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New bid to lift literacy standards

Neil Munro on the latest report from HMI on Improving Reading at the Early Stages 5-14.

The Inspectorate delivered a familiar message this week, reporting that the vast majority of schools are doing well in teaching pupils to read during the early primary years - but not well enough.

The result, HMI says, is that many pupils are short-changed. Astonishingly, it admits "there is no evidence that reading standards have improved during recent decades".

Douglas Osler, the senior chief inspector, hammered home a recurring theme:

"Schools can make a difference, particularly schools which have high expectations, effective teaching and a whole-school approach to reading."

This mantra appeared to achieve results in five out of six primaries where almost all the pupils had reached level A in reading by the end of primary 3. In the remaining sixth, up to half the children had not reached that level.

In a few schools this proportion was more than half, with pupils lagging two or more years behind average attainment. "This represents an unnecessary loss of potential," the report states. It adds: "Some teachers had low expectations of their pupils which influenced the quality of teaching."

The findings were based on general inspections of 260 primaries between 1992 and 1995, backed by special inspections of reading in 23 primaries in 1995-96. The report concluded that reading programmes were good or better in 87 per cent of the schools, and that 95 per cent were well resourced.

Mr Osler acknowledged that levels of deprivation can affect reading but repeated HMI's line that "there are schools in areas of social disadvantage which achieve excellent standards in reading".

The inspections revealed that four primaries which were among the most disadvantaged in the country exceeded national attainment targets. Another 25 of the 46 schools which were in deprived areas achieved "good" reading standards. By contrast, the inspectors found one school in favoured circumstances where reading standards were below national targets.

The report comments that some teachers in schools where large numbers of pupils were making slow progress "regarded this situation with resignation, associating low standards inevitably with problems of deprivation. This view often led to low expectations of pupils, which in turn adversely affected the quality of teaching."

But the report also praises teachers for generally making sound judgments, being quick to identify pupils who needed more support, and in most schools providing additional time to hear them read regularly. But Mr Osler urged heads to take a closer interest by setting demanding targets for the school as a whole and for each reading group. They should also involve parents.

Inspectors did not find the issues which bedevilled debates about the teaching of reading south of the border, such as going overboard on phonics or whole-class teaching, to be major factors in Scotland. Phonics programmes were generally effective, they commented.

The report also found successful classroom organisation in two-thirds of the classes inspected which "allowed quality teaching time to be spent with each reading group". At the other extreme, whole-class teaching was occasionally poor or continued for too long with the result that pupils lost attention.

The inspectors said there was an "unreasonably wide variation" in the time teachers gave to hear each pupil reading, from 30 seconds in some classes to an average of four minutes in others.

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