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Reading report reveals U-turn by inspectors

Having just finished my copy of the Office for Standards in Education's report on reading in Southwark, Islington and Tower Hamlets. I sat back in astonished disbelief. Not, I hasten to add, because of its much debated conclusions, (frankly, I can't imagine why the boroughs thought OFSTED would do anything but manipulate the information it gathered) but because of its recommendations.

Fifteen years ago, it was difficult to become a headteacher, especially in inner London, unless you ascribed to particular methods of teaching and learning. Child-centred approaches of the worst kind - where the child was encouraged to do whatever it fancied doing, for however long it fancied doing it - to all learning were paramount. Reading schemes were out and so was anything related to the alphabet or letter sounds. Whole-class teaching was frowned upon; the teacher was in the classroom as a facilitator, and a fairly passive one at that. Children's work could be celebrated, but not criticised, except in the gentlest manner. The mention of the word "phonics" was a capital offence and you were likely to be taken round the back of the local divisional office and shot. Certainly, it was made clear you wouldn't get promoted using words like that.

As a new headteacher in Southwark, I took what I thought was a sensible route to reading. We bought good quality reading schemes, a range of additional books and material to widen children's reading experiences, and we tested reading ages regularly using the Neale Analysis. We achieved good, steady results, so much so that the local education authority telephoned to question our London Reading Test results because they seemed too good for "underprivileged children".

During 15 years of headship, my school has had 13 general inspectors. Nine have been critical of our methods, several of them scathingly so. The fact that we were achieving good results was, apparently, neither here nor there; the reading schemes should have been consigned to the bin, withdrawing groups of less able children for skills acquisition was a highly dubious practice, and testing the children was apparently likely to scar them for life.

One inspector, currently helping Gillian Shephard with her literacy centres after a U-turn, actually phoned me at 10.20pm one Friday evening to tell me that my methods were not approved of and that I should rapidly bring them into line with the "accepted practices" of the borough. On another occasion, a member of my staff, involved with very successful withdrawal group work, was pilloried mercilessly by two inspectors after school.

But now, what does this brave new report recommend? Why, "more effective teaching of pupils in groups, or as a whole class, about specific reading aspects". "Direct, systematic teaching of phonics" is now, it seems, a good idea, and "direct teaching of grammar in relation to reading . . ." is to be encouraged.

It also appears that Mr Woodhead may require inspectors to do spot reading ability checks in future . . . with the Neale Reading Analysis . . .

We reap what we sow, and strongly encouraged by the inspectorate of the time, bewildered teachers have certainly sown a lot of doubtful reading seeds in the past decade and a half.

The inspectors, of course, have long avoided the wrath of parents and rapidly moved on. Indeed, those of my 13 who haven't retired are now leading OFSTED teams.


Headteacher Comber Grove primary school Camberwell London SE5

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