Phonics wars rage on as topic work comes back

In many ways 2005 should have been a fantastic year in primary schools. But somehow it didn't feel like that.

Teachers were at last given time to do essential preparation work during working hours; literacy and numeracy scores were on the rise again after four standstill years and, at last, inspectors said that primary education should consist of more than the 3Rs.

But primary heads felt under the cosh getting to grips with the introduction of a new inspection regime and a staff restructuring that meant the loss of some management allowances for teachers. And while heads worked almost three hours less than in 2004, that still meant a 53-hour week.

In the classroom, teachers' half a day a week non-contact time has been a success. And many were delighted to be told that "topic" is no longer a dirty word. The days of Chris Woodhead, a former chief inspector, sneering about paint pots seem over.

But still teachers found themselves in a no-win situation. First they were criticised by Ofsted for doing too much literacy, then by policitians for doing too little. The summer term started with a post-election pledge to pronounce upon the most fiercely-fought issue in education: phonics and how to teach reading. Last month Jim Rose, former head of primary at Ofsted, produced a sensible interim report which called for phonics to be taught systematically in a curriculum that promotes reading for pleasure - and, he stressed, teachers were competent to do this.

Nonetheless, the Daily Telegraph headline read: "Report condemns 30 wasted years of trendy teaching."

David Bell, who was chief inspector at the time and a former primary head, said that primaries should put more effort into foundation subjects. It may have been a black mark, but it sounded more like a green light to most primary teachers. One in three schools will introduce topic work this year, according to the National Union of Teachers.

But as the politicians pronounced and the national press pundits fulminated about children not being able to read or write, most teachers just got on with the job.

At Greenfield primary, in Stourbridge, headteacher Jeannette Mackinney encouraged the 280 pupils to become independent and creative by working on their own projects during Friday afternoons. She was turfed out of her office so children could use her computer. At Tanfield Lea junior in county Durham, a (dry and cushioned) bath was installed in the library as a place where pupils could rest and read.

And at Hormead Church of England primary, Hertfordshire, Annabel Graham, key stage 2 teacher, had her classroom decluttered by TV clear-out queen Dawna Walter, host of Life Laundry.

The year ended with 269 primaries and 38 nurseries being named as outstanding by Ofsted - with 10 on the list for the third time.

Maybe the last word should go to that indefatigable defender of primary teachers, the late Ted Wragg. In May, pondering on the phonics rows, he wrote: "I want to see feisty groups formed to attack or defend the following vital issues in education. Bog rolls in school toilets: which way round should the paper hang down - against the wall, or away from it? Playground duty: do you patrol in a clockwise or anticlockwise direction?

"Assembly: 'All Things Bright and Beautiful' sung in unison, or yet another out-of-tune rendering of 'Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds' from the deputy head?"

Now that was a man who understood what life was really like in a primary staffroom.


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