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Murky waters around pupils' early dip

The chief inspector, Chris Woodhead, targets literacy, numeracy and teaching quality in an edited version of his report commentary. The successes this year are many and real. Standards of pupil achievement and teaching are satisfactory or better in the majority of schools. Examination results in both GCSE and A-level are comparable with standards achieved in recent years. The social and the moral development of pupils are secure and standards of behaviour are generally good. There are some signs of improvement in the curricular provision for pupils with special educational needs.

It is not possible to say whether schools are providing a better education than they were 12 months ago. What is clear is that while teachers secure satisfactory standards of achievement in the majority of lessons observed by inspectors, there are unacceptably wide variations between what is achieved by different schools and there are particular weaknesses in key stages 2 and 3. What does inspection tell us about the reasons for these problems?

Overall standards of pupil achievement need to be raised in about half of primary and two-fifths of secondary schools. The most successful secondary schools achieve GCSE results twice as good as others in similar socio-economic circumstances and six times better than those achieved by the least successful in less favoured areas. We do not yet have similar data for primary schools, but there is little reason to suppose that similar differences in school performance do not exist in this phase too. The good news is, first, that some schools are achieving so well, and, second, that we now (for at least the secondary phase) have mechanisms in place to identify and learn from their success. The bad news is that there are still too many schools which are failing to give their pupils a satisfactory education.

Three issues need special comment: standards in literacy; standards in numeracy; and the quality of teaching in key stages 2 and 3.

Most pupils make reasonably sound progress in literacy, but that there is an urgent need to tackle mediocre and poor standards of literacy in many schools. Such schools should review the quality and consistency of teaching in order to set and achieve higher targets in literacy, especially in KS2, where the good start made prior to and in KS1 is often not sustained.

Approaches to the teaching of reading generally include some phonic work. The place and purpose of teaching phonics, however, rarely feature strongly in school reading policies. Consequently, the teaching of phonic skills is not as thorough as it should be.

While the amount of time spent in primary schools on number work is high compared with that spent on other aspects of mathematics, the progress and attainment of pupils in this crucially important attainment target remain disappointing. Inspection findings suggest, moreover, that overall achievement in number is less than in other basic skills in key stages 1 and 2. Schools must ask themselves how their teaching methods and materials can be improved.

Turning to KS2 generally, a slowing in pupil progress, particularly in Years 3 and 4, has become a worryingly persistent feature of inspection findings in recent years. This dip in pupils' performance is strongly associated with a fall in the quality of teaching. The majority of primary schools enable children to make a good start on the national curriculum with work matched well to their developing abilities. In KS2, at a critical stage, too many pupils mark time. Primary schools need to be more vigilant in tracking pupils' progress and in monitoring the teaching they receive.

Standards of achievement in KS3 are too low for two reasons. First, curriculum liaison between primary and secondary schools is often insecure or non-existent. KS3 pupils are often taught by the least well-qualified or least experienced members of staff. Inspection evidence shows that the quality of teaching is lower in KS3 than in KS4 and some schools would do well to focus attention on how this disturbing fact might be remedied.

Inspection also shows that the performance of a small minority of teachers is consistently weak. There appears to be an agreement in principle that it is in nobody's interests for such teachers to remain in the profession. That agreement must now be translated into management action.

It is important to stress that a doctrinaire commitment to any one approach will necessarily render lessons less effective. The balance which is struck between individual, group and whole-class teaching remains a particularly important and contentious issue. Inspectors' evidence shows that whole-class teaching figures significantly in seven-tenths of lessons judged to be good. This is not to say that all teaching should be whole-class teaching. It does, however, suggest that primary schools, in particular, should monitor the use made of these different organisational strategies.

There is a need for considerable improvement in provision of books in half of special, a quarter of secondary and one in seven primary schools. There are similar serious deficiencies in equipment in one in three special, one in seven secondary and one in nine primary schools. One in 17 primary and one in 12 secondary schools require considerable improvement in both books and equipment. There is also evidence of variation within schools in the adequacy of provision for different subjects.

These figures are disturbing. The Office for Standards in Education intends, therefore, to investigate why it is that inadequacies of books and equipment adversely affect teaching in a minority of schools. This investigation will examine a cross-section of schools to find out how spending decisions and patterns within schools contribute to the weaknesses and variations observed.

A significant number of schools have problems with their buildings. At least one primary school in seven and one secondary school in five suffers from some shortfall in accommodation such as cramped classroom spaces, poor or non-existent facilities for art, design and technology or science, or a limited playground area.

Teachers who lack proper resources or who work in poor buildings experience problems which at best frustrate and at worst defeat their best efforts to do a decent job. The inspection evidence confirms, however that effective teaching depends upon more than the physical context in which the teacher works. Bad teaching is to be found in new, well-resourced schools. While, therefore, problems with resources and accommodation must be acted upon, the profession for its part must do everything possible to improve the quality of teaching given to children, particularly in KS2 and 3.

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