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Strategy is not the only answer for model teacher

WHEN the idea of a national literacy strategy was first mooted, the teaching methods of a little-known east London head were held up as an example of best practice.

Using her own phonics-based scheme Ruth Miskin had been achieving outstanding results with her pupils at the Kobi Nazrul school in Tower Hamlets since she took over as head in 1994.

Even though 95 per cent of her pupils spoke English as a second language and more than half qualified for free school meals, by 1997 all her seven-year olds were reaching the expected level 2 or above in national tests.

In the same year, she and her pupils starred in an Office for Standards in Education video designed to highlight effective literacy teaching.

Cynics were quick to attribute her rise to prominence to her partner of 10 years, Chris Woodhead. They split last year but are said to remain close.

She was consulted on the phonics element of the literacy strategy and was a member of the initial working group. But increasingly, she became one of the most vocal critics of the strategy, arguing that the literacy hour was too fragmented with too little emphasis on phonics.

Like other critics, she argued that it was another education policy which tried to become all things to all people. When the literacy hour was introduced in 1998, the woman hailed as "one of the best primary teachers in the country" adapted the framework to suit her own scheme.

Her pupils' results have remained consistent. his year just one pupil failed to reach level 2 or above. Forty-seven per cent reached level 3.

Her own scheme is intensive and systematic; Reception and Year 1 children are taught to decode the alphabet for 25 to 30 minutes a day and within the first six weeks, all children are expected to master the 29 most common connections between sounds and letters, before moving on to reading books.

Today, as Ms Miskin prepares to take up a new post in January as head of training for the American literacy scheme, Success For All, she is guarded in her comments on the strategy. But her main concern is that its current structure is still failing to meet the needs of the bottom 20 per cent of pupils.

"The strategy has made a significant impact on literacy teaching in this country," she said. "And I am sure that in future years as we become more experienced and knowledgeable about the most effective ways children learn to read and write, it will have an even greater impact."

But she believes the key is a head who knows how to teach reading effectively, and exactly how it is being taught in every classroom in the school. "A good headteacher gets around," says Ms

Miskin.

Success For All, which her own school has been using since January along with 12 others in the country, aims to develop literacy skills through an intensive and structured whole-school approach. One of the key aspects of the scheme is developing high quality discussions skills.

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