the equivalent of two full-time teaching assistants. The year group coordinators were great. They all made time for Catch Up in their timetables for the new year. Each teaching assistant was assigned two or three pupils to use Catch Up with for two sessions each week. Things started smoothly and have essentially carried on that way, although there have been times when, for example, a teaching assistant or pupil is off ill.

Evaluating the intervention

The pupils in both the Catch Up group and the comparison group had their reading ages tested at the start of and then end of each term. I used a Salford Sentence Reading Test (X and Y). The results for the spring term were as follows:

Reading months gained over a three-month period
Y3 Y4 Y5 Y6
Non Catch Up 2.6 2.2 3.5 2
Catch Up 6.7 7 6.4 6.4

It has been satisfying to gain such good results. When I asked a Year 3 girl what she thought about Catch Up, she said: ‘I like it because I like coming out and reading.’  Her teaching assistant said: ‘We have fun, don’t we?’ I think the relationship built up between pupil and teaching assistant is an important aspect of the success of the programme, and it is great to see the pairs of pupil and teaching assistant working in such a relaxed way. Another Year 3 boy said: ‘I like doing it because it makes me learn good reading.’ The primary aim was to help those children who were experiencing difficulties with reading and writing. However, there have been a number of benefits:

  • Pupils have shown significant gains and are moving towards performance levels of their peers.
  • The input from teaching assistants has been measured and all the school can see their success.
  • A new initiative has been seen to work and it has opened the door, allowing me to introduce more initiatives.
  • As a SENCO, I have been involved in coordination rather than delivery.

We will continue to use Catch Up, adding other pupils to the programme whilst monitoring the progress of those who have left Catch Up and returned to the existing support within the school.

Professional development and school practice

As for the postgraduate study at the University of Birmingham, it has been a wholly worthwhile experience. When faced with introducing something new into school I had the initial enthusiasm of hoping it would work and that it would have an impact on those who most needed help. The hardest time was when I had to leave it to the teaching assistants to get on with it. Their time is precious and some teachers would rather that the teaching assistants carry on with activities they have set rather than gamble with something new. Things eased up once the project was under way and especially once I had results to share that very much showed how well Catch Up was working for the pupils in my school. The postgraduate study was a vehicle that made me think about what would really help pupils with special needs in literacy. It made me read books and articles that I would never have read in the general role of a teacher. It helped me get back to what it was that initially made me want to be a teacher and to get beyond the day-to-day concerns of delivering that week’s lessons. Essentially, it made me see the school as a whole and to think in a strategic way which would benefit many pupils and not just those I taught.

Sarah Whitehead (SENCO), Lyndon Green Junior School, Birmingham