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Heap on the praise

Most primary schools are well-motivated, happy and, whatever the chief inspector thinks, succeeding against the odds, says David Bell.

Primary teaching is fast becoming one of those unmentionable occupations. At a party, who would dare admit to being a primary teacher when all the faults of the nation's education system lie so squarely on your shoulders?

If being pilloried by the chief inspector was not enough, the Education and Employment Secretary promises new literacy and numeracy centres where primary teachers are to be shown the error of their ways and pointed in the direction of true educational righteousness. National test results, particularly for pupils at age 11, seem to confirm this dire picture.

Yet, with primary schooling under attack from a variety of sources, this is the time to emphasise its positive features because it is the route to future success.

First, it is essential to highlight the role primary teachers have played in embedding the national curriculum. In many ways, a greater cultural change was demanded of primary schools than secondary as they had to encompass a nine-subject curriculum, 10 including religious education.

In some subjects, notably science and technology, practice had been highly variable and, in many cases, non-existent. Although little highlighted in the furore over national test results or the chief inspector's report, the evidence suggests that at the end of both key stages significant progress has been made in the areas that were previously under-represented in the curriculum.

Undoubtedly, managing the national curriculum at key stage 2 has been more problematic. It was always unrealistic to expect that all teachers of upper juniors in particular would be able to acquire the necessary subject expertise overnight.

It is a long haul and the responsibility for ensuring more adequate coverage of all subjects at KS2 does not just rest with the individual teacher. At school level, it has been necessary to ensure that work schemes provide appropriate coverage of all national curriculum study programmes, allowing breadth and balance.

There are no easy answers and exhortations to develop greater subject specialism and create more opportunities for specialist teaching are absurd in small primaries. Schools are experimenting with setting and there is an urgent need for the dissemination of ideas on this subject.

The second major success has been the implementation of more sophisticated assessment and monitoring procedures. Undoubtedly, SATs have played their part in developing systematic approaches to assessment. But this was only achieved by the commitment of teachers, who had to make an unworkable system practicable. None of this would have happened without an understanding of how young children learn and how best to chart their progress.

Third, schools have held on to the essential strength of primary education in this country. It almost seems unfashionable to say it, but primaries are generally happy, well-ordered communities that motivate children in their earliest years of education.

This almost invites the caricature of being "soft" on standards. Nothing is further from the truth. Motivation and discipline are the prerequisites of learning and they are found in most schools. The past few years have seen primaries marry those traditional strengths with an emphasis on ensuring a broad curriculum through which children proceed at an appropriate level.

Finally, primaries have achieved many successes at a time of falling budgets and bigger classes. It is indisputable that well-focused management, high expectations of pupils by teachers, good quality planning and parental involvement are part of successful primary schooling.

However, it is absurd to suggest that these can stand apart from issues such as class size beyond KS1. The debate about the balance of funding between primary and secondary should not degenerate into sterile arguments about "differentials". The real question is, where is spending most urgently needed?

I have never met an infant teacher who is not interested in children acquiring basic skills in literacy and numeracy. The question remains how this can be best achieved in what is still a crowded curriculum? Even post-Dearing, it is still debatable whether there is sufficient time for the acquisition of basic skills.

Should the compulsory national curriculum at KS1 be reduced further with schools more overtly having to plan and focus on English, maths and science? Would our children be so much worse off if history and geography were ditched at KS1?

With such a content-led curriculum at KS2, children are effectively debarred if they do not have appropriate literacy skills. The gap is irretrievable for some children.

More controversially, does KS1 end too soon? It could be argued that the age of seven is a critical failure point and the wrong age to shift to KS2. For many children, Year 2 is the point at which basic literacy and numeracy skills are being secured.

The so-called debate on the quality of teaching at KS2 has focused on fatuous suggestions such as sacking 15,000 teachers. As any primary headteacher will tell you, the real problem is not the incompetent. Rather, it is more with teachers who may be dull, uninspiring and fail to have high expectations for their pupils. No one will ever make a competency case against such teachers but the hardest task for schools is to improve their performance.

In-service education can play a role and it is encouraging to see schools becoming more sophisticated in their staff development. In particular, there is an increasing emphasis on school-based solutions which do not involve attendance at external in-service courses.

However, it is no use pretending that a stubborn minority of teachers who under-perform regularly can easily be dealt with.

The chief inspector's exhortations about whole-class teaching do little to enhance the practice of teaching as the Office for Standards in Education also criticises teachers for not appropriately differentiating activities for pupils.

It is perhaps in this area, more than any other, that class size begins to bite. Coupled with this are the legitimate expectations of children with special educational needs.

Too many children slip through the net because they are overlooked in large classes. The focus has been on pupils with special educational needs when broad under-performance of children of middling ability may be a more significant problem.

There has to be a degree of realism brought to this debate. Teachers need more assistance than ever before in matching work to pupils' abilities in such a way that is practical and feasible in a primary class with more than 30 children. The difficulties of such planning in mixed-age classes has, for too long, gone unrecognised.

The best primary practice involves a judicious mixture of whole class, small group and individual activities and it must be recognised that it is not always possible to differentiate work by task given the unrealistic demand this places on teachers' time.

It is, however, legitimate to expect teachers to be aware of the different needs of pupils and plan their work over a week, term, or year accordingly.

With an emphasis on school management and administration over the past few years being reflected in research, there has been a move away from the valuable work done in large-scale projects, such as Oracle. Such projects contributed greatly to our understanding of classroom processes and it is essential that such work begins again. Improving the quality of teaching and understanding how children learn is not just about removing "trendy" methods from the classroom. It involves an analysis of what works in different circumstances in primary classrooms. Greater emphasis needs to be given to effective time management to unlock the potential of primary teachers.

Although OFSTED has a role in this, it is not legitimate to use inspection evidence in drawing lessons about good practice. More opportunities have to be made available to allow teachers to become their own action researchers. Perhaps, it would also re-focus attention on important philosophical questions such as what is "relevant" education at primary level.

Resourcing and management are important but so is focusing on the art of the possible. Nothing is more exciting than going into a well-organised primary classroom where effective teaching and learning is taking place.

This has to be the future focus as the nation builds on the good practice that exists. Good management at primary level undoubtedly allows such teaching and learning to flourish but it cannot be the main focus of our endeavours. So, rather than pitying the poor primary teacher, we should praise them because, as any good one will tell you, it is through the building of esteem that success will follow.

David Bell is chief education officer with Newcastle City Council and a former primary teacher and headteacher.

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