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Hands-on learning adds up to success

Seaside school which aims to give practical education when possible wins a hat-trick of 'outstanding' accolades from the Chief Inspector.

Regular trips to the beach have contributed to West Down primary's striking success story. The 75-pupil school at Ilfracombe, Devon, has been ranked outstanding by Ofsted for the third inspection in a row.

Eight primaries were recognised for achieving this hat-trick in the Chief Inspector's annual report, published this week.

Sandra Clement, the headteacher, said she aims to provide hands-on education for her pupils wherever possible. In science lessons, for example, they make use of their seaside location, taking pupils to experiment in rock pools and sand dunes.

But West Down is rare in providing effective, interactive science education. The report said: "Overall achievement in (primary) science was falling, with pupils lacking the knowledge and skills necessary to undertake investigations, and teachers' weak subject knowledge and the lack of professional development were key factors where provision was inadequate."

This is a reversal in previous trends. In 2003, England finished third of 25 countries in science tests for 10-year-olds, behind Singapore and Chinese Taipei.

Derek Bell, the chief executive of the Association for Science Education, said: "Over the last 10 years, we've made great strides in primary science but teachers still need supporting, otherwise we'll lose a lot of that progress.

"Science is not just about fact. It's about questions and gathering ideas.

To get that understanding, investigative work is critical."

Inspectors also highlighted the continued marginalisation of history and geography, saying these are often taught in a disjointed way, preventing pupils from building up coherent knowledge.

But primaries are praised for gradually incorporating foreign languages into the curriculum, in preparation for 2010, when they will be compulsory at key stage 2.

At West Down, there are clubs and language elements to the timetable.

"We've been drip feeding French into the curriculum," said Mrs Clement. "We do counting, playing games, singing songs. It's important to make it fun."

But the Chief Inspector, Christine Gilbert, said that fun is overlooked in the interests of improved standards. She highlighted a tendency to neglect pupils in key stage 1, in order to support those in Years 5 and 6. She said that in many inadequate primaries, pupils who fall behind are not identified quickly enough.

Chris Davis, of the National Primary Headteachers' Association, said: "Lots of heads would say Year 6 is the most important. But it shouldn't be. You need to give a broad and balanced curriculum the whole way through."

Early years education was praised in the report. More than half the nurseries inspected were good or outstanding. Merrivale nursery in Nottingham was among those ranked outstanding. Liz Magraw, its head, believes that nurseries have improved dramatically in the last decade.

"In the past, people thought nursery was just play, not learning," she said. "But now people feel it's a job to be taken seriously. We want children to learn to love learning."

What the Ofsted boss said More than 10 per cent of schools provided a curriculum outstanding at meeting pupils' needs.

Heads are taking appropriate steps to raise achievement, setting targets and monitoring progress.

Some schools put too great an emphasis on supporting Years 5 and 6, to the detriment of younger years.

English, maths and ICT continues to improve. But many schools struggle to raise standards in writing.

Achievement in science is falling, with pupils lacking the knowledge and skills to undertake investigations.

History and geography continue to be marginalised, both in what is covered and in time available for teaching.

Pupils are responding well when asked to learn a foreign language.

The majority of primaries promote healthy lifestyles and raise awareness of the benefits of exercise.

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