A few minutes made all the difference

25th May 2007 at 01:00
There was one very striking feature of the cards we received when my mother died. They were well written, containing no spelling mistakes or grammatical errors.

Pupils she had taught as a primary headteacher - in a small rural school with small classes - had sent them.

For several years as a teenager, I would spend one week of the summer helping at the school. Mum had a clear policy that every child should read aloud to a listener for at least 10 minutes every day. It worked well because the classes were small, a luxury some might say of being a small rural school with limited pupil numbers.

All the children, including the one severely dyslexic pupil, left that school reading confidently. It's the 10-minute rule I want to draw to your attention. How do a primary school teacher and her assistants find the time to listen to 30 pupils for 10 minutes every day? If we do our sums that would take 300 minutes, a whole five hours. It is, in theory, do-able in a six-hour, 20-minute day that includes a dinner hour, break and assembly.

But what about PE? Shouldn't the children have some organised physical education time? Oh, and don't forget the science, art and design and learning to write.

Rapidly, as the curriculum has become more jam-packed, other commitments have eaten up precious reading time. But it is not only the reading that has been skimped on. In my primary school days, every morning began with assembly, followed by times-table practice. I could say my tables forwards and backwards, I could shout them and I could recite any table correctly on auto-pilot.

It was an immense advantage for learning maths and I had a natural aptitude. I saw in numbers what others couldn't always see. I could see how fractions could be cancelled down. It set me up for life and I ended up studying maths at university.

It was also maths training that prompted me to write this piece. The latest research to come out of Wales says large classes might not be so bad for learning after all. This doesn't add up. We may not be able to afford to cut the class size, but that is a different issue. We certainly have more than enough trained primary school teachers in Wales, many of whom cannot find posts and are desperate for one.

It is short-sighted to skimp on our children's learning. When they can't read and write properly many vent their frustration by turning into anti-social individuals, destined for a life of crime.

If only they had had those 10 minutes being listened to that my mum so strongly believed in. Whatever current research may indicate, we will not be absolved from the guilt if we don't reduce primary class sizes.

I believe passionately in the need for small classes, whatever the latest teaching methods or initiative. Many of us voted for a party in Wales that appeared to be promising a reduction soon after they were elected back in.

That same party should not forget its promises in primary education as it forms a new government.

Helen Yewlett is a former ICT teacher

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